In the waning hours of this year’s SXSW, those who still hadn’t burned through all their energy had the option of checking out Austin’s 5th annual Sux by Suxwest, a day-long experimental festival taking place at Club 1808, well off the beaten festival path. It was there that I had arranged to meet with Montreal electronic artist, Marie Davidson, who was exhausted from playing a handful of shows over the course of the week, and staying up until 8am the previous night. But this didn’t stop her from giving an honest and clear-headed interview, crucial to deciphering the firmly unknowable persona(s) you come across on her just-released Un Autre Voyage LP (Holodeck), last year’s Perte D’identité, and her 2012 self-titled.
Davidson admits she moves between different personas in her music. After studying classical violin as a teen, she attended theater school in the hope of becoming an actress. And although she stopped, after realizing how much she missed her true calling of music, the element of theater did not leave her expression. “Right now I’m just me,” she says, as opposed to the voice that dominates the recordings; a coy whisper shifting around the spectrum of noir, stopping just short of confessional. Her ability to be ‘herself’ in our meeting could have something to do with the disarming effects of repeated nights of no sleep required of musicians who sign up to play show after show at SXSW. Or a tour in general. “ Sometimes I’m like, why am I doing this, this is nonsense, but then I play and I see the look on people’s faces and they see the look on mine, and I can’t picture myself doing anything else.”
Normally while not touring, Davidson composes or rehearses 6 days a week in her Montreal studio, which she must keep separate from her home space, as she is prone to severe bouts of insomnia if not careful. “Insomnie”, a song on the new album, takes us deep into that harrowing no-sleep headspace that characterizes much of her sound, honed through making music in a number of groups, such as Les Momies de Palerme; Hotel Monochrome; Essaie Pas, a project she shares with her husband and long-time collaborator, producer Pierre Guerineau; and DKMD, her collaboration with David Kristian, who helped introduce her to techniques and equipment she now uses almost exclusively.
“I don’t even own a computer,” Davidson says. “It’s not that I have anything against them, I just like to use hardware to record. I record everything on a multitrack sequencer, although when it comes to mixing, I’ll go to a sound engineer—my husband. He will use software and plugins and stuff. And production-wise there is some computer that goes into my music, but in terms of composing and recording, none.”
For drum patterns, these days she uses a TR707 as well as some 505. “For a long time the only sequencer I had was a monotribe,” she continues. “The first two albums were made on that. Now I have more complex sequencers, like the Step 60 to sequence the minigroove. It’s a synth that’s quite popular these days. all analog. Now, my setup is all synced, whereas it wasn’t before. That’s why my set is more dance-oriented now, more beat- and sequence-oriented. Previously, it was a little more soundscape/soundtrack. There will always be a mix of both in what I do.”
Davidson started listening to hip hop when she was a teenager, not knowing then that a lot of the music was made from synths and sequencers. This led her to an interest in disco: “All that 70s Giorgio Moroder stuff and 80s Italo disco. That’s all made from sequencers.” She is cautious about the idea of “influences” in our interview, thinking “it can give a weird feeling to people who don’t know you if you just name a bunch of artists as influences.” And even as she rattles off a handful of Italian classical contemporary composers, she doesn’t seem to be talking about how her own style came into being. The exception being Robert Ashley, an American composer who is a big influence for her. “He made a lot of electronic music with voice over,” she says. “He called it ‘Conceptual Opera.’”
I don’t even own a computer. It’s not that I have anything against them, I just like to use hardware to record.
Initially, her solo project was launched as a way to cope with a depression she’d been in for about three years. She recounts, “I didn’t know what to do about it and started the project as a catharsis.” Davidson doesn’t feel that way about music anymore, and to categorizations of her songs as dark and depressing, she clarifies: “That theatrical element is me acting on my life in a positive way. It’s not depressing for me, it’s uplifting. It helps me to communicate in terms that I never could in real life.”
These terms seem to stem from an interest in communicating in a language of Davidson’s creation. Owing to her city’s tradition of bilingualism, she uses both English and French language in her lyrics. As repetition is so integral to her sequencing technique, lyrics are treated less as an instrument of narrative than one of rhythm, like a bass or synth line. “That’s why most of it is spoken,” she explains, rather than sung. However, she does sing on every album, but mostly in the form of background vocals. Eventually she would like to start writing more narrative tracks, and to release an album that allows her to be more introspective and perhaps reintroduce strings into her experimental compositions. She half-sarcastically refers to a future profile of ‘chanteuse’ as though it were markedly far off from how she understands herself as an artist. She recognizes it’s going to be a long-term project. “Traveling is good for writing lyrics,” she adds. “The song on Un Autre Voyage album that has the most lyrics is definitely ‘Ballade Aux USA,’ and that full text was written when I was on tour, just writing in the car.”
Despite its title, the track’s lyrics are in French, except for one break to chant “America’s best” breathily over the pooling of synths and drum beats. Davidson’s speech here feels particularly urgent and foreboding, but her theatrical delivery makes it difficult to discern passion from irony in her aesthetic. It seems safe to assume this isn’t exactly an ode to America, or if it is, it’s delivered with a wink while you aren’t looking.
Davidson revels in her persona’s mystery, perhaps using the French language as a way to communicate emotions differently from how American indie music does, like on “Je Ne T’aime Pas” from the 2014 album. She says, “I was just talking with Pierre about how, in French, ‘Je t’aime’ is really ambiguous, as opposed to in English, so the negative can mean either ‘I don’t like you,’ or ‘I don’t love you.’” English lyrics have the benefit of distinguishing; Davidson exploits this ambiguity to create tension in her songs, and at times, to add humor and realness: “Thematically, the stuff I write about is very existential, all the songs talk about things I’ve experimented with, whether in real life or fantasy. It’s all stuff that’s happened to me.”
On the subject of Montreal’s electronic community, Davidson shares genuine excitement about the future. “For a while, there wasn’t really a scene, but it’s starting to grow,” she says. “We have a really good festival for electronic music called Muteque that covers techno, house and more experimental soundscapes. I’ve played it twice. There’s also a more underground electronic scene that’s starting to emerge there which is great.” These days, she’s been listening to a lot of ambient and, she says, “even New Age music.” This Winter, she’s been listening to a lot of music out of Berlin, especially two electronic projects, Function and Ketev. “Also the new Symbol record that came out on Holodeck, called Online Architecture, is great,” she adds. “Really deep stuff.”
The third track on Un Autre Voyage, titled “Kidnap You in the Desert” is the only one of six without vocals, and is by far the standout ambient piece on album, almost as if it belongs with her earlier collections. It could be a sort of intermission to break up the ‘Voyage’ into two parts, as in a play. Or, it could be the meandering experimental last hurrah she needs before embarking on future projects as ‘Chanteuse.’ Either way, any future output would be a welcome successor to her already very impressive body of work.
Marie Davidson’s Un Autre Voyage is out now on Holodeck Records.