Emilie last visited Australia in 2008 this time around she hopes to rekindle friendships.
The French post modernist philosopher and cultural critic Jean Baudrillard once described New York as a city where the mad have been set free. Baudrillard’s observation had some genuine historical currency – thirty odd years ago, a number of New York’s mental institutions were closed and the inmates left to assimilate into mainstream society – but also captured the sense of chaos that permeates New York culture. In New York, anything goes: from the eclectic and colourful street theatre in Times Square, to the frantic commuter rush in the subways, to the paradigm subverting artistic subcultures of Greenwich Village.
When Baudrillard’s quotation is put to French musician, and now New York resident, Emilie Simon, she pauses for a moment while endeavouring to translate the comment into her own linguistic and cultural frame of reference. "I think it is true," Simon replies. "When you arrive here there is a certain craziness that you experience. I think maybe it is because people want to create something new."
"I was experimenting with software, and I met Cyrille Brissot. We did the first album, and I kept working on it. I am now using the third generation of the electronic arm"
Emilie moved to New York a couple of years ago after falling in love with the city during a holiday from her native France. She was taking music lessons by the age of seven and in her teenage years, Emilie formed a few bands of her own, before enrolling at the Sorbonne. While studying at IRCAM (‘Conservatoire et l’Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique’) at the Sorbonne, she was attracted to the different musical sounds and styles that could be created via computer software. "I just started trying to do thing with a computer and software," Emilie explains.
"It was creative and I could create my own sound. It also gave me a lot of independence. I can spend a lot of time on my songs, experimenting with different sounds and tempo. Sometimes I can spend months on a single song," she grins.
With her distinctive vocal delivery – often compared to Kate Bush or Tori Amos – and idiosyncratic electronic musical style, Emilie gradually developed an international reputation, and began touring across Europe, the United States and even Australia. Her eponymous debut album was released in 2003; a second studio album, Végétal – which took as its sonic inspiration the sounds created by plants – was released in 2006. By this time Emilie was already experimenting with the ‘electronic arm’ that allows her to create particular vocal effects, beats and loops.
"That was designed especially for me at IRCAM," Emilie reveals. "I was experimenting with software, and I met Cyrille Brissot. We did the first album, and I kept working on it. I am now using the third generation of the electronic arm," she smiles.
It was while taking time off from touring that she decided to stay in New York. Emilie was intrigued by the energy and intensity that permeates the city. "I like the extremes of the city," she admits. "I like the high energy, the lights, the colour and the different cultures that make up the city. It’s difficult to say one particular aspect that made me want to stay."
Emilie’s social circle gradually expanded and she was captured by the sense of community that existed within New York’s artistic landscape. "I liked the people I was meeting, and the shows and exhibitions that I saw," she recalls. "Basically I felt that I was plugged into the energy of the city."
Having used flora as the dominating theme of her previous album, Emilie found herself writing songs for her third studio album that fed off New York’s famous energy. Eventually those songs would come together on The Big Machine; the idea of a ‘concept album’, however, was not on her radar early in the songwriting process. "Maybe you think you’re writing random things when you start out," Emilie figures. "But after a while you realise that there’s a link in the songs that are going to be on the album. It starts to make sense in that way."
For Emilie, the reliance on the sights and sounds of New York in The Big Machine became a natural process. "It means something in the end for me," she notes. "I feel like it makes sense to me. It’s part of a cycle."
In contrast to her previous records, the songs featured in The Big Machine are largely sung in English, rather than Emilie’s native French tongue.
She says this wasn’t deliberate; it simply reflected her surrounding environment. "I didn’t really decide to sing the songs in English," she points out. "Most of the time I had the melodies first. Sometimes they come to me in English, and sometimes they come in French. I was talking a lot in English around the time, so maybe that helped," she smiles.
Emilie also isn’t sure how long she’ll stay in New York; her regular touring schedule means there’s plenty of other cities and cultures to experience besides her adopted city. "For now I am staying, yes," she concedes. "But I’m also travelling a lot. I’m in a plane a lot, and I enjoy coming back to New York.
I’m not sure what will happen. I don’t really make plans, so I don’t know exactly what will happen in the future."
While in New York Simon has managed to make contact with Iggy Pop, who first heard Emilie when he heard her cover of The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog. "He rang me up and told me he liked my voice," Emilie laughs. "He thought it was very creative. Occasionally we cross each other’s paths and we catch up."
Emilie last visited Australia in 2008 when she toured on the back of Végétal. this time around she hopes to rekindle friendships established during her first tour. "I’m really happy to come to Australia again," Emilie expresses. "The first time I was very curious to come here. I had seen many pictures, but I really wanted to meet some people as well.
"When I was here last time I went to Melbourne and Sydney, and I met some very nice people. I didn’t spend a long time in Sydney, but in Melbourne I met lots of talented artists," she says with a smile.
EMILIE SIMON and MELANIE PAIN will team up for the So Frenchy So Chic showcase at The Prince bandroom on Wednesday September 29. Tickets and info from princebandroom.com.au, The Prince front bar, 132 849, ticketek.com.au, and cartellmusic.com.au. EMILIE SIMON’S The Big Machine and So Frenchy So Chic series are out now through Cartell Music/Inertia.