Flavien Berger is a French artist whose third album “Contre-Temps” came out in September 2018. He played at Village Underground on the 3rd December. Olivier Clement was able to interview him right before the concert.
Photo credit: Flavien Berger's Facebook
You often say lyrics are an essential aspect of your music. Even though you started writing songs in English, you turned to French afterwards because you felt more comfortable in it. Tonight, as you’re playing in a foreign country, do you think understanding your lyrics is essential in enjoying your music?
Flavien Berger: I don’t know if it is essential, but there are different ways to enjoy music. I remember once, it was my fourth or fifth concert, in 2014. I was playing in a studio … I was singing in French. There was a girl in front of me, I knew she was from Serbia, and that she did not speak French. I was singing, and I saw that the melody of my voice stuck to her. I saw her body, her hands, reacting to the melody of my voice. I told myself: “I can say interesting things, but melody is a key aspect in music”. There are different aspects of music, and I think the lyrics and understanding it is just one aspect. But there is everything else including the hidden part of the iceberg which sticks to you. I do not think lyrics are essential. I listen to English, Japanese, Spanish music; I do not understand anything of what is said, but it is not the part that sticks to me. Even in French, it’s quite weird, but sometimes I tell myself that I love a song, and then I ask myself if the lyrics are good.
When you are doing music, what are the different steps of creation? Do you write the lyrics before the music?
FB: They go together. You see, with regards to the lyrics, I recently went back to my old sounds, my old lyrics, “Mars Balnéaire” and others. I do recognize myself in them, but I do not think they are well-written. I would write them differently today. In this new album... I scanned all the layers of meanings, all the words I used. I know why I used them, there is something less laid-back and chill about it. I have a notebook on me in which I write the things that I will maybe use in a text. For example, I was recently in a meeting with a bank adviser. He used a word which I found quite cool … “long-termiste” [in the long term] to speak about a long-term investment. It works with every other stuff: “court-termiste” [in the short term], “moyen-termiste” [in the medium term]. I write stuff in this, it is like an herbarium, between pages. I re-open it, and I ask myself if the words still appeal to me. Do I like it? There is always some improvisation, with a theme, things that I want to speak about. It is often little breakthrough in truth or in reality. I try to speak of a universal moment, which speaks to all, in term of sensations.
I was thinking of the Nobel Prize of literature, won in 2016 by the musician Bob Dylan. I know that you are interested in more than music, notably in video making. However, you are more and more centred around text…
FB: More and more…
You have worked a lot more on the lyrics for this last album…
FB: The lyrics are the only thing that remain …
But then, why did you start doing music rather than begin writing poetry or novels?
FB: When I was younger, I thought I was going to be a poet. I was asking myself with my friends: do we know any poets? Is it a real status? It was completely snobbish and presumptuous. I was eighteen, but I was writing poems and was I telling myself: “maybe one day I will be a poet, it‘s cool”. Being a poet was the last step of humanity. There are ninjas and poets. But it is only for style, it was not a vocation. Then, why music? Certainly because I have done a lot of it. I studied art. I navigated between different types of multimedia expressions. But music is what I have done the most, it’s where I was able to fulfil myself. Music is the only art I put out there … because I met with a label, because I have done albums, there have been concerts. It has been a sort of playground and this playground has words. But in truth, I have always written in French, especially when I did my first album. When we first met, my label was not aware that I had already written in French, that I had done an album for myself. Writing is part of me since high school. I have done literary studies, so when you do some analysis of poems or of novels, and then that you listen to hip-hop or rap, you say to yourself that you are going to write something. It was a field of expression which became something practical.
You previously spoke about one of your experiences in a concert, where French rapper Moha la Squale was also playing…
FB: Yes, I read this article, they went too far. They quoted me saying something around the lines of “Rap concerts are crap”. It is not what I said.
Okay, but going back to the rapper, they do also work a lot on the text.
FB: Yes indeed. Most concerts I went to were rap concerts. What I said is that a rap concert is already outlined. People will sing the songs that they are listening to every day from A to Z. It is just something different. I am not saying that it’s better or worse, but that it is something different. It is a Mass, it is a communion. The rapper is here to warm up the room as if you were at the gym. When you leave the concert, you are exhausted. It’s incredible in itself. All tribes are looking for this effect. I do not understand why it should be bad just because it is happening in concert venues.
You were teaching at the “Atelier de Sèvres”, an art school, in Paris. How did this experience influence your work and music production?
FB: It gave me confidence... I remember that, during my first concert, half of the people there were my students. It was incredible. However, there was a limiting aspect in our exchange as they were still my students. When we were able to get over this, their views shed new light on my music. It gave me a lot of confidence because new generations are key in terms of music taste. Because of the internet and the opportunities it offers, I was speaking with people who knew a lot more than me on music. As I was a teacher, I was not only focused on music. I could take my time in producing music. I had a job which was very enriching in terms of pedagogy and learning. Being a teacher forces you to be curious about the world surrounding you, always looking what is happening. Otherwise, if you have the same speech each year, you burn out.
Is there a difference in your music production when you were at the “Ateliers de Sèvres” and now, when making music is your only activity?
FB: It’s quite interesting, because I was always telling myself at that time that I would not be able to be a full-time musician because my passion would become an obligation. This is not true...No one is forcing me to produce music. I am not producing music because I want to earn a salary. Rather, I am lucky to earn a salary with my music. Not the opposite. If I want to stop music, I can. With this new album, I had the time to lose myself, to have the time to look for things, and to find nothing. As in any practical work: it is not because you are not actively doing it, that you are not thinking about it. Often, with the maieutic, when you think of a song during an entire week, and then you actively work on it, everything is already clear in your head. It is clear because your auto-hypnosis is always in search of creativity. Always making choices, always anticipating choices. Thus, what has changed in being a full-time musician is that I can work on the projects I want. When I was a professor, people were sometimes proposing very cool projects, but I was not able to take part in them, I could not actively join them; it was quite frustrating.
You played at the Biennale in Venice in 2017. Was it one of your first experiences in this type of environment?
FB: It was quite peculiar because I did not play. I went there to compose music with another artist called “Infinite Bisous”. Together we played a piece for a choral. We went to the Biennale to record this piece in the studio, Venezia of Xavier Veilhan, and also to record a little song. It was really nice. At the beginning I was quite sceptic about it because the idea of a studio open to the public is something antinomic. A studio is a place where silence is required. It was not possible there. But it is this aspect that made the experience interesting. It created sound, a clamour, a rumour, cracks, as if the studio was dilapidated.
To end this interview, you spoke about a puzzle by David Hamilton in your interview with the French paper Le Monde that you were trying to solve. Were you able to finish it before starting your tour?
FB: I was not able to finish it because I did not come back to my parent’s house since the beginning of the tour. But I am coming back for Christmas. Since I started, my entire family started solving puzzles. When we will all be together for Christmas, the competition will be tough, they will all be very good!
This interview was translated from French by Olivier Clement.