The mixed reviews accompanying Ma Fleur, the latest release from the Cinematic Orchestra, compare it unfavorably to the much-beloved 2002 album Everyday. And if the much more pastoral, beat-less approach heard on Ma Fleur sounds like a large departure from that earlier record, it's because bandleader Jay Swinscoe doesn't want to repeat himself, and argues that the multihued Everyday lacked "nuance." If anything, Ma Fleur has too much nuance and not enough meat, which I argue in my review of the record for Exclaim here, which includes some very brief excerpts of this interview.
Swinscoe forged an original sound by combining talented musicians with a creative use of sampling, but when he forced himself to start writing from scratch (no ironic pun intended), he found it more daunting than he realised. This is bound to be the cause of some chuckling for anyone who thinks sample-based composition is not "real" musicianship, but it does speak to a larger discussion about substituting a ProTools musical education for a classical one focusing on arrangements. Because he's still getting his feet wet with the latter, Ma Fleur sounds like a tentative step in a new direction, not a continuation of an already-realised aesthetic.
Ma Fleur once again features the heartbreaking vocals of Fontella Bass, as well as vocal contributions from Montrealer Patrick Watson, whose piano stylings were sampled on Amon Tobin's latest, Foley Room.
Cinematic Orchestra play the Montreal Jazz Festival tomorrow (July 6), a free show at Harbourfont in Toronto on Friday July 7, two dates in New York City on the weekend, and Monday night in Quebec City.
May 14, 2007
Locale: phone interview from his home in Brooklyn
As a Canadian and ex-Montrealer, I’m curious how you found Patrick Watson.
He’s the goalkeeper in the local hockey team, with Jeff from Ninja Tune in Montreal. While I was in Paris, I had been looking a long time for a vocalist to sing all the tunes on the record. I couldn’t find that person, but my radar was open very wide. Speaking to Jeff, he mentioned Patrick and sent me an MP3.
Did he say, “Here, listen to a song by my goalie?” And that got your attention?
No. It was a ballad called “The Great Escape” from his new album, just him at the piano and singing. There was something in his voice and the way he used it that I found intriguing. From listening to that one track, I wasn’t quite sure whether it would work as a collaboration. But I had to take a chance, because I was running out of ideas, because I was trying to find a magical voice, and that person wasn’t presenting itself.
How late in the game was this?
(laughs) It was in the second period… No, it was last March  that I flew to Montreal, and I brought with me a rough sketch of the record. Patrick and I sat down and worked on it over four or five days, the track “To Build a Home.”
He co-writes one of the songs that Fontella Bass sings, doesn’t he?
Yeah, he co-wrote the words to “Breathe.” I asked Patrick to try and sing it, but it needed that age-old authoritative figure. Fontella has the weight in that department. I respect Patrick for trying it, but he couldn’t do a genuine version of it.
It sounds like it was written specifically for a voice like hers.
It’s a tune I struggled with for a while, and various vocalists tried to sing it. It didn’t have that weight. It’s a piece of music about mortality. Fontella, in her present state when I worked with her, which was October of last year, she was not in very good health. But she wanted to work, because she was born a singer and it’s what makes her feel great. I went to St. Louis with lyrics and a specific idea for her, and she was happy to contribute. She made it her own. She’s in frail health and recovering from a severe stroke, and not really able to get around easily. But once we got her into the studio and seated, she was loving it. She was able to shine again.
I had a script that was the basis of all the album’s lyrical content. It was written while I was in Paris, by an art director friend of mine, Gavin McGraw. I tried to find a way to visualize the record. I had a rough skeleton of the record, but I was a bit lost, confused, and jaded by music. I was working hard and not getting anywhere, and not being able to find any singers.
One of the aspects I always wanted to develop on this record, as a continuation of Man With a Movie Camera, was some kind of visual aspect. The best way was to get in touch with this old friend whom I trusted artistically, and get him a rough copy of the record. He took it away for three weeks, and I didn’t hear a word from him. I thought he didn’t like it. But he came back with a rough script for a film. We worked together to refine it a bit, and then that became the lyrical basis of the album.
I gave a copy to Patrick, to Lou Rhodes, and to Fontella. And so when I went to Montreal, Patrick and I had something very objective to focus on, rather than it being this inward, subjective thing where we have to find a balance between his experiences and mine.
Were you familiar with the literally cinematic approach to Patrick’s live performances, which involves a lot of projections?
Yes. That first time I came to Montreal, I saw him do a show. He’s got a great band. Good guys. They’re going to do some shows with us this summer. He’s willing to do the major shows to support what he got into.
What else is happening with the current live show?
The whole tour we just did in the UK closed with a big London concert, with 13 people on stage. It’s a six-piece core band, with Patrick Watson, a string quartet, and a London singer named Eska and her sidekick. She was doing lead on the Fontella tracks, and a girl named Heidi was doing backing vocals. Those were all on top of the core six.
You’ve talked about starting completely fresh for this album. Before you started this, had you achieved everything you’d set out to achieve when the Cinematic Orchestra began?
There was never any kind of goal. The one thing at the top of my list was just to write music, and keep challenging myself and my ideas. Through building a repertoire and a reputation, people then become aware of a sound and they expect a specific thing, and I was trying to get away from that, from formula.
Sometimes that can be the demise of great things. I’m not talking about myself, but in any creative field, artists hit this point where they get a certain achievement, where they translate their ideas to an audience with a lot of clarity. And once that happens, people can rest on their laurels a little bit when they find a winning formula, and they stick with it. From there on, it’s just reproduction.
I’m from art school, and my performance art tutor was saying that rules are made to be broken. It’s all connected back to when you have an ongoing development, you find your form and that consists of a series of rules, whether they’re unwritten or subliminal, but there is form and formality to that. It feels good for me to shatter that, and pick up some of the same pieces.
It’s like an artist’s palette, when you finish a series of paintings and you wipe clean your palette, and then redress it with new colours and new combinations of those colours. Those colours are my instruments, and those instruments create an orchestra. I try to see it in that day.
After Everyday and Movie Camera, I was looking at what was going on around me, and I was hearing a lot of folk music being the predominant music force today. In terms of more left field, independent music, anyway. It’s a small world in a way, coming from Ninja Tune and other independent labels, where everyone has somehow been influenced by the folk thing. I didn’t necessarily want to whip out the guitar and start singing some Dylan covers. I was really enjoying the minimalism of it, just stripped back piano and voice, or guitar and voice. Those forms of expression just work, and they’ve stood the test of time.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but are there only drums on one song on this record?
About that, yeah. “As the Stars Fall” is the drum-led track on the record, and “Time and Space” has drums at the end of the tune, and “Breathe” just has drums in the chorus. It’s not as drum-heavy as Everyday was, which is a very considered thing. I found ways to be much more subtle with rhythm. In some ways, I thought there wasn’t enough nuance with Everyday; a lot of it was always going back to the drums and the groove. This record is much more about bringing out nuances in the instrumentation.
Considering the beginnings of the band, and the label you’re associated with, does dance music or club culture speak to you anymore?
Some of it does, but it never really did, actually. Being on Ninja Tune and being around at the time when there was a popular movement around dance music, we never really fit into any subgenre. We somehow got branded as being “new jazz” in the UK. In Italy, we’re electronica. In some places we’re called techno. It’s interesting the way those words travel, in either specific or general music movements.
Is there anything particularly electronic about this record? Because much of it sounds acoustic and natural.
It’s probably the most amount of electronics ever, compared to our previous records. It’s all very subtle, which is the point. Rather than sampling old records, it’s about sampling the band. Instead of going into the studio with old records, I’m going in with my own ideas and writing from scratch. It’s an interesting learning curve to sit in front of a piano and write. It’s quite a hard thing.
I needed something to get the ideas going, and then I was fine. Then I take those ideas in a very simple form: motifs or rhythmic ideas, or some kind of verse-chorus structure, and then get the musicians to play and expand on those. Then I take that material back to the studio and start processing and re-sampling.
It’s probably the most constructed record of all of them, and it’s all through a sequencer and a lot of subtle processing. On “As the Stars Fall” there are three different bass lines … [detailed technical explanations]. It was never about making the electronic aspects paramount, it was more a way to make acoustics and electronics blend together.
You live in Brooklyn now, but you were in Paris before?
Just for two years, and before that I was in London.
When I listen to this, maybe it’s my own romantic notions of Paris, but it sounds more Parisian to me than a Brooklyn record?
It was written in Paris. It was started in London. A lot of that earlier material was discarded, for being too close to Everyday. When I moved to Paris, I discarded a lot of that material. The track that sparked a new voice for the record was the title track, “Ma Fleur.” It was composed in Paris while the saxophone player, Tom Chance, was also living in Paris at the time. He came to the studio and recorded a few ideas. Everything on that piece of music is constructed from scratch. It was never played live, just written and then re-sampled. In that sense, it was a birth for me of a new song. There was something romantic about it, about love and that relationship with music. Whereas Everyday was music about culture and other forms of music happening at the same time.
I’m noticing this happen with some of your peers who started off sampling everything, and now they’re learning how to use time-honoured tools and traditional methods.
It’s interesting. One of the great things about the whole development of electronics is that with sampling, it arrived through the early hip-hop thing here in New York, where the DJs were mixing two tunes together [goes on to provide a detailed history of hip-hop, as if I had no idea]… It’s a new tradition that was being born.
For a lot of people like myself, they now want to go back, full circle, and learn the traditional way as well, and re-invent it and combine it with modern technology and find some harmony between the two. Otherwise, it becomes contrived and fatigued. Once that whole excitement about a new approach dissipates, the question is: is there actually any good music there, or just some funky loops and breakbeats? Music has to touch people, and early dance music was touching people. Some amazing music, some classics, came out that you can always listen to; they have longevity. But it’s also good to wipe the slate clean and start again, looking at song form and experimenting and seeing what’s made it one of the most popular music forms of all time.
An interesting thing with dance music, in a broad sense, is that the only thing that’s changed directions in Western music is not the harmony, but the rhythms that have spawned so many dance music forms. For example, hip-hop and drum’n’bass are all about the beat, not harmony. Harmonically, nothing has really developed since classical music, really. The thing that has defined new music forms is the beat.
I don’t know if I agree with you entirely. There are many different voices in jazz that pushed harmony further, and now there are all sorts of creative uses of noise, both melodically and harmonically.
True. I suppose I’m talking in the traditional sense. There’s a lot of experimentation that pushes the limits of microtonal music and so on.
In the last year, Amon Tobin reinvented what he was doing; DJ Shadow tried to reinvent what he was doing; Matthew Herbert had always had classical training, but he’s started to flaunt it more in recent years.
It’s good to have people out there who really push it. What’s happened with a lot of those various forms of hip-hop is that they’ve come and gone.