You know I hate the word “star.” I can understand the compliment and everything, but I think it’s the most dangerous thing to call someone by those horrible words.
Paul Van Haver, better known as Stromae–”maestro” in verlan argot–and formerly operating under the moniker Opmaestro, is one of the world’s most famous musical acts you probably never heard of. Consider this: “Papaoutai” has amassed over 240 million views on YouTube and 65 million streams on Spotify. His first album, Cheese (2010), produced cuts like “Alors on dance,” a decidedly mournful anthem that reached No.1 in over a dozen countries. Drawing on electro-pop, rap, French ballad, Congolese rumba and salsa, the Rwandan-Belgian songwriter’s sophomore album, Racine Carrée, shifted more copies than Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories in France by the conclusion of 2013 and went eight times platinum in his native Belgium.
Stromae’s been called “the Morrissey of the eurozone,” exploding on the scene as a chronicler of the ills facing post-crisis Europe. His stylings are often playful, but almost always cut through with a strain of dark social commentary in what he jokingly dubs “suicide dance.” With caramel-colored skin and pale green eyes, he’s the embodiment of multicultural Europe. Then there’s the androgynous look to match the musical commentary on gender fluidity and imprisoning societal norms. In the “Tous les mêmes” video, Stromae dons make-up with his hair pulled back into a chignon, singing from a woman’s point of view a love song about an acrimonious breakup. He is the best kind of pop artist: humble beyond repair, socially aware, and endlessly compelling.
Stromae has several North American tour dates lined up in April. Details after the jump.
The clip for “Carmen” premiered just yesterday. How did this collaboration with Sylvain Chomet come about?
We were looking for somebody who had the talent to do this video. We actually had some ideas thanks to OrelSan, a French rapper, who also wrote the scenario for the clip. Dimitri [Borrey] called Sylvain Chomet and it’s funny because Sylvain was thinking about us just two days before. So we met and worked on the scenario together for three days. I like to look at the scenario and find out why the character’s doing this and try to justify everything. That’s my life: justifying everything. Why am I doing this? Everything has to have a reason. The early animatics were done pretty fast and I actually had nothing to add. I thought, “That’s perfect.” After that, they worked for two, three months at a studio called Th1ng in London. I went there sometimes and I had nothing to say because it was beautiful work.
When did the concept for the video first come to you?
When we were in the studio composing the album, OrelSan helped me finish the tracks “Ave Cesaria” and “Carmen,” and he just had a vision then: “I see people and the big blue bird in a race, running.” That was the main inspiration for the video and I had kept it in my mind. When it was time to think about the video clip again, I called him back and it was obvious to us to do this in animation. It’s the easiest way to explain a crazy thing like this.
You’re not attacking the social media culture. I think it’s an observation of our reality.
Since you have such a huge following on all of your social media channels, I wonder how directly involved you are when it comes to reaching out and making those updates.
Directly? Nothing. To be honest, it’s my manager and my little brother who does my A&R. They have to force me a bit to post some stuff and that’s the reason why every post is so “official.” It’s all about “Thank you for doing this.” It’s more like a letter than a text. It’s impossible for me to be fake and spontaneous in social media. I cannot fake a relationship. I can’t be fake friends with somebody that I don’t know. I respect you, but I don’t know you. That’s the relationship I have with social media. We’re on Twitter and Instagram now with the drawings by Sylvain Chomet, and we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to continue after the drawings because we can’t keep doing that. Or, why not continue? We’ll find a solution. The pictures are, “Hey, I’m eating this” or “Hey, I’m in the studio with this person.” It’s too difficult for me. [Laughs] It’s almost impossible for me. I did it sometimes, but every time I look at what I did, I don’t find it interesting.
To be fair, it’s probably interesting to everybody else.
I don’t think so! That’s not my real life. You’re acting in front of a camera. If it’s a performance, okay, but you can’t say that’s your real life. Everybody knows that’s not your real life.
You use the word “we” a lot and that’s something I’ve noticed time and time again. Why?
My manager, Dimitri, was a friend first. I didn’t know this before, but now I know it’s important to work through human relationships. I thought you just work with a talented director, but you need to have a connection with them. I didn’t know that and I’m just realizing this now. You have to be sincere. You have to be friends with the person you work with. That’s why I have a lot of people close to me working with me, but they’re not the only people I fell in love with. It has to be genuine. We have to work together.
You sing in French and there’s always been the question of, “How are you going to breakout in English speaking countries?” But you’ve brought up a valid point, which is, people growing up in Europe listened to English-spoken songs. It’s the same thing. But, as a songwriter, don’t you feel precious about the words? So much gets lost in translation.
No, you’re right. It’s exactly the same when I listen to an English-speaking track. I don’t think it’s a big problem. It’s more about sincerity. And when I say sincerity, it’s not just about being spontaneous. Sincerity, for me, is taking the time to find a good wordplay. Even if you don’t understand the language, I’m sure you can understand the time I spent on trying to find the good sentence and the good scenario. I’m sure you can feel this, even if you don’t understand every single word. It sounds logical and obvious and simple.
It’s interesting you say that because when I heard you say, from a past interview, that you might be too personal and not objective enough in your first rendering of songs, I also know that it’s important for you to be sincere, and that seems to be a conflict. Aren’t we the most sincere when we’re the most personal because that’s when we’re the most authentic?
I think so, but that’s my opinion. Sincerity isn’t saying something that you want to say right now, for example, without any barrier or filter. Maybe being sincere needs time and reflection. It’s not like you say, “Fuck you” because you want to say it. Honesty is not about just saying what you want to say at this moment that you feel it. If you want to say “Fuck you” just say it, but maybe tell the story why you’re saying “Fuck you.” That, for me, is the good balance you have to find to be the most sincere. I think so. It’s difficult. [Laughs] Being simple at the same time? That’s another conflict, you know? It takes a lot of patience.
So what was your entry into music like? I’m talking very broadly, of course, even before Suspicion came along, but what made a big impression on you?
Maybe when I saw Stomp? I don’t know if you remember them. I saw them in Brussels at the Forest National, it’s this big venue. I was so impressed. I was dreaming about being in their place. I wanted to drum on everything. That was my first impression of music. I don’t know what makes me live: the groove or the melody? The melodies, sure, but the groove and the drums first. It’s like a beating heart, but every beat is different. It’s different when you go to different parts of Europe, Brazil, Asia, Africa… That’s what I want to discover, you know? And thanks to the language, there’s a certain rhythm, which is really interesting.
How do you normally react when people call you a popstar?
You know I hate the word “star.” [Laughs] I can understand the compliment and everything, but I think it’s the most dangerous thing to call someone by those horrible words. It’s too heavy for one person to carry. “Artist,” “star,” “genius”—those words are horrible and it can destroy somebody. I take pictures of people around me, and us, and that’s my job, but it’s not my job to make it a success. Do you know what I mean? It’s just a job of the audience and they can decide whether it’s a success or not. So saying that you’re a “genius,” an “artist” or have a vision, that’s just a lie. It’s a big lie. We did it together. You can’t just imagine yourself on this boat. We, as human beings, are a lot of people and on the same boat. You were talking about how when I’m too personal, I’m composing about something about my own life, I don’t think it’s really interesting or more important than any other life. That’s the reason why I prefer to just talk about the generality or the character that we could be at a certain point in our lives.
I was having a moment last night because you notoriously don’t like the word “fans.” I never thought about this in detail, but that’s a really succinct, important word in our vocabulary.
People who supports the project?
Come on. That’s too long!
[Laughs] Of course, it’s too long to say in sentences. But “fan”? It dehumanizes somebody. It’s a word that’s so extraordinary. With success, you get something really good and something really bad sometimes. We have to be careful when we call somebody something like that. We’re all the same. Like I say in my song “Tous les mêmes,” we’re all just all the same. We’re just trying to do our best. But “pop” is okay for me. “Pop” is okay. [Laughs]
How do you keep yourself grounded? This whole thing will only get worse for you.
I don’t know if I’m grounded. I’m trying to keep myself grounded, but I don’t know… I keep close to my family and I think that’s really important. I think it’s about not having a big entourage because that can be really dangerous. You don’t want somebody there that you don’t know. That’s not an advice, but it’s something I give to myself. Now, compared to when I was younger, I understand that everything’s pretty simple and needs to stay simple. Maybe tomorrow I’ll say something the completely opposite. [Laughs]
Are you going to take some time off this year?
Before the end of the year for maybe two weeks to get some rest. After this, I’ll stay in Brussels doing nothing, but maybe backpacking. It will be really refreshing and inspiring. I heard somebody saying that when you’re a tourist, that’s the only situation in your life where you don’t exist. Do you know what I mean?
You’re off the grid.
Yes. From everybody. You’re nothing. With or without you, the situation and the environment will stay the same, or almost. I think that’s a good definition of traveling and that’s the reason I want to do this after all of this craziness. [Laughs]
Is that material for your songwriting?
Not really at this moment, but I keep everything in my mind. When I’m composing, I think about those situations. I just need to be alone to compose. I really need to be alone, asking some questions. Maybe there are answers or maybe not. It’s pretty priceless when you’re on tour. That’s why I need a year or something to compose and be completely free of everything. I’m always with somebody, you know. I’m always with my manager or somebody, and that’s good, but sometimes you need to refuel and recharge your battery.
Moving forward, what’s inspiring you these days?
Maybe the relationships with my friends and the people I work with. That’s the question I’m wondering now. To be honest, I’m moneyed and I’m questioning whether I deserve it and stuff like that. It’s not really useful, but I have to ask myself those kinds of questions. You can travel all over the world, but you can never be from somewhere else than the place you were born and raised. It’s so simple, huh? I’m mostly asking the questions than getting the answers.
At what point did the choreography enter the picture? You didn’t have dancers before the “Papaoutai” clip, right?
You’re right. I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know how. I was scared by choreography. The word “choreography” is so horrible. It’s the cliches and everything that you can do with it. The choreographer taught me to integrate the movements that you have, and in the case of me, it’s something I can do. You can’t change your body or the way you move. That was really interesting to me. We just worked together in a room. I felt a bit ridiculous, but she said, “Be free. Express what you want with your body,” and I discovered that I just wanted to take really weird positions. That’s my problem. Maybe it’s because I’m not so proud of my body because I’m so skinny and maybe that’s the reason why, and she said, “You just want to be ridiculous all the time when you’re dancing.” But maybe that’s an advantage. She integrated all of that. The choreography was mine, but not really mine. I think that’s a good choreographer because you think you did it yourself, but, actually, no. Marion Motin is her name. She worked on “Tous les mêmes” and the live shows. She’s the guy who’s dancing behind me. [Laughs] She’s really good, on a human level as well. The connection before the choreography was completely genuine and spontaneous.
That’s everything you want. It comes out naturally. It’s not an imposition.
I try to keep a distance and ask good questions. She knew why I hate dance and choreography. She said, “I understand you completely. It’s not a performance just for the performance.” That’s so ridiculous. You’re not the best dancer. You are what you are and she taught me that.
You never met with your collaborators like Lorde, Kanye and Angel Haze. Is that true?
To be honest, I never met Kanye, physically. I actually met Lorde. I met Lorde and Madonna. I also met will.i.am. Sometimes things happen, and other times, it doesn’t happen. For “Alors on dance,” Kanye did something on it, but we never met. I was really happy with it. Sometimes you meet with someone like Madonna and maybe it’s not the right moment, humanly speaking. She was really respectful and I was really respectful. It’s just two people. It’s, of course, Madonna. Maybe something will come out of it, but who knows? If it happens, it happens. You can’t force it.
What do you talk to Madonna about?
[Laughs] We just talk about music! Life, you know? You talk about family and stuff like that. Conviction. It’s the same discussion you have with anybody else. We talked about my project and her project. She’s very nice.