Dancing to the Revolution: An Interview with Laetitia Sadier

Laetitia Sadier
Drag CIty

Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance to it, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution”. And while the anarchist, trail-blazing feminist, and all-around freedom fighter spoke those words over a century ago, her spirit of subversive celebration lives on today in the music of French-born singer-songwriter Laetitia Sadier. As lead vocalist for the bands Stereolab and Monade, and continuing into her solo work of recent years, the effortless beauty of Sadier’s singing and her unapologetically intellectual approach to lyricism have made hers one of the more distinctive voices in modern independent music. Her politics are fiercely egalitarian, and her lyrics are often laced with contempt for all manners of societal injustice. However, she sets these leftist provocations to music that is lush with gentle organs, softly churning guitars, and sultry, jazz-tinged rhythms. It makes for a striking juxtaposition of sound and content that feels perfectly natural to Sadier.

“I can only do what I can do, and how I intuitively feel,” she says, describing the unique marriage of art and politics in her work. “And I think there is a bit of a punk rocker in me. I like to jump up and down, you know. But musically, I just have a desire for a certain aesthetic and that’s how the songs come out. I’ve never seen an opposition between politics and sweet pop songs”. And while Sadier concedes that her own music is often perhaps of a more “bittersweet” nature than the average pop song, she finds one historical source of inspiration for combining a sense of political urgency with music that is both artful and accessible in the sounds of the American Motown era. “I was thinking of Marvin Gaye,” she says. “You know he wrote some very wise political comments on some very sophisticated, sensual music, so I don’t see one being exclusive of the other. That’s the beauty and the freedom of being an artist is that there are no rules. You create the rules and I think we should do that more at large in society — start creating the rules instead of just obeying”.

Sadier challenges the existing rules and hierarchies of society in her own way throughout Silencio, her latest release as a solo artist. The album opens with “The Rule of the Game”, a meditation upon the culpability of the upper class in the rise of fascism that was inspired by Jean Renoir’s 1939 film La Regle du Jue. Sadier feels that the film draws some important parallels to our contemporary political moment. “I think the ruling elite are acting completely irresponsibly and doing the opposite things of what they should be doing to rectify the crisis”, She says, in regard to the depressed state of the global economy. “They are like a bunch of spoiled children who have no idea what it’s like to be on the other end of the stick. They are completely insensitive to the plight of most people. But it’s not just their fault, it’s also the fault of the people to let them take all the power. If you want the power, you have to take it. And of course these guys, the elite, they’re not going to let go. In fact, they’re clinging on like crazy to their privileges”.

Sadier sees these divisions of power and resources in society as a result of a pervasive “philosophy of capitalism”, which she says is “just to get whatever you want for yourself”, adding, “I think that this kind of philosophy will get us nowhere — to just get profit at any cost and not to be sensitive to the people around you”. In her lyrics on Silencio, Sadier attacks this kind of self-centered worldview in as direct a manner as possible. On “The Rule of the Game”, she describes the upper class as “Overindulged children / Drawn to cruel games” over an instrumental backdrop of softly strummed guitars and swaying rhythms. And later on “Auscultation to the Nation”, she ponders, “Rating agencies, financial markets and the G20 / But who are these people? And why on earth / Do we care about their opinions?” This is paired with he sounds of urgent indie rock guitars and an extended instrumental section of white electronic noise.

It turns out that the lyrics to “Auscultation to the Nation” were taken directly from a call-in listener to a French radio program, an odd choice for a song lyric, but it’s based upon a sentiment that resonated so strongly with Sadier that she felt compelled to broadcast it further through its incorporation into her art: “Why are we letting these financial agencies govern our lives?” She asks, echoing the exasperation of the radio caller. “They’re not politically legitimate. We are basically moving away from the democratic process whereby even if we picked a horrible president, at least he was elected. Politics of this nature will just keep all of the financial interests intact and make the people slave away to pay off these debts that are completely outrageous”.

And as to the musical canvass upon which she paints this portrait of populist indignation? “I took the song to my friend Jim [Elkington]’s house and we recorded it together, and he suggested some electronics. He has this big set of analog gear to make these kinds of sounds and that’s how we ended up with this big cluster of electronics at the end. And it’s also a nice addition to the record because there aren’t that many electronics, so I was really happy that there was this dimension.” It also works to reinforce the song’s theme of dehumanization at the hands of social structures that are completely out of one’s control, as the very human sounds of voices and guitars are drowned out by the lifeless buzzing of the electronics at the song’s end.

These moments of spontaneous inspiration that result in something more meaningful than could ever be planned ahead of time form an integral part of Sadier’s artistic process. And it is a process that depends largely upon a sense of aesthetic intuition that she acquired through her years as a member of Stereolab. The band’s highly influential sound, variably described by critics as “post-rock”, “Kraut-lounge”, or “retro-futurism”, achieves its unique character in part by bringing together complementary elements from across a diverse range of musical sources. Sadier explains the Stereolab songwriting process as such: “Tim [Gane, Stereolab co-founder and songwriter] was really into using what was already there and just combining it in different ways to create something new. But I think that’s kind of what we’re all doing as artists, whether we accept it or not. We’re just recycling what’s already there and putting our own thoughts over it, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Tim was very analytical and he did music that came from ideas, but he was also very intuitively lead. It was not overly controlled music, a lot of it was written very quickly and recorded very quickly. It was really about seizing the moment and using what this universe had to provide at that moment, which is an exciting way of working. And that’s how I work because that’s how I was taught to work — it’s the only thing I ever saw.”

This sense of openness to whatever intriguing combinations of sound and content may present themselves within the given moment is clear throughout Silencio. Whether through Sadier’s use of found materials such as the Renoir film, or the radio listener’s political rant; conversations culled from her own experience such as the ruminations of “Sue, the mathematician” in “Find Me the Pulse Of the Universe”; or her incorporation of a wide variety musical reference points. There are the swelling, orchestral builds of “There is a Price To Pay For Freedom (And It Isn’t Security)”, the Latin-inflected dance rhythms of “Between Earth and Heaven”, the subtle ambient beauty of “Silent Spot”, and the funk-damaged organ and guitar interplay of “Fragment Pour le Future de l’Homme”.

Sadier credits her collaborators, James Elkington and Julien Gasc, with helping her to explore such a dynamic range of emotional and aesthetic territory on the album, as well as in a live setting on their current tour. Elkington, of the Horse’s Ha and the Zincs, was particularly instrumental in orchestrating Silencio’s sound — he wrote two of the songs, in addition to playing and recording on much of the album. “I met James when he was in the Zincs,” she says, recalling a 2005 tour in which the Zincs opened for Monade. “When you see a band play every night for twenty five shows, you can really get to know their music and appreciate it. And I was like, “what a great songwriter, you know — really gifted”. And because none of the groups James worked with ever really met the success they deserved, I told him one day maybe he should be a songwriter for other people”.

Later, when Sadier began working on the songs that would become Silencio, she “decided that I would put my good advice to use here and that’s how two of his songs ended up being on the record”. One of those songs, “There is a Price To Pay For Freedom (And It Isn’t Security)” pairs Elkington’s dramatic orchestral arrangement with lyrics that fuse many of album’s thematic concerns — personal, political and existential — as Sadier sings, “Images reflected back from society / What I live / The bridge between roles forced to take on and reality / What I am”. (Bridges are recurring images within Sadier’s lyrics). And for all of the attention that is paid to her politics, she sees her own work as an attempt to build metaphorical bridges between all aspects of human experience: “I don’t think we should have any separation between what’s philosophical, what’s political and what’s personal. I see it all as being entwined with each other, I think that everything is linked. And that’s what I’ve been doing and writing about for all these years — just making bridges. Making the bridges more apparent between the personal and the political, the personal and the communal, the communal and the philosophical. I guess the thing I’ve added, which is normal considering my age, is the spiritual side and the sacred side of being human and being alive and being part of the universe”.

In today’s internet culture, where the boundaries between art and commerce feel blurrier every day, and the constant barrage of information threatens to drown out any capacity for serious contemplative thought, let alone deep spiritual reflection, Sadier’s commitment to her revolutionary ideals stands in contrast to many of her younger indie rock peers who are quick to sell their work to the highest bidder for placement in advertisements, film, or TV spots. She sees the commercialization of independent music as a direct result of the all-encompassing nature of capitalism: “Advertising and the ideology of capitalism have overtaken. It’s very sophisticated and it’s presented in a way that we don’t really control anymore at this stage. I see it particularly in the youth that they seem quite happy to just go along with everything that’s presented to them: the development of technology and all the gadgets and this illusion of power that comes with having instant access to all this information. But meaning and information are profoundly different. And I do think at some point we’ll evolve because human beings need some kind of dimension of meaning beyond just consuming information”.

In the meantime, Sadier finds her own sense of meaning in the regenerative power of silence. “The importance of silence is that when you find a bit of it, you can go inside yourself and get to know yourself a little better. When there’s too much noise around you, you can’t think and you don’t have the necessary clarity to find what’s really important in life”. Silencio is an album that seeks to do just that: to cut through the noise of society, politics and the marketplace to discover the true human identity that lies beneath. In the end, it’s a very personal kind of revolution that Sadier is fighting, and it’s one that everybody is invited to dance to.