interview: Marie Davidson
Marie Davidson has gained recognition far beyond her native home of Montreal for her dark, atmospheric dance music and cinematic soundscapes. She performs with her husband in the band Essaie Pas and has been producing solo material since 2013, when she released her debut EP on Austin’s HOLODECK Records. She was in town for SXSW earlier this year, and we caught up with her to talk about her new album, Un Autre Voyage, her love of giallo horror films, and when she might compose a soundtrack of her own.
Your music offers a danceable atmosphere on the surface, but there’s a feeling of dread and suffocation inside of it—almost like dancing into a cave. What inspired you to pursue this sound, and how do you go about creating it?
MD: I like this thing you just mentioned, dancing into a cave. It would be a good thing to describe my music; nobody has ever made that description. I love it! I used to call it “existential electronic pop,” so that gives you part of the answer—that there is always a very personal aspect in my music. The lyrics, what I talk about. And even if it’s in French or in English, people understand the vibe. I’ve been touring a lot in the U.S. and Europe and people often tell me even if you don’t understand the words, you really get the vibe… Once I was talking with someone, a friend of mine, Christopher Hansell, from New York, who works with Ascetic House and Sacred Bones Records. I met him in New York last year when me and Ssleeperhold, we played at Home Sweet Home for Nothing Changes, and I didn’t know him at that time, and he just asked me, “Oh you sound so pissed off in the song ‘Perte d’Identité.” And I was like, “Wow, you are right!” and I told him a little bit of detail about where it comes from and he was like, “Oh man, I totally got it, I got the vibe from it.” That’s just an example, but a lot of the music I make comes from experience that I have, and a lot of my music is also cathartic; I use it to get out some of my personal issues. But then once it’s out there, it is totally positive. It often comes from a dark feeling—not only dark, but a lot of energy, it is very… charged. But once it’s out there it’s like let’s have fun! And that’s why I like to play around when I play live sets, I’ll dance or I’ll address the crowd, because why I come or why I tour or play shows, even in Montreal, is to share when I’m out there. And, of course, the best thing for me is to make people dance. And my first EP was not danceable at all. The first EP HOLODECK released as a tape was not dance music at all.
Yeah, it was more spoken word.
MD: Yes, spoken word, and soundscape, ambient. I still do it! On the records there is always half and half, now, like Perte d’Identité and the upcoming one, Un Autre Voyage, it’s half and half. Upbeat stuff, more dance-oriented—still weird. And some really ambient stuff, it sounds almost like a fake soundtrack. But now, my live set for this tour is straight-up dance floor, beat-oriented, and it is nice to see the crowd dancing. It’s something that didn’t used to happen when I played, and it’s happening more and more, and my work is changing also. It’s kind of a natural evolution, which is good—I like it.
I saw you perform and I realized that the energy you were putting out got returned back to you. It was a good reciprocation.
MD: I often say that. I played six shows at South By [Southwest], and you don’t get a lot of sleep. You party, or you don’t party, and you just do your thing and it’s really tiring. But every time I play I get the energy feedback, and sometimes I’m like ugh, I don’t want to do this, and as soon as I play I’m like This is why. This is why I came here. This energy transfer, like you said, with the crowd, is the best thing.
Making the music is cathartic, and then the energy you get from the people is like an added plus.
MD: Yeah, you totally got it. That is how it is.
I hear your new album Un Autre Voyage is, to quote the HOLODECK press release, “a collection of songs based solely on true events, providing the listener with an unfiltered primary account of your personal experiences.” Can you elaborate on that? What sort of experiences inspired the album?
MD: All songs are based on true events. People I’ve met, things I’ve lived. Like, the first song of the album is called “Boulevard Taschereau,” which means Taschereau Boulevard. It’s a big boulevard we have outside of Montreal, in the suburbs, on the south shore. It is one of the biggest boulevards in… I don’t remember if it’s Canada or Quebec. Anyway, it is huge, and it’s basically very suburban: malls, parking lots, hostels, motels… Nobody hangs out there. And my husband and I, for his birthday last year, we just decided to go. We went on some kind of road trip. We just drove all day. We went to some really nice islands in the south shore, and we had a nice walk in nature, and then at night we were like let’s not go back to Montreal, let’s go wild! And you’re the first person who I’m telling this story, but you asked me, so I’ll give an example. So we just went, we went down the Boulevard Taschereau, and we found a motel, an old motel that has been there since the ’50s, the late ’50s or early ’60s, and it’s known as one of the old motels you can find around Montreal. We rented a room and then we went out, we had a couple of drinks, and we met crazy people. We met a guy that was really, really weird. We like weirdoes, my husband and I—we tour a lot, and we play a lot of shows, so we come across weird people. And we were in kind of a good mood, so we hung out with him for a while, but he was really far out; I think he had not his whole mind. And at some point he took my husband outside—they went for a cigarette, and I don’t smoke, so I stayed inside—and he just told him, he grabbed his shoulder and said, “I have something to tell you,” and he had a weird accent… But he was like, “I have something to tell you,” and Pierre [Guerineau, Davidson’s husband] is like, “Alright? Yeah? I’m listening.” And he was like, “We. Are. All. Burning.” And when you hear the song, when the album comes out, you’ll hear it; this is what the song talks about. I haven’t told that to anyone and nobody’s heard the track yet, but if people listen to this song and read this interview they’ll make a connection. But this is just one example of how what I talk about in the music is all [real], but I play around it. A lot of it is fantasized or like—not exaggerated, but twisted. And also I like to keep intimacy. I have some love songs that talk about my husband or previous relationships I’ve had with people or friends, but I’m a very private person, so even if the song talks about more intimate parts of my life, I’ll make it so that people can associate but not get it completely. I don’t like to put myself right out there.
You leave some of it in. I mean, the experiences are yours.
MD: Yeah, and I really believe that, once it’s out there, my music doesn’t really belong to me anymore, it’s for everyone. So I make sure that once it’s out there I don’t need to have any grip on it, I’m cool with letting go, and people can make their own interpretations, which I like. Like when some people come up to me and say, “Does this talk about that?” And I’m like, “No, but that would be great if that happened!” Like, it’s a good idea. I like to see how people have reacted.
Back to that energy.
MD: Yes, exactly.
Un Autre Voyage is very personal. Do you believe that this album is more personal than the two that preceded it?
MD: Maybe a little less, as far as it comes to stability. It is as personal, but the first two were really made in a state of emergency. I started this solo project because I was dealing with severe depression for years, and I really needed something…
MD: Yeah! I basically started the project for two reasons: because I needed something to get my mind off my own problems, and the only thing that would do it, the only thing, was making music; and the second reason I started is because I had a lot of bands, I had a lot of really cool collaborations in Montreal, and I had never done anything on my own, and I was not sure I could make it. I had a lot of doubt about my ability to do things on my own, and I was lucky that some good friends pushed me to do it.
Is that when you met David Kristian?
MD: Exactly! I’m glad you asked, because David Kristian is the one who really pushed me to do it. He was like my mentor for electronic [music]. I had been playing music for a long time, but as it comes to sequencers and synths, he was my mentor at that time, and he really pushed me to do it, and I will forever be grateful to him.
So a shout out to David Kristian.
MD: Yes. We used to do the DKMD Project, which is electronic, dance-oriented, but more like giallo disco, horror—really a tribute to all the giallo films, the Italian horror films from the late ’70s, early ’80s. We have this EP that just came out, I think it’s sold out, but it came out on a European label that’s pretty cool. It’s called Giallo Disco [Records].
Oh, I like that.
MD: It’s a good label. They have Antoni Maiovvi on it; they have Vercetti Technicolor, which is a Greek guy who lives in Vienna. It’s really good music to check out, if you’re into electronic.
Let’s talk about giallo music. It’s a very specific genre—how did you find out about it?
MD: It was from working with David Kristian. He’s really into horror films. He scored horror films for a long time, but now he’s a sound designer. He works for Ubisoft, which is a big gaming company that I’m not really aware of. I’m not really into software or gaming, but I know it’s pretty big. He just did all the sound designs for the “Watch Dogs” game, which seems to be pretty big. But yeah, David used to score films, and he’s always been into horror movies. And I have always been into soundtracks, especially David Lynch’s and stuff like that. I had seen a few giallos, but I was not so familiar with it. But I knew Goblin—I mean, Goblin’s like the major band. I knew Goblin, but I really got into it, watching horror films.
Had you watched more horror films before you met David, or after?
MD: I used to watch a lot of horror films when I was a kid.
That would explain your music.
MD: Yeah! I watched almost too much, and so I stopped. And then I got back into it, like, three years ago. For a long time I didn’t watch any. Weirdly, I think I watched too much as a kid. I was hooked up on X-Files when I was eight and nine. That’s really young. Especially the first few seasons were really graphic and dark, and it would scare the shit out of me, but I couldn’t stop it. I’d watch it every Friday. It was like my thing, I’d look forward to it all week. I was really, really into The X-Files.
In many of your songs you choose to use spoken word vocals as opposed to singing. Do you feel that this adds something different, in juxtaposition to the fast movement of your music?
MD: Yeah, I’ve always been singing. In the DKMD stuff, I was singing. In my first band, from Montreal—les Momies de Palerme, that has a release on Constellation Records—I was singing also. I used to write poetry when I was in my late teens and early, early adult life. Like when I started getting into music and art and performance, I would write more.
What made you stop?
MD: Music. To be honest, there are a lot of things that I used to do that I don’t do because music takes up almost all of my time.
So you’re always focused on music.
MD: Oh yeah. I really dedicate my life to music. I’d say I play probably six times a week. There’ll be a day in the week where I don’t. But sometimes I practice, sometimes I work and compose. Sometimes I’ll be working with my husband; we do this project called Essaie Pas, which is also touring, and we do electronic music as well. Sometimes I just fool around with stuff. But I play music I’d say five to six times a week, for years now.
And you and your husband, since you both play music, like when you practice together, that’s your alone time?
MD: Uh, yeah. We were a band before being a couple, so… [laughing] It was music that made us fall in love. So yeah, you asked me about the…
The spoken word.
MD: Yeah, the spoken word. So I used to sing a lot, and for my solo project, basically everything is built around sequences. I use sequencers like a drum machine which sequences drum sounds; it’s patterns, it’s beats. And then I’ll use synthesizers that are sequenced. I’ll add layers of leads or atmospheric sounds or drums, sometimes strings, but most of it is sequences. And it just happened like that. I’d sometimes hear singing but I listen to a lot of techno music. Even though I don’t do techno, my music is minimal when it comes to the vocals. Sometimes I’ll hear singing parts, but most of the time I just hear vocal parts that would be patterns also, that’s why it’s very repetitive. It’s like mantras—it’s just to add something and to build it up—and it’s also that I want to communicate with people, I want to touch people. But the singing, the talking… it’s rhythmical. I use it as a rhythmical tool.
Many of your songs are in French, so most of your American audience probably doesn’t know what you are singing about. Does that bother you at all?
MD: No, not at all. I try not to think about that when I compose. My new song that I composed just before tour, it is in English, but it hasn’t been recorded yet. But my new track is in English, and I chose to do it in English because I wanted people to understand, because the message in that song is so important to me. The song is called “I Dedicate My Life,” and I really wanted everyone to understand it because it’s very personal. It is my most personal song, and it is a very positive song. It’s a dance track, and it’s made for people to…
MD: Yes, come together! So that’s why I made an English vocal. But when it comes to previous songs, like “Abduction”—the text was a poem that another friend of mine, a musician, Sadaf [Nava], from New York, wrote for me, and I really liked it, so I asked her, “Can I use it? Can I adapt it?” It was a collaboration; I took her text and I kind of edited it and added a few things. That’s why when I wrote “Shaky Leg” in English, it was because it came out that way, but most of it is in French because that is my first language and I think in French. Even when I’m on tour, I think in French. Like when I’m like “Oh, I need to go get my gear”—Il faut que j’aille chercher mon gear. I still say “gear,” though. I’m from Montreal, so I come from a bilingual city and I have a bunch of friends who don’t speak French, so I’m used to doing the back and forth, but it is not my language. Sometimes I’m like eek! Like I have dark holes in my head that are like What is the word? Oh yeah! But I’m not as fluent. I think in French.
Well, I think that your English is good. And I think it’s good that you like to separate the songs into what’s important.
MD: It really depends on the message, the mood, what it talks about, who it is addressing…
So like for your husband…
MD: Yeah! Then it’s in French. You’ve got it.
I want to talk about “Shaky Leg” and “Abduction,” because you mentioned them. “Shaky Leg” reminds me a lot of Italian disco music.
MD: It is my—wow, you’re really good! It is my tribute to Italo disco music.
It is so good! And “Abduction” is great because it actually feels like someone’s chasing after you.
MD: It is my most spaced-out song. It is like my song to the aliens or something. [laughing] But it is a weird track. It is really fun to play “Abduction” live. It’s one of the tracks that works the best live; people have a huge reaction to it.
I would say the same thing for “I Dedicate My Life.” The last time I saw you people responded to that song well.
MD: Yes, I think that is my best song. It is not recorded yet, but it will be. I don’t know what I’ll do with that yet. I’ll have to do a single, or like two songs that are a dance-oriented release, like a maxi, and have a DJ doing a remix.
That’d be good, and even if you release it as a single I’m sure it would sell real quick.
MD: I love that track. I have a good feeling about it.
The rest of this interview can be found in issue 4.
Interview by Carlos Alvarenga.
Photography by Olivia Vale.