“The reality is that I’m someone who’s super curious,” says Woodkid, musician, director and so much more. Returning with S16, his second album seven years after his first, the Paris-based artist seems undaunted by a gap that would leave most artists and their labels quivering. But Woodkid seems to embrace challenges, to run into them in the hopes of uncovering new perspectives for his art. It’s this limitless curiosity and passionate world-building that he channels into his new album, releasing on October 16. 
The album uniquely manages to cradle the tender, intimate and human in the same palm as the urban, metallic and modern. There’s “something industrial” about the album, Woodkid says, drawing inspiration from the many mass complexes, reactors and power-sources he visited in its preparation. It’s this refreshing curiosity for life, collaborating with others, and finding individuality in the collective that we chat about in the interview.
I want to start off quite light-hearted. You’re someone who’s worked with music, film, fashion, contemporary dance, photography, illustration, and 3D motion and design. Is there anything that you aren’t good at?
I’m pretty bad at accounting and numbers. And at screenwriting, I realised. I also don’t know how to drive, and I’m pretty bad at love in general…
That’s got a lot more profound than I expected. Really though, where does your drive come from? Most people settle for one or two skills in life, but you seem to explore a lot!
I work with a broad spectrum of people, but the only things I do are images and music, which is not so much when you think about it. Especially when you start to think that they’re sort of the same or that there’s a common ideology. I feel that there is the same process behind my music-making and my image-making, so I don’t see the spectrum as being that broad.
But the reality is that I’m someone who’s super curious; I always like to learn stuff. I don’t like to stay with the things that I know how to do. And I love to explore connections between mediums – I love to explore the connections between images and sound because there’s so much that you can do when you have two skills like that. It multiplies everything as a matter of dialogue.
Regarding directing and music-making, obviously you’re well known as being talented at both. How do you hold these two aspects in unison? Does the musician help with directing, and vice versa?
It’s a matter of timing. Of course, I always have these two things in my head, but there are moments in the studio when I’m really working on music, or when I come back from shooting a video where my brain really gets focused on it. It’s more about having these two languages in your head and prioritising one over the other when you have to.
Having these two careers and trying to make one out of them allows me to always make them dispensable or non-essential. That gives you a bit of distance to sacralise what you do. When I’m on stage I’m like, if this doesn’t work and people forget about me or lose interest in me, I can still be a director; and when I’m making a video, with a client or another artist, I’m like, fuck it, if they don’t like it I can still go back to being a musician. That always gives you a bit of a distance and the luxury to be able to say no when you need to.
You’ve talked about this before – about the permeability of artists and about the danger of being forgotten between records. There was a period of seven years between The Golden Age and your new album, S16. What were you doing in between?
It was a lot about learning, especially from collaborations like Nicholas Ghesquière’s or Alfonso Cuarón’s, for example. All these people I’ve been working with, I’ve learnt something from. Every time I decided to make a side project was because I thought it was very important to learn something – about myself, but about others too.
It was also a time that I needed to challenge myself to be forgotten a little bit. To not rely on the status of my first record but to make the second one. To feel more in danger and not have the capitalist point of view on making music (to avoid thinking that I needed to capitalise on my success). I don’t see success as something that you pile up but more like an exploration and taking different branches. Exploring a broad spectrum. I think that’s what these seven years were about.
Is that always the case between projects?
You always have that feeling before you go on stage when you have a big gap; you have no idea how to be on stage. I like a lot this feeling that you don’t know how to do it anymore because it’s a challenging state of mind. It’s the same when you go back into the studio and think, will I know how to record an orchestra? It’s so technical! Or when I do shows, like for Ghesquière, I’m like, is it going to work? It’s just because time has that value.
You mentioned working with people like Ghesquière, and I think SOPHIE was with you in that show too? How important is it for you to collaborate with other artists around you?
It’s always with people that I love! I’m passionate about SOPHIE’s music. She has that futurism about the ideology, about who she is and what she does, the way she makes it. Everything about her is interesting. When we decided to make that collaboration for that show, it was because I knew I could learn so much from her, and that at the same time, it would be super interesting to see her work and how she envisions things on a purely human level.
With other artists like Mykki Blanco, for example, the point of view is a bit different. She’s someone that I had loved for a long time. She decided at some point that she had to stop making music, which I thought was completely wrong! I wanted to get her and I was like, we’re going to make a record, so I brought her to Paris. We worked on the record and then she came back to making music. Collaborations are really intense, but the only thing I know is that I’ve learned so much that I can reinject back into my own work. I think I learn more from others than I do myself.
Your new album was recorded in London, Berlin, Paris, Los Angeles and Iceland. Would you describe yourself as global? And your album?
To be honest, I’m too snobbish not to call myself Parisian. I think the more I travel, the more I love Paris. The more I love coming back to Paris, the more I love leaving Paris. It’s always been a love-hate relationship, but it’s definitely the best place for me to live in. It’s workable, it’s human, it has a human scale.
On the record, I was called by collaborations that got me everywhere. I wanted to make my vocals with Kurt Uenala, who’s a friend of ours. He happens to live in Iceland, so we went there, to Sigur Rós’s studios, and worked. I have another of my friends who I worked on my lyrics with and he lives in Berlin. It’s more like places call me. Ryan Lott, from Son Lux, used to live in NYC but is now in LA, so I ended up going there. I wanted to work with the Suginami Junior Chorus and they’re in Japan, so I had to go to Tokyo to record a chorus. It’s the collaborations or people in these places that call to me. It’s not like I chose the places; it was more like the wind pushed me towards people that I love.
That’s a nice phrase, the wind.
What I mean is that I don’t have the fantasy of making an album in the United States or anywhere else. It’s more that the human context drives me to places.
Can you tell me a bit about the name of the album, S16?
S16 is the periodic element sulphur, 16 being the atomic charge. When I worked on the environment of the record, I knew there was something industrial about it – sonically and visually – but I didn’t quite know what it was, so I visited a lot of places. I went to nuclear power plants, oil platforms, coal mines and mass industrial complexes. I wanted to see what the world has that’s the biggest and most intimidating. I wanted to see places of power, power as energy. I went to electric power plants, dams… Really, a lot of places. And I realised at some point it was something about sulphur.
I saw these pyramids of sulphur in Alberta, Canada, and there was something striking about them. I thought it was interesting because it has a symbolic resonance. The more I built around the lexical theory of the record and songs, sounds and visuals, I realised that sulphur could embody everything that I wanted to talk about. It’s an element that’s fundamental to life – like hydrogen, carbon and oxygen –, and it’s also used in the industry as a fertiliser. There’s an idea of life behind that.
But it’s also one of the main components of mustard gas, which is one of the grossest weapons humans have made. In alchemy, too, it’s the symbol of the devil. So there’s a bit of ambiguity, but also a heavy symbolism I could attach myself to when I made the narrative.
Is that where the inspiration for your track Pale Yellow comes from too?
Yeah! Sulphur is pale yellow, which is part of the whole thing. It’s almost candy-like. It’s very interesting.
So these big sources of power you mention were obviously the inspiration behind the song Goliath’s video (that features coal mining in the Czech Republic). Are you trying to convey any overarching message behind these themes?
Yeah, of course. I mean, it’s whatever you want to see in it. I think it’s extremely evocative of many things. What I liked about the record was to have this fractal resonance between the very little and the very big. If you listen to it carefully, it’s mainly a love song about understanding someone but being disconnected. But I’ve always wanted to add a visual and thematic layer on the top of it that’s much bigger, that resonates the intimate with the scales and massive forces of the world.
So you could see it as a pure love song, you could see it as something intimate about the monster inside. But you can also read the environmental challenge behind it and the way we deal with it. Something about the individual and collective responsibility, and the creation of modern monsters. Of figures like Trump and the rise of populism, and the far-right across the world. You could read it as the reinvention of gender and the deconstruction of binarism.
All of these big challenges in the world that are the most exciting things that we’ve ever had to face in our lives. It’s an observation of the spectrum of the forces that are at play around us that seem unbeatable. How do you, as a David against Goliath, or a little individual, have a collective impact?
Following on from these grand scales and forces, you’ve said before that you want your listeners to feel like heroes. The Suginami Junior Chorus in the album’s sixth track, Reactor, reminded me of the soundtrack to the film Akira
Yeah, yeah!
…Which is obviously set in this dystopian, sprawling metropolis. It reminded me, in some ways, of some themes in your album too.
Using the Suginami Junior Chorus in the record was specifically the idea of making two worlds collide in one song. The first [world] is the American minimalism movement, with people like Philip Glass or Steve Reich, who I worship. But also another culture, my passion for certain Japanese identities: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or the Final Fantasy series. All of these influences seem like worlds apart, but I thought I could see a connection between them, so I brought them together in one song.
And also, the idea of having children’s voices, which I cast very specifically. I wanted a children’s (a girls’) choir but I didn’t want it to sound like a TV commercial. These girls specifically [from the Suginami Junior Chorus], with that timbre and way of writing music, sound exactly the way I wanted – ambiguous. Something that sounds utopic and dystopic at the same time. You never know if it’s a positive or a negative force. It feels more like an omniscient force that commands. I wanted them to finish S16 as well; I didn’t want to finish it. The last words of the album are from a younger generation of kids.
I didn’t notice that! That’s actually quite a profound idea.
It sort of opens up the record, too. It’s almost like it takes it to another level.
So what’s next in store for you, Yoann? And is Woodkid coming with you?
Hopefully touring! Which I would really love. I mean, the world is not ready for it now (laughs). That, and pushing the visuals of the record a bit, reliving that record first of all. But mainly reconnecting materially with people live, on stage. I think this world is too much about dematerialisation, which is fine to some extent, but at some point it’s exhausting. So, in my head, it’s about physical reconnection.
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