“It was kind of fun in the end, all these problems.”
It was Christmas 2013 near the southwestern city of Toulouse, France, and synthpop singer-songwriter Rémi Parson, visiting his parents, was locked in his childhood bedroom with a vintage Casio keyboard. His family was in another room watching holiday film favorites like Elf and Home Alone.
Parson had just received the Casio as a gift and very quickly was inspired to seclude himself to write and record a song in one afternoon. The result was “La Tristesse,” the opening track off his recent synthpop gem Précipitations, out now on Disque Objet and on digital via Bandcamp.
In doing so, the London-based Parson set the theme for one of my favorite albums of the year: An intimate, lo-fi sound that is also complex and even cinematic at times. These Francophonic songs, crafted with an old, “stolen” guitar and that keyboard, are to be enjoyed by adorning headphones and sitting in a chair, for sure, but they’re also ripe for PA treatment. Call it the “Parson Paradox.”
“I had previously written very few songs in French, so the whole experience was very pure and inspiration seemed to come from everywhere,” Parson told Vehlinggo over email recently. “It was liberating to be able to express so many ideas in so many ways, I even had to edit down.”
The next day, Parson started on the delectable single “Droguerie” and set forth on his path toward creating an album that recalls New Order, The Cure, Belle & Sebastian, Serge Gainsbourg, and even some Sebastien Tellier. Parson agrees with me somewhat on my assumptions about his influences.
“Belle and Sebastian has been important to me [since] I was 17-18 – [the songs are] so melodic and richly orchestrated,” he said. “Joy Division/New Order, Depeche Mode, and The Cure would be my favorites. It’s everything I like: synth and hooks, melancholy, repetition, excitement, and sadness.”
All of that is patently obvious when you listen to Précipitations, which recalls the best element of all of those bands. But French 80s pop was also a big influence on the record, he said.
“The songs from this era were very cold and ‘grandiose,’ but always so pop, so uplifting,” Parson said.
There’s a chance I was being a bit audacious to find Tellier in Parson’s work. Was I generalizing because both he and Tellier are French? Or do I just listen to so much Tellier that I find him in everything? Parson gave me some insight.
“I quite like Sébastien Tellier — I mean I like the guy, I find him very funny and interesting,” he said. “I do not necessarily like all of his songs, but he wrote ‘La Ritournelle’ and ‘L’amour et la Violence’ and it’s gorgeous, so all is forgiven!”
Toulouse is located a couple hours from the borders with Spain and the diminutive Andorra, and isn’t far from the Pyrenees Mountains. It’s the spiritual capital of the historic Occitania, a linguistically distinct region that the Roman Empire used as a military outpost. It was also at one point the capital city of the Visigoths, who had played a role in undoing that imperial power.
For Parson, who grew up in a small town outside of the city, the area was just a “nice, warm place with lots of good food.”
He first got into music when he was about 10 years old. He stole his brother’s guitar — which he still uses to this day — and started recording cassettes all day long. He’d sing in “pretend English,” which he said is called “yaourt.” That is also the French word for yogurt.
The words and sentence structure are more or less faithful to English, but it gets quirky. He said it sounds like “Yeah, we are OK at the station/Yeah, you know/What/What/Anyway…”
His biggest source of enjoyment at the time was art, which was in part what inspired him to record so frantically, Parson said.
Fast-forward years later to the tracking for Précipitations. We still find Parson recording quickly, even if it is executed in a defter, most professional fashion.
Once he finished “La Tristesse” over Christmas — with his parents in the other room watching a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage run across a boardroom table and assault Will Ferrell — he quickly set forth recording “Droguerie.”
“I could have stopped there, but I was lucky enough to get a little feature on a French magazine’s website and it really pushed me to continue,” he said.
By the following May, Parson had finished seven other songs back home in London. The tracklist represents the chronological order in which these songs were created.
“I wanted the album to reflect this burst of creativity,” Parson said. He chose the album’s title because it was recorded in a rush and it was raining virtually the entire time.
Readers might be getting the impression that this is a haphazard record, but it’s not. These are nine fully-formed, well-written, and catchy cuts. Every song is intentional, purposeful, and enjoyable. There’s no fat to cut out — no fillers.
Parson’s singing is hushed but melodic. The musicianship is minimalist, but also intricate. His choruses stick around for hours after the record’s done. After listening to the songs, I’ve found myself walking around New York randomly singing French words I don’t entirely entirely understand.
Wine-Drunk with Broken Computers
I chose “Droguerie,” “Les Cieux,” “Eau Claire,” and “Papier Carbone” as the album’s standout tracks, although it was extremely difficult to separate them from the rest. After all, like I said, there’s no filler.
Usually, this is where I step in and give my impression of each song. I think it’s pretty clear what I think of his masterpiece, so I decided to ask the artist himself what the songs mean to him. For the record, this is where you learn that Parson first came to London as a wine merchant, that he name-checks obscure shoegaze bands, and that seems to agree with me about the dichotomies and paradoxes of his work.
In this song, I imagine an encounter with this fascinating, lost girl. The lyrics are a bit blurred and jerky, like when you’re out of it.
I first found the keyboard gimmick on the chorus that sounded very “Italo dance” to me. I wanted to make a real pop song, and I am happy with the fact it’s both bold and very lo-fi. It’s frustrating for some people, but I like this dichotomy.
It’s a song about loneliness and grey skies — a typical topic for a Londoner, I guess. I really worked on piling up on the rhythms and percussions to make it dynamic and fragile at the same time. It’s the more obviously 80s song on the album, and I really like it. I was thinking of “L’aventurier” by this French band called Indochine while recording it… with slightly shouty lyrics and shaky energy.
For years, guitar was my main instrument and it’s an important part of my shows, which are more organic. “Eau Claire” pays homage to my love for shoegaze. The wall of sound of this mysterious Sarah Records band, Eternal, was on my mind when I recorded it. I tried to blend distortions and synths together to create a limpid pop melody.
The song’s about my years as a wine merchant when I first arrived in London. At first it was really fun, but I ended up being drunk almost every day. So now I try to stick to… water.
My favorite song and the last one recorded for the album. At the time, my computer decided to die and I saw the moment where I wouldn’t be able to finish it, which was really frustrating. I finally managed to find a way and recorded some of it on a very old computer. It was kind of fun in the end, all these problems. It certainly gave more character to the song.
I really wanted to create a rigid/robotic rock song and the lyrics are a bit “outré,” a bit over the top, in a very 80s French way. That’s how I thought of adding all these layers of vocals on the final part, to make it sound kind of romantic and serious.
The Unifying Theory of Frenchness
Précipitations is the first time he’s singing all of his songs in his native tongue. His previous band, The Sunny Street, was decidedly Anglophonic, even if it wasn’t Parson doing the singing. His band before that, an indie-pop outfit called Electrophönvintage, was also English-centric.
The move toward French had a very specific purpose, as I found out when I went on one of my typical rambling questions about a common theme that connects all genres of French artists. I had asked him why everyone from Phoenix to Kavinsky collaborator SebastiAn to Gainsbourg to Parson all seem to have some unifying thing that I can’t identify. You know, that whole idea of “je ne sais quoi.”
I remember asking the Valerie Collective’s Anoraak about that earlier this year, and he joked about it being wine before saying he didn’t really know. For his part, Parson didn’t know for sure, but he had a great theory: He thinks it’s that the French are geeks about music.
“They like to know about obscure albums [and] obscure bands, and as a result their music has this cerebral quality about it,” Parson said. The problem with that is that “it can lead to a lack of spontaneity — something not very ‘rock’n’roll’ at all.”
There are also the lyrics.
“The fact that lyrics are so important can be another explanation, even for the bands singing in English like Phoenix,” Parson said. “French people are always listening to the lyrics, and lots of the great French songs are so touching because of the lyrics… not only the words, but also the way these are delivered.”
A great deal of French music is defined by strong, loud lyrics and the popular “parlé-chanté,” or “speak-sing” style, according to Parson.
“In that respect, my approach is clearly tainted by my years in London and my tastes,” Parson said.
“When mixing the album, for example, I really wanted the vocals to be more in the mix and tried my hardest to make French sound as melodic as possible,” he added. “The lyrics are important, but I like the idea of a song as a complete package.”
Since releasing Précipitations earlier this year, Parson has taken the album on the road. Most recently, he made a trip up to Nottingham to play a festival called Indietracks.
The Next Step
“I played with a bassist, a couple of keyboards, and a loop pedal,” he said. “It’s a strange setup, but it really works… more on the Factory Records side of things. It was a nice venue: a tiny wooden chapel.”
Later this year he’ll be taking his show across the Channel back to his native land. He’s even got his sights on coming across the pond, but there’s nothing yet set in stone.
But before all of that happens, he’ll be recording five new songs this month.
“I can’t wait!”