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Interview: Colleen on her new album, "Captain of None"

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

There's very little that is conventional about the music of Cécile Schott, a French musician who plays a baroque instrument called the viola da gamba and goes by the simple moniker of Colleen. On her new record Captain of None, Schott crafts ethereal chamber pop informed by ambient experimentation, pulsing with the rhythm of dub and reggae music. Ahead of her performance at Constellation this weekend, we chatted with Schott about focusing her stylistic influences and signing with a Chicago-based record label.

What attracted you to the viola da gamba as your primary instrument?

It's hard to put into words why you've been attracted to a certain instrument because, by definition, that's the power of music. I think I've always loved acoustic sounds and the fact that the viola has gut strings and a very resonant body. It gives you a very unique sound, more earth-like than the metal stings of instruments like the cello. I would imagine that's something that I picked up on when I first heard it. When I started playing it, it just felt completely natural.

Many of the songs on Captain of None include looping melodies. How were you introduced to this style of music?

When I started making music in the late '90s, I was listening to electronic music like Autechre and Boards of Canada. I was also naturally drawn to repetitive music from other traditions, including Terry Riley and Steve Reich as well as African music and gamelan. I've always been attracted to music that repeats a melodic motif and playing around with it.

Up to this point, your records have lacked bass, but Captain of None contains a lot of low end. What inspired the inclusion of bass lines?

The music I've been listening to the most over the past two years is Jamaican music, so I became very interested in the bass lines. When I realized that the inspiration for the new record was going to be based in Jamaican music, I immediately knew that I wanted to incorporate bass. I found an octave pedal, which takes the original sound of the instrument and also adds an octave below it—I was blown away by how much it sounds like a bass instrument. I started playing with the new element and felt as if it would guide me toward new ways of working.

Your previous record The Weighing of the Heart was your first release in six years. How did it inform the direction you took with Captain of None?

On The Weighing of the Heart I was trying to incorporate all the influences I had gathered in the six years I wasn't releasing albums. I started singing and I began playing all of my instruments in a more rhythmic way. That album is pretty diverse because it was coming from all over the place in terms of inspiration. When the time came to make Captain of None, I became more focused. I knew what I wanted to achieve and I knew that it would be more restricted in terms of instrumentation. That didn't make it less exciting—the idea was to have fewer sources but to go a lot further with them.

How did you become involved with Thrill Jockey Records?

I think my music is really hard to pigeonhole. I found myself looking for a new label and there weren't that many options in terms of established labels that are truly open-minded. Thrill Jockey output seems to be based on what the label really wants to release—they couldn't care less about what's fashionable or trendy. I contacted [Thrill Jockey label head] Bettina [Richards] and found out that she knew and really liked my previous music. It all happened very naturally. Because the label is American, I have the feeling that I'm finally reaching an audience in the U.S. and I'm very excited by the whole thing.

Colleen plays at Constellation on Saturday, June 20.

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