Excited by the journalist’s request — “I’d like to see what you’ve been listening to lately” — Paul van Haver, real name of Stromae (Brussels, Belgium, 37 years old), grabs his personal phone and lets you take a look at the list of favorite songs of the last days on the Spotify platform. Along with traditional African music there are groups of Cuban son, tropical airs and quite a bit of hip hop. Though is the French group Feu! Chatterton the one that takes the congratulations with its mixture of progressive rock and pop. “I’m listening to his album on a loop,” he says.
The anecdote serves to explain the musical formula of an artist who rose to fame in 2009 with the song Alors On Dance, number one in almost twenty countries: a suggestive mixture of genres as disparate as the worldmusic, the song or hip hop, all with lyrics that flee from banality and skillfully know how to deal with current issues with acidity. The originality of this proposal led him to rub shoulders with names like Lorde, whom he invited to do voices on the song melt down (2014), or Kanye West, who unexpectedly jumped on stage during the Belgian’s performance at the 2015 Coachella festival to perform (and dance) together. Alors on dance. New York Times defined him as “the voice of today’s Europe”.
A fast race that was born one night two decades ago with Stromae watching some guys bang on junk. Literally. “The first time I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to music I was 12 years old. He was seeing Stomp at the Vorst Nationaal in Brussels. I loved percussion and seeing this group doing what they did with trash and recycled objects made a huge impression on me. I decided that, when I grew up, that would be my profession”, he will tell during the interview, held with the virtual presence of four other people from the record company who watch and listen from a computer screen: Stromae has someone take care of him
Doesn’t seem like nonsense. The Belgian pop star, dressed entirely in pink with white sneakers, jewels vintage and radiant and rested look, he is also calm and confident in the rest of the issues that must be discussed in the interview, held on the roof of a hotel and closed to the public for the occasion, just a few hours before his performance at the festival Bilbao BBK Live, last July. Also with the first and most important question of the meeting: his return. In 2016, Stromae decided to withdraw from public life and the industry due to depression, having previously canceled a tour due to the mental health consequences of taking preventive malaria medication. He also influenced a controversial cover in the satirical weekly charlie hebdo where a caricature of the singer was seen surrounded by pieces of human bodies, mentioning the song that Stromae dedicated to his father, Papaoutai (2013), disappeared in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The cover was published after the attacks in Brussels in March 2016, in which 35 people died at the hands of radical Islamists.
“I told myself that I would never feel that way again and I think the only possible strategy was to dedicate myself. Don’t go back to music, get out. But I never stopped composing. In fact, I make music every day. I didn’t think about the fans: I was a little selfish, but it’s what I needed. Making music for the fans is not the right reason to be in this. The only reason to make music is to have something relevant to say and, for that, I needed to experience something new, like having a child or getting married or reflecting on the issues that move us. I need to talk in my songs about what I feel or what is happening to me: making songs about the life of a musician on tour doesn’t seem interesting to me. I wanted to live normal things after all the success of the first two albums ”, he justifies, trying to play down the possible mental crisis and emphasizing the artistic, which after all is what moves him.
“What has happened to me in these years of absence is on the record [Multitude, publicado el pasado marzo]. 33% is me and what has happened in my head; the rest are fictional stories. I don’t want to say in my songs that life is complicated, but life is definitely also being sad or depressed, even if things are going well for you and you are a successful person. What I have learned in this time is essential for my future. Before my goal was to entertain people; Now, it’s about having a good time myself and, also, entertaining people at the same time. I have struck a good balance,” she reflects.
crowd It is his first album in nine years. Stromae is even more open in the instrumentation, with delicately produced songs; exotic arrangements of strings and winds —from the charango typical of cumbia to Chinese violins— that place their choruses everywhere and nowhere, with electronic pop as the base in the most danceable songs and without leaving that characteristic rap aftertaste to phrase some passages. The truth is that this lack of prejudice and that freedom in the arrangements is something that Stromae has learned from the French hip hop scene, which since the eighties has been populated by artists of African origin who add instruments from the continent to their productions, accentuating the contradictions that cross us when living in a globalized world.
Precisely, the lyrics address issues such as prostitution, the pandemic or feminism, which know no borders but do have different interpretations. Few artists could dare to make a chorus (and dress it with luminous choruses) with the word “endometriosis”, as Stromae does in Statement. Or to make sarcasm with the pandemic in sante, where those who worked during the 2020 confinement are honored and then remember that they were being paid for it. In l´enfer, first single from the album, talks about suicide openly — “I have had suicidal thoughts several times and I am not proud of it. / Sometimes you feel that this is the only way to silence them ”—, adding that fatherhood (her son was born in 2018) has saved his life.
“My job is to be honest and tell stories. I do not judge, I do not say what is right or wrong. I describe a character, his circumstances and I leave you freely to elaborate your opinion”, she says. And all this singing in French. “If the only reason to sing in English is a commercial strategy, I’ll pass. If it’s for a relevant reason, I’ll do it. I think that I would actually prefer to sing in Spanish than in English, although perhaps now it is too commercial… In any case, I think that the language in which your music is going to be sincere is your native one and that is why I continue singing in French” .
But back to l´enfer, the most important song of his recent career, because it marked his long-awaited return in January of this year, and which the Belgian premiered… on the French news program with the highest audience, that of the TF1 network. When asked about loneliness, Stromae started singing the song, without taking his eyes off the camera. It was a further step in his interesting relationship with the audiovisual media. For example, in the video of Formidable walks drunk through the streets of Brussels in the morning rush hour. People, without recognizing him, help him or ignore him, especially the latter.
The last of the Belgian are the images that accompany the song my love, released this summer and performed in French and English with Camila Cabello and where the couple plays two contestants in a television format type Love Island, that is, young singles looking for love in a heavenly setting. With Stromae, in short, reality becomes simulacrum in a postmodern renewal of, say, those African storytellers of the griot. Understanding the idea, but not wanting to get involved in it, Stromae smiles slightly. “I do my job. My job is to build characters to tell stories. The best way to tell a story is to build a character. I love doing it. And so I will continue”. He doesn’t say it, but that already makes it clear in his three albums: whoever delves into Stromae’s career will know how to recognize, above all, a search to find the true meaning of things.
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Stromae, his return and the reason for a seven-year silence: “I decided to dedicate myself, not to return to music, to leave”
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