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Taken from Music Talkers (Feb 12, 2021)

Interview: Philippe Cohen Solal talks new album, Henry Darger & Inspirations

by Andrew Braithwaite

Mike Lindsay & Philippe Cohen painting
Mike Lindsay & Philippe Cohen painting

Philippe Cohen, the million-selling artist, producer and composer who co-founded Gotan Project has teamed up with Mike Lindsay from band Tunng to release the album 'OUTSIDER'.

'OUTSIDER' is a musical and visual extrapolation of celebrated artist Henry Darger. It explores Darger's obsession with the weather, his tormented Christian faith, deceptively naive paintings and lyrics to songs that have never before been set to music, written over 50 years ago.

With the album just released, I caught up with Philippe to ask some further questions about the project.

'OUTSIDER' is a musical and visual extrapolation of famous visual artist Henry Darger. It seems he has inspired other people too, Why did you choose Darger?

I believe that we do not search for inspiration, but that it finds us. My curiosity about Darger began more than 15 years ago and it still hasn't left me. I often ask myself why, but I never have the answer. Maybe it's something unconscious about childhood and a fascination for this man who created some incredible work without ever showing it to anyone. He was not an artist to be loved or recognised but by necessity. He was inhabited by his work and his fate is extraordinary in the literal sense of the word.

What brought you and Mike Lindsay (from band Tunng) together for this album?

The music that Mike makes with his band Tunng is not too far away from the world of childhood, when they use musical toys. So it was natural that I told Mike about Henry Darger early on. Mike's positive and enthusiastic personality, his awareness and his musical talent made him the perfect person to collaborate with on this project.

It's hard to imagine where you would start with such a project. How do you stitch lyrics, visuals and poems together to produce a final product - this must have taken some time?

The lyrics were written by Henry Darger more than 50 years ago and appear in his epic 15,000 page novel "The Realms of the Unreal". Mike and I have chosen a dozen lyrics, from this saga, which we have shared. We composed and demoed each on our own before meeting in his studio in London to record and produce them together. Mike introduced me to Hannah Peel, who became essential to the project as she plays numerous instruments and she arranged the strings and horns in the album. But it is her voice that brought the Vivian Girls to life, these courageous heroines from Darger's adventures. The singer Adam Glover naturally became the timeless and magnificent voice who sublimated these lyrics.

If Henry Darger was still around today, what do you think he would say about this album?

It is impossible to know what Darger would have thought of our album. But I know that he listened to a lot of music, as a big collection of wax records were found next to his gramophone, in his room. So we know that he listened to Rachmaninov, Chopin, Puccini but also some early jazz, Irish songs, military marches, bluegrass and even some comedy acts. He lived outside the world, but the world was very present at home.

You've already had success in the 'Gotan Project'. Have you got any new material in the pipeline with this group?

No, sorry, nothing planned at the moment. We released our first album "La Revancha del Tango" in 2001, which was 20 years ago now! Then we produced and toured all around the world for ten years. This was an incredible and unforgettable experience, but since then I've wanted to tell other stories and let the wind decide my course. So, I don't know whether Gotan Project will one day be reborn from its ashes... "never say never".

What is your proudest achievement so far as a musician?

My greatest pride and my greatest surprise is to be able to live from my music for so long. I created my label "Ya Basta Records" 25 years ago to produce and release my music with total independence. This has not always been easy but I do not regret a thing. And now I realize how lucky I was to have made music, which touched the hearts of so many people around the world. I never would have imagined this, even in my wildest dreams.

How have you been passing your time whilst in lockdown?

After the first days of bewilderment, I rediscovered my piano and composed new melodies almost every day. I didn't read all of the books that I wanted to, but it was a pleasant and very creative time for me. Especially since my daughter Luna, who lives in London, came back to Paris to be in lockdown with me. We get along very well and we will keep a wonderful memory of this period. We even did back to back DJ sets together on Youtube. Despite the fear of this disease, empathy for caregivers, and compassion for those who have suffered themselves, the advantage of being an artist is that you are used to confining yourself in order to create.

What is the best concert or gig you have played?

My best memory is a Gotan Project concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It was a magical concert, in a legendary hall where Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors to Nirvana and The White Stripes performed. I especially remember what the guy who was doing our backstage security said. He didn't really understand the music that we made, this strange encounter between Argentine tango and electronic beats, but noticed that not a single person left until the very last note of the concert and that he hadn't seen this in years. I took this as a compliment - haha ;)

Have you got a dream artist you would like to collaborate with?

2 weeks ago, I had a dream that I had a very beautiful romantic and artistic relationship with Bjork. It was very sweet ;-)). More seriously, I sometimes dare to dream of collaborating with artists that I adore like Frank Ocean, Celeste, Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Blue) or Kevin Rowland (Dexys Midnight Runners). Among others...

Who are your influences?

They are very numerous and eclectic. I was lucky to have parents who listened to a lot of different music: Brasilian, soul, rock and even Arabic music. Since my teenage years, I would say that my biggest influence has been David Bowie. Beyond his music, Bowie has constantly reinvented himself through his albums and his characters. But I could also quote Stanley Kubrick, each film of which is an immersion in a universe and which it has never repeated. They are my models.

Have you got a message for your followers and fans?

Thank you for your trust. Be demanding with my music but indulgent towards my journey. I've turned a lot of corners, but this is my route. Stay curious and join me in the fantastic world of Henry Darger and OUTSIDER.

Thanks Philippe - all the best for the future!


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