Interview: Jayne Amara Ross and Frédéric D. Oberland

TFC CoverAn in-depth interview with two of the brightest lights on the experimental scene: Richard Allen speaks with Jayne Amara Ross and Frédéric D. Oberland about the filmography and discography of FareWell Poetry, The Freemartin Calf, and Oiseaux-Tempête: three amazing projects that burst with imagination.

First off, congratulations on the new release!  As part of the promotion, you’ve offered the chance for fans to host private screenings.  How have these screenings been going so far?  How did you set up the screening you hosted in your own home?  I’m imagining couches, candles, wine and pastries.

Frédéric: Thank you Rich! The screenings of The Freemartin Calf have gone pretty well so far. Some took place in private apartments, some in galleries, some in theatres. To be honest we didn’t know if this private screening idea would work. So it was sweet to see that people were spontaneously interested in doing this. The ones we did at our apartment were really fun. Red wine, pop-corn, candles, good people and the soundtrack mixtape we did for Fluid Radio (“For Valuska”) before the screenings. The film has travelled well (from Hanoi to Manchester, Springfield to Porto) and the call for screenings in still open (more info here).

Jayne: There can be something really impersonal about regular movie theatres and it was nice to see the film screened in these spaces with so much life and character. The film was made a while ago, and finalised for a first screening in 2010. There are many things about the film that I find quite fragile, it was a real learning curve for me, both artistically and technically. The raw quality of the content and form calls for a loving audience, and someone’s home or personal space is the perfect place to find that. The response from galleries, cafés and art schools was also a pleasant surprise, we initially imagined something more low key.

How would you describe the tone of the film?  It seems to change every time I view it.

The Freemartin CalfJayne: I think there is a loneliness that permeates the story. The narrative is centred around two characters who love each other but are unable to participate fully in each other’s lives, and as a result, are unaware of the pain that the other is going through. I think the tone of the film is really raw and sensitive, like a stillness that can really easily be broken. The spaces we see in the film are recognisable as everyday locations but can be read as internal spaces also, the point-of-view is extremely subjective and whether we are following the young girl or her mother, we are essentially seeing their quotidian through their eyes. We are witness to their subconscious projections: onto the other characters they meet, onto each other, onto the dynamics of each situation.

3.  What are the challenges and rewards of black-and-white cinematography?  In particular, how would you describe the role of shadow in your work?

TFC StillJayne : I like black and white cinematography because I find it easier to control. When I want to draw attention to something in the frame, I only have to think about light, nuances of grey, of the architecture of the image. When you use colour, you need to think about light temperature and the emotional effects of each different colour, of the use of a specific palette to highlight meaning, plus all of the above. I like this tri-x stock, the only one I really like in super 8, for me it is a really muscly stock. Because it is a reversal film (the end result is a direct positive, like slide film in photography), there is much less latitude than negative stocks when you are exposing the image but the blacks are so incredibly deep and if you handle it well, you can get a lot of different greys in between. This film really taught me a lot on set and in the darkroom but inevitably, I look back on it now and see a lot of the flaws. Over the years, I have learnt a lot about getting the most out of Tri-x. To be quite honest, it’s sort of like a love affair.

Jayne, please use a few words to describe Frédéric.  Frédéric, please use a few words to describe Jayne.

Jayne: Audacious, strong, passionate, hard-working, gifted.

Frédéric: Visionary, sensual, passionate, rigourous, true.

Jayne: But today is a good day 😉 ! You should check back in with us in a few days time!

… and now please use similes to describe each other, as if you were recording lines for a new LP.

Jayne:  Frédéric approaches a melody like a fireman in love with the flames.

Frédéric:  Like the photographic developer and Lemmy Caution, Jayne’s poetry transforms darkness into light.

The Freemartin Calf benefits greatly from Gaspar Claus’ cello and Maxime Champesme’s field recordings; and FareWell Poetry is a much larger collective.  How did all of you meet?  You seem very close; I would not be surprised if you were able to walk to each other’s homes. 

FWPFrédéric: Well. Everything is always a question of providence and lucky coincidences. Since the beginning, FareWell Poetry has been a constantly changing collective of musicians, film and music technicians, actors, etc. Some people join us for one film shoot, a recording or one specific performance, some people hang around a little longer. More than 30 different people are or have been part of FareWell Poetry, participating in the collective or supporting it in an active way. All of us are friends, some of us really close, like brothers in a way, but we don’t actually all live in Paris. I guess now the idea of being “close” to someone is more about heart and deeds than in a geographical location. Jayne takes care of the poetry and films ; and for the music part there are 4 of us in the band at the moment – Stéphane Pigneul on bass VI, Agathe Max on violin, Ben Mc Connell on drums, and myself playing all the instruments I can get my hands on. We worked with a lot of guests during our shows and recordings and that’s something we will keep doing, calling on new energies, and this is also the case for the films. We work with a DIY spirit: we have a really little money, especially for this kind of project that take a lot of time and effort, and having little money means asking people to work really hard almost for free, which can be really exhausting sometimes… We’d like to have more financial support someday to do all of this, but we don’t want to have to wait for the money to come in to move forward. It’s a worthwhile sacrifice. I’m really proud of the core team, everyone is so hard-working and full of hope.

FWP Live IIJayne: For me FareWell Poetry isn’t just the onstage team of the musicians and myself but all the incredible actors, set designers, camera assistants etc. that work on the films. A lot of people have no idea but often the hours spent preparing a film, and on set, exceed the number of hours we spend rehearsing the music. I am really lucky to be able to call on the same technical team for each film. Elise Kobish-Miana, for example, is a crazily talented make-up and FX artist and I have been lucky to have her on two of the films (The Golden House: For Him I Sought the Woods & Persephone II). My friend and wonderful filmmaker, Guillaume Mazloum, is also a regular on the technical side of things. Guillaume is really smart and well-versed in gorilla-style filmmaking, nothing surprises him. Having him on the set means I feel safe to question the action and the content of the film, because I know that he is watching the technical side of things and won’t let me make a disastrous move. And then there is Aneymone Wilhelm who is like my angel. She is one of the sassiest, smartest, most hard-working artist I know. She understands what I am getting at, down to the smallest detail. I always have these crazy ideas for the set that are completely unrealistic with the time and budget that we have, and somehow Aneymone manages to bring them to life. And it always looks 10 times better than I imagined. Frédéric is also an indispensable member of the team, he exchanges guitar and piano for a light meter and gaffer tape and is an incredible ally at all stages of the process. He is as involved in the films as I try to be in the music. These people make the films; I really couldn’t do it on my own.

Is the 21st century experiencing an artistic renaissance?  If so, where do you feel it is most active, and if not, what form do you think it will take once it occurs?

FD OberlandFrédéric: That’s a BIG and tricky question. I was born in 1978, and I only began to play music seriously in the early 2000s. A lot of interesting new things happening at the moment: new bands, new filmmakers, writers, photographers, painters, graphic designers, new ideas. All over the world, it’s now easier to release work independently; there are loads of opportunities. And the Internet is a good tool for discovering new things. Maybe the difficulty is when you want to pull yourself out of the maelstrom, because there are plenty really weak artistic releases as well. We’re living in a period of time where everyone wants to be an artist, wants to be famous. But art is about endurance and not about glory, really. From my side, art is obviously related to yourself but also to your global life, to what is surrounding you. We are witnessing the slow collapse of the world that our parents fought to create. But when you look in the rear-view mirror, often chaotic periods of history coincide with periods of great artistic renewal. I hope that art will play a major role in this new world by solidifying the links between us and others, us and the bigger picture, by forcing us to remain aware, share a communal catharsis, allow new life to bloom from the seat of destruction and chaos.

Jayne: I think that people are sick and tired of being force-fed shallow and insipid crap. Although new technology has made things easily available and it seems that every vacuous trend finds an audience on the Internet, I think that human beings are just as hungry to be challenged and treated like intelligent entities as before. I believe that there will be a return to more substance, in all mediums. A huge section of this MTV generation is bored with fast-food culture and wants more out of what they see/listen to/read: more things to think about, more time to do so, a proper chunk of meat to chew on. And as an artist, I do not think you should have to be able to provide a staple diet for each audience member. We need to fight for substance, diversity and freedom in art. And more money should be invested in this ancient remedy for sick souls.

Few Americans are able to name even one living poet.  Does Europe have a different regard for the modern poet?  Is there a spoken word scene in Paris?  It seems to be a scene with a great untapped global potential.  On a similar note, whose voices do you most enjoy hearing, whether they be alive or deceased?  

Jayne Amara RossJayne: Unfortunately, I think that the US is a lot more responsive to poetry in general than France. I yearn for the 50s and 60s in the UK and US when great poets were household names and poetry readings were a really big thing. I don’t know whether that will ever be the case again. This is why I like the idea of bringing poetry into the landscape of popular music. I have had people come up to me after FareWell Poetry concerts and say ‘I love whatever you are doing, but are you singing? What do you call that?’. In general its easier to follow a friend to a concert, than a poetry reading, or short film screening. There is something more relaxed, more open about a concert audience; you can always have a beer if you don’t like the band or pop in and out of the gig for a cigarette…

I know that there is a small slam poetry scene in Paris, and then you have readings by contemporary authors in national theatres… but both are niches, and seem to only attract small audiences often made up of a lot of fellow performers.

I have always been drawn to poets who perform their work; I think there is something sexy about poetry read out loud. I love Anne Sexton, who is the Janis Joplin of poetry, she has this low, raspy voice and her poetry is so bold and sensual. I also love Leonard Cohen when he reads his written work. As a teenager and young adult, I listened to a lot of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley and Captain Beefheart, and they really made me want to perform my poetry.

FD Oberland IIFrédéric: I think France as a big love/hate relationship with poetry in general. Like every French kid, I was taught the old academic and romantic poets at school in literature class. And sadly poetry seems to be frozen there, as a boring part of adolescence, something we were forced to intellectualise. I mean, for a lot of people, poetry is not a part of everyday life. There are plenty of great spoken-word poets living or working in France people like Charles Pennequin, Anne-James Chaton, Christophe Fiat, Ruth Rosenthal, etc; but their audiences are quite small, and sometimes they have to rely on music to be listened to. The novel format is takes up most space in the French media, supposedly for its more accessible narrative form. Which is a shame. Poetry in its sharpness calls on all our senses, challenging our intellect and our emotions. You don’t have to completely understand with your head it to feel it deeply, you can be drawn in despite yourself. Another thing in France -which is sometimes difficult for us- is that a lot of people don’t speak or understand English -I mean more than the 20 simple words you need to travel. That can be a barrier but on the other hand, we see a lot of people appreciate our work without understanding the complexity of Jayne’s language too. There is something in her voice that goes beyond the words that she is speaking. For me, Jayne’s voice is really powerful, full of subtleties, not so far from a singer in many ways.  She definitely joins my favourite voices of all time: Gilles Deleuze, Guy Debord, Robert Wyatt, Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, John Lurie, Marlon Brando, Simone Signoret, Antonin Artaud, Maurice Garrel…

I connected quite personally to the emotion of your previous work, Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite.  Did other listeners/viewers respond in a similar fashion, or do you feel that the public response was more intellectual?  Did the composition and filming of this and other works take an emotional toll on you or on any of the participants?  If so, was it ultimately cathartic or draining?

FWP LiveFrédéric: Yes, definitely. We can’t really play live with this band without being connected to each other. You can’t really play ‘As True As Troilus’ for example without being connected to the content of the film / poetry / music. We have to be there, we have to be true, stand behind the character of Troilus. Sometimes it doesn’t come easily, sometimes we have to struggle for this, but sometimes there is a magic that takes over, sheltering the band, pushing everyone as an individual and creating a collective synergy that is really powerful. That’s the big difference between playing this kind of thing and a 3:30 single. Everyone is important, everyone has his role as a tiny element of the whole. When we began performing with FareWell Poetry in early 2009 we were really surprised at the response. On paper a collective mixing poetry, experimental films and instrumental music can be exciting for some but can also be nightmarish for other people. Luckily we received warm and promising feedback, by friends of course but also by people we didn’t know at all. People coming up to us after the gigs, taking us in their arms, talking about when they broke up with their girlfriends / boyfriends, about their own personal sadness and the positive effects that the performance has had on them. I mean, that is really something. That sort of thing had never happened in my life as a musician before but with this project, it happens quite often. In this case the catharsis is something we share with the audience. We all have been in the Troilus’ shoes at one time, on the edge of a great precipice, and we all need to believe in hope. FareWell Poetry is a small collective, with a small audience but this audience is really involved in the experience. And I am really grateful for this.

Jayne: I think that the advantage of putting yourself out there, without being ashamed to be exactly who you are, with all the heartbreak and failure that comes with being a human being, is that you open up an access for deeper communication with the audience. It may also come across as a little clumsy or maudlin to perform this kind of material in this unabashed way, but that is the risk that we are willing to take. When I wrote As True As Troilus from personal experience, I was so far from thinking that it would mean so much to other people when it finally got out there. Seeing the response, I am doubly rewarded, not only do I feel of some sort of use to others, but I feel less lonely in my own plight.

How do you feel when a work is complete and its distribution has begun?  For example, The Freemartin Calf is presented in three forms: DVD, CD and live download, but once the recipient is in possession, he or she may feel that the works are “done” or “definitive”.  And yet I suspect this and other works remain in constant flux.

TFC PackageFrédéric: We completed The Freemartin Calf, the film and the soundtrack, almost three years ago. Jayne wrote the script in 2008, she shot the film in 2009 ; we recorded with Gaspar in 2010, and worked on the final mix with Maxime Champesme between 2010 and 2011, Nils Frahm did the mastering in 2011… That’s a kind of long time ago now. It’s not always like this, but you often get a delay of time between the moment you decide a work is done, over, and the actual release of it. So its always a strange moment when people start talking about your “new” album. Because for you, it’s not new anymore, it already belongs to the past. Being constantly active is really important in my creative process. I’ve always got several projects on my mind at the same time. That’s the only way I’m keeping some distance with each project, confronting it with an another, learning about experiences from the whole and trying to avoid frustration. And sometimes its enjoyable to listen to something you did, and think : ‘did I actually make this ?’.

Jayne: Well, the past decade has been a real learning curve for me, I started making films when I was 19 and I’ll be 29 in a few months. I can’t say whether it will always be like this, but I find it really quite painful to have to see these films that I made three or four years ago screened now, as ‘new’ releases when I feel like I have made a lot of progress since then, that I can do better. To be quite honest, the process of having to sit through these films is really painful, personally I think that the films are shit. But I have to take responsibility for the work done, and pay tribute to all the wonderful people who participated in their creation. I am hoping that maturity will change this, but for now, even though I am approaching 30, I still feel like a kid discovering the fundamentals.

As for the performance films, they have a sort of fluctuating existence, mainly because the music and poetry changes so dramatically depending on the type and quality of our performance onstage. Although the films are static, the soundtrack and performance space colours the narrative. So much so that sometimes regular audience members come up to me after the gig and say ‘did you re-edit the film?’.

What segments of The Freemartin Calf (film and music) are you most proud of, and why?

TFC Still IIJayne: I think the ‘Girasol’ chapter does its job. It was great filming the two little girls: Orna Assouline who plays the Daughter and Marine Robquin who plays her friend in this sequence. They are so full of life and I only had to point the camera at them to get a sense of that raw energy that children have, that boundless life force. Working with Fabienne Mésenge (The Mother) and Orna was such a pleasure, they both threw themselves into their roles with such generosity. I still find it quite fascinating to see all the womanly strength and beauty exhibited by Orna in this sequence, despite her young age. The music has a brawny, bold energy to it, just like the little girls. Frédéric and I thought that the Indian harmonium would be able to convey both the Daughter’s drumming vigour as well as the solemnity of the Mother’s experience as she enter’s her child’s room like into a temple.

Frédéric: The Freemartin Calf was my first experience of making a full-length soundtrack. I worked with Gaspar on more than an hour of music for this film. And I’m proud of the challenge and end result. Obviously when I listen to it now I think: ‘oh I did this part because of this, it could have been better like that’ or ‘I wish I could remix this track, etc’. But I think the fragility of some parts serve the poetic side of the whole thing. It’s really honest work. Focusing on the details, I really enjoy the tracks ‘Swaddling Thickets of White Deafness’ and ‘The End’ because of the strong relationship we were able to create between Jayne’s poetry and the music. I like also the instrumental track ‘On The Edge of the Great Precipice’ that features on the LP but not in the actual film. It was really enjoyable to work with Gaspar’s cello tracks, building an orchestral moment just by adding lots of layers of one instrument.

Please name one ‘guilty pleasure’ in music, literature or cinema that you believe will surprise us.

Jayne: Katy Perry. She is a real pop star, gorgeous on every level.

Frédéric: I’m a huge fan of this ‘Live’ album from Donny Hataway. Perfect rhythm & blues love music.

Jayne, congratulations on your upcoming residency in Iceland.  My impressions of the country were that the artistic community was extremely collaborative and that creative expression was built into the national character.  Have you visited yet, and if so, have you had the same impressions?  Please tell us a little more about the residency.

Jayne Amara Ross IIJayne: Frédéric and I have been to Iceland three times in the past four years. And I am kind of addicted! Having grown-up in France with Australian parents, and having spent a few years in England, I have a very muddled sense of national identity. Although I do feel strongly Parisian, very Montmartrois actually (Montmartre is an area in the North of Paris), for many reasons, I never thought I’d feel a physical sense of belonging to a particular country. But there is something about the Icelandic landscapes that touches a really fundamental part of me, and for the first time in my life I felt at home. Whether it is something to do with my Viking origins, or perhaps simply my internal landscape, I am really not sure… And this is something that I want to explore during my residency: the concept of belonging and relationship to community.

When I first read the description for The Weight of Mountains residency, I couldn’t believe how attractive it sounded to me. It was like my dream residency come true. I filled out their really thorough application, that included a creative piece, and a whole lot of very tricky questions about my past work and submitted it, thinking that I would never be selected. But I was really lucky! The residency is for technically independent filmmakers only and is focused on the relationship between the self and the landscape, that landscape being North Iceland during the toughest winter months. The residency has set up a mentorship program that includes symposiums with professionals from the filmmaking industry, and although the outcome must be a short film that we will show at the festival that concludes the residency, the emphasis is really on the creative process. For me, as this specific moment in time, it is a really welcome challenge.

Frédéric, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have heard an advance copy of your upcoming album with Oiseaux-Tempête (due in November from Sub Rosa).  It’s a fantastic work, and I’m looking forward to seeing the accompanying visuals.  Can you tell us more about the project, and also explain the provocative cover image, which seems to imply a deity praying to humanity?  Will we see a return of Le Réveil des Tropiques?  And what other projects do you have in the works?

The bandFrédéric: Oiseaux-Tempête is basically a free-rock trio I created with fellow musicans Stéphane Pigneul (who is also an important member of FareWell Poetry and Le Réveil des Tropiques) and Ben McConnell, an amazing American drummer living in Paris at the moment, and who has also become a friend. The first time we jammed together there was this incredible simplicity about being in the same room and improvising the music, without saying a word. We did a first concert few weeks after and it was such a great experience that we decided to go in the studio really early. At the same time I had begun working with my friend and photographer / filmmaker Stéphane C. on a photography/music/video project. We made a few trips to Greece together in 2012, collecting material for this. We did few shows there, in Thessaloniki and Athens, with screenings and improvised music, and the idea for ‘Temps Zero’ (improvised music to photographic slide shows) was born. We have performed several of these in different European cities since.  During our trips to Greece, Stéphane shot some analogue photographs and filmed, I took some field recordings, and began composing with some electronic devices and keyboards. Stéphane stayed longer than me and did some interviews as well. We wanted to capture the decline and chaos of Old Europe and in most parts of the world, the floundering failures of the dysfunctional West. And we wanted to take Greece as a starting point, this country that is at the same time the birthplace of modern thinking and a terrible victim of the global economic crisis.

Somehow this new band, Oiseaux-Tempête, was immediately linked to the work we had been doing in Greece: the raw energy and spontaneity of the music, the waves of sound foretelling the storm, caressing the horizon, the sense of urgency… Stéphane C. followed us into the studio in Lyon and we improvised for three days to the background of his video footage. Back home in Paris, we edited the 17 hours of recording and built an album. Stéphane C.’s photographs and the field recordings, both included on the album, provide the narrative structure of the music.

Oiseaux-TempeteThe cover photograph was an obvious choice for everyone since the beginning of the recording sessions. Surely there is no God who will save us from this individual and collective plight, we have to unite to create a larger force. It is with that in mind, that Oiseaux-Tempête becomes more than just music, I guess. We perform sometimes just as a trio, but sometimes Stéphane C is with us to screen some video footage or photographs. We can choose to play the tracks from the album or to improvise a whole set. It can be a concert, an installation, a live film performance. The final format remains open. We recently scored 20 minute video installation by Stéphane C, The Divided Line, which was screened during the Promenades Photographiques Festival in Vendôme (FR).

Regarding Le Réveil des Tropiques, few live albums should be out on vinyl in a couple of months. This band is really about performing, the craziness of the moment. In the upcoming months, I will work on some new material with Richard Knox for The Rustle of the Stars, featuring Angela Chan and Lidwine, and probably a few other guests. We’ve got a narrative idea for the next album, we just need to figure out how to get together to play. In my spare time, I might embark on a solo piano record, and I’m preparing a 2xLP release of more than ten years of soundtracks… but that’s still confidential!

What can we expect from the upcoming FareWell Poetry album?  Will “Penelope on the Boredom Bridge” (an unreleased track streaming on Soundcloud) be included?  How does it relate to “Persephone: A Soft Corpse Comfort” (a 10-minute 2010 film by Ross with music by FareWell Poetry)?

As True as TroilusFrédéric: To be honest, we don’t know what the next FareWell Poetry album will look like. It could be a double LP+DVD or maybe two separate ones, maybe a 10 inch with extra tracks could come before that. We will go back into the studio in mid-Novembre. We already have some material we recorded last year, and some of that will be part of the new release, some will go in the trash – which is something we are used to with FareWell Poetry. The first album took two years to make and lots got thrown out… The next recording sessions will be more improvised, there are some written parts as always but we want to allow ourselves more freedom, we want to find a new way to write the music, and to experiment all together, with the poetry and the films as well. We have been working at Mikrokosm Recording Studio in Lyon, with engineer Benoit Bel and we really love this collaboration, and there is a new, vibrant energy in the work we’ve been doing during recent rehearsals. Regarding the films -and soundtracks- there will be three films: Persephone I: A Soft Corpse Comfort and The Golden House : For Him I Sought the Woods as well as a completely new film, Persephone II. We worked quite hard on shooting the film during the summer, between Scotland and South of France, and we’re really happy with the first musical ideas we composed for this. I think we’re all really excited about all of it and if we’re lucky in the studio something could be ready sooner than we thought.

Jayne: I delight in trying to give a literary coherence to our albums, and I am looking forward to creating a structure for the upcoming releases. During our last tour in France, we started performing a cover of a French translation of the Song of Songs from the Old Testament, set to music by a French musician called Rodolphe Burger and performed by Alain Bashung and Chloe Mons. I had a lot of fun performing this cover, in French (a first for me), with Stef picking up the male vocal parts. The Golden House: For Him I Sought the Woods is about accessing transcendence through the physical experience of pain and desire, and is really influenced by a lot of the Christian Mystical poetry and prose that I was reading at the time, as well as my obsession with the Gita Govinda, which is a sort of Hindu Song of Songs. There is definitely something to explore in that. As for the other two films (Persephone I & II), they can be taken as a sort of two-part whole. There is something a little more gothic and fable-like about these two films. The first film is a companion piece to a poem called A Soft Corpse Comfort about the female body’s love affair with Death and the promise of renewal. Although Persephone I is a little more contemplative,Persephone II is a really positive film, I think. So we’ll see, if we keep our eyes and hearts open, the mainline vein of the album will appear. All we have to do then is follow.

A Closer Listen thanks Jayne and Frédéric for their valuable time and thoughtful answers!  We encourage our readers to read and listen more at the links below.

The Freemartin Calf is out now on Gizeh Records

Oiseaux-Tempête is out now on Sub Rosa

Jayne Amara Ross website

Frédéric D. Oberland website

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  1. Pingback: ACL 2013: Guest Lists Part One | a closer listen

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