It's rare that a singular artist ever truly embodies an endless list of talent to such unparalleled levels of greatness - creativity, art, progressive visual aesthetic and so forth, warranting a descriptor as music's equivalent of Karl Lagerfeld.
Woodkid (a.k.a.) Yoann Lemoine may be best known for directing the videos to Lana's Born To Die and Blue Jeans and Drake and Rihanna's Take Care, but if you've been paying attention, you will have noticed his multi-million viewed videos for his own tracks namely Iron (starring Agyness Deyn), Run Boy Run and most recently I Love You.
Woodkid released his debut EP, Iron, last year and will be following it up with his first full studio album 'The Golden Age' out on Monday. Telling the most incredible story of 'growing up' through themes of war, religion and "all these things you don't really care about when you're a child."
Having had the album on repeat for the last three weeks and having just seen it performed live in its entirety (pretty much in order) at Babylon in Berlin, it is fair to say that 'The Golden Age' is nothing short of a work of art. It took three years to pull together, and was funded by Yoann's creative work for other artists (Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Lana, Drake), but clearly has industry support and backing with him now being signed to Interscope (the label's first French artist) in America and Island in the UK.
Creatively speaking, toned down live performances from the artist are never going to do the epic Woodkid-sound justice. From a recording perspective, the album includes samples from French National Orchestra and the Opéra de Paris, so it is nothing less than a requirement to bring as much of this to life as possible during a live gig - which is why witnessing the debut performance of the album at Babylon actually worked. Are their plans to take this to an even bigger scale? Yes, notably his May performances at the Roundhouse in London and discussions of full orchestral performances a la Antony and the Johnsons at the Barbican. Would these sell out? Without a shadow of doubt.
Post-gig, we ended up in a private karaoke bar until 3am talking pop, his love for Lana, how he wants to work with Beyonce, his creative mindset and then performed horrific renditions of Kanye and danced around a strip pole. Through various conversations, it is obvious who Yoann respects as an artist - namely those he has already collaborated with and those he outright wants to work with in the future. He hinted towards a more hip-hop sound for any future work, including and EP in collaboration with rap's latest wonder-kid - set to drop later this year.
Tell me of the story that the album tells...
The album is a project that gathers many fragments of memories, of images, sounds, textures that move me and somehow, once stuck together seem to create a story, and hopefully define who I am. I often call it the result of an emotional and archeological psychoanalysis. It's the story of a child that grows up and slowly collides with the the world of the adults. The city that you can see in Run Boy Run, a white version of a soviet manhattan, bright and vertical, almost attractive but also destructive. It's a bright and dark story, it's definitely very romantic.
As the child grows up, he's going through all the themes and questions that are linked to this transition, and that have shaped me in the past 15 years. From sexuality to religion, war, body transformation, social formatting and rebellion, and loss.
As he slowly becomes harder and tougher, I use the metaphor of the petrification of wood to illustrate visually this metamorphosis. This explains the name Woodkid probably. From a very tender and organic childhood to a very cold and mineral body. It's growing almost like a cancer. You can see it in the I Love You video. It's about the birth of evil inside a pure body, the transformation into a monster.
This is how I feel somehow as I grow up, and react to aggression with aggression. I lose emotions and become more and more violent and defensive. I'm losing the tenderness I had as a kid.
I went back to Poland, where I'm from, and wrote a book with my cousin that goes with the Limited Edition of the album. The book is like the glue that sticks the tracks together, fills the gaps in a way. I wanted to collect memories of my family, of the second world war, and try to find traces in the past to define who I am today. I removed all names and places, made abstraction of time and space, and stepped away from my personal life to make the story more blury and mysterious, and only keep the universal themes that can move a wider audience than just my own person.
Did you ever consider releasing the album as a digital multi-platform? Eg a video or visual content for every track.
Yes, it couldn't have been just a series of tracks on iTunes. It had to be an object of entertainment. Younger, I loved roller coasters and those dynamic cinemas with moving seats and 360 degrees 3D screens. I love when creation touches to different senses and connects them together to amplify emotion. This is why I chose to be a director and a musician at the same time. Also because my creative process is a lot about translating images into sound and sound into images.
I also wanted to create an object that questions the limits of a musical project. People are so used to formats and rules, that the scale of the project seems suspicious to them somehow. I understand that, but it seems natural to me, I had to pay tribute to my love of cinema and music.
I will not create a video for every track though, like I'm not gonna give a lot of answers or close the project. I need people to adopt it and interpret it. Fill these empty spaces with their own life, their own sensibility and make the project their own.
You manage to evoke a searing emotion through your work. Both the videos for I Love You and Born To Die had me in tears. Which song means the most to you and why?
Yes, emotion is the center of my creative process. Everything I do is generated by emotions or is intends to generate emotion, sadness, nostalgia, exaltation, anger or violence.
Of course I Love You is one of the most tender songs I have done so far, it is very personal. It's about losing the lost one, as he drowns in sadness and depression. It can be read as the lost of childhood too, a love declaration to the inner child.
Did you expect things to turn out like this?
Never, I've always wanted to make something beautifully crafted and ambitious with this project, but only on an artistic level. I knew we had something interesting with this sound, but I also knew that the record industry is a very complex system and that massive success never really happens by surprise. I thought it would take as much time as it took me as a director to get recognition, almost 10 years...
What was the moment when you realised things had truly changed for you?
When it became big I did not really realize immediately. It really made sense when I started touring 2 years ago. People screaming my name and singing my lyrics, tatooing the keys on their skin. It's strange and exciting, but also very confusing, this is not the main reason why I create.
Will you work with Lana again? What was that like?
Lana is my soulmate, we are very close artistically, so we understand each other very well. It's easy. I'm dying to work with her again, and we've talked about it, but she understands my schedule is crazy right now with the release of the record, and that I have to turn down a lot of projects.
Are there other pop artists that you're directing for? Who would you like to direct for?
I'm unfortunately not working with anybody right now, I am too focused on promoting this album and preparing the new tour. Tho, I would love to work with Beyoncé, she's the ultimate artist to me. She's the best singer and performer. And she has taste.
Which other visual artists/directors would you say are ones to watch?
I would say my friend Romain Gavras of course, David Wilson, We are From LA, AG Rojas are my favorites right now.
Your visual aesthetic is really unique. Who were your inspirations growing up?
I'm inspired a lot by classical painting, by photographers like Stephen Shore, classic filmmakers like Alain Resnais, Kubrick, Spielberg. I usually get inspirations from masters of image and sound, artists with a high appreciation of craft, cinematography etc.
What can you tell me about the film? I assume you're directing, producing and writing the score...
I'm working on my first feature film, but I'm on the very early stages of the writing, I am myself still trying to figure out what it is about... Probably about the same themes that haunt The Golde Age. I definitely want to push the connection between the eye and the ear in it, and try to explore my boundaries as a musician in it too.
When you're being shot for an editorial, do you find it hard to let go of creative control or are you good at collaborating with another artist to make a cohesive vision come to life?
When I'm being shot I usually turn off completely the artist and director inside of me, I'd rather let people express with me freely and not direct them. i don't wanna be a nightmare with the other artists that work with me. I know the pain of being told what to do too much for that.
Iron inspired an entire Dior Homme show, is the visual side of fashion something you'd want to be more involved in?
I always say I love clothing but not fashion. I love that Kris [Van Assche] is an artisan, his craft is very impressive and technical, I really admire this love for detail and precision.
If you could remake one iconic music video from history, which would it be?
I'd probably love to remake an early Celine Dion video and change her haircut.
Did you have anything to do with the Converse shoes appearing in Marie Antoinnette?
I didn't, I wish I did though.
If you weren't being Woodkid, what would you be doing?
I'd be Yoann Lemoine, it's pretty obvious ! I'd still be a director. I guess that's why I don't have any pressure with the Woodkid project.
If you had to chose one and only one career what would it be?
Well people think I have two careers, but I actually don't. It's very organic to me, that connection between sound and music, that's what I am. I'm in between.
It would be like asking if I'd rather be indie or mainstream. There is a lot of things between indie and mainstream. It doesn't really mean anything anymore.
Performance image by Erik Weiss at Babylon in Berlin, artwork by Daniel Sannwald with styling by Matthew Josephs.