With her new EP, La solitude des flocons, Quebec-based singer-songwriter, Sarah Toussaint-Léveillé, delivers a poetic, intimate, and refreshing perspective on the suppressed emotions that many people experience as each year comes to an end. She embraces her independence as an artist by writing with honesty, purity, and courageously experimenting both sonically and lyrically. The resulting piece of mesmerizing musical art, known as La solitude des flocons, is not your traditional holiday or winter album, but something much more personal and special that can only be created by an artist as exceptional as Sarah Toussaint-Léveillé.
I’ve been a fan of Sarah Toussaint-Léveillé since she released her award-winning album, La mort est un jardin sauvage, a few years ago and have been eagerly awaiting her new music. Sarah was kind enough to answer my questions about La solitude des flocons, her creative process, artistic independence, and much more!
Can you tell us about the inspiration for your new EP, La solitude des flocons?
I’ve been wanting to make a Christmas album / winter songs for a while, for the people who need to hear something else than Jingle Bells. Like a musical pillow. In this EP, Christmas is more of a background than the main focus of the lyrics or even the music. I wanted to write a bit about all the stuff that we carry through the year, all the feelings and emotions that sometimes comes to the surface when Christmas or the end of the year arrives, and that we try to maybe bury during the holidays. Christmas is meant to be magical, family time, parties, gifts, but it doesn’t make everything we carry underneath disappear. That time of the year holds a lot of different connotations and symbolics from a person to another. Some people don’t celebrate Christmas, whether it’s for cultural reasons or personal reasons. Some people are lonely. For some, it’s a period of stress, that reveals family tensions, bad memories, or excessive consumption, a lot of noise in the cities and in our mind maybe. If you’re broke, it’s hard to follow and deal with the pressure of buying gifts, maybe. If you lost someone, if you’re going through a breakup, if you’re just depressed or sad for a particular or no particular reason, and Christmas is singing everywhere all these happy songs, you might not be “feeling it”. For others, it’s a time for empathy, love, simplicity, sharing. Christmas is a bit chaotic, it’s a big mix of moods and vibes. I like Christmas. I like its magic and I love spending time with my family. But we sometimes need calm. A moment to breathe, and relax. A moment to sit down and listen to music, or silence. Maybe have a cry, maybe read, laugh, maybe do nothing. I wanted this EP to be an option for calm.
The overall sound of the EP is soft, warm, and intimate and you used instruments such as a piano, harp, and various vocal effects to accomplish that. Can you give us some insight into your creative process for the EP?
At first, I wanted to record these songs by myself. Since I wrote these songs mostly on my piano in my living room, I wanted to keep this intimacy. I wanted to hear the imperfections and the closeness of an actual piano in a small living room. Also, I wanted to be as comfortable as can be, and when I’m alone it’s just sometimes easier to do things without having to explain. Often I prefer the first versions that I recorded on my phone, like the first drafts of a song. When you start working on an idea, the mood and state of mind is fresh, there is something very beautiful in the freshness of a blooming idea. The challenge when you record an album is to keep this feel, this spontaneous feel. I gave up recording alone because of deadlines, and because I was honestly scared of doing it myself haha. I chose to record in a studio that was set up in an apartment, to keep the same kind of vibe and so I could be comfortable. Also, I didn’t want a big room, so everything was recorded pretty close to the instruments. Same thing for my voice. Very close to the mic. There isn’t much high frequencies in this EP, as a choice. I really wanted it warm like a blanket. I used a felt to cover the strings of the piano. We can hear the mechanic of the piano which almost sounds like percussions. Clarinettes are very soothing and the harp and strings add a little magic to the whole thing. It adds perspectives to the songs. Marianne Houle wrote the clarinettes arrangements for Haïku, and the strings, clarinettes and harp arrangements for Says He. I had to explain the mood I was hearing. For example in Says He, I wanted the arrangements to sound like snowflakes falling. I think it does! She did great work.
You seem like an artist who is always learning and experimenting with various instruments. How has your creative process evolved over the years?
I think it’s the first time in years that I’ve actually truly been working on my “sound”. I’m a curious person, I like doing projects and little films. I’ve always been busy doing too many things at the same time, and last year I have decided to take a break from touring for I don’t know how long. This made me play even more music, since I have more time to explore. I always liked learning to do things on my own, though it’s always really cool to collaborate with other brains and creators. It’s just easier to explain to people what you want when you know the basics. Like microphones and recording techniques. I like buttons. I used to never want to use synthesizers for some reason, and now I’m having so much fun learning to make drones with them. Taking the time to explore is helping me discover more and more what I want to put in a sound. Who I am in a sound. I’m a very nostalgic person, and working with 4tracks and old machines and mixing it with new recording technologies is something I love doing right now. So I guess through the years, I’m just accepting more and more my own path and vulnerability through music. I’m less figuring out how to perform (getting used to singing, discovering my voice, my relationship to the stage and with the audience), but it’s more about what I want to share, now. I started performing at 17 years old, doing this for a living wasn’t really planned. I was more into writing and directing films, so I guess it took me a bit of time to understand what I wanted with this art form (music).
The majority of your songs are written in French, but you’ve always included at least one song on each album written in English. As a songwriter, how does writing a song with English lyrics affect your process?
Hm. I don’t really know. Sometimes a song just pops in English. As for “Says He”, it just popped. Though this song was written on a guitar first and sounded much more like a folk song. I wanted to try something different and recorded with synths (it’s a first for me on an album). I guess a language is just another sound and another way to get to a point. Another landscape of images. There is a way to describe things in every language, but sometimes a language has a more precise or specific way of saying what you need to say. “Says he” is a very simple song, it’s not deep poetry, but it says what it has to say. It happened (especially on my first album) that I wrote songs in English and made weird choices of words or weird mistakes. But it’s out there and it’s fine. You learn a lot by just putting yourself out there, getting used to things not being perfect, and mistakes are part of the process. Learning and writing in a different language is another way to structure your thoughts and mind, it makes your mind go in places you wouldn’t necessarily go in your own language. Also, it’s sometimes easier to put your vulnerability out there, through the filter of another language.
Platforms such as Bandcamp and Patreon are so important. It’s not just about money, it’s about educating people on what it means to create for a living. It’s also making the experience of sharing music much more human. Streaming is interesting because it makes music accessible. It is true that it helps getting discovered and it’s a form of promotion. But it truly sucks when it comes to paying your bills. It sucks to know that most platforms are owned by multi-millionaires who don’t pay their taxes in many places and don’t pay the artists fairly. We are the content of these platforms. Without our music, it would simply not exist. But it is scary to say “no” to the new technologies, artists have trouble knowing how to deal with this new industry. You can’t reject the progress, but it’s hard sometimes to embrace it fully without a little heartache. So we have a lot of work to do, everyone in the industry. Everyone (or almost everyone) is kind of trying to figure out how to deal with those changes, and adjusting to them. I think people that use streaming and love music, are willing to pay for the artists that they love. People are wise and mostly well-intentioned! I understand why they use streaming platforms (I use some of them too!). But you can always discover an artist on streaming and try to support them in other ways. Going to their shows, or buying their merch or music through platforms such as Bandcamp. What is great about Bandcamp and Patreon, is the fact that you have a more direct access to the artist. Patreon is new to me, and I love sharing all these exclusive infos, videos, music to the people supporting me. Those people were there through all my recording process. They know what went well, what was hard, they had access to my doubts. They also got to hear my EP a few days before everyone else. I’m supporting an artist on Patreon too, that’s actually how I heard of this platform. It makes it all so interesting and motivating I find. And as I said earlier, much more human! I think we need those alternatives to keep doing what we do.
Who are some other artists/musicians that inspire you?
A bunch! Couldn’t name them all. I listen to a lot of different types of music. If I think of songwriters, I’d go for Lhasa De Sela (who sadly passed away about 10 years ago). She was an important artist on the Montreal scene, but also worldwide. She had such presence and such soul into her songs. She sang in French, English and Spanish and her voice was and still is mesmerizing and profound. Much respect for her work. I also love Nick Drake‘s songs, Emilie Haines, Vashti Bunyan, Thom Yorke. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumental music. Hainbach is one of the artists that I really enjoy listening to right now. He is from Berlin and works with old tapes, reel to reel machines, synths, and a bunch of other old machines. He makes lots of videos and tutorials on youtube, he’s got a Patreon page. Great artist. Other than that, I’d say Feu Doux, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Grouper, Daphne Oram, Suzanne Ciani, Chienvoler, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Múm, the album Piano Nights from Bohren & der Club of Gore. And just now a friend of mine whose stage name is “Flore Laurentienne” just released his first LP, and it’s really good. He is a string composer but also a synth player, and this is also worth discovering. Great creator.
Can we expect any more music from you in the new year?
Through Patreon, maybe! That’s where I plan to test new things before releasing. I’ve got songs in progress, but since I just released this EP, I will let it live and breathe a bit before I release something else.
Do you have any concerts or tours coming up?
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La solitude des flocons release date: 11.15.19