Turning Spaces into Pieces of Music with Nicolas Godin
In so many ways, architecture and music are long lost brothers bound by physical and emotional chords. And like so many healthy familial relationships, architecture and music are driven by each other’s success and ambition. They both respect each other, they are jealous of one another and, importantly, they both inspire the other in equal measure.
We’ve all done it: walked around an inspiring building or space listening to our favourite album or playlist. I floated around the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden in Stellenbosch, South Africa, with Nils Frahm in my headphones. I climbed the walls at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, listening to Radiohead’s new record. And Caribou was the soundtrack to my exploration of the art galleries of Japan’s art island, Naoshima. Music changes the way we see and experience buildings. And architecture changes the way we hear music. Sometimes physical. Sometimes psychological. And for many, wholesome and spiritual.
Nicolas Godin is best known for his role as one half of the French band Air. But little is known of Nicolas’s life as an architecture student in Paris. Delving back into Air’s back catalogue, I think you could say that a lot of the records are inspired by the artist’s surroundings. The breakthrough album Moon Safari, for example, certainly conjures visions of big skies and adventures. There is always so much space in Nicolas Godin’s music. Godin’s debut album as a solo artist was inspired by Bach. But speaking to him last month, my sense is that he feels a stronger bond with architecture than he does with German classical music composers. Godin’s latest solo album Concrete and Glass is more direct than most of his previous work, with each song providing a site-specific tribute to a different modernist architect.
If architecture and music are brothers, then Nicolas Godin’s Concrete and Glass is the perfect place for them to be reunited.
Nicolas Godin photographed Camille Vivier
Sam Bonham: Where is your favourite place to be?
Nicolas Godin: I live in France. In Paris, I’m like a fish in the water. All the things I like are here. And when I have the urgency to calm down, I just take my car and drive to Switzerland, which is all mountains and lakes and pure air.
Of those locations that inspire you, which ones have been important for this record?
The record started in Los Angeles. A friend of mine did some exhibits in famous architects’s houses. I was commissioned to do the music for these exhibits. So that’s when the record really started, in Richard Neutra’s and John Lautner’s houses in L.A. And then after that, we started travelling around the world to do exhibits in many other places, but really the record started in Los Angeles.
You’ve written with architecture in mind before, so when you were approached, what was your initial thought?
It makes you want to travel around the world because you haven’t had time at some point to really go back to where you started. My first track ever recorded—it is called ‘Modulor Mix’—in 1995, it was about the architect Le Corbusier. And now thirty-five years later, I’m making a new album about architecture with a song about Le Corbusier. I could say I feel young again because I go back to my first love.
That sounds cool. What do you remember about studying architecture?
My dad was in architecture. I really grew up in that environment. When I was a child I was hanging out in his studio. That was a very familiar environment for me. And when I had to do some studies, I really wanted to be a musician but I couldn’t get it through. I was sending tapes to record companies at the time. So I had to do some studies to learn a job, so naturally I did architecture. It was just something I was studying. It is my taste; I really love architecture still now. I’m really sensitive to that. But after six years of studying I tried again to be a musician and that second try worked for me because that’s when I created Air and then my whole life changed.
Back then, when you were studying and before you were studying and then maybe soon afterwards, did you ever think of combining your two loves of architecture and music together?
Truly the way that I make music, I really think of music as an architect. My studies really affected the way I’m composing. I think in three dimensions. Sometimes I’m more interested by space and new landscapes and materials than I am by music itself. I really consider the song I’m doing as an object. And at the end I like to get into the song like when you go inside a house. As a listener I like the feeling that you are inside the song and the song is around you. It’s really something I’m good at and I think this comes from the fact that I studied architecture for so long.
“I have a very physical relationship with sound and music actually. Sometimes I feel like I am more of a sculptor than I am a musician.”
What does that mean, getting inside the song? How, as a listener, can someone do that? And, as a songwriter, what kind of techniques are you employing?
The way I put sound together with very few sounds, I try to make something very wide. In the beginning of Air, this is what I’m trying to do. With minimal effects I try to invite space. I use sounds like materials; I build my sounds because I only use analog synthesisers. I have to create the sounds that I make. I have a very physical relationship with sound and music actually. Sometimes I feel like I am more of a sculptor than I am a musician.
A lot of that makes sense. I don’t know which track is best to talk about. You should pick one. Talk me through the process of making a particular song and how you have tried to bring architecture out and bring place out in that song.
Well the architecture was an excuse to start the music. I need a little concept to start a song. I’m interested in the blank page. Once I start working, I forget very fast the general idea. After a couple of days, I start to be led by the music itself; the music is my guide. I don’t try to force the music to fit my original idea. I prefer to forget myself and listen to what the track needs. As soon as I get the beginning of the chords and a little melody, I forget everything about where it comes from and I try to follow the track and see where it’s going to lead me. You make a song by forgetting the song. You don’t try anymore. You forget about everything. The music decides everything. I presented the song to the singer. I say: this song is about architecture at the beginning but now just listen to the music and we’ll record the vocals. Be inspired by what you hear and the melody. You don’t need to talk about architecture because architecture was just an excuse for me to start the job. It’s not important now. What is important is the music. That’s what I like about music. You don’t need any explanation. Everything is a very sensual; you feel it and you like it or you don’t like it. It’s not complicated.
Did you find yourself travelling to different locations to record? What was that like?
I went to every house. That inspired the record. When you step into a house you have a sensation and a feeling. There’s a lot of elements: the materials, the location, the country, the position of the house. Some of the houses are famous. They belong to a certain time, a certain period and history. Some of them are in famous movies. And some of them are related to personal memories. So when you mix all those things, the music comes naturally. It was important for me to visit each one of them. To have the experience of stepping into each building. Once I’d done that I could start.
“Music is just a language. Instead of describing with words what you feel, you’re just describing it with notes and sounds. When you’re a musician, you can really do the soundtrack to everything on earth.”
You can make music for a movie, you can make music for a piece of art, you can make music for a painting, you can make music for everything in life. You can make a soundtrack of anything. Every person, every colour, every landscape. Music is just a language. Instead of describing with words what you feel, you’re just describing it with notes and sounds. When you’re a musician, you can really do the soundtrack to everything on earth.
Were there any particular architects and particular buildings which were easier or even more challenging than others? In this release which I’m looking at, you mentioned Le Corbusier as being an architect that was quite important to the project.
The first one was John Lautner’s house which is called the Sheats-Goldstein residence. It is my favourite house of all time. When I was there I couldn’t believe it. It was the dream of any house you could think of. So this one is a very big source of inspiration. It is the first track on the album. It was just pure, pure pleasure to make it. The last track of the record is inspired by a famous building of Le Corbusier. And the last track that I’m explaining to you is the song called ‘The Border’ inspired by Miles van der Rohe and it was this house that was the beginning of a new era of human history. It was the beginning of modern architecture.
Do you think that you will take some of this music back into the architecture and buildings that have inspired you and been part of the process of making the music?
Actually I did it that time because my friend did the exhibitions in these houses. He put some pieces of art in these houses and I had to do the soundtrack at the exhibitions. People could listen to it when they were visiting the exhibits. That was the origin of the project. I was not even thinking of making a record out of it. But then I had all of this music when I came home and I decided to make a record. But at the beginning, it was just transforming this music into these houses.
You worked with a number of vocalists including Alexis from Hot Chip and I’m wondering what kinds of conversation you had with him about the idea of the record? How did other people take to working on the record with you?
I just told them that the songs had been created in an architectural context. I was honest with them that this was the origin of the songs. Not to hide anything from them. But I really wanted them to forget that. Just to write lyrics that are inspired by the music itself and not by the houses. I really wanted to make a pop album and to make music that could be listened to by anyone without knowing anything about the origins. I really wanted to work with new people to bring new energy.
In what way do you think the music would sound different? What kind of sounds are inspiring the record and how might they be different if you were using different buildings?
I think they would be very different. I’m not an artist who says okay this is my art and this is what I want to express and this is what I have in mind. I’m really not like that. I’m open to any fucking ideas of any kind. I could make a record like that and then the next morning I could make another kind of record. I don’t even think of making records. I make records by accident. A friend of mine asked me to collaborate on this architectural project. I can wake up in the morning and make any kind of music. I’m like a sponge. I can change my mood very fast. I can change the sounds that I’m making. I’m really open to other people’s ideas. It’s really funny the way I work. I don’t consider myself an artist who’s got a message to deliver to the world. I’m just a stranger; I walk on the street and I get inspired by anything. I’m sure that if someone else had given me another idea I would have made a completely different record and then this record would never have existed.
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