Yoann Lemoine takes the leap from music video director to musician and makes it look effortless. Meet Woodkid.
An abridged version of this interview appears in Complex's June/July 2013 issue.
Woodkid isn't a new artist. As Yoann Lemoine, he's directed music videos for Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Drake, and Katy Perry, earning him Director of the Year at the MVPA Awards in Los Angeles last year and six MTV Video Music award nominations. The list of musicians he's turned down is equally impressive: Madonna, The Rolling Stones, and Black Sabbath, to name a few.
Why would anyone turn down the greats? The answer is simple—to go their own way, even if just for an album. In 2011 Yoann released "Iron," a dramatic pop song he recorded on his own during time off between his video work. He didn't expect the single to blow up or get sampled by Kendrick Lamar on "The Spiteful Chant" off of Section.80. All he wanted was to experiment with film further than he could for a client, and making his own songs seemed like the best starting point. But the song found many receptive ears (including Lamar's), and Woodkid was born—a persona influenced by Yoann's past but still separate from him entirely.
This week, he released his debut album, The Golden Age, and it sounds just as much like a film soundtrack as it does a mystery novel. This is intentional, as he paired the album with a hardbound book that has a gold key printed on a black cover. In many ways, it functions as a metaphorical key to the album and contains many of the lyrics weaved into the story of a young boy growing up and leaving home. The book embodies Yoann's overall aesthetic: monochrome, yet sophisticated, a style repeated in his videos for "Iron," "Run Boy Run," and "I Love You."
The Golden Age is a timeless record with more dimensions than one might realize. Influenced by film scores, featuring the Paris National Orchestra, and made to make listeners feel heroic, it is, for lack of a better word—complex.
In “Iron,” the first video I did, there are no sets in the background. Some people see an episode of Game of Thrones, others see a fashion editorial, and others see a Bergman-esque psychoanalytic movie.
What made you want to pair your album with an actual book?
There’s a whole religious thing with the record, so I wanted to make a book that would look like a Bible. That was the initial idea. To make it like a Bible, I realized that one had to feel pages. Then I decided to write a story with my cousin.
Did you draw all of the illustrations?
No, they were done by Jillian Tamaki, a New York-based illustrator. She’s really, really amazing.
Talk about the concept behind The Golden Age—leaving home and becoming an adult. Is it as a melancholy departure?
I wanted to make a pop album. I wanted the form to be different than a normal pop album; I wanted it to be very cinematic and orchestral with continuity between the tracks. I found that all of these songs I had been writing, these fragments of lyrics that I wrote, these sounds, visions, and collages of images that I had, were creating a story, almost like psychoanalysis or an inner archaeological process. I was talking about my childhood—how I left home and all the things I had been going through as a young adult.
I also found out that my story was very related to my cousin’s story, who’s a published writer and a teacher at Princeton University. She helped me write this book; it’s very fragmented and sums up the whole album visually and sonically. You can find fragments of the lyrics in the book and vice versa. It’s a puzzle with missing pieces. I like that, because it’s this mysterious story; it’s a mysterious world. I don’t show myself too much, I try to make it very symbolic. Those missing fragments make it understandable for everybody, because they get to fill in the gaps with their own story. It’s not really egocentric; it’s about very universal themes. The idea is that people can then make the book and album their own.
In “Iron,” the first video I did, there are no sets in the background. Some people see an episode of Game of Thrones, others see a fashion editorial, and others see a Bergman-esque psychoanalytic movie. By creating mystery and removing pieces you make something more intriguing for people.
Were these creative ambitions the driving force behind the persona, Woodkid?
The name Woodkid is not really me, to tell the truth. It’s more the story of a kid who grows up and actually transforms from the state of wood to the state of marble—petrified. You start to see that in the videos a little bit, and it’s in the book. The character becomes more hard and tough. As the kid grows up, he becomes more invincible.
I’m obsessed by the traces that remain, the traces that we leave, and the traces that we make—how time is written by memories and how these memories disappear.
There are two sides of the blade. As he grows up, he also gets more fragile. That’s what the story is about. There’s this moment in the book where the kid says to his mum, “It’s very windy outside, there’s this massive storm,” and these are actually fragments of lyrics you find in The Golden Age. He says, “Look at the trees, they’re bending and almost touching the ground.” Because the wind is so strong, he says to his mother, “Look, they’re going to break.” And the mother says, “No they’re not going to break because they’re super tender.” But if they get old, dry, and more hard, then in the case of heavy wind, they’re going to break. That’s the story of the kid; as he grows up and becomes more hard and more solid, he’s just going to end up breaking. When I created this story, I thought it would be interesting to find a name that linked to it. So the name, Woodkid, relates just to this album and nothing more than that.
Last June, you tweeted about finishing the album in your hometown and in the childhood home you grew up in. Your family has an interesting background in Poland. Was it cathartic? Did physically being there affect the final parts of recording?
There are places for everybody that generate emotions, and generating emotions is very important if you want to be creative. That’s what I rely on when I create; I rely on my emotions. By going back to Poland and writing this book with my cousin and finishing the process of The Golden Age, it really fed me with memories and some of these fragments that I had forgotten. Just being in the place where I grew up, seeing the paintings on the walls and the pieces of furniture, and walking in the neighborhood helped revive the fragments. It’s part of that inner archaeological process. I’m obsessed by the traces that remain, the traces that we leave, and the traces that we make—how time is written by memories and how these memories disappear. The time scale slowly transforms and fragments.
Going to Poland was a strange experience, because I got to reconnect with this past. It was amazing, because then I got to make connections with things we had already put into the album. We learned that sometimes when it rains a lot in the mountains, kids open the faucets of sinks, and the water drips red because there is iron in it. It’s almost like blood.
The memories came back. All of these things that transformed me, marked me, and shocked me when I was a kid remained, and they’re a part of this story. When I combine all of these images that I like, all of these memories from the past, and all of these sounds that I like and that inspire me, I slowly began to understand myself and the story that I was making. It’s not like I just had a scenario and started screenwriting; it’s more abstract than this. Everything that I put into this album, I tried to make genuine and very authentic.