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.
At what point did it make sense for you to depart from directing videos for others and define your musical career as Woodkid?
When “Iron” got successful. Initially I did “Iron” because I wanted to experiment a little bit further in directing and make a short film—something that would go further than the videos I’ve done before and be more intense and also more personal. I had this music on the side, and I thought that the best way to make it happen was to combine both, because then I would make the music and the visuals talk together.
If the project is a failure or a success, it's only because of me and the people I regularly work with. I didn’t want to promote myself with others’ work.
Right now, I’m actually starting again, and I’m reading a lot about the connection between the sound and the image. In Alexander Nevsky’s Eisenstein, he talks a lot about the complexity of the chords and music you use, how they’re connected with the visuals, how you treat climaxes and gaps, and how you extend or compress time with music. I'm super interested in that, so I did “Iron” and the first EP, but it was more of an experimental thing, like an experimental object, and then suddenly it got massive in a couple of weeks. I didn’t really expect that at all. Then we sat down and said, “What are we going to do? Are we really going to make this album?” And it was like, yeah, I think people are waiting for me.
Were you signed at that point?
I was signed, but it’s not like I wanted to make my job out of it. It’s pretty funny; now that I think about it, when we worked on that EP, it was almost like it was for fun. It was almost a joke.
A lot of the best art is.
Yeah, it’s strange what has happened in two years. We’d been working on the EP for almost four years and on this album for even more, because some of the tracks on the album I wrote a long time ago, but I never thought that these fragments would stick together and create an album.
When you say “we,” do you mean your production team?
Yeah, I mean my manager, Pierre, the guy who handles me on my label in France, and Guillame of The Shoes, who’s my co-producer on the album.
Speaking of “Iron,” did Kendrick Lamar ask you for permission to rap over it on “The Spiteful Chant” from Section.80?
He didn’t ask, but it’s fine, because I’m super proud of the track. I think he’s one of the best guys out there, and hopefully that exercise will happen again.
But you don’t have any features on The Golden Age.
I don’t have features, because I didn’t want to rely on anyone else to make the project successful. I didn’t want to attach myself to other people's success. If the project is a failure or a success, it's only because of me and the people I regularly work with. I didn’t want to promote myself with others’ work.
Maybe I’ll do a B-side project with other artists. I’m very interested in collaboration. I’ve been doing features all my life by doing videos for other artists, so I kind of needed, for once, to make something completely on my own.
Before I even heard the album, I saw that you tweeted about being in the studio with Brodinksi, Skrillex, and others, which made me think that the album wouldn’t be what I expected originally.
It’s funny because I mainly worked with electronic producers on the album, and it sounds very organic, but it’s actually super digital. A lot of the production on the album is very cheated. It’s a fake album. We recorded the Paris National Orchestra, and we sampled percussions one by one, we sampled notes, we cut everything, we pitched, we screwed, we chopped, we patterned, and then we kitted everything. Then we doubled the real orchestra with a fake orchestra. We also doubled the real percussion with techno subs and techno kicks to make that hybrid sound.
I’m a perfectionist, and I think it’s interesting to try to create emotions with perfection. It’s very paradoxical.
When you hear it, it sounds real, because I didn’t want to use any electronic gimmicks, but it almost sounds too perfect to be real. I’m really obsessed with perfection. I’m a perfectionist, and I think it’s interesting to try to create emotions with perfection. It’s very paradoxical. Sometimes when I look at Classical paintings, they seem to be perfect to me; they create strong emotion in me, because they have that divine dimension somehow. That’s what I’m trying to do.
In a previous interview, you said that you want people to “feel like heroes” when they listen to your music. Could you expand on that, and has creating your musical persona made you feel more heroic or powerful as an artist?
I wanted to make music that generates images cinematically, so that when people listen to it, they feel like heroes. Of course, I’m giving some keys about the world around it, but I’m not doing videos for all the tracks. People are going to be able to connect to this and do whatever they want with it.
When I was a kid, I would buy a lot of soundtracks from movies, even movies I hadn’t even seen. I would go in my bed, put my headphones on, and listen to the soundtrack super loud, and I would generate my own images. It made me stronger and forced me to be more creative and imagine myself or heroes in very epic situations. Somehow, I hope that kids will do the same with my music, because music is meant to be played live, just as it’s made to be social, but it can also transcend itself in a very private and intimate sphere, which is the sphere of the head and the headphones. When people just listen to music as a guilty pleasure or in a lonely way, it can connect to deep things inside of them. It connects to things that they wouldn’t even share with people. I’m trying to feed young people, or whoever is into my music, with little hints of what my world could be, and then they can just create their own world after that.
If you could go back in time and tell yourself as a child one thing, what would it be?
I don’t think I would change anything, because if I had a clue as a kid about what would happen now, it would have never been a dream. What I’m living now is a result of dreaming as a child, and that’s why it’s actually happening, because I’ve been trying to make this happen. I don’t think I would change anything, but maybe I would tell my younger self to be a little more patient, because I’ve always been in a hurry.
I saw that you posted the Marina Abramovic Rhythm 0 piece on your Facebook, where she says she learned that, “If you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.” How do you find the courage to expose yourself and how do you decide how much to expose? Do you think of the criticism, and are you intimidated by what people will think of your music, especially since it’s so personal?
I used my past, because I’m obsessed with the notion of truth, in terms of what is individual truth. In my case, it’s things that are linked to my childhood, where I was innocent and not socially formatted, in a way. I’m trying to rely on my taste as a child, but that being said, I try not to expose myself too much, for many reasons. First, I am very sensitive to critics. I want my work to be seen and heard, and I want it to be a tool for me to communicate with people, but I don’t want my self to be exposed or my own person. I think my work is more interesting than me. My work is inspired by what I’ve lived, but I romanticize that I make it better, more beautiful, and more interesting to read or live. I don’t show myself in the videos, I try to be in the shadows during the live show, and I do very few photos or I wear a mask to fuck up my face.
I had to say no to a lot of amazing artists from Madonna to Black Sabbath...I had to say no to the Rolling Stones.
As a director, you need to be anonymous. It’s one of the greatest qualities you can have. Nobody knows you; you can sit down anywhere, in any situation—in a party, in a bar, in a café, or in a restaurant, and look at people. You can learn from reality to feed yourself and to direct. But if you get famous, the energy around you changes; the polarity of people gravitates towards you, almost. You don’t realize it, but the world around you is changing slowly, and then you live in a reality that’s not real, actually. I’m trying to step away a little from fame and being exposed.
Sometimes, people stop me in the street or ask me to take pictures, and it’s always a little weird for me. It’s not the reason why I do this. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be successful. I’m starting to be ok with it, because it’s part of the game. I could do a Daft Punk thing, but I’m not into that either; I don’t want it to be a gimmick. I just want to be discrete. My work is annoying enough for some people. I understand that it generates jealousy or anger, where people don’t understand what I’m doing or they hate it. That’s what you deserve when you create; it’s part of the game, but I don’t want it to turn into personal attacks on who I am or whatever I do. So I try to be a little distanced from that. I try to stay in my little apartment here. I write and do music everyday.
Are you working on a feature film, and what themes would you explore in a longer film?
It’s very premature for me to talk about, because I know it’s going to be the next project, but first I have to tour and promote the album. I’m back in New York, because I’m back in university learning screenwriting techniques and cinema history. I’m trying to feed myself with books and learn again from scratch to be a director. I just found that with time, when you’re a music video director, you’re more of an image-maker and artistic director than an actual director. I’m working on how to write and find themes that really move me, ones that I could defend for 3-5 years of my life. It’s another exercise and another challenge, but I don’t think I’m completely ready. I will be soon, but the themes won’t be surprising.
Maybe something will happen and it won’t work out, but my schedule technically for the next ten years is doing this album, promoting it, touring for 1-2 years, then working on a feature, and then having a baby. It’s a long time planned ahead. It’s like making three babies in ten years.
Will you continue to make music and videos exclusively for yourself? If something really exciting or promising came up, would you do it as Yoann, not Woodkid?
Well, I refused a lot of projects this year, which was really frustrating for me. I had to say no to a lot of amazing artists from Madonna to Black Sabbath. I thought it would be really interesting to collaborate with the pioneers of metal. I had to say no to the Rolling Stones. It’s very sad, but at the same time, it’s for a very good reason. Right now, I’m not directing for other artists, but I will when I’m done with the tour again, because I love it. I love to collaborate with musicians.
Why do you live in New York?
For university, basically. I’ve lived here for two years, in Brooklyn. I have a song called “Brooklyn.”
Yeah, I was going to ask you if the song is about Brooklyn itself or if it’s about someone in Brooklyn.
You’re really the first one to actually listen to what the song is about. The song actually says that I don’t give a shit about Brooklyn. The song says that I pretend to love Brooklyn, but I finally realize that if the person I love wasn’t in Brooklyn, I wouldn’t give a shit about it. It’s just a way of saying that we always love a city, because there’s somebody there that we love. It’s like what I had in mind when I wrote that song, “Would Brooklyn be worth crossing the Atlantic/If you were not part of it?”
It’s a very important place for me, because it’s much more neutral than Paris or than Los Angeles. It’s a very neutral city. It’s a city of equality. It’s also a very fucked up city. There are many things that go wrong here in America, but I also know a lot about what’s fucked up in France. There’s no ideal place in the world, but I think New York really calms me down. I like to be away from what’s happening in Europe right now, because the project is getting really big there, and I need to let it happen without me. My job is done; I did the album and the book, and now it can live on its own. Once again, it’s not about me, it’s about my work.
Lana inspires me a lot, because she’s extremely complex. She’s confusing. You never know what’s real and what’s not about her. She plays with that character so well; she’s a master of illusion.
You tweeted that you’ve considered directing porn. What would set your porn apart from what’s out there?
I’ve always been very interested in sexuality. I was just wondering if there’s a way to create a form of art with it. Some people have worked on it, from Lars Von Trier to Bruce LaBruce. There are a lot of forms that are interesting, but I’ve wondered what would be the most beautiful pornographic object to make. Does it have to be that vulgar and disrespectful of humans? Does exposing sexuality have to become an object made to be used for masturbation? Can it be made in an artful and masterful way? What would be the best porn movie ever? Why not? How do you make penetration beautiful? I’m interested, but I don’t know if I’m ever going to do it.
Do you have any muses?
Millions of them. I would say Lana Del Rey, of course. Lana inspires me a lot, because she’s extremely complex. She’s confusing. You never know what’s real and what’s not about her. She plays with that character so well; she’s a master of illusion. She’s beautiful, and she’s one of the best singers I’ve known so far. She really inspired me when we did those videos together and when we sang together onstage.
Will you be touring throughout the rest of the year?
I’m starting the tour in April. We’re starting in Europe, then the U.S. in May maybe, and then we’ll do bigger shows at the end of the year in France. It’s exciting. I love what I’ve developed so far onstage; this will be an extension of what I’ve done but in a more abstract and emotional way. It’s a real object of entertainment, where I’m trying to push the boundaries of emotion. It’s what I’ve tried to do in my work, and I’ve found that the live sound helps to expand the cinematography and the emotion, because you hold the people there, they don’t go anywhere else and aren’t distracted by anything else. You never know how they listen to your music outside of the venue, but when they’re there, they’re yours. You can control their emotions as much as possible.