Philippe Brach never worries about running out of ideas, or how to bring them to fruition; no, his problem is gathering them into something cohesive. And then, along comes Le Silence des troupeaux, a short, dense third album inspired by his travels, Facebook’s Thumbs Up, Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Nat King Cole, Bill Withers’ fluid folk-funk, and the sound of an autoharp drunk-purchased on eBay. And lo and behold, it’s somehow a cohesive whole.
“I work in a very chaotic way,” says Brach a few days after the extraordinary launch of his third album. Coming from a guy who thought it would be a good idea to record an 8 bit / videogame / chiptune version of his second album Portraits de famine called Bienvenue à enfant-ville, that confession will surprise no one.
“I don’t have a working method,” he continues. “Sometimes the words come first, other times it’s the music. Sometimes both simultaneously. Sometimes I sing the melody and then re-play it on the guitar. Or I envision a piano, and sit down to hammer out a few chords until something comes out of it.”
“Sometimes I’ll buy an instrument I know I absolutely can’t play and see where that takes me,” he says. His latest toy? An autoharp. “No one knows how to play that damn thing,” he says. Coming home from a bar one night, he saw a video of somebody playing the instrument, often associated with the ’60s folk revival, and back in favour with the recent neo-folk revival. Basia Bulat, for one, knows how to play it, and quite beautifully. Click; he bid on one. A classic case of “drunk eBayin’,” he readily admits. One can hear it at the tail end of the song “Tu voulais des enfants” (“You Wanted Children”).
“I love trying out new stuff,” says Brach, “even though we’re constantly trying to write the same song, as Stéphane Lafleur would say. It’s still nice to feel like you’re not trying to write the same song over and over.” Therein lies the intrinsic high quality of this third album: one recognizes Brach’s stamp, his nerve, his folk roots, but the music takes unexpected twists and turns in terms of structure, and ornate orchestration. Brach treated himself to a personal trip: over the course of 10 songs that barely surpass the 30-minute mark, Le Silence des troupeaux comes across as a concept album, albeit one with a vague thread. A concept album without a concept. And that was his intent.
“It feels like a concept album because it has a beginning and an end and certain instrumental passages, but to me, it’s a record that is as disparate as all the other ones,” says the singer-songwriter. “I do admit that the songs are slightly more related to each other than on my two previous albums. If there’s a general concept behind it, it’s openness, to others, and to other ideas. Besides, I don’t like having to hand out guides to understand my albums. Sure, it’s fun to be guided in a given direction, understanding where it comes from, because the songs do carry a message, and it’s fun to know what the creator was thinking. But I still like to leave things a little vague, out of focus, so that the listener can understand what they want.”
A good example of this, which warrants closer inspection, is the song “La Guerre (expliquée aux adultes)” (“War (Explained to Adults)”), which is surely the most astonishing song on the album. A few bangs of a drum to give the cadence, and Brach – who solemnly sings a melody straight out of another era – invites a children’s choir to sing about war. Except for the children’s voices and the drum beats, one hears not a single instrument… until the song’s last 30, highly cinematic, seconds – in which the sound effects of bombs falling and exploding, and an orchestra, come in.
“When I wrote ‘La Guerre,’ sung by children, it was my way of representing our implication in the era of social media,” says Brach. That makes everything clear. “Often,” he continues, “we ‘share’, we write a status [on Facebook], and we think, ‘Yes! I’ve done a good deed, I’ve done my part, I’ve done something.’ Sure, you’re being true to your values, but [commenting on social networks] is not a goal in itself. One must act in real life. That’s what the lyrics are about – it’s the most cliché text in the world, very much an example of magical thinking, ‘Quand l’amour aura le monde’ and all will be well… We all know that. Who gives a fuck? It’s all fine and dandy to say it, but if we don’t do anything about it, well, the kids, at the end of the song, are marching right into a minefield. That’s the message, you see, but I didn’t feel like spelling it out in black on white. I wanted it to be a little vague.”
The album title, however (Le Silence des troupeaux translates as The Silence of the Flocks) is much more explicit about the musician’s intentions. Far from wanting to be moralizing, Brach insists that he’s not placing himself above everyone else by critiquing our degree of social involvement in this era of Likes and Re-Tweets. “There’s a lot of critiques on there, but also a lot of realizations about myself,” he says. “I often react emotionally and that places me in situations… well… like everyone else. I say stuff without thinking about it too much. More often than not, I don’t look around me and I don’t ask myself why I don’t understand this or that…”
Elsewhere on the album, it’s a trip to Pakistan – “Because a friend of mine who’s a journalist was there and I didn’t feel like going to a tourist-y place” – that inspired a song bearing the country’s name as a title, “but that doesn’t talk about Pakistan in the least.” On “Rebound,” one hears the intimacy of experience resonating in the lyrics: “Non j’vas attendre que tu te tannes/Que ton confort se fane/Que tu trouves mieux pour nous deux/De se laisser un peu.” (“I’ll wait till you get bored/till your confort dissipates/till you find something better for us/till we separate a little.”).
On “Tu voulais des enfants” that Brach indulged his dream of playing piano à la Nat King Cole. “There’s two types of arrangements in life, to me,” he says. “Those that wrap around the song, and those that are an integral part of it – the kind of arrangements that, if you remove them from the song, it’s missing something. We tried to navigate between those two poles on the album,” he says, with the help of his arranger and friend Gabriel Desjardins, a.k.a. La Controverse. “I’m a huge Nat King Cole fan. It’s pure Cole to have two verses followed by an instrumental one. Initially, I wanted a really fucking long instrumental intro like Nat King Cole did. That didn’t fly!”
The other reference is even more obvious. On “Mes Mains blanches,” (“My White Hands”) Philippe Brach borrows legendary soul singer Bill Withers’ melody from “Grandma’s Hands,” and gives it a whole new meaning based on the lyrics – the album’s strongest piece of writing. “I’m also a big fan of Bill!” says Brach. “To be honest, I promised myself I’d never do a cover of one of his songs, I respect him too much. But after I played that song like 150,000 times, I started to do one. The lyrics came out in four minutes. I owned it.
“It’s funny,” says Brach, “each song comes to me in a different moment. Sometimes key moments, sometimes trashy moments… The songs come way before the meaning I want to impart to the album. Then, I try to make sense of what my subconscious is trying to tell me through these songs. Understanding the general meaning of an album comes afterwards, once I have all the songs in front of me. That’s when I get their individual meaning, and I finally understand why I did what I did in this or that spot. The meaning manifests itself.”