The experience of listening to Emilie Simon's expressive compositions and melodies can be confusing, at first. Her pristine pop is buoyed on lush instrumentation and evocative melodies, but her use of traditional elements like guitar, bass, piano and voice, in combination with a handful of oddities — the Cristal Baschet, a glass harmonica and even a bowl of water — lend an otherworldly quality.
Her hunt for unique sounds began as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris. Despite growing up on a diet of the Beatles, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, Simon finds the pioneers of musique concrète fascinating for their exploration of sound. Studying the techniques and compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry taught Simon how manipulating different elements to mimic natural sounds — or turning sounds from instruments on their heads — could dramatically enrich a piece. “I'm more a composer and singer than an instrumentalist,” she notes, citing her time at IRCAM [the Paris-based Institute for Music/Acoustic Research and Coordination founded by Georges Pompidou in 1969] as influential. “I think it's the different sonorities and the importance made on which sound is where in space,” she says of her songwriting aesthetic.
It was at IRCAM that she learned of fabled electro-acoustic instruments like the Ondes Martenot and Cristal Baschet, as well as older instruments like the glass harmonica. “I studied the history of these instruments,” she says. “I try to use a lot of different types of sounds. I like the idea of looking for something new. You can do something with the sounds and add more personality to the song.”
Simon is already recognized in Europe for her sweeping, intimate compositions. In 2003, her self-titled debut album (Universal International) garnered her a win in the electronic-music category of France's Victoire de la Musique awards. She's since released a follow-up album, Végétal (Barclay, 2006); composed the soundtrack for the French release of March of the Penguins; and opened shows for the likes of Tricky. On The Flower Book (Milan, 2006), her first domestic release (which combines tracks from both her albums), she employs her voice suitably. It can be warm and throaty, sounding anachronistic and like a relic from leisurely days long forgotten; but she can just as quickly focus her voice into a sharp, tart melody that's contemporary and fresh.
As a child living in Montpelier, France, Simon had early exposure to music-making machinery thanks to her sound-engineer father, who had his studio in the basement of their house. While she had studied piano and guitar for many years, Simon did not incorporate the computer into her songwriting until she was 18. “My first experience in the electronic world, the computer world, was to record myself,” she says. “I find it interesting to work on the sound, to cut, to edit, to create, to change the sounds and then to record my sounds myself,” she says. “I was never really impressed by machines and synthesizers or desks. These tools were very familiar to me. I noticed how the quality of the sounds I use is important. The more I do arrangements and programming, the more I take care of using beautifully recorded sounds.”
Songwriting is a solitary affair for Simon, who favors her Mac G4 with MOTU Digital Performer, Apple Logic and Native Instruments Reaktor software, but she does bring in instrumentalists to record lines that she later tweaks (often in a form unrecognizable to the performer). The Cristal Baschet, for example, is a '50s-era contraption played by rubbing moist fingers on a series of glass rods. Simon used this to great effect in her soundtrack for March of the Penguins and in “Song of the Storm,” which opens The Flower Book. “I wanted to make a soundtrack where you can hear the ice, where you can feel the coldness of the Antarctic,” she says. “So I used a lot of noise of ice cubes or the glass harmonica and the Cristal Baschet because they sound like ice.”
Performing live, then, presents an interesting challenge for Simon and her band. Songs like “Swimming,” for instance, require a miked water bath; others require a “prepared piano,” which was suggested by Cyril Hernandez, the percussionist she worked with on Végétal, in which she plays piano while Hernandez strikes the piano strings with mallets or even lets a wind-up toy roam across the strings. A crafty friend even built her a voice controller, which she wears strapped to her forearm. “It controls the texture of my voice in real time,” she says. “It's very interactive, very real life. I love wearing it on my arm because it gives me so much freedom on stage, if I want to walk. I want to be with the people instead of being stuck behind the computer or behind the desk.”