Sophie Tassignon - 2020 interview

SOPHIE TASSIGNON  on her album MYSTERIES UNFOLD – a companion to silence.

Sophie Tassignon is a Belgian singer who lives in Berlin with her husband, sax-player and composer Peter Van Huffel. Her musical tastes go from classical music to jazz to avant-garde and experimental soundscapes. Although she’s also a trained pianoplayer, her sole instrument is her voice. On her first solo album she blends it with electronic devices without losing the natural beauty of her 'instrument'. It’s hard to believe that an album with only voices and loops can be so powerful and have so much depth and impact. Hearing is believing! I had a nice conversation with Sophie on ‘Mysteries Unfold’. It puts a light on this beautiful companion to silence and may hopefully trigger the reader to listen to this piece of art.

Geert Ryssen

Why did you choose this title for the album?

SOPHIE - I was looking for a title that would represent the whole album. Going through the titles of the different pieces, 'Mysteries Unfold' caught my eye immediately so I didn't have to search further. To me, each piece unfolds the mysteries of a collective subconscious. The whole album reflects the enchanting worlds of mysticism as well as the warmth and sensuality of womanhood - her pain, her independence, her strength – as well as a sense of sisterhood shared throughout centuries. I wanted the album to reference a spectrum of influences, from gregorian chants to electroacoustic music, and incorporate different languages in representation of the multiple facets of women over time and amongst different cultures.

How did the idea grow to record an album with only your voice with electronic support?

SOPHIE - I first started working with a loop station in 2008 after attending a workshop with singer André Minvielle. His musicianship and use of the loop station in his own music impressed me so much that I decided to work on finding my own unique approach to creating music with such an electronic device. A few years later I met theatre director Elzbieta Bednarska who invited me to write and perform music for a theater piece based on the novel “Taghaus / Nachthaus” by Olga Tokarczuk. After that experience I decided to create a solo project incorporating the loop station. After a series of concerts and further development of the project, I felt the need for more flexibility in my music, and began to include the use of the electronic music software Ableton Live. At first I didn't plan to record this music as I didn't have a clear vision of how to do so, but as more and more friends and fans began to express their wishes for a recording of my project I decided to embark on this long journey. I spent a huge amount of time crafting these pieces, and giving all my attention to the many intricate details as needed.

Half of the album are interpretations of existing pieces and half is composed by you. Is this fifty-fifty balance intentional?

SOPHIE - Actually it happened by chance, as I had not intentionally given attention to which pieces I chose for the project, nor who the composers were. I had never recorded a cover from a living artist before. The Vivaldi piece had been recorded in 2008 with my project Hufflignon and was released on Clean Feed Records, but  'Jolene', 'Witches' and 'Guby Okayannie' are three pieces I have loved for years, and they gave me so much pleasure to perform. For me there was no question about whether or not to include them in the program.

How did you choose the pieces that you covered?

SOPHIE - 'Jolene' was introduced to me by the Finnish Brussels-based singer, Anu Junnonen, when we were working together with a vocal band we had ironically called “The Screaming Bitches”.

'Cum Dederit' was a piece I had discovered as a teenager during classical singing lessons at the local music school, and I have been a fan of it ever since.

'Guby Okayannie' was a song I had heard in the movie “Five Evenings” by Nikita Mikhalkov. This is a very special black and white movie from 1978, which takes place in a communal home in Moscow. There's one moment where the main actor takes his guitar and sings this song so gently and softly, that it made my heart melt. I transcribed it, found the lyrics on the internet and made a very different version out of it for myself.

'Witches' was introduced to me by Almut Schlichting, a saxophonist from Berlin. She had composed and arranged pieces for a concert in Magdeburg around 2010, for the Walpurgis Night, an ancient German celebration intended to ward off evil spirits and witches. This song had touched me very deeply through its simplicity and beautiful lyrics, so I decided to work on an arrangement for my solo project.

Especially ‘Jolene’ is an unexpected cover. Is that a special song for you?

SOPHIE - When Anu brought 'Jolene' to our “Screaming Bitches” rehearsal, I fell in love with it instantly. I sang the lead melody in this arrangement, and the lyrics touched me deeply. When I started my solo project I decided that song had to be on the menu. I found the lyrics so powerful that I felt they deserved to be heard without any accompaniment. I originally had only some wind and bird sounds at the beginning which faded during the second theme so a part of the song was particularly special as it was simply surrounded by silence. To me the a capella voice reflected the fragility and pure honesty of the meaning of the text. Listeners often told me that that piece particularly touched them so I knew it was powerful, but when I recorded it I was convinced that the original arrangement wouldn't have the same effect. I needed something angelic, something which would touch Jolene herself, in fact. I also wanted the main narrator, the woman expressing her emotions throughout the song, to be placed on a beautiful pedestal to raise her from the earth angelically. I felt the arrangement needed the inclusion of chords which reminded me of Orthodox choir music. As I loved Anu's original arrangement of the solo section, I decided to keep it.

Did you record in your home studio?

SOPHIE - Yes I did. I set up a small studio in my office in order to have the flexibility to work as many hours as I needed. This was a gift and a curse at the same time. It's easy to lose the essence of the music when you work on it endlessly. On the other hand it offers one the freedom to continue working until reaching a satisfying goal.

How did you manage to find a British record label to release your album and release it also on vinyl?

SOPHIE - When I was searching for a label I came across RareNoise Records and noticed that they had a very specific and eclectic mixture of music and artists. I felt that the label was representing exactly what I felt my music meant and in a way that I wanted to present it. I had tailored the album to fit the length of a vinyl so I was very happy when Giacomo Bruzzo told me he was interested in releasing my album and that the label normally releases records in both CD and vinyl formats.

Do you plan live concerts with this music. Is it something you could do in combination with a live concert of Azolia for example as a kind of intermezzo or support act?

SOPHIE - I have performed this music live since 2012. Some concerts had been planned for my album release but had to be postponed because of COVID-19. Schedules are still unsure so the future will tell us when I can perform this music again.

As my solo set is quite demanding, I always perform just one set of music. Therefore I wouldn't choose to perform it in combination with my jazz quartet AZOLIA. I prefer to perform this project in double-bill with another instrumental solo or duo act. It offers an intimate atmosphere and the combination of solos or smaller ensembles complement each other very well.

What kind of logistics does it take to bring this music in a live situation?

SOPHIE - The logistics are very easy. I bring all of the necessary gear and the venue just needs a good sounding PA system, two stage monitors and a sound technician.

What’s the idea behind the artwork? In what way were you involved in it?

SOPHIE - The artwork is by Hungarian artist ROK. I was lucky to be working with him and suggested an idea from a painting from the Belgian artist Fernand Khnoppf. ROK used a photograph taken by my husband and transformed it brilliantly to match the vibe of the music. To me, Fernand Khnoppf represents mystery, sensuality, depth and fantasy ... qualities I very much wanted to portray in Mysteries Unfold.

So all you’ve got to do now is get the album and be taken away by this very special musical experience!

'Mysteries Unfold' is available on cd, lp and digital. For review go to REVIEWS page RECORD REVIEWS 2020