Photo Credit: Nicolas Joubard
“Making music is really close to painting. It’s about many things meeting at a one point…My goal is to take very personal elements and to transform them into universal material.”
Harpist/ singer / composer – and producer – LAURA PERRUDIN will be appearing on a Barbican Freestage on Sunday 19 November at 6pm. (2017 EFG LJF). Her new album, Poisons & Antidotes shows the mélange of musical and artistic influences that go to make her background. Feature/interview by Emily Palmer:
Growing up in a musical family in Brittany, Laura Perrudin was exposed to a variety of genres from an early age: jazz; hip-hop; soul and electronica, for example. After hearing her parent’s recording of a harp festival in Belfast she decided the harp would be her instrument, a decision that hasn’t come without its difficulties. The vibration of the harp had what she describes as a ‘healthy effect’ on the sleep difficulties she suffered from as a child and she went on to pursue a traditional musical education at a conservatoire. Alongside her studies she was composing and producing electronic music using her home studio. Perrudin says she has been curious about different textures since she was a child and the use of computers and technology is now something she recreates in her live performances with the help of her sound engineer Jérémy Rouault.
Frustrations with her instrument began to materialise when Perrudin realised it was impossible to recreate the jazz she was listening to on the Celtic or pedal harp due to their harmonic limitations. Undeterred, she started to research other instrumental systems on the harp, looking for a chromatic harp with a single row of strings that would produce a sound closer to a piano. In 2008, she met harp-marker Philippe Volant, who had already created something similar for harpist François Pernel, and asked him to build her one. Although this was a step in the right direction, difficulties still remained and in 2014 she asked Volant to make an electric version of the chromatic harp, which she has played ever since. Perrudin explains the process as both exciting and complicated, with her spending years ‘re-learning’ how to play each harp.
Perrudin sees her harp as both an orchestra and a drum kit, something which is very apparent in her live performances. It is chromatic and electronic, capable of melodic lines and rhythmic patterns as if it were a percussive instrument. The harp itself doesn’t have a natural sound, the sound it produces (which she describes as a mix between an electric guitar, an electric bass and a harp) depends on the amp and the effect pedals being used. This versatility is reflected in the music Perrudin creates. Her music has been described as ‘unclassifiable’, does she think this is a fair description?
“I agree that my music is unclassifiable,” says Perrudin, “For me, I’m not trying to go into this or that aesthetic. I’m making music, I’m making sounds. I’m trying to paint sounds and in the same way trying to create songs. My perception of music is really linked to visual elements. For me making music is really close to painting. It’s about many things meeting at a one point.”
Perrudin goes on to explain that lyrics are really important in her song-writing process and are inspired by a specific topic, emotion or something visual like movement or dance. Her compositions, in the majority of cases, begin with the lyrics. The sound then follows, shaped by the lyrics not by a yearning for a specific aesthetic. On her first album, Impressions, most of the lyrics were taken from existing poems which she then set to music. She refers to this process as a ‘school for writing’ at a time when she wasn’t confident in her own abilities. Now she says it is vital that the lyrics are her own.
“The music was easier for me to write. It’s something that I have been doing for so long, it’s much more natural and spontaneous for me. The lyrics are still a bit of a fight,” she laughs. “I have so many questions. I want my lyrics to be meaningful but they must also have a musicality in themselves. The music is less about questions, it’s more about doing, it’s more abstract.”
She touches again on the wide spectrum of influences behind her music, citing French composers like Ravel and Fauré and 20th century jazz as the main influences on the harmonic elements of her work, electronic music influencing the textures she experiments with and folk and world music shaping how she uses her voice. The influences are so vast, music from Ireland to Iran, it’s hard even for her to identify which influence is at play at certain points in her work.
We talk more about the use of her voice in her compositions. “The way I write my music now and what you see on stage, it’s all about songs,” Perrudin says. “It’s not instrumental music, the voice is very important.”
Until recently, singing had always been self-taught and the development of her voice was simultaneous to that of her playing, with both feeding off of each other. She spent time exploring how she could play the harp more instinctively and spontaneously – qualities that came naturally with her vocals – and searched for ways she could use her voice more like an instrument, as a source of different textures both harmonically and melodically. In her music, the harp and voice are of equal importance, she sees one as the extension of the other.
TRANSFORMING THE PERSONAL…
“My songs are all separate entities but are ultimately all part of the same picture, and that picture is me,” Perrudin says. “The songs from my latest album, Poisons & Antidotes, are really personal. They are inspired by my private life as well as the philosophical and political landscape. My goal is to take very personal elements and to transform them into universal material, to not make them my own anymore.”
How does it feel to have something so personal transformed in that way?
“It’s very liberating,” Perrudin says without hesitation. “That album for me was a process of self-healing, working on things that were a source of suffering and tension for me, like nightmares I had for example. The idea of taking something that is haunting you, to confront it and to transform it into something beautiful, it’s a way to take back the power.”
So, what does the future hold for Perrudin? She is currently working on new material for her third album, which will again focus on transforming perspectives, exploring subjects close to her heart but with the use of different characters and objects. On 19 November, she makes her London debut at the Barbican as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival 2017. What can the audience expect?
“I hope my performances destroy clichés, that audiences see me doing something they didn’t expect. Maybe it’s the subjects that my songs explore, maybe I can touch something deeper than they had imagined. I’d like less borders, I want to play more and more in different music worlds and for different kinds of audiences. For me personally, it’s not a good idea to adapt my own artistic position to meet audience expectations. I want to continue following how I feel and making music that remains instinctual, trusting that the audiences will respond spontaneously. And I have to accept that some people will be disappointed or will find my music strange or even scary. But I’m okay with that.”