He rose to fame with the single Alors on Dance a few years ago, and this autumn, Belgian artist Stromae returned with his taut second album Racine Carrée. We met him during a short stop in Stockholm.
Growing up in a suburb to Brussels, listening to everything from James Brown and Mozart to Céline Dion and Public Enemy, Paul van Haver knew early on that he wanted to become a musician. Inspired by the British percussion group Stomp, he began to play the drums at the age of twelve, and consequently also to study music theory.
– When you’re young, you don’t really choose what to listen to, so I mostly listened to the music my family listened to. I listened to James Brown and all kinds of Motown stuff thanks to my mum, as well as Franco Luambo and congolese rumba. Public Enemy thanks to my brother. And Mozart. That’s what my brother listened to, Public Enemy and Mozart, Paul says with a smile. Then I listened to French folk music thanks to my sister, Francis Cabrel and Céline Dion.
– I wasn’t really dreaming of becoming a pop star, but when I watched music videos I always wanted to be the drummer. Do you know Stomp? That was the first concert I went to, and I really wanted to do something like that. I got my first real drum set when I was in my early teens, but before that I used to drum on everything, kitchen cutleries and such.
– If you watch my family’s old home videos, you can also see that I always wanted to be in the centre of attention, trying to be the clown.
I think melancholy
is the beauty of human
At the age of eighteen, Paul formed the hip hop duo Suspicion along with one of his best friends. Together they wrote and produced the song Faut que t’arrête le Rap… You got to stop the rap… And that’s what Paul did.
Taking inspiration from a wide spectrum of styles and genres, Paul embarked on a solo project under the name of Stromae, an anagram of Maestro. In 2007 he released his debut EP Juste un cerveau, un flow, un fond et un mic…, but the real breakthrough came when the Belgian radio station he worked at decided to air his single Alors on Dance. The response was one of extreme enthusiasm, and the track quickly climbed the charts in a dozen countries across Europe.
Despite its driven, danceable beats and somewhat haughty vocals, the song evokes unemployment, debt, and the financial crisis. The juxtaposition between Stromae’s solemn lyrics and taut, electronic beats is something that characterises both his 2009 debut album Cheese and the recent Racine Carrée.
– I don’t see that as a clash, Paul says. I think it’s because we’ve heard so many happy dance tunes that we believe that’s the way dance music has to be written. It’s the same with hip hop, where many rappers just sing about parties, girls, swimming pools, and big limousines. I’m much more interested in writing about reality and real life, with its happy and sad sides, laughs and tears. I think melancholy is the beauty of human. Nonetheless, you can still write melancholy songs that are danceable. Those are the songs I prefer to dance to. We might stand there on the dance floor with broken hearts and tears in our eyes, but we are still dancing. That’s the beauty of life.
I just want to tell stories,
like a photographer or a director
Seamlessly blending influences from world music, hip hop, and trap music with heavy dance beats and impeccable vocals, Stromae’s sound is as ecclectic as the music he listened to as a child.
– I just want to make music, without trying to focus on one style, he says. I try to stay true to all my influences, no matter if it’s world music, trap music, dance music, or French folk music. At the moment I listen a lot to James Blake, Rick Ross, and some folk singers, like Cesária Évora. When I’ve listened too much to a certain style, I try to go in a totally different direction. I think it’s important not to stagnate.
You’ve also been compared to the famous French singer Jacques Brel.
– Yeah. The first time someone compared us was when I performed Alors on Dance in Brussels, and an old woman said that I reminded her of Jacques Brel. It was a beautiful compliment. I listened a lot to him when I was a teenager, but I must say that I see him more as an actor than a singer. I think that many artists in his generation, such as Edith Piaf, knew that their real job wasn’t first and foremost to sing, but to act, to enter into characters, and tell stories.
– That’s what I’m trying to do in Formidable, that’s what I’m trying to do in Papaoutai. Naturally, it’s my vision and my subjectivity, I mean, I’m the one writing the songs, but I just want to tell stories, like a photographer or a director.
In addition to his music, Stromae is also known for his artistic videos and sharp style, often dressed in colourful, clean-cut clothes and his trademark bow tie.
– I think that the music is most important, and I sometimes do the mistake of putting the visual image before the songs. That’s why it’s great to have some many people around me, so many garde-fous, that can tell me when to stop and focus on the music. But the videos and the clothes can also be a way to express what it is that I want to say with a song. I work together with a graphic designer and a stylist, and we really just want to express ourselves. We’re really just artisans.
Listen to Stromae’s latest album Racine Carrée here.