Colleen: Less Is Roar

On A flame my love, a frequency, Colleen exorcises her demons—and maybe ours

Composer Cécile Schott was on an overnight to Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, the night a group of young men detonated suicide bombs and engaged in mass shootings in a coordinated terrorist attack. The next morning, on a train bound out of the country, she found herself engaging in a very human, very familiar practice.

“I spent the next two weeks glued to internet news,” she says. “You watch things on repeat; you think that’s going to help you understand this sort of action, the hatred behind it. But then I realized I had to cut off from it because there wasn’t any in-depth analysis that was going to bring me any understanding. That’s when I decided I had to get back into the natural world and go back to work.”

A flame my love, a frequency (Thrill Jockey), Schott’s seventh LP under the name Colleen, is an album of spare, minimalist compositions. The record both furthers and complicates Schott’s body of work, presenting melodies played on pocket digital synths set to emulate analog sounds, then run through one or two analog effects pedals.

“My production style doesn’t embrace the big sound these days, where everything is pushed to the front,” she says. “The way I make music is mostly a matter of experimenting, then choosing what feels right with a given sound or compositional idea. It starts with discovering song structures as a result of that exploration, then building from there.”

Schott’s recent explorations were focused on matters both public and personal. As it happened, Schott was in Paris on the night of the terrorist attack because she’d traveled there to visit an ill relative. Much of A flame’s sound, like its spare lyrical content, deals with fear of death and loss—that most private, yet most commonplace, experience.

“The subject matter of this record, it really doesn’t get more personal,” she says. “But it also doesn’t get more universal. It’s almost a concept album on death, the fear of death, as it intrudes upon our lives. Everyone experiences it. Not a single one of us is shielded from losing someone, or fearing we will, or the fear of our own disappearance as well.”

Like the composers and artists Schott claims as touchpoints, she produces music that perhaps sounds left-brain at first, until repeated listening reveals the considerable heart beneath it. “My framework of references is rooted in the past, composers like Raymond Scott and Laurie Anderson,” says Schott. “But I also love the Silver Apples/Suicide family of musicians: artists whose music has a pop element in the broadest sense of the word but is uninterested in the pop design elements of its time. It creates its own world.”

Born in France, Schott is currently based in Spain. Incredibly, not a day after we discussed A flame my love, a frequency’s emergence from her meditations on mortality, Barcelona became the site of yet another terrorist attack when a van plowed into a public crowd, leaving 16 dead. In the following days, Schott and I emailed briefly, and our conversation turned to the idea of music as healing therapy.

“The title alludes to that,” she wrote. “A flame my love, a frequency refers to the need for something that can somehow give us hope. It could be a flame, literally, but also objectively. Anything that brings back the light; and ‘a frequency’ is because of the power of music to help us feel better.”

—Eric Waggoner