The noisy guitar riff of the first bars of the album opener Tell Me by the Swiss-German trio Les Enfants Sauvages captures the attention immediately, just to release the tension in the next few seconds when the singer Lena Schmidt’s voice takes over in rich tonality. LES is the name of the band’s debut record and while so far, the trio of musicians has not released much, the record is the work of distinct voices coming together with a similar vision. With experimental looseness, ridged attention to detail, and a knack for pop melodies, LES defies definition.
Ahead of the release this week, we got the chance to speak to lead singer Lena Schmidt about the project Les Enfants Sauvages, collaborations, and songwriting approaches. The band is fronted by Lena but the musical output is a team effort through and through. While she might take on more responsibility in the organizational sector, the songs are born out of mutual musical understanding. Together with Marten Pankow and Axel Meier, Lena worked her lyrics and melodies into surprising and refreshing experimental pieces of music.
The Three Enfants Sauvages
Amidst of her busy schedule as a fulltime musician, the singer found the time to ring me from her home studio in Switzerland. Behind her flocks of wood are stacked to heat up a real fireplace. Lena Schmidt is currently separated from her bandmates who reside in Rostock and in Berlin. Ahead of the album release, in these exciting days, they are still in touch, however new material is not yet in the making. “I think we really needed a creative break”, Lena laughs. But even during their break, the band, the personal project of Lena keeps her busy with planning for music video shoots.
“While I might be the person who takes on the most responsibility, it is important to me to decide everything in community with the others”. That collaborative spirit shaped the record. Lena brought her classical piano training, which she expanded by studies of jazz and pop, drummer Axel Meier finds his inspiration in beats and rhythms from all over the world, and guitarist Marten Pankow loves reverbed electronica. The mix is an intriguing fusion of versatile styles and makes for a record that does not get boring.
Songs like puzzles
Boredom is certainly not an issue for this trio neither in the outcome nor in the writing process. “We only record the songs after they have settled down a bit. To really understand a song, I think it is important to play it with a full band constellation at least a few times.” In these writing jams the nine songs on LES came to be. While Lena explains that she was the one who brought most of the initial input, the background of each band member shapes the final sound.
“We piece the songs together like puzzles. That can be really experimental but once we have the structure that we like the songs remain more or less static. At its core our music is still pop and therefore not as freely improvised and experimental as jazz for example,” Lena tells me.
The Influences That Shaped LES
The love of experimenting is also what lead the singer and pianist away from the path she at first set out on. “I played classical piano for a long time and spend most of my childhood and youth exposed to classical music. That leaves an imprint whether I like it or not”. However, even though her love for classical piano prevails, the artist moved away from the genre to be able to explore other aspects of what music making could be. “I wanted to experiment first and foremost”, Lena remembers. That was why in the end, she did not go down the path of training to be a professional classical pianist. It would also have required eight hours of practice every day to keep up with the competition and regardless of her immense respect for classical music, Lena decided to pursue her musical vision in a different way.
But the imprint of her classical training remains something that shapes the way the musician perceives and writes music. Just like her fellow band mates have their unique musical past and styles, Lena brings her musical taste and upbringing to the table and enriches the possibilities to draw from for the record.
LES, which by the way is the acronym of the band name and the first word, balances experimental parts in a controlled manner. Listening to the record the freeing approach to music making that the band members share shines through, yet it also seems to follow a pattern making the songs come together to a cohesive record. Especially with experimental music, it is easy to get lost in the opportunity that digital music production allows. There is a sweet spot between engagingly experimental and overwhelming. Les Enfants Sauvages walk that tight rope with grace. The singer laughs when I ask about finding that balance. “I don’t think there is a point for me at which I am super content with the song. But I learned to take a step back at a certain point and let the song be as it is without agonizing too much about things that maybe could have made it better.”
Even though Lena considers herself a perfectionist, she manages to let go. “Music is incredibly important to me but sometimes I need to take a step back to put things in perspective. Nothing is really going to change if I work on one detail for hours and hours. In the end it is not going to save the world and there are other things I like to tend to as well aside of music. Finding the spot at which everything seems perfect is not the most important thing.” Agreed. That spot often is but a mere illusion anyways. One day something might sound perfect until you come back into the studio the next day and hate everything that you recorded yesterday. Songs, like all works of art, are documents of a moment in time and will change depending on the situation of creation and also of reception.
Working With Other Creatives
Lena Schmidt, like the rest of the ensemble are all working fulltime in the music industry making Les Enfants Sauvages a project that comes from the heart. “As professional musicians, we are really busy and cannot create huge concept works like other bands might be able to.” But Lena and her band also draw a lot of inspiration from working with other musicians and artists. Instead of tunneling and working within a restrained cosmos, their work forces – or allows – them to meet other artists on daily basis, exchange creative ideas, work through dissonances, and in the end find a new way of accessing their own musical style.
“The workflow is different in each constellation”, Lena tells me. She has already played the piano in several projects, including a synth performance for an opera piece. But while her musical input and character of course also flows into the other projects, Les Enfants Sauvages is the only band for which she writes songs.
Surrounded by Art and Nature
Those songs do not just sound spacious and vast, they were also recorded in such an environment. In a secluded country house of a fellow artist Carlo Leopold Broschewitz, the band retired from the outside world for ten days to record the nine songs they had already prepared ahead of time. Planned even before the outbreak of the pandemic, the isolation came in handy in the first months of lockdown early 2020. “The vibe in the huge atelier was incredible”, Lena says. While the presence of the artist and his artworks has not shaped the way the record turned out, the location certainly has.
In isolation, the band was able to dive into the songs they had written without distraction. Over the intense time period, they discovered the core of each track anew. One of Lena’s favorite songs on the record is Goodbye, she says. “It is an uncomfortable song, off kilter, and a little dissonant. But I love that experimental vibe. It is also a shy song that I don’t think many people will notice at the first listen. The other tracks are louder. But throughout the process, I have loved that one a lot.”
Aside of Goodbye other songs include a cover of Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. “I think it is one of the best pop songs ever written. We used to jam that one as a sound check. I fell in love with the way we were playing it and wanted it on the record like that.” The rendition of Les Enfants Sauvages gives the pop classic a new edge adding some experimental elements while containing the main structure of the original. Lena Schmidt’s versatile voice embodies different characters within the cover, from raspy to clear and high pitched, she skips as freely as the instrumentation.
Another highlight of the album is, not the title song, but the band name giving song, Les Enfants Sauvages. The song closes the record, and it is a song that especially Lena has personal ties to. “The song is based on a French folk song my mother used to sing to me when I was younger. I did not remember the exact melody of the lyrics but I pieced it together partly from memory and party from intuition,” she explains. Les Enfants Sauvages is a bridge between past and future and gives the band the telling name, which translates to wild children. Their experimental way of music making follows that motto and makes LES a unique album.
LES will be out this Friday, the 30th of April via 3000Grad Visions.
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