It's been more than five years since erstwhile Parisienne, now Spanish resident Cécile Schott (aka Colleen) released her last studio album, Les Ondes Silencieuses, the third in a widely acclaimed series of ethereal but compelling instrumental opuses recorded for the Leaf label. Those albums found the versatile composer-performer's music evolving from sensitively applied 'organic' electronica (using discreet sampling, looping, etc.) toward analogue musical arcana (interleaved music boxes, bowed and plucked viola da gamba - the Renaissance period proto-cello - and more). Critics swooned at her compositional ingenuity and melodic ingenuousness, and audiences flocked to Colleen concerts at which, courtesy of dextrously deployed looping pedals, she sat alone on stage, carving arcs of contrapuntal beauty from guitar, viola or woodwinds.
A dance score and the soundtrack to a short film aside, the name Colleen has been notable by its absence from the fray of late. She played her last concert in 2009, deciding to take a much-needed rest, with the hope of coming back to music with renewed inspiration and enthusiasm. In the interim, Cécile took lessons in ceramics and stone carving, two disciplines in which she'd had a long-standing and passionate interest, finding in such tactile making something within her which she "couldn't express in music anymore." Slowly but surely, her sonic muse began to return, and in 2010 she began "seeking a new musical path."
Her only certainty at that early stage was that she wanted to sing. Indeed, the majority of the songs on The Weighing of the Heart album feature, for the first time, Cécile's voice - a thing of diaphanous, balm-like beauty, often overdubbed against itself in precise layers of delightful, luminous harmony, even venturing into a cappella territory. Singing, she says, was predicated on answering a central question: "How can I incorporate the voice without losing the characteristics of my instrumental music? I didn't want to go into singer-songwriter territory, so I had to navigate in a kind of in-between zone, which is why I related so much to Arthur Russell and Moondog."
After periods of self-doubt and much experimentation, she experienced two successive breakthroughs in 2012. "Prompted by my love of Moondog's records, I decided to learn how to play percussion instruments, focusing on the frame drum. All of a sudden, it felt like this huge gate opened up before me. I feel that, now, my music is just as much about rhythm as it is about melody." The second breakthrough happened in summer 2012, when she decided to tune her treble viola da gamba like a guitar, "obtaining a sound that really felt non-European, which was part of the musical equation I was looking for."
Celebrating a decade since Everyone Alive Wants Answers, her 2003 long-playing debut, The Weighing of the Heart duly finds the revivified Colleen gracing a new label (ever-burgeoning London imprint Second Language) and, sure enough, inhabiting a refreshing, incandescent new musical landscape, filled with plucked bass and treble violas de gamba and the more orthodox sounds of classical guitar, clarinet, piano and organ, while minimal drum kit, frame drum, toy gamelan and various bells and maracas add their percussive colours. The album's 11 finely wrought essays are influenced as much by the output of mavericks such as Arthur Russell, Moondog and Brigitte Fontaine as by the traditions of Central Asia, Indonesia, South America and, most important of all, Africa with its wealth of kora and guitar music and percussion. Yet the result sounds utterly unique - an absorbing fusion of the delicately spun and the rhythmically persuasive, embracing a pastoralism that is both lyrical yet rooted to the earth; at once hazily baroque yet accessible and universal.
Lyrically, The Weighing of the Heart offers a series of elemental tableaux vivants, the songs' haiku-like stanzas populated by ravens, fields, wind, reeds, earth, planets and stars - subject matter partly inspired by Cécile moving away from the city and taking up residence in a Spanish town "three minutes walk from the sea, surrounded by hills and mountains.where you can actually get away from civilization really quickly and easily." Relocating offered not only a major life change, it also helped her return to making music "unencumbered by the never-ending possibilities of city life." Only the title track veers slightly from the milieu of the natural world, erring instead toward the spiritually poetic: directly inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Weighing of the Heart refers to the ceremony in which the deceased are judged on the righteousness of their lives, hoping to 'triumph' and pass on to the after-world.
Such divine matters are seamlessly accommodated on an album whose defining timbre is one of heightened, dreamlike enchantment. Written, played, produced, recorded and mixed in its entirety by Cécile, The Weighing of the Heart was nonetheless captured in quotidian circumstances, at home and in a disused olive shop which could only be used very late at night, when the noisy bustle of Spanish life had finally ceased. That intense, solitary, after-hours ambience permeates this inimitably characterful album, lending it a palpable, pin-drop atmosphere that is all its own.
"The late nights and incessant rainfall made the recording feel epic and surreal", says Cécile, "as if somehow nothing in the making of this record could be easy and it was meant to be a challenge from beginning to end - a kind of test of how strongly I wanted to make the album. But it also felt strangely quiet when at last the street was completely silent and I was recording my music, afraid that this time I'd be the one to wake people up."
The Weighing of the Heart is No. 4 in the Second Language (2L) Library Series and available as CD, 180gm vinyl and download. The deluxe album artwork is the creation of illustrator Iker Spozio.
There's already an Oscars buzz surrounding this movie.