INTERVIEW – A dazzling artist, he retired for eight years to rebuild. The Belgian singer signs his return with a flamboyant and intimate album, Multitude, in which he delivers himself without a filter. Meeting with a sound and period sensor.
Blue polo shirt, purple pants, pink socks, gray moccasins and a ponytail perched on top of the head, Stromae wears good looks. He possesses an extraordinary elegance, the calm of an English country gentleman and the audacity of a kawai samurai from comic strips. In 2010, the Belgian dandy made the planet go into raptures with a first album, Cheeseand his single Then we dance, a hymn with a capsizing rhythm and a sad text which evoked unemployment, divorce, debts, financial crisis. Paul Van Haver, his real name, already had a clinical look at society and existence.
Customary of performances, he embodied a multitude of characters: we remember the clip of great (viewed 52 million times) showing him as a celestial tramp, pretending to be drunk and adrift in Brussels. Having recognized him, some very kind Belgian police officers offered to take him home. These must-have hits include Papaoutai, where he evoked an absent father figure – his father, Rwandan, was assassinated during the genocide of 1994, Paul was 9 years old. Gathered in the album Square rootreleased in 2013, these hits cause an earthquake.
On video, Stromae performs his new song Hell
The need to dream
Record sales, the disc sold more than 2 million copies. The phenomenon Stromae (verlan de maestro) conquers the world. His fame as a genius songwriter spread, earning him collaborations with high-profile artists including Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and Kanye West. He will also be the only French-speaking singer, after Celine Dion and Charles Aznavour, to perform at Madison Square Garden in New York. From 2013 to 2015, his tours follow one another at a crazy pace: two hundred concerts in two years, one concert every three days. “I broke down“, he confides today.
Exhausted after the New York set, he canceled his other dates, retired from the stage, put his singing career on hold and disappeared from public radar. He then married the talented stylist Coralie Barbier – with whom he had a child in 2018 –, regenerated and devoted himself to the small family business, Mosaert, both a music label and a clothing brand. After more than eight years of recording silence, the maestro returns with an album and a world tour.
It was a complex year for me, but rich
Entitled Multitude and crossed by hard-hitting rhythms, the disc combines electro, rap and hip-hop with reggaeton and French song, passing through ranges à la Lady Butterfly, by Puccini. With Stromae, we don’t know on which foot to dance. His chiselled texts reveal a human fresco, commedia dell’arte characters. It’s an antenna: from its tower, it captures the waves of its time – the need to dream, mental health, life as a couple, the status of women and social cohesion. What matters most in Multitude and in each gesture of Stromae, there is an excessive desire to celebrate life in all circumstances.
Miss Figaro. – When he left the stage, Jacques Brel said: “I want to have time to breathe, to love. Was your silence motivated by the same reasons?
Stromae. – Certainly. However, during all this period, I never really stopped. I started writing pieces of Multitude five years ago: the words of Hell and of The Undefeated came to mind at the time of the tour of Square root. I remember the click that took place between 2017 and 2018. It was a complex year for me, but rich. I felt the urge to come back and the conviction that I still had things to say. The realization was laborious: I took four years to give birth to this album, I needed time.
We hear pentatonic scales from Asia and troubadour songs. Where did you get these sounds from?
My goal was to create music that communicates messages without the need for lyrics – those came later. I wanted a melting pot of cultures, a sound that goes beyond borders and eras. For this, it was necessary to use a vast palette of colors and rhythms. In some tracks, we hear the sounds of New York streets superimposed on the breaths of instruments from the Sahara; in others, harpsichords intertwine with carioca funk from the favelas. The pentatonic scales come from Asia, but also from music I heard in Ethiopia and West Africa.
Have you traveled a lot in your life?
When I was young, my mom, an adventurous Flemish Belgian, took me on awesome backpacking trips: Peru, Mexico, Mali, Argentina, Bolivia and other countries. Then, I traveled thanks to my job. I went to the United States, Brazil, Quebec… I fell in love with Bolivia so much that I went back there later with my wife. I met a charango musician there whom I invited to play in Multitude. This whole new album is inspired by travel.
When did you discover that music was a powerful instrument of expression for you?
My mother made me discover soul, Motown and James Brown, who remained my hero. She also loved Latin American music and zouk from Guadeloupe. My three brothers and my sister introduced me to other styles. Tara, the eldest, got me into classical music, hip-hop and rap groups like Public Enemy. Dati, the second, very arty, is at the origin of my passion for Jacques Brel. He was also the one who made me dive into manga like Akira and Ghost in the Shell.
To tame my indiscipline, my mother sent me to boarding school in a Jesuit school.
Dominic, my sister, is crazy about Francis Cabrel, Jean-Jacques Goldman and Céline Dion. She opened me to French song. Finally, there is Luc, the youngest: he is the free spirit of the family. He listened to rock, but skated like all the guys in hip-hop. It united two irreconcilable worlds. He helped me free myself from chapels. He also produced this album and wrote two tracks with me.
In what environment did you grow up?
In a very popular environment. There were more mestizos than whites in Bockstael, the Brussels neighborhood of my childhood: Turks, Moroccans, Congolese… it was a clash of cultures. To tame my indiscipline, my mother sent me to boarding school in a Jesuit school. I was not used to these codes, but it was lucky. This school allowed me to see that there were other ways of thinking. This is where I started to play djembe and rap, to claim my origins and to understand the importance of words.
At the time of square root ee, you designated your music “suicide dance “. Are you a pessimist?
Above all, there was a lot of irony in these words. We must cherish the irony in this time when political correctness is so pressurizing. My texts may be dark, but that’s because life is sometimes. She’s not black or white… As I sing in Have a good day, there are no highs without lows and lows without highs. I’m not a crisis seller, I harvest moods.
“I approached a taboo”
How the song was born Hell ?
I wrote it in one go, in 2018. I wasn’t talking about a particular moment, it could be linked to a period like adolescence, or when my tours ended. I sing it:I sometimes had suicidal thoughts and I’m not proud of it.“We all know times when we are not well. I recall it at the beginning of the piece:I am not alone in being alone.»
You made it a performance close to situationist theater by performing it by surprise on the TF1 newscast. This performance provoked extreme reactions, from enthusiasm to controversy…
Contrary to what has been said, I did not sing in playback. As for the rest: on social networks, I saw a montage of me with a rope around my neck. I found that quite funny. I repeat: this text does not represent my current state of mind. But yes, he talks about mental health, a subject perhaps not mentioned enough during this pandemic. I approached a taboo: suicidal thoughts. Many thank me for talking about it. That’s what matters to me. I’m not interested in telling my life story, I don’t need to.
Has success had toxic effects on you?
The danger is that passion can turn into obsession. We no longer count the hours and we end up overworked. This is what happened to me. But I no longer fall into this trap. Thanks to my wife and my son, I manage to be an artist without falling into excess. This album, I made it between 9 am and 5 pm, without suffering. In the morning, I would drop my son off at school, I would work, then I would pick him up. It has punctuated my life as much as music.
What kind of father are you?
My own father lived in Rwanda, where he remained until his death. He sometimes came to Belgium… I saw him a dozen times. He was an architect, and I remember his pencil case. But I don’t have a clear paternal role model. The reference at home was my big brothers. My ability to be a good dad, I owe it above all to Coralie, my wife. My son is 3 years old, I protect him and I don’t even want to reveal his first name. We are very well in our small family nucleus. We listen to music all the time, and I’m an omnipresent dad.
Today, I am fascinated by the spectacular Chanel fashion shows
You have created a clothing brand. How was your passion for fashion born?
I have always paid attention to my style. When I was young, I wore a bow tie and cardigans. I found it funny to dress like a little old man. Today, I am fascinated by the spectacular Chanel fashion shows. But I didn’t go to these kinds of events before meeting Coralie. She creates pieces for me, and I help her a little. We are working with graphic designers to create the prints for our brand, Mosaert, and we will soon be launching a new collection.
What have you been dreaming about lately?
To give concerts and to see them. My pleasure is discovery: whether it’s creating songs or listening to those of others. It is an inspiring feeling of renewal. A way of telling ourselves that we will never have finished creating…