Geneviève Castrée, aka WOELV, arrives in New Zealand late November for two shows. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM finds out, via email, about risk-taking, the English language, and being a musical provocateur.

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GENEVIÈVE CASTRÉE makes some very uncompromising and challenging music. She gets a lot of comparisons to early Cat Power and to Bjork, mainly because she’s a singer-songwriter who’s not afraid to take some risks and take on an audience. The Québec singer has signed on with the legendary K Records (Beat Happening, The Microphones) and is now living on America’s Northwest in Twin Peaks Country. This hasn’t stopped her from continuing to sing in French and from making challenging and impressive singer-songwriter material. She’s also an artist, poet, and comic book writer – in fact, she got back into music after she needed songs to complement some of her drawings. She performs under the name WOELV (and soon to be Ô Paon as well) and is playing two shows in New Zealand.

She grew up in Montréal, and played in a number of punk bands. She decided to draw and write for a while, and she found this background particularly useful when it comes to writing music. “In my world, music and drawing balance themselves out. The songs often come into my brain as an image and then I try to describe this with words and sounds. Music makes me thirsty for drawing and drawing makes me feel like playing music. It fills my days pretty quickly.” And while her music is as far removed nowadays from her original punk background, her music has a similar uncompromising and confrontational feel. “I don’t think I will ever get over how incredible loud music has made me feel. I just recently re-immersed myself in Plastic Surgery Disaster by the Dead Kennedys and some of the songs on this album, their speed, their intensity, is so energizing to me. These last few months I have gotten into this zone of drawing and I have pretty much phased out a lot of music in my life. I went through many years of only listening to talk radio. Now if I put on a record it has to make me feel like there is a hurricane in my house. I have no idea where this will lead, but it is definitely inspiring. My goal has been to get louder and louder with every song but somehow I become meek or I just feel like less can be more at times. I am pretty confrontational in general. I like to speak of things. I want to go to the dark corners and bring some warmth there. It’s a little hypocritical of me though, because I confront most of my listeners in a language they don’t speak...”

Castrée is not afraid to confront her listeners with some unsettling sounds or imagery, screams or other cathartic measures, even if the words might appear remote. Art, to a certain extent, serves a palliative purpose. “I kind of have what I call ‘diarrhoea mouth’, especially in my stage banter. Words just pour out of me once I am given a microphone, for better or worse. I am a very nervous person and sometimes it feels as though all the ideas are trying to come out of me at once. It is the same whether I am drawing or writing a song. I think the screaming is mostly instinctual, because if I was actively trying to put it in there, it wouldn’t fit. I am in the dark with music. I don’t know notes or chords and I am often at a loss when asked about time signatures. I just tip-toe around and do my thing. It’s hard for me to think of myself as a musician because if I had no label, no way of touring, no way of playing concerts, no instruments, I would still be making up songs. It comes out like poop. I feel lucky to be given this sense of purpose, to be given a forum. I think drawing and singing prevent me from being a complete nut. I have found a place where my curious habits are somewhat accepted.”

She’s not necessarily sure if she’s “provocative”, but with song titles such as ‘Sang Jeune’ (Young Blood) or album titles such as Tout Seul dans la Forêt en Plein Jour, Avez-Vous Peur? (roughly “alone in a forest in broad daylight, are you scared?”) or with subject matter dealing with rape and cruelty, it’s fair to say that she doesn’t pull any punches. “‘Provocative’ is a funny word. It makes me think of Marilyn Manson. I don’t bring things up to shock people. Most of my topics are not that intense in my opinion, except for rape. I feel weird about having that one song that hints at a girl being raped. I didn’t want it to feel intrusive and I think I did a pretty good job avoiding embarrassing or disrespectful lyrics. I left it open enough for someone else’s feelings to go there. I think it comes from my upbringing in Québec that I view most dark topics as worthy of conversation. I often feel as though focusing on something difficult with other people and talking about it in great details makes life easier. There is nothing worse than having a friend who drags around a mysterious sadness and not knowing what to be for them.”

“In my world, music and drawing balance themselves out. The songs often come into my brain as an image and then I try to describe this with words and sounds. Music makes me thirsty for drawing and drawing makes me feel like playing music. It fills my days pretty quickly.”

There’s a fierce minimalism to her songs, and results in little space between her voice and the audience. “I think that says more about my musical skills than anything else. I hear symphonies in my head. I hear them the whole time the tape is rolling. By the time I lay down a guitar track and a vocal track, it’s super crowded.” Despite (or because of) the minimalism, there’s also a theatricality to her music, and I ask if someone like Jacques Brel is an influence in that respect, as a figure who mixed literature, confrontational lyrics, spare sounds and textures. “Are you kidding? Jacques Brel is the music that came and changed everything for me. His words are intelligent, snotty, delicate and wholesome all at once. It’s like having a meal of brown rice and kale and a tall glass of water with a little piece of dark chocolate at the end. He wrote over two hundred songs and my mind is permanently blown. I had heard him plenty as a child but when I was eighteen my mother mailed me a mixtape thinking that I was probably in need of French music (I was living in British Columbia at the time). With the words going straight into my ears through headphones I was swept away and finally felt like I understood something about music which I never had before. The words matter. The delivery matters. And you better sound like you mean it too.” She says this has helped her “try hard not to write things I will eventually think are dumb. I want to be able to stand by my texts as I share them with an audience.”

She’s gained some popularity in the States and the Antipodes, despite singing in French. I wondered if it mattered to her that a large portion of her audience in non-Francophone areas have no idea what she’s talking about. “I had to get over it. I even wonder if I should bother with translating the words on paper sometimes. Few people in the Francophone world know about me and if they do, they have a completely different relationship with my music. It was pretty uplifting to play in France and have people laugh at my jokes. I’ll never know what it is like on the other side, I understand myself. But I have been told that the experience of hearing me say my stuff is pleasant and different. Apparently the feelings manage to break the language barrier sometimes and that is exciting for me to explore.” Samuel Beckett used to talk about writing in French as opening up a new way of writing for him, as he’s not as constricted by the fetters of his own original language. Castrée seems to echo this when she says “if I was to sing in English, I would challenge myself to not being able to use as many words and expressions efficiently. Because English is my second language, I have my own weird idea of what is beautiful and witty and what isn’t. It also feels to me like every single word combination I am coming up with has been used by someone else before. English is not my language. I feel like a guest in someone else’s house.”

But it must be tempting to conform to the Anglophonic bias of the music world? “To be honest I often have to stop and think about where I ended up by just being me. I think I am a living proof that you can do whatever and you will find an audience. When I feel frustrated about things not working out the way I intended them to in the music world, I look behind me and realise that I started out with something that is often difficult and alienating for people who aren’t me. So thank you people in Chicago for coming to my show. Thank you people in New Zealand for being curious. Thank you people in Japan for sitting through my erratic songs. All over the world I have shared the stage with bands from exotic places who speak precious and historical languages but sing in English. English is so boring! It is true that English allows the majority to understand you and to rock out but if all your songs are about how your baby darling broke your heart you might as well say it in your own language and make it more exciting. I find English to be a disability sometimes. It makes people think you are cute because you have to pause often, you mispronounce words and you have an accent. When in fact you are a sophisticated bilingual human.”

There are plenty of great bands from Montréal, but the ones who had achieved wider success have sung in English (though many may be English-speakers given Montréal’s demographics). “Montréal is weird that way. Most of the Montréal bands you hear about are fronted by English speakers (often people who recently moved there from somewhere else in Canada). The French speaking scene is completely different. It supports itself through grants and a fairly isolated scene. There is some form of an exchange with France and Belgium, but not much more. There are also quite a few French speakers who sing in English in the hopes of making it big that you will never hear from. Québec is the toughest place for me to get shows.”

She’s not content to simply just rest with WOELV. She’s also worked with jazz ensemble Watery Graves of Portland. “Working with the Watery Graves was a piece of cake. We made the songs up on the spot and recorded them. They were having a hard time finishing up the recordings for their last album Portland and I was depressed and feeling like a slug. Working together was very freeing, liberating. Making music so fast. It was gratifying to hold the actual vinyl in my hands a couple months later.” She describes her latest project Ô Paon as “more layering and perhaps a more mature approach? That would make sense since I am becoming both older and more experienced.” But she’s already made some wonderful music so far – confronting, comforting, cathartic. Her haunting voice, the sparse textures and the beauty of the French phrasing makes up for the fact that many won’t be able to understand what she says – but there’s some stunning musicianship on display regardless. If you understand the lyrics, well, then that’s just an added bonus.