Multi-talented producer and music video director Woodkid blends art-forms like they’re ingredients. He tells us about his distinctive creative process, working with Katy Perry, Lana Del Ray & Pharrell, and his new album exploring a toxic world.
By Asher Parkes, Waves Audio
If you haven’t heard of Woodkid yet, you should have! But it doesn’t mean you haven’t enjoyed his work. The moniker covers the full tapestry of Yoann Lemoine’s art—music-video direction, graphic design, songwriting and production, each threaded with serious intent. Born and based in France, Woodkid achieved notoriety behind the camera lens, directing A-list pop-star music videos including “Teenage Dream” for Katy Perry, “Born to Die” for Lana Del Ray and “Happy” for Pharrell Williams, amongst numerous others.
Not completely satiated with visual work, Woodkid went on to release his own self-produced records, The Golden Age in 2013 and S16 in 2020, to popular and critical acclaim. His performances aim to excite the majority of the five senses, and it was this aesthetic that led him to creatively direct Pharrell’s 2014 Coachella show, which featured Jay Z, Usher, Gwen Stefani and Busta Rhymes, to name a few.
Blending art forms as if they were ingredients, Woodkid takes a chef’s approach to all his projects, quite literally searching the world for the perfect mix of musical and visual flavors. We spoke to Woodkid about his creative process, favorite collabs and his almost uncanny pre-Covid music video about a toxic world where everyone had to wear masks.
Woodkid, congrats on your stunning new album! It’s a magnificent mix of music and visuals. Do you see yourself primarily as a visual artist or musician?
I always just made what felt natural to me and was the most satisfying creatively. I started as a video director, and that’s where my first successes were. But I’ve always played and enjoyed music, though I didn’t know it would take such an important role in my life. Now I feel I’m equally dedicated to both disciplines, and I see my projects as hybrids.
It’s only my schedule that makes me choose one or the other. I was in full design/director mode preparing for my current tour, as my shows explore the connections between visuals and sonics with CGI and sensory percussion. But for the past month, I’ve had a residency, and it’s been music, music, music.
Is it difficult to switch hats between the two roles, or does it happen naturally?
Pretty naturally. My music studio is in Paris, and next door I have my visual workshop with my 3D stuff, camera gear and assistants, so physically, it’s easy to switch over. My co-producer, Tepr (Tanguy Destable), is also with me in all my projects, and I have my band and my quintet, which I work with as well because my music is very orchestral.
But I often like to collaborate with new ensembles that will infuse my music with a different touch, to get influenced by whatever the connection creates. On this new album (S16), I worked with this Japanese choir from Tokyo. I wasn’t exactly sure how they would sound, but I loved the end results.
Walk us through your writing and production process. Do you begin with chords, lyrics, visual ideas?
It depends on the context of the record. My general approach or “manifesto” for producing full albums is to work within defined creative rules. I find having boundaries actually gives me more freedom than if I was able to do absolutely anything.
On my latest record, for example, I really wanted to explore industrial and petrochemical themes. So, musically, everything needed to sound like it was courted by acid. I didn’t use any guitars, and I replaced the metallic elements of real drums, like hi-hats, with industrial metallic components. It forced us to find alternatives like ceramics, which gave us a much more industrial sound.
With individual songs, I have no specific rules. Sometimes they start with a beat. Other times, it’s just piano and vocals, and I have the song. I work a lot on my piano. Harmonic progression and melody come first, and the lyrics always come last. I need to have created an environment to be inspired to write lyrics.
“Goliath” from S16 feels as much like a blockbuster film as it does song/music video. Was that the intention?
I wanted the first single to be epic and have a sense of “blast.” Not all the songs are like that though, a big part of the record is very nuanced. But “Goliath” is a banger, even though I don’t really like that word. It was definitely the impactful one sonically, and I wanted to reflect that visually.
The other reason why it's so cinematic and it feels like a story is that we developed whole mythology around the video, an internet quest with fake Facebook profiles, a fake company with a fake hackable webmail. Fans really dug deep into it, and we played around with hidden easter eggs all over the sonics for those who wanted something extra.
There's a dystopian tone on some of your music. Is it a response to current events? Are you pessimistic about the future?
No, I'm not pessimistic myself. I play with terms that are in the air, but really without any cynicism. It’s quite crazy, I actually made a video in June 2019 about a pandemic before the (Covid) pandemic hit, so I had this vision of a world that became toxic, where everyone had to wear masks. That was the starting point of this record, which, unfortunately, was too aligned with reality. I think this concept of invisible toxicity was already in the air before the pandemic, so that’s something I wanted to play around with.
But ultimately, it’s not a pessimistic album. It’s a lot about the importance of accepting that toxicity, inner weakness and the beauty in sometimes asking for help. The album ends up on a super bright note with “Minus Sixty One.”
Tell us about what gear you’re using. Digital vs. Analog? Real instruments vs. VSTs?
I’m very in the box and generally work with very little. I like working on the computer as much as possible except for the orchestra and the piano, which are my two sacred textures.
Recently though, I’ve been trying to just listen to things without looking at the grid. That’s why collaborating with Tepr has been amazing; we know each other so well that I just sit on the sofa, and he does the job. It also allows me to listen to things with a musical ear, not a mathematic one.
Production-wise I often look for a hybrid quality, like having a real orchestra playing in a way that sounds robotic and a computer playing in a way that sounds real. It creates interesting hot and cold emotions at the same time, and I really like that. I use both fake strings and real ones, but even when we recorded the LSO at Abbey Road Studios, I still sampled elements of it.
When I find new sounds that I love, I like to research how best to record them, and then I make my own sample instruments. On this record, we sampled a Chamberlain that was unique and broken. We worked note by note, sampling the noise of the tapes, the rotors and the mechanics with attacks and releases at different velocities. It sounds like a weird wobbly male choir and gives a very interesting texture.
How are you treating your vocals?
For vocals, I find the simpler, the better. I like very unproduced vocals, and I’ve also learned to love dryness. This album has much less reverb than my previous one. It depends though, when there’s a massive amount of orchestra, I tend to want a little more reverb on my voice, but sometimes I want a little more contrast.
People tend to always lean on reverb to camouflage something, but in an ideal production, every sound is completely controlled, and you’d only need reverb for a creative purpose. That’s something I learned from SOPHIE’s work.
I sing into a Neumann U87, and then that goes into the C4 Multiband Compressor. I use the C4 all the time, everywhere. It does the work of compression and EQ at the same time. If I sing very loud, I’ll usually put two of them in serial.
I see that Chris Tabron mixed your latest record. How “mixed” is the session when you send it to him?
I do a lot myself. Sometimes it's Tepr who does the “massaging” or pre-mix, and then Chris fine-tunes the mix for that last magical 10-15%. I would never send something to the mixer that doesn't already work. I don't believe that the mix engineer is a doctor; he’s more like someone who puts whatever you’ve done on a pedestal.
This is in my case, because of the style of music I’m working on. If you're a rock band and you're recording all together in a studio, it's a completely different situation.
‘Teenage Dream’ and ‘Born to Die’ are two of the most famous and influential pop music videos in the last 20 years. What makes them so memorable?
I think a certain amount was luck – they each happened to be the first project of a new era for the artists. For Lana, it was the beginning of her career as we know her today. It’s the same for “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles and “Happy” by Pharrell, which I also directed—that was the beginning of solo ventures for both artists.
It’s like the first thing you say when you come through the door; it’s memorable and often defines what the rest will be like.
In the case of “Teenage Dream,” it was a video where I wanted to re-introduce her for the first time, removing the makeup. At first, she was very insecure about it, but I'm really proud that we managed to do it. My vision was to do something a bit more cinematic and raw and show her in a more intimate way. It was interesting because this song is actually so poppy.
Do you feel like you’ve helped shape the culture with your work?
I’m not sure. I always feel like I catch something in the air more than I define the air. I really believe that when the work of an artist is successful, it doesn’t belong to the artist anymore. “Run Boy Run” has been used so many times on other projects, from films to game trailers, that it doesn’t really belong to me anymore. I honestly can’t even remember the recording sessions.
Which collaborations have you enjoyed the most, and who are your biggest musical influences?
I think the Lana collaboration is very special to me because we started our musical careers together in a very public way. We’ve sung together on stage, and I think we're connected no matter what.
My biggest influence is probably Philip Glass, who I was lucky to play for and spend time with. He shape-shifted my vision of what music could be, particularly the idea that music wasn't only about the mainstream or pop music.
Asher Parkes is a Product Marketing Manager and Content Editor at Waves Audio. He’s also a mix engineer and artist.
Read our interview with Rob Kinelski about how he breaks the rules when mixing Billie Eilish.
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