Two months ago, after releasing my new album, Songs & Stories,Vol 1, I asked Irish composer Craig Cox to listen and offer his thoughts, without any prompting from me. Craig and I have worked together on several projects since I arrived in Ireland in 2012. His response resonated with me, so I will comment on parts of it here in order to explain my background, and what led me to write these songs.
The music on Alain Servant’s new album is a synthesis of his years of artistic vagrancy.
Vagrancy! This is a word that well summarises my artistic path. I started in theatre as an actor in my early teens and, at the age of sixteen, with eight friends, created a theatre company called ‘Tour de Babel’ (Tower of Babel). This adventure continued for over fifteen years. After moving from the Parisian underground scene to the French countryside, we created more than twenty shows, with the aim of meeting other cultures and using theatre as an intercultural laboratory. We always worked in collaboration with artists from other cultures, simultaneously immersing ourselves in them as we went along.
As an actor, director and musician, I was able to incorporate practices and visions from the Mediterranean world (Lebanon and Tunisia), Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Cuba), Asia (India and China) and Europe. I discovered Indian Classical music and started practicing the sarod
Then the Turkish Oud.
But all adventures must come to an end! The company split up and we all parted on our own paths. I next created a residency space for artists in the countryside in France where all arts and artistic movements were welcome to create and experiment. Over a period of ten years, I met and practiced with clowns, jugglers, acrobats, theatre makers, butoh dancers…
Then, I arrived in Ireland! This island has become for me not only a personal nest but also a place in which to focus my practice.
Alain’s practice is fundamentally one based in narrative: his craft is the construction of worlds that hold up a warped mirror to the familiar, placing the listener inside an ethereal realm in which everything is distorted yet illuminated.
I am a storyteller. I am also an actor, writer and musician. In Ireland, I found that songwriting was a way of merging my practices. My head is filled with myths and stories, and I found in Ireland a fertile land for my imagination to blossom.
The dark earth and the cold sea have allowed the seeds of strange plants that I have carried all my life to take root in a peaceful garden, the poisonous and the medicinal growing side by side.
I sit now in this garden, picking these fruits and becoming intoxicated with their smells and the memories they recall in me. I am present in the here and now, but many dimensions overlap. And I sing my perceptions as they arise.
An appropriate adjective for this album is “multi-lingual”. Not simply in reference to the actual shifts between European tongues (so that the inherent musicality of language is demonstrated, it becoming a texture in itself), but also in reference to the musical world.
I have no real mother tongue. I spent my early childhood in Bolivia, speaking Spanish and listening the indigenous people speaking Quechua and Aymara. Arriving in France in Marseille, I learned French with a strong southern accent, then moved to Paris and, although fascinated by Classical French literature and poetry, I spent most of my time hanging around with the kids of my quartier learning argot, the Parisian slang that was very much alive at the time. And then English came for me, a language that seems to fit the songs I sing.
A language is a way of seeing the world, as well as its music, different frequencies that don’t strike the soul’s strings in the same way. It is not necessarily the language that drives me, but rather the language revealing itself through whatever the subject is. A rock in a high mountain sings in Spanish, and a tree by a gentle river in French. What language would a bottle of whiskey lying in the gutter speak? I am this rock, this tree and this bottle of whiskey!
Moving through this album is like rolling through the shifting narrative structure of a dream, each track morphing into the next so that an overall tone manifests and an internal metaphorical logic constructed, with references to flowers, flowing water and undeath mushrooming and acting as way points that trick the listener’s memory while revealing the underlying subtext of an almost squalid hopefulness: a unique wisdom that weaves piss and vinegar parables, speaking reassurances in hoarse tones.
For me, any creative act is a journey into the subconscious world. I jump into unknown depths and come back laughing, clutching some new treasures that become songs or something else. In these depths, I meet gods, kings and queens, slaves, even children playing with wild animals…
Any new creation is a cathartic process that brings me back to a world of wonder. The logic emerges by itself with no conscious will. I try to follow the natural movement of expansion and contraction. And it can be hard work! As hard as the craft of the blacksmith at times. Because art is a craft, and demands skills, experience and practice.
I would like to conclude with a word on collaboration. Collaboration is essential for me. The creative process at times can be solitary, but becomes useless if there’s no transformation through exchange.
I was lucky in Ireland to encounter John Linnane, one of the best musicians and performers I have ever met.
Since 2017, we have worked together and performed together and I would like to thank him, not only because he’s a great artist, but also because he’s a great human being. It is an honour to have him beside me in this adventure.
Thanks to Zoë O’Reilly for corrections (and there were plenty!), and to Craig Cox for his text, the full version is here: https://www.facebook.com/alainservantmusic.
Photo: Alain Servant & John Linnane
Credit: Yoram Allon.