Best known for gorgeous house music under his St Germain moniker, Ludovic Navarre has teamed up with a group of Malian musicians to play in Ireland, writes Ed Power
LUDOVIC Navarre is electronic music’s very own man of mystery. As ‘St Germain’, the softly-spoken Parisian defined the laid-back sound of the early 2000s with his seminal album Tourist.
The record was a seductive cocktail of jazz, lounge pop, and ambient electronica that somehow found a way to be carefree and cerebral in the same moment. You felt more sophisticated simply by listening to it.
Tourist was both a critical smash and old-fashioned hit, shifting 2m copies in less than a year. Navarre had earned a place at the high table of French dance music, alongside Daft Punk and Air. However, the effacing composer did not find the clamour to his liking and, after dutifully touring Tourist, slipped into the ether. If it wasn’t for the extraordinary recordings he had left behind (St Germain’s 1995 debut Boulevard was every bit as fascinating and beguiling as Tourist) we might have written him off as figment of our collective imagination.
He remained out of sight for over a decade, until his surprise re-emergence last October with a new self-titled album. It was immediately clear things had changed. The cover of the LP bore Navarre’s likeness in the form of a haunting death mask; the music within pushed past St Germain’s louche, chill-out past to delve into the Malian traditional sounds Navarre had fallen in love with in multicultural Paris. It was a comeback but also a reinvention.
“I never stopped working all these years,” he says. “On the Tourist tour we played 250 shows in two years. After that I needed to take a break from music. I produced an album for Soel, the trumpeter who plays on Tourist and toured until 2004. The last show was in China in 2005. Then I went back to studio.”
Navarre is a perfectionist, one reason the new record took so long. “When I start working on a song , I know already what I want. I have an overarching vision and then I start to record the musicians one by one,” he says. “The music is continuously evolving, as the individual musicians have their own way of playing. After that I work alone with a new ‘pattern’ and incorporate all the recorded elements. It could take one month, doing it my way, on the same song. I’m not easily satisfied.”
Though you’d never guess from the stately, graceful music, the recording sessions for the St Germain album were often fraught.
At one point Navarre doubted whether there even would be a new record. After years of toil, he had decided the material was not up to scratch and so started again. It was a dramatic step yet he felt he had no other choice. Better to rip it up and start again than blot his legacy with a substandard release.
“I do my best to not repeat what I did before,” he says. “ I try to find a new attractive sound and a ‘colour’ that excites me. This time the inspiration was Africa and especially Mali.
“The recording of the new album began in 2006 with the same musicians who ended up on the final record,” he elaborates. “I was not satisfied. I wiped everything. I start researching, taking a musical journey in my studio to Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali . My preference was Mali. One reason is that Malian musicians were easy to find in Paris. There is a big Malian population in the neighbourhood.”
Navarre is as fascinating as his dense, enigmatic music. The son of an interior designer, he was born into wealth, growing up in the chic Paris suburb from which St Germain takes his name. As a child, he was a champion wind-surfer with hopes of a professional career.
Aged 16, however, he injured his leg in a moped crash and was bed-bound for months. He came back from the experience profoundly changed (in a morbid postscript he was the last artist to play Paris’s Bataclan venue prior to the November terrorist attack).
“From the age of six to 15 years old, I was in a sport competition, in windsurfing,” he says. “My wish was to become a professional. Of course I had to stop sport because of an accident. I was immobilised for two years. I started to get into computers and learning about them.
Wary of he spotlight he did not enjoy the attention that came with Boulevard and Tourist. To be flavour of the hour was traumatising.
“I didn’t expect such an enthusiasm for my music in the world,” he says. “My first album, Boulevard, opened the doors in 1995 in different countries like US, England in the deep house electronic scene.
“Tourist was released on [iconic jazz label] Blue Note. This gave me the opportunity on tour a lot. I performed at jazz festivals and discovered a new public in far away countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
Navarre will be in Ireland next month for the Body and Soul festival in Westmeath. He has grown to enjoy performing. It took a while. Early on, stepping on stage every night and becoming the “face” of his music was draining, he says. The key was finding the right collaborators. He is looking forward to going on the road with the new LP, for which he will be accompanied by an ensemble of Malian players.
“I didn’t really enjoy taking Tourist on tour. But I find a lot of excitement and joy on stage now, since returning last November. The new musicians team is perfect for me. There is a lot of what I call ‘friendly complicity’ between us.”
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