Stromae

by Frank Woodbridge

The SASE Read: “There is no Escaping the Ascent.”
The tall, thin, elegant figure of singer Paul Van Haver, known as Stromae, enters a studio in the south of Paris. With it comes a large smile and bright, candid eyes. As we start talking about traffic jams, strikes, and taxicabs—a great deal of  daily Parisian life—we manage to reach a black leather sofa to make the hard-working and world-traveling man comfortable.

Stromae appears in all his charismatic simplicity. He’s equally at ease trying on furry Gucci slippers and a beautiful Comme des Garçons outfit as he is eating a Greek sandwich and French fries in the corner of the makeup room table with colorful Stardustian glitter all over his face. The Belgian pop star radiates humanity and simplicity.

I tell him this issue of Flaunt will be centered on themes of summer camp.

“It makes me think of uniforms. I used to be a Boy Scout, I’m not sure if it’s quite the same. We don’t really have summer camp here. I like the old school feel of it. Being closer to nature, connected to your environment, realizing you’re not alone, learning to live all together. It’s about that really, isn’t it? My nephew’s with the scouts, and it does him a lot of good. Makes him learn how to live with others respectfully,” he muses.

We talk about his tour, playing shows in Africa before heading back to Europe, then Canada, and ending with an October show in the U.S. at Madison Square Garden.

Stromae, of Rwandan and Flemish descent, studied percussion when he was a child, forming a hip-hop group with friends when he was in high school. He draws influences from both Cuban and central African music, and the Flemish chanson traditions.

In 2009, while working as a radio DJ, Stromae’s boss at NRJ Radio in Brussels aired his first single “Alors on danse” and the response from listeners was overwhelming—in a few weeks the single skyrocketed to number one on the Belgian charts—by the next year it reached number one in across Western Europe.

Since “Alors on danse,” the artist has been sought out to collaborate with the likes of Kanye West, Lorde, the Black Eyed Peas, and will.i.am.

His success on social media has charted the rise of his album sales. “Formidable,” his music video from 2013 that was recorded with hidden cameras on the streets of Brussels has garnered 115 million views. His newest single, “Carmen,”—the animated video for which features President Obama and Queen Elizabeth being eaten by giant twitter birds—has had 11 million views in two months.

“In the U.S., even though it’s going very well, it’s still a work in progress. Each time we go back there, it’s getting easier. The first time was pretty impressive for everyone. You have to get rid of all the clichés you have in mind, mostly due to the international aura of this huge country, or the legitimate expectation for Americans not being particularly interested in listening to songs in French. But we are proof that people can love music without understanding all the lyrics, all the hidden meanings, the little puns. After the show, it’s always different. People understand the project better when they’ve seen me on stage. I’m quite expressive. They’ve heard my groove, my vibe, that’s universal language. When you hear someone singing you don’t need to know what he’s talking about to know he’s sad or intense or excited or disillusioned. It is very interesting and challenging. It gives even more fuel to the project. And it’s already given me ideas for the third album.”

“In Africa, it’s the same as everywhere, in a way, because it’s an audience,” he says in response to how his music is perceived there. “But it’s also very different. It’s a vast continent as you know and it’s a new experience for me. Something in particular, in the beginning, struck me at each press conference. The guy introducing me always said ‘See, he’s here, for real. He came.’ And that made me think ‘Wow! They must have felt left [out] so many times to say that.’ This is how I interpreted this.  ‘How many awaited people fucked with them by not showing up in the end?’ And when you’re physically here, tickets start to sell a lot more. They need this to trust you. They need you to be here. And I am really happy to go back there. It’s awesome.”

The more we speak, the more I feel that the strong cohesion of Stromae’s musical and visual works cannot be parted from the man himself. Despite the clothes I’ve seen him change into while getting ready for the video shoot that took place right before the interview, it was always completely him that is seen. He’s all charisma and cool, full of tasteful ideas—a man of vision. And close to his team, whether his manager Dimitri Borrey or his stylist Coralie Barbier,

“It’s a thing we’re doing together. We’re a team. My big brother, he’s a photographer, my younger does the artistic direction. There is also Thomas Van Cottom my tour manager.  You see, I realized when I was studying Cinema at University that art is a luxury. At that time I began to understand there was more to life than rap and music. First of all, we have to feed ourselves, work, give birth, [and] educate ourselves. So I’m discovering with the people I work with, how their way of expressing themselves, whether it’s fashion, or marketing, or else, reflects on my personal medium of expression. And through the process, my music reflects and expands into other kinds of creation, like [my clothing line] MOSAERT and its clothing capsules designed by Coralie and I.”

The hour of departure approaches but Stromae doesn’t seem eager to get away from our sofa and everything it symbolizes at this moment: calm and quiet normality. When I ask him what he’d really want to do next, the answer comes with smile, stars in the eyes and a sigh: “I want to drive my car to who-knows-where and just stop there because I feel like it, for no other reason. I feel it’s time for me to have a moment on my own, and with my relatives. I need to be sort of hidden for a while, with no one watching. Surprisingly enough though, I found myself composing already. I thought that I would really need some time off before going back to it. Maybe it’s just another cliché but I’ve always thought you need to have a hard time writing new material. But in fact, this time it seems flowing. Who knows? Could be easy.”

As we hug each other to conclude this peaceful moment of sharing life stories and Stromae and his comforting team leave the building with all of their suitcases, it sure feels kind of empty. But summer is here now and the sun is smiling upon us all in the streets of Paris.

Photographer: René Habermacher at ReneHabermacher.com.

Stylist: Kanako B. Koga at kanako-b-koga.com.

Groomer: Alicia Dubois for adriencoelho.com.

Photography Assistant: Sebastien Meulenbergh.

Location: Galerie Jeanroch Dard, 67 rue de la Regence, 1000 Brussels at JeanRochDard.com.

Special Thanks: Jeanroch Dard and Jean Paul Lespagnard.

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