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London, 2020

During this interview, I change seat, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to French composer Mathieu Karsenti. One year after our first interview, and many releases in between, the musician returns with exciting news and a new release. 


Mathieu, it’s been a while since our last exchange. Bring us up to date with what has happened over the last two years.


Aside from my work composing regularly for film and TV, I have worked on a few personal projects, exploring further what I do and taking some life changing decisions!


Now, tell us more about Bygones, your latest project.


I composed Bygones during London lockdown. Like many others, I was on my own in my flat with no major project on the horizon and I felt compelled to go within and write lots of music. It started out with finishing a couple of projects I had on the back burner and then my friend James Murray from Slowcraft got in touch with the idea of writing something specific for his ambient label on his Lifelines series. The first lot was Downstream Blue which we released in June 2020 and now Bygones, a further exploration of those sound ideas I had been playing with.


One can really see a clear evolution in your works, from Aitaké and Movements to Downstream Blue and Bygones. There is still a contrapuntal approach to much of it, but the pace has gone down a lot; it seems to be even more about the details and the little things. 


Yes, with both Downstream Blue and Bygones, it was really my reaction to the world events that were unfolding at the time, and a need to go within and reassess. I practise meditation regularly and these tracks came out of that. I also found that with my film scoring I was fusing a lot of sound design with music and I naturally gravitated towards exploring that further. With my previous releases, there was a definite attempt at composing and proposing melodic ideas, with these last two projects I let things flow more naturally and painted musically what I felt. My music will always be painterly and with these two projects, let’s say I am using watercolour instead of oils! Lastly, I found that I wanted to capture sounds around me, incorporate them musically into my work and attempt a kaleidoscopic, multi-sensorial effect within my music where sounds bleed into each other and into musical motifs or chords.


What about the themes of the album, which at times seem a lot more personal?


The more I was working on this, the more it felt personal. The album feels to me like being under a blanket, coming up for air but hearing sounds and the world around me fretting about and not taking part. I think many people will resonate with this need to distance themselves from the news, from the uncertainty of the pandemic and the constant bombardment of opinions and politics. There are also tracks that are bolder, where I am definitely awake and defiant but overall I am looking at things from afar. The tracks are also open for interpretation with titles that suggest rather than dictate - something I am keen to keep doing with my releases. The listener is free to interpret my music as they wish even though it may come from a personal standpoint.


Bygones is your goodbye to London and symbolises your departure and return home. In a nutshell, how has this city influenced and developed your artistry and musicianship?


When I composed Bygones, the idea of leaving London was not strictly decided yet but maybe it was in my subconscious. We saw an empty London during lockdown — a city that is always moving, that is usually vibrant. It felt like it was stripped bare and laid out for all to see. As the months went on, I realised more and more that my time in London was coming to an end. I had already projected to leave a while back but I guess the pandemic consolidated that idea. 

London can be a tough city when you are an artist and in the past I have gone from loving it to hating it in equal measures. Practically speaking, it is definitely made me more independent, more curious and more daring in the face of adversity but it has also given me many opportunities and made me develop as a musician with a worldwide view of things. And so after twenty-seven years, my London chapter ends naturally, without regrets, without resentment, with great memories, great friends and… with an album that represents in artform my impressions of London!


Tell us how this release is also influenced by Slowcraft — its record label —, and their series Lifelines. 


I met James Murray through a friend and we connected with a mutual appreciation of our work. Jim came to me with the idea of composing something, an EP perhaps that could fit in with Slowcraft, his ambient label. I was not sure at first as I am not an ambient or full electronic artist but I realised that I could relate to it through film scoring when I mixed sound design in my work. Lifelines is a series by various artists, one-off projects for Slowcraft that are not strictly ambient and that are not signed to the main roster. Once I started developing some ideas and with some guidance from Jim on what he liked, it felt right to explore further. Little did I know I would end up writing an EP and two albums’ worth of material…!


So after Bygones, what’s next?


So there is more coming from that period. As lockdown progressed, I realised I had another album coming together, perhaps more looking to the future rather than looking at my past London life. I am still conceptualising it and it may or may not come out through Slowcraft. I also have some nocturnes I had recorded last year for woodwinds and strings and a new project for Kora.


Thanks very much Mathieu. You know this one I believe; last one for the road—one book, one album, one film—tell us about your latest cultural pearls?


As I have been in the process of moving out of London and staying with family in France, I have not had a huge amount of time to read anything! But musically, I am definitely going through a Sarah Vaughan phase. I have rediscovered an album she did with French composer Michel Legrand, it is amazing. Her voice is one if not the best female American voice ever and she gives you so many treats when you listen to her! On Netflix, I’ve recently enjoyed The Umbrella Academy, Da Five Bloods and Unorthodox. My taste is quite varied so I will give most things a chance, especially if a friend recommends something they have watched. 


Bouncing on Mathieu’s words, I strongly suggest to discover the universe of Slowcraft, creators of moments in time. Read my review of Bygones.

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