Tristan is the new Isolde

Pictures by Alexander Popelier

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Here she comes again. Isolde Van den Bulcke, previously known as Siam, reincarnated as the more grown-up version of herself, developed into ambient pop that sounds dark, spacious and full of jazz. But there’s humour in everything she does. Her first ep ‘Illusje’ only being on the way for March, no one less than Max Colombie already calls her the new-born female role model. Here comes Tristan.

“I come from a musical family. What I mostly remember of family dinners is that everyone was always singing. But it took a few years until I discovered my own voice.”

Nevertheless, you ended up singing and producing yourself.

I did, although I never intended to do the producing myself in the first place. After working with a few producers, I noticed I just couldn’t explain myself clear enough to really find what I was looking for. That’s when I opened Ableton for the first time. I remember thinking: ‘What am I going to do with this?’ – I didn’t learn anything about producing at school, so I watched some tutorials and started to trial and error. It was hard at first, but learning something completely on your own makes you create things in your very own way, which I really like. Some artists always start out of a melody, for example, but I never do. The chords come always first. Or a groove. When I notice I’m starting to repeat myself, I listen to different music, looking for interesting elements.

Jazz?

Not exactly. I always listen to music that intrigues me at some point. There’s Björk’s latest album, Utopia, which contains a lot of interesting elements, structure-wise.

And there’re the birds.

Yes, but they are way more next level than the birds you hear in my music. What you hear in Björk’s album are deformed samples. Arca, the producer of the album, is my personal hero. I also listen a lot to his latest personal record, Arca. The album Oneohtrix Point Never made for the movie Good Time is great as well, but I revert to classic albums like Masive Attack’s Heligoland just as much.

How do you work on your lyrics?

They’re always the last thing I add to a song, but it depends how I write them. Sometimes, I just open a book and look for a sentence that speaks to me, which I then use as a starting point. ‘Your name is just another word in my email’, that’s the kind of stuff I remember. I want to use that one in a future song, by the way [laughs].

Do you start from a mood sometimes?

Yes, that too. In ‘Brompooster’, I sing about the fact that the refugee problem and other current topics are mostly all distanced so far from our daily lives, that we can’t give that much to it and keep living individually. For me personally, that song carries an emotional value, but I don’t expect everyone to follow the message it brings.

So, no statements?

I wouldn’t take a position outside of my musicianship. For me, being a musician means having the chance to communicate my way of thinking, but I would never want to appear as a guest in a discussion on the refugee problem, for example, because I’m part of the accusation I make in ‘Brompooster’ myself. I’m not better than anyone else. What I do, is just showing. Making music that can present itself as a mirror, instead of slamming in your face.

But at the same time, a lot of feminism houses inside you.

Certainly. It’s not that I’m afraid of saying what I stand for, as long as the message isn’t pushing itself too hard to the frontline. I’m annoyed when things get too loaded. Like in reverse feminism, or in lyrics too, sometimes. What can make me feel very negative, when watching those kinds of live shows. If you look at the political message of Kendrick, you see that he uses a completely different way of speaking out his public. He speaks of no boundaries. What I want to say is that music can be a good way to point out an errand, but I think you can better reach people in a positive way, then to deploy your message as a weapon. It can better be constructive.

Is that why you write more cryptic, poetic lyrics?

Yes. For me, it’s more interesting to touch something, make it hanging in the air, by which everyone can interpret for themselves. Text and language are so broad that there can be several ways of hearing a certain line or verse. All these different kinds of reading and archiving, that’s what makes words so interesting for me.

But at We Are Open, you wore a shirt with the line ‘Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?’ on it.

That wàs in your face, wasn’t it? [laughs] It’s a wink. If you do things like that with a smile, I think it can work. At least I hope that the audience could see the irony of it. Because if I shout, I do it with a smile. I’m never going to be Bob Dylan or PJ Harvey. I’m not a singer-songwriter.

What would you call yourself then?

If I say composer, I sound very traditional. And ‘songwriter’, that’s just tacky. But there’s nothing in between. Musician maybe, but that doesn’t tell anything about the fact that I sing, nor that I write my own music. So, I prefer to stick with composer: it’s linked to a more classical course, but everything better than to be linked with music where you can predict what’s coming.

What are your ambitions with Tristan?

Right now, I want to express the awareness that my music is not for a large audience. But at the same time, I hope that it’s not going to be received as ‘musicians-music’, by which I mean that it’s needlessly complex. That’s my biggest fear. When you’re a student at the conservatory, all this knowledge sweeps over you, what makes you afraid of making boring music. Which can discharge in reverse results anyway. When you want to show too much, the result gets dull and monotonous once again. I’m sure that if I wouldn’t work with vocals, my music would be too complex. That’s the advantage of being a singer: by adding a voice, the audience is guided. This red line comes with a lot of possibilities.

Would you ever think about making an instrumental record?

Yes, I do. But not as Tristan. I would still use my voice, but without lyrics. It could be an interesting research on how to use my voice as a musical instrument.

The differences between Siam and Tristan are obvious, but how are they different to you?

There’s not a single similarity for me either. But it’s not that I decided one day to start doing to opposite of what I was doing. It was a gradual transition. When I first started writing the songs that are now on Illusje, I thought of continuing as Siam. But it started becoming more and more clear that this was going to be something very different. I started producing myself, which I didn’t with Siam either. I didn’t connect with what I was doing before anymore. Everything I was doing, was changing and it felt so different, existential even. At the same time, I couldn’t believe that Siam was having success, because I didn’t take it seriously. I felt like I didn’t deserve it. Sometimes, I was even ashamed, as I knew I wasn’t making music I would listen to myself, that I found cool of good enough. I had to quit. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful for the opportunities that I got with Siam.

How do you come up with your titles?

Haha! I just kept my working titles. I really don’t see why you would change titles instead of just keeping them closest to what they are. ‘Frank’ is named after Frank Ocean, because of a synth that made me think of him – so, ok. Another one is called ‘Tof Belletje’, what probably makes you think: ‘what the fuck?’. But during repetitions with my band, it just became ‘Tof Belletje’. It’s so logical to us. The same with ‘Brompooster’. I don’t remember where it came from, but it’s probably something between ‘brompot’ and ‘broodrooster’. The title refers to the round, rumbling sound of the song. ‘Plandt’ is because I’m terrible with -dt-spelling. [laughs] As random as it sounds, I couldn’t possibly change it into ‘Do you wanna go there’ or something. As if that isn’t random! I’m very honest and open, and I think these titles are a good reflection of that. Maybe I can announce my songs during live shows with their title: “The next song is called ‘Tof Belletje’”. It would definitely break the ice, and loosen up the loaded atmosphere by downplaying it tremendously: it’s just a song, you know.

  • 14/03 online release of Illusje
  • 8/03 WWWater + Luwten & more - Het Depot, Leuven
  • 21/03 Tristan at Democrazy, Nest, Gent