Tsar B: finding her own way to Belgium's pop throne

Pictures by Guillaume Kayacan


Tsar B’s debut album ‘The Games I Played’ was one of the most exciting projects to drop in Belgium this year. The Ghent-born 24-year-old Justine Bourgeus effortlessly stirs up a cocktail of infectious broken beats, singalong pop melodies and mystic soundscapes, balancing on the fine line between daytime radio material and a passionate dancefloor or bedroom soundtrack. “For some reason, I’m frequently charted in sex playlists”, says Bourgeus, who definitely has a knack for humour. “Even though I don’t make my music with this in mind, I play into this fad by handing out branded condoms on my latest shows”. From articles in famous magazines like Billboard, The Fader or i-D to big gigs in L.A., Istanbul or Budapest: 2018 has been an impressive year for this enthusiastic multi talent (she’s a violinist, a singer and a producer). However, all signs point to an even bigger year to come. We invited the tsarina for a photoshoot and an interview about her beginning, her present success and her future.

What has been your favourite reaction to the release of your debut album?

There have been countless lovely reactions from everybody, like people telling me my music meant a lot to them. Other than that, it struck me how far my music had gained fans. I don’t know why, but the album did really good in Brazil for example.

What’s your earliest musical memory?

It may sound cliché, but my mom used to listen to Mozart when she was pregnant. That may have had an influence. I started playing violin at the young age of 3, although you can’t really call that a violin. It’s like a piece of wood that teaches you the basic movements before you actually move on to the real thing!

When did you realize ‘I can really do this music thing’?

By the time I was 14 years old, I got really into Radiohead. I wanted to be a female version of them, but with a dark twist. And so I got looking for the right people who could help me with that. I ended up playing for a variety of different bands (most notably ‘School Is Cool’, red.), each of which taught me a lot about the music business and touring. Eventually, I realized this was something I wanted to do as a part of a group, rather than individually. That said, I was always quietly working on my own stuff on the side, so after a few years, I started Tsar B without a real plan in mind. I just kept on making music and before I knew I was performing on stage.

How did the band react when you told them you wanted to go solo?

Without many expectations, I showed the other band members I could do some producing of my own. They loved it. This made me realize I can do it on my own too; I don’t need anyone. So by the time I turned 20, I left School Is Cool and I got plenty of time to work on my own music.

It’s clear that you have a distinct idea of how you want your music, artwork and shows to look like. Do you like to keep in control of everything?

I would never describe myself as a control freak, but deep down I know I am, despite the fact I’m quite the laissez faire type of person who does everything at the last possible moment. Throughout the years I have learned to let go when you’re working with people you trust, letting everything flow naturally. In the beginning, all of the Tsar B shows were very meticulously planned into detail, but now it’s so much more unrestricted. Every band member has a certain space in which they can do their own thing without rules. This approach has influenced me in many other ways. For example, I would never allow someone else to direct a music video for me when I was younger, but now I realized it’s better to let go and create a synergy with different people. Now, I want to include as many people as possible because it will spice things up.

Which track of the album are you most proud of?

I think ‘Velvet Green’, because it’s a track that shows what Tsar B is all about. There are beats, but there are classical elements too. It’s something different, a ballad, but then again it’s 100% ‘me’.

On stage, a whole lot has changed since your first solo performances about 4 years ago. You have become incredibly confident for example. How do you prepare for your shows?

I used to see live shows as a necessary part of music, so I was very cautious when I didn’t get the desired reaction from the audience. I always thought: ‘why should I do my best if you guys aren’t even trying? But now I just go all out. I will give the best version of myself on any stage, regardless of the fact if there are many people or not. When the crowd really gets in the mood, I’ll become even more enthusiastic – much more than I ever would a few years ago. Performing live is an effective way to channel some aggression. Sometimes I wish I could smash my violin on stage! Maybe I should bring a really cheap one with me next time? If I ever get invited for Jools Holland’s show, I’ll bring a violin with the sole purpose of slamming it into pieces.

Smashing aside, would you also consider doing just violin performances?

If I’m honest, I would love to start a classical project next year, writing pieces for an orchestra or something. That’s my next goal. Making music for completely different projects: movie scores, opera, etc. I become so happy just thinking about it.

So what has been the last show where you went all out?

Definitely Istanbul! Everyone was singing along to every tune and in the end, dozens of people joined me on stage. It was wild. I already had a feeling that was going to be a good show, because Turkey – after Brazil – has a lot of dedicated Tsar B fans. That’s something we have learned from checking our Spotify plays.

That’s actually quite interesting. Why Turkey?

I don’t know. A lot of Belgian things are doing really good over there, like Oscar and the Wolf for example. I think ‘Belgian music’ is a thing over there, so as soon as they know it’s from here, they are more open to it.

Which Belgian artists would you love to collaborate with?

If I’m honest: Mauro Pawlowski (renowned singer and guitarist from countless bands like dEUS and Evil Superstars, red). He really is one of the most inspiring Belgian musicians out there. He’s so clever and versatile, whatever project he takes on. He is a massive source of inspiration for me.

Ever since Alexander Chung made a choreography for you, your music has been inspiring dancers around the world. You regularly repost videos of people pole dancing and twerking to your music every week. How does that feel?

I’m so grateful for that! It feels so absurd when people make art from something you created, especially because these are not tracks that you would label as ‘twerk music’. I rarely make music with ‘the club’ in mind. But in the end that doesn’t matter. Nothing keeps your music more alive than people making choreographies to your music. It just makes me so happy.

Ok, but take the drums and rhythm of ‘Brazil’ for example. I’m sure you knew it had a high club potential when you pieced that track together…

Well, yeah, kind of. I’m really into the baile funk wave that’s coming from Brazil right now. I’m a massive MC Bin Laden fan for example. I got a lot of inspiration from that movement because it uses a highly infective broken beat, which makes it feel really connected to my own music. Some people say it sounds ‘Eastern’ or ‘exotic’, but it’s not. I just don’t want to use things that sound different from an usual snare and kick. Instead I prefer to use rhythms from Brazil, sitars from India or drums from Africa.

Is that the direction you will be going from here?

Actually, no. My forthcoming music will be quite calm and introvert to be honest. But you can be sure there will be a reaction after that. I can already feel the dancefloor itch that will inevitably come afterwards!

What’s your biggest wish for the coming year?

I wish I can make a wide variety of different music and that I can be able to travel because of that. It feels so good to soak up the vibes in new places and being able to translate those into new music. That’s just such a good source of inspiration. Currently, I’m in a good flow and I want to make the most of it.