Before she plays her debut London headline show, the rising artist gives us an insight into her imaginative musical universe
Charlotte Adigéry is a great storyteller. On Zandoli, the Belgian-Caribbean artist’s second EP, Adigéry sings sharp, observational tales about the strange world we all inhabit. On “Cursed and Cussed”, she conjures images of latex-clad cowboys, dancing side-by-side in a Berlin nightclub; meanwhile, “B B C”, which is definitely not named after the British broadcaster, considers the phenomenon of sex tourism from the perspective of middle-aged women. It’s not all sex, though: “High Lights”, the sweetest song on the EP, is all about afro hair and synthetic wigs.
For anybody familiar with WWWater, the project that Adigéry first came to prominence through, the difference will be surprising: WWWater is louder, rawer, punkier, and messier, with Adigéry exploring far more personal themes in her lyrics, but the music she makes under her own name is carried by a certain warmth and humanism. “With music nowadays, things have to be really instant – people want to know who you are, what you do, what your whole direction is, what your aesthetic is about. I felt this pressure really quickly,” Adigéry says, speaking over a crackly phone line. “With WWWater, it was like, ‘Okay, I need to tell my own story, and not have any intention sound-wise.’ I knew I wanted something raw and organic, not too glossy. I didn’t want to overthink things. For me, it was just like this child exploring new toys. Now, I’m really happy, and I feel my music as Charlotte Adigéry really reflects who I am and what I’m about. Hopefully I won’t ever be able to be categorised.”
Adigéry’s heritage is from Martinique and Guadalupe, and she draws on a lot of Caribbean musical traditions in her songs, like the Creole chants on “zandoli pa té ni pat” on “Paténipat” (translation: “the gecko didn’t have any legs”). There’s a bit of Belgium in it, too. The Zandoli EP was released by DEEWEE, the record label started by brothers Stephen and David Dewaele of the legendary Belgian groups Soulwax and 2manydjs, and produced by Adigéry and collaborator Bolis Pupul at their Ghent-based studio.
Charlotte Adigéry plays her London headline debut at the The Sebright Arms on Monday, March 18. Listen Zandoli and get to know her below.
When did you start making music?
Charlotte Adigéry: My mum’s a singer as well, so we always sang at home. I have a memory of singing when I was five – actually, it’s on the EP, you can hear it on the vinyl in the locked groove, a little recording of me when on this Fisher-Price thing. I decided to make music with bands when I was 17, doing backing vocals, and when I was 20, I started my first band with some friends – my first time with lead vocals and as a front-performer. Professionally, I think when I was 21, I started getting paid, and then I started (my solo) music at that same age.
What were your bands like before?
Charlotte Adigéry: Not as good? (Laughs) I love all kinds of music. I saw myself as a sponge, exploring all possible genres, and making my own thing out of it – I did cheap dance things, reggae, blues, everything.
When people ask what kind of music you make today, what do you tell them?
Charlotte Adigéry: Every time when people ask me I’m like, “Shit! Why haven’t I come up with a standard response?” I need to invent a new genre.
For Charlotte Adigéry, I say we use a lot of synthesisers, and in my lyrics, I take this observing point of view. I write stories about situations in which I’m not necessarily involved. (For example) my song “High Lights” is about the wonderful world of wigs, and the traditions and rituals and the political statements that black women make when they wear their afros, and the criticism you get when you change your hair too often, as I did. With WWWater, it’s rawer, dirtier, it has a punky vibe to it. That’s how I try to explain what it is. But, basically, just come see the show – then you’ll know.
How do you come up with lyrics for Charlotte Adigéry and for WWWater?
Charlotte Adigéry: With Charlotte Adigéry, often it’s Bolis (Pupul) who makes a small demo, and then the colours, the genre, the sounds inspire me. It happened with “Cursed and Cussed” off the EP, I just immediately saw beautiful men in latex, dancing in a dark room. The image was super clear, I’m not sure why. “B B C” is another. We found this drum computer in the DEEWEE studio, and you have those preprogrammed rhythms. One of them was called ‘Biguine’, and biguine is a genre from Martinique and Guadalupe, which is a crazy coincidence, so I said, “Okay, let’s make a song out of this.” The sound painting was made, I just had to describe what I saw.
I (also) love writing songs from my own experience, my own gut feeling and emotion, my pain and anger, and that’s what I do with WWWater. It’s a therapeutic way of writing.
Did you have any posters on your wall growing up?
Charlotte Adigéry: That takes me back. Let’s see, I’m in my room, but who…? (gasps) Oh! Did you know B2K? They were this R&B boy band from, I think, 2004. I was 14 then. They have a song that goes (singing), “Baby turn around / And let me see that sexy body go / Bump, bump, bump.” They were on my wall. I must’ve had a picture of Jennifer Lopez somewhere, because I was a huge fan of hers. And I had an Alicia Keys poster, and a big Janet Jackson poster.
“I take this observing point of view. I write stories about situations in which I’m not necessarily involved” – Charlotte Adigéry
Any of those artists still an inspiration?
Charlotte Adigéry: Maybe aesthetically. I really like the boldness and imagination that pop stars had in the 90s and early 2000s, like Janet Jackson and J-Lo. They’re still iconic to me. I re-listened to the ouvré of Jennifer Lopez not too long ago and I still enjoy it, I still think it’s relevant, her early stuff. But I started exploring other genres. I was brought up with soul and reggae, mostly, and my mum’s boyfriend was a metal producer, so we listened to a lot of metal as well – strange combination. Later on, I was like, “I need to broaden my references.” I liked David Byrne, the Smiths, and the Beatles – not their most known songs.
Is there any advice from your family passed down to you that you still hold dear?
Charlotte Adigéry: In my family, music was something we listened to to celebrate ourselves, to celebrate being together. I still use that when making music.
My mum advised me to stay as uncompromising as possible, to know what I’m worth and feel confident about who I am. If you feel like dying your hair blue, do it. That really inspired me to decide who I am without being scared of it.
What was school like for you?
Charlotte Adigéry: I always felt distant. I didn’t see myself as pretty. I always felt like an outsider. I realised people were really annoyed by my big mouth – if I have an opinion, if I think I’m not being treated well, I’d say so. I think it doesn’t always go well with the Flemish mentality. Being black, I felt really alone. When I said something I wasn’t okay with, I’d get remarks like, “Oh, it’s only because you’re black that you can say stuff like that.” One girl, I got angry at her, and she said, “Oh, you think because you’re black, you have the right to slap me?” Like, that’s not a thing?! What movie did you see (that made you think that)? When I started doing music, I felt, “Ah, this is home.”
Telling you this, I’m getting a little emotional. You forget how hard it is to understand who you are. It’s exhausting and it’s destabilising, but music really helped me.
You bring your heritage to your music, too.
Charlotte Adigéry: Yes, I turned it around. Even my last name, it didn’t sound white enough. My colour, my heritage, my hair, I saw it as a curse. I looked at Disney cartoons, I remember once crying, “Why aren’t I blonde? Why don’t I have long blonde hair? Why is my skin not white?” Through music, I turned all that around. The ‘curse’ is a blessing now.
Your family is from Martinique and Guadalupe. How do you bring that out in your music?
Charlotte Adigéry: With the first EP on DEEWEE, I started singing in Creole. This is a language I know – I’m not used to speaking it, but I understand it fluently. If I ever have children, I’ll teach them it as well. The Creole culture is so rich – I wanted to combine my western and Creole heritage, so I started making this song.
For the second EP, Bolis and I – we write together – we were talking about heritage. His mum is from China, she grew up in Hong Kong then came to Belgium and met his father. We’re both products of two worlds. It’s such an interesting thing, and a rather new one as well, to be telling the story of both worlds with pride, and exploring those two things and knowing it’s possible to meld those two. It became a more conscious decision to mix the two worlds for the second EP.
What’s your biggest inspiration in life, not just in music?
Charlotte Adigéry: Being in the now. It pulverises all worries, all pain, everything, if you’re really in the now. For me, I can reach that space while meditating, or while performing, because then I’m free of thought and I can feel like I’m really living. When I’m getting consumed by my phone, or by worry or expectations, or I’m chewing on old thoughts from the past, I’m not living. When I’m one with the situation, or with nature, or with the crowd, I really think “This moment has been so valuable.” In 20 years or 40 years or 50 years, when I’m old and grey, those will be the moments I treasure most.