The singer-songwriter Thomas Meluch, better known as Benoît Pioulard masterfully combines dreamy pop and folk music with the most gentle ambient sounds and his own voice. In our interview, Benoît unfolds the story of his love for lo-fi compositions, finding peace in a cosmopolitan city like Seattle, and the possibility of a new album coming soon… very soon!
Benoît Honoré Pioulard. How did you find this French pseudonym for your music project?
I’ve taken French classes since I was in my early teens, and at some point when I was 18 or 19 years old, ‘Benoît Pioulard’ was a name that appeared in a dream… So I wrote it down and attached it to some songs I was recording for a friend at the time, when I was still using my 4-track tape recorder. Somehow it persisted.
When did you become consciously interested in music? What made you to start experimenting with field recordings and your own voice?
I studied classical piano starting at the age of 5, and by the time I was 8 or 9 I had a subscription to Columbia House and BMG mail-order cassette catalogs… I would buy Nirvana and Smiths tapes (among others) and enjoy picking out the melodies of my favorite songs in between piano pieces I was learning. At the same time I had a couple of little cassette boom-boxes and would buy packs of cheap blank tapes, loving the fact that I could record myself, or the sounds of my mom cooking in the kitchen, or the birds in the forest behind my house… I would listen to them sometimes while falling asleep and they felt like instant memories that I could control. I feel the same about Polaroid film.
Even from the very beginning you warmly preferred the sound of lo-fi compositions, which is something that you still cherish within your music nowadays. What makes you so attracted to this ‘broken’ sounding?
I’ve realized that even early on, the music that appealed most to me contained both a lot of melody and a lot of texture. When one combines clean recordings with processed and altered things (as on tape) I’ve always found the result to be really rich & unique. The attraction is something innate and comforting, as mentioned before. I love that it seems at once permanent when something has been recorded, even though rationally I know that all physical formats will decay.
When you started recording music, you only prepared some special limited releases for your close friends and family. What made you decide to open up and broaden your horizons and possibilities?
When I started recording digitally at the age of 19 I used GarageBand on a borrowed laptop, and relished the fact that it was set up as intuitively (for me) as a 4-track, but the options were almost infinite by comparison… Having 12 or 15 elements in a single song was totally new to me and I spent all my time sculpting these pieces with total dedication and total excitement. Within a year I made my first 7” EP (‘Enge’) and finally felt comfortable enough with the material that I sent it around to some labels as a demo.
What are the tools of your trade and what kind of instruments do you play? Is there any that you would like to learn but you never had the chance to do so?
I still use GarageBand for all the solo things I make, in combination with a set of guitar pedals that I’ve become very familiar with. Instrument-wise I still love piano and drums the most, though I don’t have either of those things in my apartment at the moment. My guitars, bass, dulcimer, bells, kalimba and melodica are the current go-to music making things I employ, but I reckon that will change once my wife & I move into a bigger place.
Combining ambient, pop and folk music in such an exquisite way takes some courage. What or who inspired you on the way to find your own personal sound?
Courage? I don’t know, it’s always felt totally natural and – above all – really fun to take passions for different genres and try to find ways to fit them together with harmony. My biggest inspirations overall have been Brian Eno, William Basinski, Boards of Canada, The Remote Viewer, Hum, This Heat and Fennesz, though there are plenty of others who I’m sure have gotten under my skin in the good way.
Even though you live in Seattle, one of the fastest-growing cities in the US, you seem to have a special relation with nature. How do you think your habitat influences the atmosphere of your music? Could you imagine yourself living secluded on the countryside?
It’s true that my mental state is best when I’m surrounded by nature, but a place like Seattle has everything: mountains to the east and west, forests all around, rocky and sandy beaches, the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean… It only takes 20 or 30 minutes by car to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, so it’s not such a stretch. As for the countryside, absolutely; I recorded my album ‘Hymnal’ in a small town on the coast of the English Channel in Kent, where things were otherwise pretty humdrum. It was a really productive period, and a peaceful one as well.
Lyrics are also really important in your oeuvre. Do you first write them, then you compose music for it or vice versa?
This changes from song to song… Most commonly I’ll come up with a vocal melody while walking or on my bike, record it and thumb through my notebooks until I find a word or phrase that seems to work with that melody. From there it’s a few days of composition and revision as I sit with the guitar or piano and structure the song, and then a day or two of recording. I don’t like things to sit too long without being recorded, since my energy and excitement about them changes if I get too bedeviled by details.
The visual side of your music projects is also extremely strong. Most of the time you create your own album covers and you have a generous number of video clips for your tracks, collaborating with various directors. Did you give them instructions how to picture the atmosphere of your music or they got a free hand?
I’m glad you feel that way! The album covers that I’ve created are all Polaroids, and they were shots that I knew instantly would be used for something – that gut feeling is something you can’t fake or reproduce. As for collaborations, I work with people that I trust and I can’t think of any instances where I’ve significantly changed anything about a video that was being made for me… Ryan Jeffery, Daniel Algarin, Rinee Shah and Chris Hefner have all done fantastic visual pieces for my songs, and I’m so grateful.
Before releasing your latest album ‘Hymnal’ last year, you’ve started a campaign on IndieGoGo to gather some financial support for your upcoming shows and to rebuild your studio. How did that work out at the end and what were your personal experiences regarding collective online fundraising?
That felt like kind of a leap of faith, but it worked out amazingly and I couldn’t be happier… It was a great convergence of timing, since I had an album coming out, I’d made a special edition and at the time I didn’t have a day job. I got tons of support from all over the place, which was totally encouraging and humbling, and I only hope that the things I provided in return were up to standard for those that helped me out. The most fun was writing & recording the exclusive songs that five people bought, especially since one of them was for someone’s first dance at her wedding. No pressure, right?
How does the new studio function these days? According to your cat Banjo, you just finished your new album. What do we have to know about it at this point? When is it going to be released? Any tours planned this year?
I can’t say much about a new record at the moment, except that it’s been finished and I have a few ideas about packaging that I’m pretty excited about. And yes, our cats (Baxter and Banjo) seem to not mind all the ambient guitar that’s been filling the apartment for the past year. They’re both very sweet and well-behaved.
This year seems to be especially fruitful, since you’ve just released the second Orcas album together with Rafael Anton Irisarri. How are the reviews so far? Do you read them continuously?
I’ve read some of the feedback, of course – I tend to think that anyone who says they don’t read reviews of their work is probably not being totally honest. Thankfully it seems most people are totally receptive and interested in a way that’s increasingly valuable and rare, given that there’s just so much music, and chatter about music, constantly streaming into our ears and faces.
Besides Rafael, is there anyone else with whom you would like to collaborate with in the future?
I have my pipe dream fantasies about collaborations that will never happen, but I am also exceedingly pleased to have worked with a few extremely talented people with whom I’m also good friends… Rafael is one of these, as are Warren Hildebrand (aka Foxes in Fiction / head of Orchid Tapes), Kyle Bobby Dunn (with whom I just finished an LP) and Praveen Sharma.
What is your favourite album cover?
This is the toughest question! In terms of the perfect correlation between image and music, probably Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’, but I also love The Fleetwoods’ ‘Goodnight My Love’, Grouper’s ‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill’ and Felix’s ‘Oh Holy Molar’.
Who would you like to read an interview with on Sounds Of A Tired City?
I think my friend Kyle Bobby Dunn would have a good, sad joke or two for you.