Stromae: Maestro Take Your Place | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Maestro Take Your Place

Mar 31, 2015 Bookmark and Share

It’s a strange place that Paul Van Haver, better known as Stromae, finds himself in these days. The Belgium-based singer-songwriter is split between two words. He’s visible enough in Europe that Kanye West felt compelled to add additional verses to his high energy single “Alors On Danse.” But despite having held his own against the likes of Lorde, Haim, Pusha T, and Q-Tip on “Meltdown,” his collaborative contribution to last year’s Mockingjay soundtrack remains a relative unknown. His SXSW promotional campaign played on that, coupling high fashion photos of the singer with the tagline “Who the Hell is Stromae?”

Sprawled on a couch outside of Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel, clad in a light blue sweater rimmed with yellow, the thirty-year-old singer-songwriter certainly looks the role of an upcoming pop star—even if he admits to a certain amount of bashfulness when speaking English. (For the record: his fear that he might be misunderstood is unfounded.) Polite to a fault, Van Haver confesses that he’s not always quite so well mannered as he might appear.

“I’m exhausting to all the members of my team!” At this confession, Van Haver lets out a self-deprecating laugh. “Everybody knows I never take a decision. It takes like one month to take a decision. Just to say yes or no. Most of the time, it’s just in between. It’s not a yes or no! That’s me… That’s exactly the meaning of the track “Bâtard.”

Perhaps it’s indecision, coupled with childhood family listening sessions (Van Haver runs down his four siblings’ musical diets as including Mozart, the Blade Runner soundtrack, Celine Dion, Public Enemy, and Technotronic) that contributes to the delicious sonic hodgepodge of his sophomore album Racine Carrée (translation: square root). Borrowing heavily from the pop, R&B, EDM, electro-clash, and hip-hop worlds, the album sees Van Haver trotting out everything from an old-school chanson française croon, to a rapid-fire rap. The slice-and-dice sound is a cinematic backdrop for his impassioned howled lyrics about brutal breakups, drunken encounters, illness, politics, and life on the edge—all that might make you wish you paid closer attention in your high school French classes.

“It’s a way to escape, it’s a way to express some stuff that you cannot express in the real life,” he says. “I’m pretty shy…I couldn’t talk about the meaning and the message I’m talking about in my songs in real life. Talking about cancer, for example, [or] talking about all the different subjects I’m talking about in my songs. It’s difficult for me to talk in the real life. I think it’s the same for songwriters and composers.”

Singing in French, Van Haver continues, is more about rooting himself in reality than running from it. How can he tell stories if he doesn’t truly believe in what he’s saying?

“It’s about sincerity,” he notes. “If one day English is the most sincere language I speak, it’s going to be in English. It’s just because my mother language is French. I’m sure that people understand that, even English-speaking people understand when you’re faking or imitating. I think you have to be sincere.”

He gestures to the audio recorder on the table in front of him. “You write,” he observes. “And I’m sure it’s the best way for you to express yourself sincerely.”

Therein lies the Stromae paradox. Surely, it’s impossible to be all things to all people—but Van Haver walks so many lines he might come close. A serious musician willing to make himself the butt of the joke. Polite in conversation, but undeniably forceful on stage. Able to dig into his dark side, even if he makes no secret of his preference for life’s joys. When asked what’s making him happiest these days, the musician answers quickly.

“Love to everything and everybody,” he says, emphatically. “The people you meet. The job you do. Your family. I think that’s an important word. It’s not just a word.”

Van Haver pauses, evaluating his response. “A bit cliché,” he laughs. “But it’s important to be cliché sometimes.




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