I must confess, right from the offset, Sarah Hezen…
seems like my perfect woman. It is almost as though she has been created in a biometric laboratory to my specifications: although her immense humanity and heart – combined with Gallic passion and enormous intelligence – could never go into anything/anyone synthetic. Her music tastes are exquisite – name-checking In Rainbows as one of her favourite albums means she is alright by me! Couple that with her incredible beauty and amazing musical talent and you have someone heart-breaking, soul-nourishing and incomparable.
I speak to HEZEN about her music and how she likes London life – the Paris-born musician moved here and certainly feels synchronised to the beat and drive of modern London existence. In addition, she discusses her latest E.P., Stigma; tackling unconventional, possible taboo themes and comparisons to Björk – an artist she admires and sources as a heroine. I ask her to select a song to close the review (another perfect selection does not help with the whole wish-I-could-marry-her-now conundrum) and what she has planned for the rest of this year. Make no mistake about it: HEZEN is an artist I am very keen to review!
Hi HEZEN. How are you? How has your week been?
Hi! I'm good thanks. Very tired after the E.P. launch (and release) but very happy! I'm writing from Budapest - where I'm taking a few days off. It's sunny and cold and peaceful: exactly what I needed.
For those new to your music can you introduce yourself, please?
My name is Sarah Hezen. I'm French and currently living in London. I'm a songwriter and a music producer - and my solo project is called HEZEN.
Stigma is your latest E.P. and boasts some wonderful songs. Oil Fire recalls Massive Attack and Thom Yorke (among others). It was created on your iPhone – a macro lens and some awesome post-production. What was the inspiration behind the song?
Thanks for the amazing comparison: these are my favourite artists! I have no idea where Oil Fire came from, to be honest. I remember the lyrics flowing out, and in ten minutes, it was done. That must have happened to me only three times ever! I was trying to make sense of a lot of things in my life and I think I needed to talk about resilience. But I wanted to peek into the mind of my character and reveal how these hopeful thoughts could also be just a coping mechanism.
There's a very dark alternative interpretation to the lyrics “It's only water on an oil fire”: the fire could either represent the strength to fight back, to grow and heal; but it could also be the fire that's hurting inside.
In the video, I wanted to create that same uncertainty, visually. The cracked skin is either an armour, a thick layer that protects what's vulnerable inside, but it's also a raw and claustrophobic envelope.
The Girl You Want is one of the standouts. It looks at women as objects: the way they are reduced to meat, essentially. Do you think there is sexism in music and how important was it addressing the issue of sexism?
There is sexism everywhere; you cannot escape it. We're talking about centuries of culture and behaviours and stigmatisation and thinking modes deeply ingrained. Everybody is sexist, me included. What's important is acknowledging our bias and correcting it. For that to happen, we need to talk about it: open the conversation in both directions and I think art, in general, is a wonderful way to ask questions and provoke a debate.
As your music does tackle some lesser-heard subjects: do you feel too few other musicians document subjects like violence and sexism?
I think they're difficult subjects that can put people off because it can often sound like ‘us’ versus ‘them’ - which is not the point at all, on the contrary. I'm criticising a system, not people. But it's not going to work with everybody, which is fine. Also, it's not a very ‘sexy’ subject! But pain, anger, misunderstanding and frustration have created the most amazing protest songs in the past, so I believe sexism and violence are great material. I think lots of artists are very vocal about sexism (Beyoncé, Björk; Grimes, Madonna; FKA Twigs...) and I feel very lucky to live in a time when these things can be talked about and challenged in the mainstream discourse - because it definitely changes things.
Try Me is a cautionary tale with a nice twist. In terms of vocals; it a seductive and arresting performance. Have you any particular vocal idols or standout singers you grew up lionising?
Lots of singers had a massive impact on me when I was growing up; especially in my teenage years. Sia with Colour the Small One and Tori Amos with Little Earthquakes were big influences – I was fascinated with their quiet-singing and the emotion that came in it. I was also very shy and hated the idea that someone could hear me singing and playing the guitar, even my sister, so I only sang very, (very) very quietly, late at night. Their lyrics were also very dark and personal and it resonated very strongly with me. I've always been a little bit Emo...
I fell in love with Thom Yorke's voice back then too as well as his songwriting. For me, all these artists have a very original way of using their voice and their melodies are often striking and unexpected - which really is something I love.
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Smoke & Mirrors closes Stigma and is your most epiphanic moment. Can you remember creating the track and what led up to its birth?
Smoke & Mirrors is about closure, about acknowledging what makes us, us: the sum of experiences we went through that partly defines who we are. The track refers to a very profound experience I had a few years ago when that acknowledgement happened. It kind of ripped a veil and made me realise all the things that were keeping me from being who I wanted to be. It's the last track I wrote for the E.P. and I felt like dedicating it to this moment; all the other tracks relate to experiences which shape the individual - whether it's caving in or pushing back; Smoke & Mirrors is a realisation of these forces and the realisation that we can decide to let them define us or not.
You are based in London but hail from France. What compelled the decision to move to London and how does our capital compare to ‘home’? Are there more opportunities for you here?
I came to London for the first time when I was twelve (with my family) and I remember falling in love with the city. Since then, I knew I wanted to live here.
When I got an opportunity to study here in 2010 I jumped on it. I have never regretted it.
What struck me the most when I arrived in London is the feeling that you can achieve whatever you put your mind to if you work hard. I couldn't really tell if there are more opportunities here than in Paris because London is the place where I started working seriously on my project. There's just a vibe that happened to coincide with what I was looking for when I moved here - which hasn't gone since then.
I detect the bravery and innovation of Björk in your music. You, like the Icelandic icon, address tough themes and create wonderful electronic soundscapes. Who are the artists that have compelled you most?
That's an amazing compliment, thank you! As a matter of fact, if I had to choose one artist who has had the most impact on me and on the aims I have as an artist it would be Björk. She is my absolute hero, in every aspect of her art: the visionary aesthetic of her production, the visual universe she created; her choice of themes which are both intimate and political... she is an extraordinary human. She has this incredible ability to transcend time and genres and that's what I hope I'll be able to achieve one day. She also has a special place in my heart since I read her interview on Pitchfork two years ago, The Invisible Woman. I think it's safe to say it changed my life.
You launched Stigma at The Finsbury (London) recently. What was the reaction like there and do you have any more gigs coming up?
It was the first time we played the E.P. live - so the pressure was high - but I think we did really well. I really didn't expect so many people to turn up. One thing that really moved me is that a girl I met at the Finsbury (four or five years ago at a gig I played there) came all the way from Edinburgh to see us! That was pretty special.
Coming up, we're playing a gig on March 28th at The Victoria in Dalston for a night called ROAR - that supports emerging female artists. Really looking forward to it! Keep an eye on the HEZEN Facebook page for more.
I have seen so many great reviews for your music – from some established publications and websites. Is it quite daunting hearing such acclaim and what has been your fondest memory (to date) as an artist?
I was a bit anxious when I released the songs that no one would like them – I confess I am not the kind of person who creates just for the sake of it.
I write songs because I want to move people. So, if it doesn't, there's no point. I didn’t expect anyone to talk about it, so I've been amazed by the response.
My fondest memory when it comes to putting my music out there is probably the reaction I got from Adam Hill from Alphabet Bands. I contacted him when I released the music video for The Girl You Want last year and I don't think I've ever had such beautiful words written about my music ever. He wrote more reviews about the other songs later; all equally amazing. I've been in touch with him since then and his support means a lot to me.
The way you make music and record is groundbreaking and refreshing. Conventionality and predictability are not in your lexicon. Do you think you’d be a lesser artist (or less free) were you record and create music the same as everyone else?
I don't think what I do is ground-breaking. I definitely get inspiration from artists who paved the way before me. But I do try to make sounds and melodies that aren't too predictable.
Ultimately, I want to provoke feelings within people, so I think the Pop song structure offers some familiar ground.
Then it gives me more freedom to experiment with chord progression, beats and sounds. That's where all the fun is for me. I get bored very fast of what I do and I get very annoyed at myself when I realise that I'm reproducing a recipe that I've done before. So, there's a lot of disappointment and frustration when I write. But it's worth the thrill I get when I come up with something I didn't expect. I don't think there's a way - that artists use more than any other - to create music though so I'm not sure I'd be a lesser artist if I was using another way. I hope I'll be using lots of ways!
If you had to take three albums to a remote island, what would they be and why?
Heligoland by Massive Attack. I cannot get bored of this album. It was released shortly before I moved to London so I was a really good mental place - knowing that a new and exciting chapter full of possibilities was about to start for me.
The Magic Flute by Mozart. I've been listening to this opera since I'm a kid and it's had a huge role in the style I've adopted (blending orchestral instruments and electronic sounds). I still can't sing the Queen of the Night Aria though; despite practising for years in the shower...
In Rainbows by Radiohead. Pure beauty.
PHOTO CREDIT: Isaac Murai
Are there any new artists, either locally or mainstream, you suggest we check out?
There are many amazing ‘female producers’ emerging these days and it's really exciting: Sevdaliza, Tsar B and Tallisker to name a few. I also discovered Gaika last year who I think is awesome. I saw him at the Roundhouse in an immersive show: he was singing from a small stage in the centre of the room and invited people to walk in circles around him. There was something very religious to it; I really loved the idea.
What advice would you provide any young songwriter coming through right now?
For me, the hardest thing you have to deal with when you're a songwriter or an artist in general is dealing with the anxiety (that you've done your best work) and that you won't be able to write again.
It's a lie. But it needs constant reminding because you'll so easily forget that you've been through this before and that you broke that wall many times. Last year, I kept a diary to keep track of the periods during which I felt dry - as well as the breakthroughs - with a description of the joy and transcendental thrill it gave me - it helped a lot. It's about remembering these moments and remember that's why you write.
Finally, and for being a good sport, you can name any song (not yours as I’ll do that) and I’ll play it here.
Laura Marling – Soothing
I heard this track recently on the radio and it left me breathless.