Alsace Lorraine

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Alsace Lorraine is the dreamy pop project of bass player Paul Francke and a group of contributors that include Isol, Caitlin Brice, Stephen Jarrell and Hewson Chen—they reside in different cities but come together in New York when they need do full band recordings—the sound of their latest release “Dark One” (Darla) is comforting, but not without its darker moments of loneliness. The album is beautifully engaging with melodic and poetic examinations of some of the most puzzling aspects of love and companionship. Yet, despite its content and sophistication the album is quite accessible and a pleasure to listen to.

Our readers will certainly be very happy to know that Isol, the former singer of Argentinean electro-pop group Entre Rios has joined Alsace Lorraine. Isol, who is also an illustrator and creator of several children’s books, began her long distance collaboration on the album before actually meeting the rest of the band in person. Isol sings in English for the first time and, while I won’t deny that I miss her singing in Spanish with her distinct Argentinean accent, the result is nevertheless exceptional. Dark One also includes remixes by Ian Catt of St. Etienne and Robin Guthrie of The Cocteau Twins.

We bring you a Q&A session with Paul and Isol that we completed via e-mail with Paul and Isol and in which they talk abut the process of creating an album such as Dark One, and the possibilities for further musical exchange across languages and cultures.

NYR: OK, so I know that Alsace Lorraine is a region that France and Germany have disputed in the past and I also know that Lorraine is the name of a street in Brooklyn; does the name of the band have a connection to either the region in Europe or the street in Brooklyn?

Paul: In the late nineties in Chicago, some of our friends’ groups had European place-names, like Aden and Toulouse. (I only found out recently that the band Toulouse base their name on Toulouse-Lautrec) I wanted to go along with that, and I suggested Alsace Lorraine, cause of its history (I like Schikele’s ’alsacianity of the spirit’ as a positive aftermath of the wars) and because I liked the sound. Hewson liked it and we agreed on it. No connection to Lorraine Street.

NYR: I was under the impression that Alsace Lorraine was based in New York, but are you actually in Chicago or in Virginia?

Paul: New York is where most of the live band lives, so it’s where we practice, and where we try to do any full band recording. But the reality is that we’re not entirely based in New York, or any one city, because Isol’s permanently in Buenos Aires and I live in Philadelphia. Chicago is where we started, and Alexandria, Virginia was where I worked on most of Dark One.

NYR: How does Dark One differ from your last album Through Small Windows?

Paul: The big difference is that Isol and I sing on it. Caitlin (Brice) and I wrote the lyrics and vocal melodies to Through Small Windows, but I wrote the lyrics on Dark One, and Isol and I did the vocal melodies. And I think this album is less spacey, and more conventional and poppy than the last one. That isn’t necessarily something we’ll keep going with, but it was fun at the time.

NYR: I do not like to make comparisons between bands, but you guys do seem to be a certain relation to bands like St. Etienne and Cocteau Twins, and Robin Guthrie even remixed two tracks from Dark One, do you also seek out music from artists from other parts of the world who might not necessarily sing in English?

Paul: I haven’t done that enough in the past, and even now a lot of the non-anglo groups I love most are friends, or friends of friends, and that’s the only reason I know about them. I should be better about seeking out all sorts of non-anglo music. But I do love Rumskib, Dani Umpi, Rosario Bléfari, Juana Molina, Le Mans, and all the Spanish projects Isol has done / is doing.

NYR: How did the collaboration with Isol come about?

Paul: I was looking for a singer during the time when Isol had just left Entre Ríos, and a common acquaintance suggested I see if she was interested. I sent her a copy of our first CD, and she said she was into the idea of working together. We’ve both loved pretty much every step of the way since then… it’s nice. I hope other bands do this sort of thing in the future, because despite the obvious logistical problems, it also makes you look at songwriting in a weird, new way.

NYR: Isol, how different is it to work on a project like Alsace Lorraine to your work as part of Entre Rios?

Isol: Well, I’m collaborating with a group that began before I joined, so my approach is defined by the fact that I have to take this pre-existing style, and think how I can put my best into it. Despite that, though, and despite the physical distance with Paul, I definitely felt like a partner in the songs on which I’ve sung. Being in this project has let me learn many things about a new world that’s very different from mine.

At the same time, as I began working with Paul, I also started writing my own songs for the first time. I think my own songwriting was encouraged by some of the work I did for Alsace Lorraine— by my recording the vocals in Buenos Aires, and having to choose and define my ideas alone, before sending them to Paul. It’s very different from being in the same room with your musical partners. It was fun. It’s the first time I recorded original songs in English, and that was an interesting task, too. But the strangest thing was to meet each other face to face when the record was almost done, and to feel we’d already been in contact anyway from the start, through the music.

NYR: How do you find the time to work as an artist, illustrator, singer, songwriter, how do you balance all these activities?

Isol: Sometimes it’s difficult! But I believe each activity feeds the others, in a way. They’re not so different from one another as forms of expression, and it’s natural and fun to do them all. I like to find surprises and new avenues through them. I can rest from one activity while I am doing the other, and later I can return to it feeling fresh. It’s good not to just have a single thing to do, or a single group of people to work with—this stuff keeps my mind open.

NYR: Will you guys include songs in Spanish in the future?

Paul: Yes, that’ll definitely start happening at some point.

NYR: In Latin America we are quite familiar with music from the United States but American audiences do not seem to be as accepting of music in other languages. Why do you think there is such a disconnect, particularly, since so much exciting music is being created in places like Mexico, Argentina, Chile, etc?

Isol: Hmmm. I think we are used to not fully understanding lyrics sung in English, and that’s not a barrier for us. Plus, many people in Latin America know English, a little at least. But sometimes it seems like the U.S. isn’t curious enough about other cultures, except as a stock way to diversify things (“world music” being the most boring/extreme example of this), or maybe they’ve got some prejudices about what “Latino” culture is. I hope this will change, because there’s so much interesting stuff out there…