Ceremonies is the second album from sibling duo Singtank. Alexandre and Joséphine de La Baume captivated listeners with debut In Wonder in 2012 but the follow-up sees them return invigorated, building on their unique synergy as songwriters to create an album that resounds with intriguing new techniques, deep personal experience and songs that will stay with you long after the first listen.
From Bob Dylan to 90s hip-hop, Nick Drake to Bladerunner, Pulp to Les Rita Mitsouko, the album is influenced by Joséphine and Alexandre’s eclectic tastes. “I’m always frustrated with records where all the songs sound the same,” he says.
This melting pot of inspirations is mirrored in the musical diversity of Ceremonies. The album explores drumming patterns inspired by hip-hop and employs crunchy, futuristic synths and electronics, while piano and guitar – all played by Alexandre – add a strong organic current. The pair were interested in the way electronic musicians and hip-hop artists write music but also used Alexandre’s instrumental background. “We thought a lot about drumming patterns and chord progressions but we wanted it to sound as natural as possible.”
While In Wonder was produced by Nellee Hooper and Alan O’Connell, the need for a more organic recording led the de La Baumes to Samy Osta (Chromeo, La Femme, Jamaica) for production duties on Ceremonies. “He’s 32 years old, a brilliant musician, and kind of an experimental producer, always happy to try new and different approaches. We wanted to really find ‘our sound’, the one sound these songs were calling for; Samy’s very collaborative and his ‘take-your-time’ production method was perfect. We worked on with him for a very long time and didn’t start recording the songs properly until we were really happy with the direction we had found for each one. More than a year passed between the first day we were at his studio and the day we finished mixing the record, but it never felt fastidious, because we were getting along musically so well and just wanted to nail what we had in mind perfectly and Samy is basically never running out of production and musical ideas,” Alex and Jo enthuse.
Another key difference in Singtank’s sophomore album is Joséphine’s voice. Taught by Osta, she trained herself to place her voice in an enchanting new way; “He made me sing in a way I didn’t even know I could sing, breathy and child-like,” she explains.
Keeping it in the family Joséphine’s husband, Mark Ronson, also provided additional arrangements on the first single from the album, Can You Hear Me?, with Osta playing drums on the track. Joséphine adds, “It was the song we spent the most time figuring out, after a while we were hitting a wall and felt the need for an external ear. The song was almost there but not quite, when we took it to Mark. He added a few production tricks and simplified the arrangements which made all the difference.”
The tiny Paris studio Alexandre and Joséphine recorded in added an extra special dynamic. “It drove us mad but it was great because we were syncing into the record.” And, crucially, they had also grown closer through recent shared experiences: one of Joséphine’s best friends passed away and Alexandre went through the break-up of a relationship. It caused them to reflect on the past and open up in a way they never had before. It was a healing experience and making music together allowed them to communicate the only way they could. As they both channeled their energy into the music, they felt a sense of belonging. “Even though it’s heavy, there’s a lot of hope in the album too,” says Joséphine.
Growing up in Paris, Alex and Jo had built their relationship on music as children. Close when very young, they moved apart in their teens but “found a way to communicate again and get to know each other by writing and singing songs together” later on.
The childhood home was very open to creativity. Their father is a theatre critic and produces plays and their mother runs a charity foundation and loves art and literature. Their parents would play classical music so loud their apartment would shake, the walls trembling from an “insanely loud” sound. From Chopin to Mahler, the family home was filled with dramatic and intense music.
As teenagers, Alexandre emulated his favourite guitar player Nick Drake and learned to play instruments through studying David Bowie, The Beatles and The Kinks. He became a photographer and moved into the movie business. The cinephile siblings were particularly inspired by their love of film for this album. They took inspiration from Bladerunner and Won Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, which particularly influenced the sense of urban loneliness. “We wanted to set up in a future world where the urban has taken over and caused loneliness but it’s not completely negative, it’s also romantic. It’s beautiful, but really sad.” Thus a strong retro-futuristic aesthetic was born.
Songs such as FOMO and La Vie En Octets address the concept of urban loneliness and digital dependence head on. The duo were thinking about what excited them and what revolted them about modern living. “FOMO can be about the fear of missing out, the incapacity a lot of our generation have of being in the moment – only going out to be instagramming about going out – and in some ways the fear of committing to something and someone because we have so many other options,” explains Alexandre.
La Vie En Octets tells the story of a man kidnapped by his computer and is a hostage of his virtual life, trying to get his freedom back. So although the album’s inspired by some very specific personal circumstances, profound themes are explored. One of the things Alexandre so admires about Joséphine is her ability to widen her subjects. “We were going through a hard time when we were writing the record but in a way she manages to make it universal.”
The experiences give the record a particular depth and intrigue but it was also a potent time for the siblings. “When you write songs about things that hurt or things that are very sincere or personal and you turn them into little tales, it becomes an enchanting experience rather than a difficult experience and you end up finding beauty in things and moments you didn’t think you would,” says Joséphine. She thrived on Alexandre’s talent at composing, delighted by how much more complicated and exciting his songs became.
Alexandre broke new ground with his songwriting, which led to a more mature sonic power and greater textures, complemented by his sister’s focus and discipline. “Joséphine is very demanding and she never settles for something she’s not 100% happy with,” Alexandre says. “She has a great intuition of where songs should go, what’s lacking, what’s too cheesy, what’s too obvious. She’s a great producer, which is super-important. She’s the guardian of the soul of the songs.”
From bittersweet memories and reflection on the loss of innocence to songs about the human condition in 2014, Singtank bring their mystical kindred energy to Ceremonies, creating something beautiful from pain, and an album of catchy, addictive pop songs rich in depth and texture.