Pascal Danae of the band Delgres is all about making connections.
Not industry connections, although those are certainly encouraged, as seen by the trio's recent appearance on the cover of French Rolling Stone, but also connecting his personal experiences to music, lyrically and sonically. Danae weaves the threads of his ancestry into songs, creating an idiosyncratic sound, most recently on 4:00 AM (review here).
The band names comes from Louis Delgrès, a Guadeloupean resistance hero who died trying to keep Napoleon out of his country. Singer/guitarist Danae is Paris-born and raised, but his family is from Guadeloupe, a Caribbean island that's part of France geopolitically, but perhaps not emotionally. "[Now] you have people from Guadeloupe coming to us and saying, 'Wow, this is making us proud again,' because when you're from Guadeloupe, from the West Indies, [and] you're in France, it's kind of a weird situation because you are French, but somehow you're not completely French," Danae observes.
The dynamic probably sounds familiar to Americans. "It's nothing like even being black in America, where it's there, it's obvious," he says. "There is an issue with that and it's clearly expressed, sometimes in a horrible way, but it's clear thing. In France, it's more subtle, but you still can feel it. And because your friends, people go, 'It's okay, because you're French.' And they know that there is a problem with you. It's not that you're like the average French guy. You should be, technically, but you're not. And then you have to deal with that."
Danae handles the ambiguity of existing between worlds by channeling the tension into his songs, usually singing in Creole and working with atypical blues instrumentation, which gives Delgres' music a twist. The low-end comes not from bass, but from sousaphone, giving the album a New Orleans feel despite modern arrangements that recall The Black Keys. But the swirl of inspiration goes beyond the United States. "I always connect it to, of course, the African soul," he says. "The way the blues is expressed in Africa, as far as I know, to me, the [closest] to that is the people from Mali, people from like Ali Farka Touré, the guitar player from Mali. The way they play in that part of Africa is amazingly blues. You go to Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, even Senegal somehow, the way they play their instruments it really is like where the blues comes from. You can feel it."
There's a distinct and ugly linkage between Africa and slavery, in the United States and beyond. Delgres' sound makes that thread audible. "I'm always kind of one foot in Louisiana, one foot in Mali, when I play," Danae laughs. "See, I'm right in the middle. You have the Caribbeans, with the same slavery history, and struggling, so you get the flavor of Mississippi and the flavor of Mali. And with the mutual feeling of people struggling, and then mixed that with my own history, the history of my family, and my personal quest for identity, and finding my place in this world, and there you have it, somehow."
It makes for beautiful music, but it's also been personally helpful to Danae. "The way it was actually received, even the first album, the way people reacted to the music was very, very encouraging, [in] that sense," he says. "Because people would go 'Man, okay, this is you. Okay, now I see you.' Because this is the complete picture. Maybe they knew me before, doing all the music, playing for all the people, doing all the songs or whatever. But then, once they'd heard Delgres, they'd go, 'Okay, now I get the picture. This is this is you.' Of course, when people start seeing you more or less in a complete way, it helps you understand as well. You think 'Okay, so maybe this is the right place for me, this is where I belong.'"
And while Danae has discovered his own niche, one that's unique to his story, his tale is familiar to so many who live in diaspora. "That's the beauty of it, and that's what I love about it," he says. "It's a very somehow individual journey, but [it] turns out to be a universal one. And you have different circles. The first circle would be me, and then you have the people in my family. And then you have people from Guadeloupe, Martinique, and the the world, I would say, because so many people have been through different versions of what we have been through."
In this interview, Danae talks about how discovering the blues helped him to understand his own identity. Great songwriting is about being open to the world around you, but also the world within, and Danae and Delgres do a masterful job balancing those two responsibilities, creating deeply personal songs that feel applicable, for better or for worse, to the modern world, showing that the blues is a universal language.
Writing 4:00 AM
Pascal Danae: We spent a lot of time on the road, with the band. So most of the songs were actually [written] at soundchecks. For example, the drummer will start with an idea, and then we'll pick up on it and start having melody, and then the lyrics. It's all a very kind of quick process, and very spontaneous. Something we did together. Some of the songs I had written [in] the past already and were already done. So I just brought them to the guys and we started jamming on them. But most of them we wrote on the road.
Working Mojo: So how does that work? Are you at soundcheck, talking about, ‘Oh, what's that song that we were doing yesterday?’ And you pick it up again? How do you take a song from soundcheck to 4:00 AM?
Danae: Most of the time, when we start jamming on a new sound, new material, we end up having the song more or less [done] by the end of our soundcheck. If it's not the case, then we record it, on the iPhone, for example, and then we go back to it. But not the next day. More like when it's time to record the album. Every now and again, we just listen to 'Oh, remember we had that chorus or that groove or that riff? Oh, that's pretty nice.' So we have to think about it when we record the album; that's the idea. We kind of collect sounds and ideas along the way and then at one point, decide, 'Oh, this could be something we could be working on.'
WM: So when you were doing 4:00 AM did you have a ton of stuff to get through? Was it a phone full of voice memos?
Danae: Now you know, I'm talking to the drummer these days, and he's like, 'Oh man, we have tons of material in my phone.' It's amazing. That next album is already there, you know. But of course, you have a few songs and ideas that stick out and that are obviously going to be part of the next album. That's how we collected it. So we didn't have to go through a whole bunch of material to do it. It was kind of obvious that 'Okay, that would be our next song. Oh, that and this and that.' It was not too painful.
WM: And what makes it obvious that a song is going to go on the album?
Danae: It's just the feeling. It's the feeling that we all have. We all share the feeling like, 'Wow. That one has to go [on the album]' and it's quite surprising actually, and not surprising at the same time, that we all agree. We didn't have discussions over one or two songs, like 'No, I want it to go to the album' and the other ones are going 'No, no, no. No way.' We never got to that point of having arguments on which songs go on the album. It was pretty simple actually.
WM: And when do the lyrics come in?
Danae: They tend to come along with the melody. For example, if [drummer] Baptiste [Bondy] starts with a groove, then I find a riff. Along with the riff comes the melody and, because of the vibe of the melody, it inspires me because of emotions, and so it kind of points me in one direction, and it usually wouldn't be all the lyrics, but the main idea of the lyrics comes pretty naturally, and very quickly after the melody.
WM: And when you're writing, are you writing in French or are you writing in Creole?
Danae: In Creole.
WM: Did you consider that singing in Creole makes the lyrics less accessible to people who don't speak it?
Danae: Well, no, I didn't think about that, because to me singing in Creole was a way of being true to my emotions. So whenever I needed to sing in English, the nice song in English, or French, it just has to be right and really connected to real emotion. And most of the time since I'm talking about family history and things that are connected to my experience as a kid, my relation to Guadeloupe, since I was born in France mainland, so I really need to somehow go back to my roots through the language. To where it's connected to the ancestors and to Guadeloupe through the language. That's what the whole project is about.
Discovering the blues
WM: How did you go from Guadeloupe to France to the American blues? What was that journey like?
Danae: The blues just hit me, like so many people around the planet. A few years ago, I used to play a lot of jazz and when you play jazz, you have to play the blues somehow; know how to play it. But then you play in the jazz way. So it's more the form and in this case, going to use [it] to play the blues. It's not so much the Mississippi side of it; you know, the rootsy part of it. So at that time, I was able to play the blues, but I'm not sure I was actually able to feel it.
And one day a friend of mine advised me to have a look at those DVDs produced by Martin Scorsese. It's a series of seven DVDs [The Blues]. And of course, I watched it, and I was like, 'Oh my God. What took me so long here [laughs]?' But I was actually happy I did it that way, because then I really felt like, 'Okay, now I feel it. I know it's there, and now I can do something with it. I can make it my own.'
So, of course, I was really touched by people like Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt. All that very simple, basic, yet magnificent way of playing the blues, and expressing it. So, to me, it was obvious that I couldn't use English to sing it. I couldn't try to reproduce that music because it belongs to these people, to that part of the world, in that form. Nobody can reproduce it. You have to use the feeling, the sentiment, and make it your own somehow. And that's what I did, using the feeling of being a Caribbean guy born in mainland France, a black guy, and you need to fit into society and you feel that something is not quite right. And expressing all that, this is pretty deep, and you need to be true to yourself. And to me Creole felt like the best way to express it.
WM: Was it the music you connected to? Or was it also to the story? Because there are parallels between African Americans and Guadeloupeans.
Danae: Voice. The voice. To me, you can play the blues, but it doesn't mean anything if you're not singing somehow at some point. That's how I received it. You always sing the blues whether you play piano, play trumpet, I don't know, you play ukulele or whatever. If it's the blues it's about, then you sing it. Or you should be [laughs].
And so I really connected to that, and because it's the voice, with the voice comes the whole history. And, of course, the pain, the centuries of struggling, and all that. And I agree, deeply related to that, because that was the story of my ancestors and my family. And I guess all the people around the world connecting to the blues, somehow connect to that feeling because they all have their own version of that, whether you live in Asia, Europe, or wherever, we have people having a hard time. And I think that's actually connected to the soul of the guy singing or the girl singing.
WM: How did you wind up with a sousaphone in the band?
Danae: [Laughs] When I started writing the songs, I was really at a point in my life where I was just like, 'Okay, I'm [going to] do exactly what I want. I'm not going to think about where it's going, whether it's going to be an album, is it going to be successful or whatever.' I was just like, 'Okay. No. I do this for myself.' So I grabbed that dobro guitar, started writing the songs and all that. And after a while, I thought 'Okay, now I think I have something. I need people to extend that.'
So I knew a drummer, Baptiste Brondy, we had a fantastic connection, so I called him and he was okay to come and play with me. And then for bass I was like, 'No, I need to stay true to how I feel. I want something very basic. Very street-like. I want the sound of the street.'
And as I started thinking about it even more, it was obvious that I needed the sound of New Orleans. The marching bands. Because when you think of soul, of expressing black soul or history of people struggling, when you look at what happens in New Orleans, and it's all there. And the king of that, of the streets, is the story of the sousaphone that you see on top of [everything]. I just love the sound of it. It's royal. It's noble. It's a call for everyone to get together. [It's] underrated and I love it.
So I actually called a friend who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew Rafgee and Rafgee is an amazing guitar and sousaphone player. Because there's only a few of them in France; it's not part of the culture, so it was really hard, but we got together and it clicked immediately.
But I really wanted that sound, because of the New Orleans connection.
WM: Other than the sound, what do you like about playing with the sousaphone?
Danae: I guess everything. Well, apart from the size, maybe [laughs]. When you take it on planes, it's a bit of a pain, but it's worth the pain. I love the fact that it's bass, but there's air, there's someone breathing through the bass. It's not just plucking a string or something. There is a connection, again, to the voice. Now he's like singing the bass all the time.
WM: Is it hard to write with a sousaphone instead of bass?
Danae: No, it's even simpler, actually. Because you do, 'Ohhhh. So what would the bass line be?' [sings walking sousaphone line] 'Okay, I got it' [laughs]. And the best part is that it does work. Of course, you would expand it, and then you do its thing. It's great. It's brilliant.
WM: How do you see your sound evolving?
Danae: We go along with our feelings and again, the blues to me is not so much a form of music, it really is the feeling, the sentiment, and what you need to express. To me, it comes with the nostalgia of the past, sometimes dealing with issues like injustice, and how, basically, do you bounce [back]? Then, we could use any kind of music to express that. We love folk music, rootsy folk music, traditional American, but also African, [and] Celtic music, for example. So these are territories that we'd like to explore, maybe in future albums. We always have a little bit of blues going on in there. But we could express what we're expressing today, we could express it in different areas, musically. I'm pretty sure people would still relate to it in the same way, because it really is connected to the feelings, the emotions.
There was an album a few years ago, that came out, that I really loved. The one with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant [2007’s Raising Sand]. Some people go, 'Yeah, this is country music. I don't know, man.' I'm like, 'Are you listening? Can you hear the blues in that?' It's all in there. I don't know, man. I can hear it. Maybe it's just me. And that feeling that you have in that music? It can travel everywhere.
WM: How do you know when a song is done?
Danae: Do you mean in the studio [laughs]? I don't know. You just know it, I guess. It's just like, 'Yeah, this is it. Yeah, it's cool. It's done' [laughs]. I guess it's more difficult with the mixing. The recording process, you go like, 'Wow, okay, it's all there. Cool. Okay, now I just have to mix it.' But then when you mix the song, it could be different directions and all that. And some guy said once that you never actually finish [the] mix, you just leave it. You just accept it the way it is at one point.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.