words by: Ani Yapundzhyan
On his new LP, Volcanic Sunlight, Saul Williams is saying more with less, finding clarity in his voice and appreciating the fact that Love trumps ambition.
Fusicology: Was it difficult or frustrating for you to make this album with minimal words when you are used to expressing yourself so profusely?
Saul: To me, poetry has never truly been based on language. Poetry in my perspective, is based in perspective. And so the first poems that I wrote for this album was actually the music. I wrote the music for every song first before there were words even. And to me, the music didn’t call for a lot of words. And so when I’m making an album, I like to make the music dictate the direction.
And so, no. Was it frustrating at all? In fact, it was liberating. Because I use words, sometimes I use a lot of words, sometimes too many words, to get a point across. But I’ve always felt that a drumbeat, a chord, a sound, can bring about the same emotion or feeling without words. Cause to me, that’s how I’ve always been moved by music. Music has always effected me strongly. I don’t’ think I’d write, if there were no music, period.
Even if I’m not writing for music, I’m mostly inspired to write by music.
And I’m not only inspired to write; but I’m calmed down, I’m amped up, you know, like, the effect that music has on emotions-is strong. It’s strong, but it’s also subtle. And I think with time, one of the things I’ve come to appreciate in the art is subtlty and nuance.
I’ve often searched to say more by saying less. Yeah, that’s why I wrote “Coded Language” in 1999. I wouldn’t write the same song in 2009. If I wrote it in 2009, it could be a haiku.
Fusic: It’s true. Sometimes I will hear a song being sung in a different language and I feel all the emotions, goosebumps, etc without even understanding the words.
Saul: Exactly…exactly. The goal of it is usually to transcend language. That’s the goal.
Fusic: Just to be clear, did you write all of the music for your album? Because you mentioned that you wrote the music first.
Saul: Yeah, I did. I wrote all the music on the album. But that’s not new for me. All of my albums, people have always talked a lot about the lyrics, and I guess they’ve assumed that I’m always working with people that make music. That’s never truly been the case. Even when I worked with Trent Reznor, the majority of the songs were written by me. Musically.
Fusic: How was that collaboration with Reznor as far as energies were concerned?
Saul: Oh, that was beautiful. It’s the sort of thing that you can’t really plan. Trent and I have synergy. Where we didn’t really have to communicate a lot with words.I met him at a point where I was looking for a particular sound and he met me at a point where he was looking for a particular sound. And we both kind of found that sound together.
So it was beautiful. It was extremely synergetic. And its the sort of thing that when it happens, it happens, and you can’t really try to…to do it again or to force it, there was nothing forced about Niggy Tardust!
It’s the same thing with this album. The difference between Trent and this new producer is that Trent is more of an artist than he is a producer, so it was really a lot of collaboration in the sense that the sounds that he would choose to express himself are sounds that many people could hear and associate with Nine Inch Nails. Which is to say that his signature was in a lot of the music that he contributed. And the producer that I worked with for Volcanic Sunlight -his name is Renauld Letang- Renauld is someone that like has produced Feist and Manu Chao, Jamiroquia, artists I’ve loved over the years-but what he’s most know for is really helping the artist find their own voice and not really putting his voice in.
What he does more so is he brings out the clarity of the individual voice that he’s producing. And for me, that’s what I wanted to do after working with Trent. Was to do a collaboration and the idea of somebody else’s voice sonically coming into my work. And really known’ my own voice. But it was beautiful working with Trent.
A: When I saw Reznor live with NIN, I likened him to a classical composer. I really felt as if he were leading a symphony.
S: Well, that’s very accurate actually because Trent was a classical pianist prodigy as a kid. That’s why his relationship with music is how it is. The fact is his whole learning method came through studying classical music. That’s why he’s so great at structure and format. It’s because of that. So what he did is that he learned how to take the abstract sounds and place them into a classical format. And that’s pretty much what I learned from Trent: was how to do that. That’s why I wanted to work with him, is because I was studying the format.
A: How long have you been living in France?
S: I’ve lived in France for two years.
A: What made you want to move there from LA and what is the biggest difference between the two locations?
S: First, my reason for moving here was simple: I wanted to work with Renauld Letang, he works out of Paris. So either I would have to come here for a few months to work with him or I needed to just come here and live.
The main difference, if I were to speak theoretically, culturally between the US and France …I write poetry. I’d be a fool to refute the idea of being a romantic. In many ways, I’m a romantic. By perspective of reality of life, of love, a romantic. And I think that in the States in general for many, and definitely in cities like LA, ambition comes before love.
And me, I found that really frustrating because I have this compassion for humanity, this “We can change the world” and I sometimes interact with executives or what have you who would think they were trying to talk reality into my head, “But be realistic: what you need to do is this, that and the other.”
And me, I disagreed. I didn’t think that ambition had to be the leading force in how I put together anything from my album to my love life. And in France, I don’t think that ambition is the first thing that comes to mind here.
Here, for instance: France scores higher in education than the United States, right? But In America there are 189 days in the school year. In France there are 135 per school year. Their kids go to school much less, the people work much less hours than the United States. Why? Because they value what they do outside of the job. You’re finding people that are like “Oh, I can’t work overtime because I have to meet my girlfriend” and the boss will be like, “Oh yeah, yeah, don’t make your girlfriend upset.”
That’s the difference. (laughs)
Fusic: So in a way, it’s the structure of life itself, like out here we have to be ambitious all the time because there is no forseable alternative. “If I hang out with my girlfriend for an extra thirty minutes, I’m gonna lose out on this money” We are reacting to the way that society is structured.
Saul: Well yeah, it does very much have to do with the fact that it’s a Socialist structure here. So they’re guaranteed time off, not only when they’re pregnant or when they’re sick, but they’re guaranteed time off. And so there isn’t this constant fear of losing your job if you don’t show up…it’s not like Socialism is a win/win structure. There are other things that come up as a result, so its complicated. I can’t I say that people live a more liberated life, or live more freely. But I think that they may be, like I said, just free from all-out ambitious pursuits. For that consuming 100% of who you are.
But as a result, we innovate a lot of things in America as a result of that Capitalistic ambitious pursuit. It all depends. So I can’t say that I prefer one place to the other, I think that the most important thing is a balance. But yeah, when I look at things, the first thing I noticed was that Love trumped ambition in France. And in America, I feel that it’s the other way around, ambition trumps love.
Fusic: I think that it could be said for quite a few Foreign countries. I can just tell by looking at somebody, they don’t even have to say a word, that they were not raised in the United States.
Saul: Yeah. And then the other difference I would say is that in many ways America and Americans are self-consumed. That brings us back to education and knowledge of the world, or a world outside of America. Only 14% of Americans have passports. Which is to say that 86% of Americans do not have passports.
(Voice becomes forbidding) Which is to say that when we talk about how crazy something is in another country and what’s going on over there and our need to bomb them or control them or police them, most of us have no idea what the fuck what we’re talking about.
Fusic: And when your only source of information is the biased news, most of it now owned by Rupert Murdoch, not only don’t you know but you’re being fed all the wrong things.
Saul: Yeah. Information is not as free in America as it seems. And then based on the educational structure, you can actually start to place an argument around the idea of America being a fundamentalist nation. When they think of the world, they think of how they can plant their flag in it.
Fusic: Have you started your “Occupy All Streets” World Tour yet?
S: Yeah for the past month and a half, I’ve been touring Europe, and in February I’ll start touring the US and Canada.
A: Is this feeling of dissent being felt on a world-wide scale?
S: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen The “Occupy” in Switzerland, I’ve seen The Occupy in Holland, I’ve seen The Occupy in France, I’ve seen The Occupy in Romania, I’ve seen The Occupy in Madrid, I’ve seen the Occupy in Senegal, I’ve seen The Occupy in England, I’ve seen Occupy in Belgium. Non-stop. Everywhere.
It’s imported. Like here we go again, right? This is the American perspective. Like all of a sudden, everybody’s talking about “Occupy” as if it’s not inspired by what started in Tunisia, in Egypt, in the beginning of this year. This is a wave that didn’t start in America, but as soon as it gets to America, America owns it as if it started there. (laughs) See what I’m saying?
Fusic: Because we’re very good at labeling things.
Saul: Branding them, yes. (laughs)
Saul: Because in Egypt, it was real. The protestors weren’t worried about what to call it, they were protesting. They were doing it because it was some real shit. Over here it’s like “Let’s call it ‘Occupy'” and now there are commercials like “Occupy our car sale.”
S: Yeah. It’s craaaaazy how quickly that gets commodified into a Capitalist structure. It’s something that we have to be careful of. We have to be careful of. You know, I’m optimistic about the whole “Occupy” movement. To me, it’s something I feel that I’ve been investing in since I started speaking publicly, reciting poems and making music, like every single thing I’ve ever released has been pointed towards exactly what’s happening right now.
Fusic: So you do think that it’s a realistic catalyst for change?
Saul: I know that when I look at everything that’s occurred in the world in history, like Ghandi starting the Natal Indian Congress when he was 25 years old, Martin Luther King starting to march when he was 23, Jesse Jackson starting to work when he was 15, Angela Davis starting to protest when she was 17, you know, its always the youth. It’s always the youth. So I don’t believe for a minute that young people are too naive, or too idealist to have a clear perspective of the change that’s possible. So yeah, I think that it can mean something.
Because what it also means is that many people are staring to realize that the government structure, the structure of the government itself is not necessarily set up to help everyone. Now what seems to become more and more clear and transparent to everyone is that everyone needs education. Everyone needs food. Everyone needs to have a certain amount of inalienable rights that should be guaranteed, especially if you’re living in the richest country in the world.
Fusic: And supposedly the freest, too.
Saul: Yeah. Supposedly.
Fusic: I’ve noticed that you don’t have one single featured guest artist on your album. And these days, especially in hip hop, to make a record, you have to have like 7 guests on each track. 12 singers on the next. Was this a conscious effort?
Saul: Actually, I do have a guest on the album, I just didn’t publicize it. I have a guest on my song, “Dance,” there’s a woman singing and that woman is Janelle Monae.
Fusic: What an awesome guest to have, if you’re going to have any guest. It’s so wonderful to see a female get down as hard as she does in this state of music.
Saul: Oh yeah, she’s a pinnacle.
Fusic: I read a quote from you, you were saying “I’m courageous enough to live my life as a poem.” Can you explain?
S: It’s kind of what I was saying in the beginning [of this interview], is that to me, poetry is not based in language. It’s based in perspective. I’m extremely interested in things like traveling and learning other languages, communicating with other cultures. I’ve backpacked through several countries. I love meeting people and trying new things. You know, like next week I’m taking a tango class (chuckles) I’m taking a percussion class, I’m taking capoeira. I’m learning how to cook Phu, or Vietnamese soup. So it’s all of those things that go into living life as a poem. In my perspective, its just being open. Being open to the possibility of change and difference and nuance so I hope that makes sense.
Fusic: Absolutely. What’s up, do you Bboy?
Saul: Yeah, I did when I was like 12. (laughs) I might still have a little somethin’ in me…