Philippe Cohen Solal and Mike Lindsay take us inside ‘Outsider’

Last month, multi-million record selling artist and producer Philippe Cohen Solal and Mercury Prize winning producer Mike Lindsay co-wrote and co-produced Outsider, a new concept album based on the work of artist Henry Darger and featuring special guests Hannah Peel and Adam Glover. 

Audio Media International editor Daniel Gumble spoke to Solal and Lindsay to find out what inspired this incredibly ambitious project the art of collaboration…

How did this project come about?

Solal: It came about by incredible chance, while on tour with Gotan Project in 2003. I was due to meet Kiyoko Lerner, a friend of a friend and fan of tango, for tea. The day before, I visited the New York Folk Art Museum, and there I was standing transfixed in front of the Henry Darger collection, when I noticed the plaque underneath, which said the paintings had been loaned to the museum by Kiyoko Lerner, the same Kiyoko Lerner I was due to meet the next day. 

A great friendship and mutual trust was born from this, which allowed me to develop this project and to have access to the works and the unpublished lyrics written by Darger, never before put to music. He is often seen today as a 20th century Van Gogh.

Lindsay: It all started with Philippe, years before I became aware of his fantasy to make a record inspired by Henry Darger’s fantasy. I’ve been friends with Philippe since 2006, when he discovered my band Tunng and every time we were in Paris or he was in London, we would hang out. One day, Philippe mentioned that he was obsessed with the outsider artist Henry Darger. This was the first time I had heard about him, but I was going to New York that year with Tunng and we stopped by the Folk Art museum and I saw his work in the flesh. 

I instantly understood why Philippe was captivated by the work and his story. So, when he asked if I would like to be involved in making a record inspired by Darger’s life and work I was immediately excited. It was 2015 when Philippe came to London to work with me in my studio. In that time, he had done so much research and had discovered lyrics written by Darger in his unpublished 15,000 page book In The Realms of the Unreal.

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What was your approach to the record’s production? 

Lindsay: Firstly it was about writing minimal arrangements separately and finding melodies for the lyrics written by Darger that were found in his writings and chosen by Philippe. We each chose a few from the selection and made rough sketches in our own studios, in London and Paris. Then we got together in my London studio to decide how to approach the production. Initially, I imagined a very raw and papery texture to the chosen sounds. I thought we would use cut and pasted vinyl samples and analogue earthy vintage synths to take us into the timeless fantasy world that he created.  

However, the songs themselves are so powerful lyrically, almost like apocalyptic hymns, that they needed a huge voice to do them justice. So Adam Glover’s tones started to shape the production, which in turn suggested string and horn arrangements via Hannah Peel, who also provides the gorgeous counter vocals. So in the end, the approach was a combination of the raw, analogue, collaged textures, with the ‘50s/‘60s rich ribbon mic’d vocals and strings.

Talk us through your collaborations. 

Solal: Each collaboration is an adventure that takes you on a route that you hadn’t imagined before. 20 years ago, Gotan Project was born around a song, but it has since turned into a phenomenal success with three studio albums and over 500 sold-out concerts worldwide. I must admit that working with Mike on Outsider was a pleasure at all times — the artistic cohesion of the small crew that we have formed with Adam Glover and Hannah Peel is like a dream team.

Lindsay: We have known each other for many years and have a mutual respect for each others music, although Philippe’s band The Gotan Project was infinitely more successful than my band! It was not a given that we would work well together, but actually it was very organic and Philippe is a really good listener, very patient and has such a vast knowledge of music references. He is a great producer and takes a considered approach.  I am more DIY, hands-on and excited by trying to twist sounds so that they live in a slightly skewed reality. This combination seemed to really click and was very exciting.

Did you have a sonic blueprint in mind? 

Solal: I imagined Adam Glover’s luxurious voice being the voice inside Darger’s head. Outsider has a sonic, visual and digital blueprint. The challenge for us was to translate a rich visual and literary universe. So we decided to launch an Outsider website in April 2020, an audiovisual and narrative showcase of our album that respects the ‘art brut’ spirit, which inspired us. There is music, video clips, short films, podcasts and a virtual tour of Darger’s works from across the world.   

Where was the record made? 

Lindsay: It was mainly put together in my studio in East London. I was renting a space from Ben Edwards, who probably has the biggest collection of analogue vintage synths in the UK, if not Europe.  It was in a basement and definitely has that smell of old gear, which felt perfect for laying down the bones and the soul of this record. We would have Darger’s paintings on a screen in slideshow mode on repeat whilst working on the music.  

The second part of the record was done in LA, in Cassette Studios in China Town. This was another amazing basement that has a huge collection of vintage outboard gear, LA2A’s, Fairchilds and Neve Desk etc… and great vintage mics. We recorded all the drums here with Roger Brogen, who we met out there, and re recorded all the vocals on a 1940s RCA Ribbon Mic, the same that Sinatra used, through the Neve pre and the 60’s LA2A compressor. It was a perfect combination for Adam’s voice and really brought out his thick lush tones, but pretty hot so his voice crackles through the mix.   

What were the biggest challenges you faced making this record? 

Solal: Trying to musically recreate what one could feel by looking at his works. To take artistic liberties without betraying Darger. The desire was born to make a musical project inspired by his work. His universe, seemingly naive but also sometimes strange or violent, brings together ‘art brut’ and epic literature. This self-taught artist created out of necessity and not to be loved or recognised.

Have you ever worked on a project like this before? 

Lindsay: No, this is definitely a one off, there are so many parts to it conceptually and in the making of it. I have learned a lot about the notion of collaboration that has already helped so much with other projects.

Outsider by Philippe Cohen Solal & Mike Lindsay is out now on ¡Ya Basta! Records http://smarturl.it/outsiderdarger

Outsider official website – http://outsideronline.co

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