Q&A with Thérèse
In the midst of a pandemic that has forced most of us to experience lockdown and distress, creativity has never left. Instead, artists have been navigating this troubled time through creation and sensitiveness, despite the closure of cultural spaces. Emerging artists blossomed in the UK and abroad, and notably on the other side of the Channel. Today, we want to introduce you to one of them. She is not new to the music industry, but started her solo career a year ago, whilst the pandemic was only starting. This is Thérèse
Born in Paris from Chinese Laotian and Vietnamese parents, Thérèse explores the notion of identity in contemporary society through her music which blends a diverse panel of cultural and musical references. This versatility makes of Thérèse a unique singer and songwriter. Beyond being a performer with a powerful visual and musical identity, Thérèse expresses her political engagement in her art and online, addressing, amongst others, anti-Asian racism, toxic relationships, and mental health. And this is one of the reasons we love her. In the confusing and troubling time we live in, we want to celebrate those who stand for what they believe in, keep addressing and fighting social issues that, rather than disappearing, have been amplified by the sanitary crisis. Without further ado, here is the great conversation we had with Thérèse last week, where we talked about her new EP, her inspirations, art and beliefs.
Hi Thérèse, we are very excited to interview you today. Before talking about your new EP ‘Rêvalité’, we wanted to give you the opportunity to describe to our readers your music journey. We know that you started music courses very young and were part of the band La Vague for three years. What led you to start a solo career?
Actually, the pandemic played a huge role in that decision. The fact that we had to stop working, going out and all gave me time and space to think about my life and career. During the first quarantine in March 2020, I asked myself “honestly girl, if you should die tomorrow, would you be proud of your life, your music?”. And the answer was “partially”. That was quite unsatisfying. So I decided to start learning Ableton and writing songs the way I wanted to do it: with all my influences, tackling subjects that were important to me. In fact, we could say, i’m trying to redefine the role of a music artist in our society. I wanted to play my part in politics and join the political conversation, spreading my ideas through my songs. Pop music is a very good way to democratize ideas and reach a lot of people. It’s a massive political instrument.
Your EP mixes a broad range of musical genres, from electro-pop to hip hop, supplemented by Eastern influences. How would you describe your music?
I would just say that my music reflects who I am: my story, my identities, my personality. It’s a mix of all the influences you talked about, of brightness and darkness, of hope and realism. I don’t really care about the boxes that are created by the music industry. My music blends, it’s popular and demanding. My music is free.
Do you identify with a new generation of French electronic music artists?
It has been quite hard for me to figure out if I belonged to a “family”. Because I don’t know any other French artists that make the same kind of music, sing in 3 languages (above all in Chinese), mixing electronic, hip-hop and traditional instruments into a “pop format”. But I guess I analysed it the wrong way. It’s not about these specific influences or languages, it’s about the general vibe of a project. About blending genres. And yes, today, I can tell that there is a “tribe” in France who has this approach. I think about La Chica, KillAson, Terrenoire, Kiddy Smile, Lous and the Yakuza, Yseult. In fact, I can see on Spotify, Deezer and other streaming platforms that they are in the category“people also like”. And actually, the fun fact is that some of them are my friends IRL. As if it was an artistic and human connection, based on values more than instruments.
Could you tell us what is your favourite song in your EP and why?
Nah, sorry, I just can’t answer that question. Would you choose between your mum and dad? Hahaha. They are all part of me. “T.O.X.I.C” is the one I started with…So, obviously this song is symbolic. But “Chinoise?”, “Apocalipstick” and “Private party” represent well my overall sound. Then “Skin Hunger” and “Differently” are smoother, another side of my personality… Listen to them all and tell me the one YOU prefer!
The notion of identity is a very important theme in your music. Being French with Chinese Laotian and Vietnamese origins, how did you navigate your own identity in a society where Asians are rarely represented in popular culture? Who were your inspirations growing up?
Actually, I grew up with many role models such as Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, The Spice Girls, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears (in the early years), and later Rihanna etc. (I’m 35) And it was cool to be inspired by them but I realized later that something was missing. I was (and still am) a huge fan of “pop culture” (music, cinema etc.), and the lack of Asians in this landscape made me unconsciously think that we/they were not cool, pretty, smart enough to be shown on TV, or played on the radio. This explained why I rejected my Asian culture during my teenage years: I didn’t want to speak chinese or lao at home with my parents, I wore thick eyeliner in order to look like everything but Asian, I felt so proud when people told me “you look like an Eurasian”… As if I was ashamed of who I really was! This identity crisis was so deep that I was sometimes surprised by my own reflection in the mirror, thinking I was a white or black girl…! Can you even imagine that? Hopefully I grew up, thought a lot about this. Now, I am very proud of being French as much as being Asian. But I keep on fighting for representativeness as I know now how much it is important.
In your powerful single ‘Chinoise?’ you break and deconstruct stereotypes and pervasive clichés around the Asian community. In a context of enduring racism in the West, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, how was your single received by the French Asian community?
You cannot imagine how much I was afraid to release this single. I was afraid to hurt them. I didn’t want them to feel injured or ashamed by my lyrics and political position. Even if it’s not my role to be “the” spokesperson through my musical project, the fact that there are no or few other French Asian singers puts a huge responsibility on my shoulders. Moreover, I was also known in France as an activist so it has been sometimes difficult for me to separate my own ideas from what I defend collectively. But hopefully the message was very well received. I got tons of messages saying “Thank you” or “I wish I grew up with this song” or “Your track makes me feel stronger”… I cried so much. I felt so relieved and grateful. And what’s even more striking is the way non-Asians people supported the song (women and men). And how they understood the message of universalism and unity of this song. Now the song is travelling abroad, and I’m very happy to see how British, American, Belgian, German, Indian, Chinese… people are connecting with the message! This gives me a lot of hope for the future!
You have been part of anti-racism groups such as ‘Décolonisons Nous’ and ‘Stop Asiaphobie’ as well as a great advocate of inclusive feminism. Was it important for you that your art reflected your engagement? Has your music had a therapeutic effect, i.e. has it been a way to express your anger or frustration in regards to a society that struggles to evolve?
Actually, I don’t work “for” a specific organization/association but a lot “with” many of them, as it is important for me to keep my “freedom of mind”. “Décolonisons-nous” and “Stop Asiaphobie" are major Instagram accounts about anti-racism. But I also discuss with “AJCF”, “Collectif Asiatique Antiraciste;, “Sécurité pour Tous” and other activists such as Grace Ly or Rokhaya Diallo. And to answer your question, now I don’t even think about how important it is that my art reflects my engagement. It’s just the way it is and I just need it. Maybe it would change in the future, maybe not. What I know is that, yes, it has a therapeutic effect as it is the best way for me to transform my anger, sadness, frustration… into something positive and hopefully useful for this world. And as I said earlier, I’m deeply convinced that “mass/pop culture” can change mentalities.
Your fight for universalism is something that we truly connected with at Sludge magazine. We saw that you have been spreading a strong message of inclusivity, whether it is in your music, fashion or online presence. We really enjoyed the use of several languages in your songs and wondered about the reason(s) behind this choice?
My aim is quite simple. I just wanted to show how much the concept of “identity” is complex and beautiful. That we cannot reduce someone to his/her physical appearance. I do look “Asian” because of my parents, it’s a fact. But my name is Thérèse and this is damn French, I was born in the suburb with a working-class background, I grew up mostly with Black and Arab people, I went to prep school and business school with the French Bourgeoisie, I worked for a luxury company, then with the migrants, and now I am a Parisian musician, stylist, model and activist… I don’t have ‘a’ culture, I have ‘many’. Plus, musically speaking, I find it interesting to use all these languages because of their beautiful sounds.
On your Instagram, you describe yourself as an activist for freedom and universalism: freedom of mind, body and heart. Self-love is a topic that you like to engage with in your social media and music, such as in ‘TOXIC’ where you talk about toxic relationships that one might have with others but also oneself. How important is it for you to promote self-care to your community?
It is crucial. One of the most important things I’ve learned in my whole life is that self-care is as poetic as political. I mean, if you know yourself and accept yourself well and learn how to ‘love’ yourself, you would be more indulgent and tolerant with others as we are all mirrors of each other. And I believe in what I call “positive contamination/influence”. The world is just the reflection of humanity. If each human being felt more comfortable in his/her skin, I’m sure that the global situation would be better. That’s what I am fighting for.
What are your future projects?
Live. As much as I can!
Article by Léonore Simon
Photography by Lily Rault
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