Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Laetitia Sadier’s new album Silencio is out this week. (She talked about five of her favorite works of art with MTV Hive a few days ago; below, you can hear the Silencio track “Find Me the Pulse of the Universe.”) It’s the most recent showcase for an exquisite, coolly focused voice (and politicized lyrical sensibility) that’s turned up in dozens of musical contexts over the past two decades – with her own bands, and many others.
Sadier first appeared on record in the late ’80s, as a background vocalist on the final couple of albums by the British band McCarthy, for which her then-boyfriend Tim Gane played guitar. You can hear some faint ah-ah-ahs by her on the choruses of their 1989 single “Keep an Open Mind Or Else.”
McCarthy broke up in 1990, and Sadier and Gane promptly formed a new band, Stereolab, which became their primary musical vehicle for the next 18 years or so. Stereolab waved the flag for the music they loved best, especially the “space age bachelor pad” music of the early synthesizer era, the stylish French pop of the ’60s, and the German experimental music of the ’70s. The earliest video the band filmed seems to have been this very, very low-budget clip for 1992′s “Low Fi.”
By a year or so later, they’d hooked up with an American major label and made a considerably slicker video for their gorgeous 1993 single “Jenny Ondioline.” That song managed to get a chorus that goes, “I don’t care democracy’s being fucked” played on every college radio station in America; apparently nobody could tell what Sadier was singing through her French accent! (It seems to have been changed to “sucked” for the video, though.)
It’s somehow fitting that about as close as this band of vintage-vinyl admirers ever came to a hit was a B-side: “French Disko,” from the “Jenny Ondioline” single. Here’s some excellent 1993 footage of them playing it on TV.
Around that time, Sadier started making guest appearances on other artists’ records, too — the earliest included Gallon Drunk and the Hair & Skin Trading Co. In 1994, Sadier appeared as a guest vocalist on an actual hit: Blur’s “To the End,” which made the UK Top 20. That’s Sadier purring in French counterpoint to Damon Albarn‘s plaints, although it’s not her in the Last Year at Marienbad-inspired video. Blur later re-recorded the song with Sadier’s inspiration Françoise Hardy duetting with Albarn.
Another antecedent for Sadier’s vocals is the kind of understatedly passionate women’s voices — often singing at the bottom of their range — that turned up in late-’60s French pop. See, for instance, Brigitte Bardot‘s performance in “Bonnie and Clyde,” her 1968 duet with Serge Gainsbourg. (It’s quite a video, too.)
In fact, one of the earliest extant Stereolab recordings is a cover of “Bonnie and Clyde” that they cut as a demo.
Sadier returned to that song in 1995, when Stereolab‘s American labelmates Luna roped her in for their own “Bonnie and Clyde,” below. (It’s not the only time Sadier’s covered a Bardot performance — a few years ago, she recorded Bardot’s song “Contact” with the Loved Drones.)
By the early 2000s, there was a wave of young bands for whom Stereolab had become an important stylistic touchpoint — and with whom Sadier has occasionally made guest appearances, as with “Sol y Sombra,” from the first album by Fugu, a.k.a. the French artist Mehdi Zannad.
Maybe the most unlikely guest appearance Sadier has made is her singing on the chorus of Common‘s 2002 hip-hop track “New Wave.”
2002, though, was arguably the year Stereolab began to disintegrate. It was the first year since their inception that they released no new music; Gane and Sadier split up, and the band’s singer/guitarist Mary Hansen was killed in a bike accident. Stereolab continued to record together, and played their final shows in early 2009, but the group’s members started to seek out more projects on their own. Sadier had had a low-activity, low-key side project called Monade since the late ’90s; the first Monade album proper, Socialism ou Barbarie, came out in 2003, and was followed by two more. There’s even a video for “Regarde,” from 2008′s Monstre Cosmic.
Sadier’s also had a longstanding affiliation with occasional Stereolab member Sean O’Hagan‘s band the High Llamas — here’s a gorgeous 2008 live recording of the two of them doing a couple of acoustic songs together, “Cookie Bay” and “The Passing Bell.”
In 2009, Sadier announced that Monade was dissolving. She started recording under her own name, but her appearances with other artists have redoubled. Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, a longtime Stereolab fan, enlisted her to sing on (and write lyrics for) “Quick Canal,” a 2009 track by his solo project Atlas Sound.
Over the past two years, in addition to her solo work, she’s sung with projects including Double You, Romper, and the French band Mishima, with whom she performed this cover of Georges Brassens’ 1953 weeper “Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux.”
And, very recently, Sadier made a memorable appearance on Belgian songwriter Benjamin Schoos’ song “Je ne vois que vous.” It’s the kind of song that couldn’t have existed without the 45-year-old records that cast their light across the early phases of Stereolab’s career — but it also clearly owes a lot to what Sadier’s own innovations.