Saul Williams: The Furthermuckin Expat Q
Saul Williams once trailed the Atlanta campuses of Morehouse and Spelman, flyers in hand promoting his performances with collegiate hiphop act K.I.N. (peace to CX Kidtronik!), or his starring role in an off-campus play of author Pearle Cleage…always something. Same thing post-graduation—Saul stalking Brooklyn’s Fulton Street casually inviting heads to see him do his thing at the Nuyorican Poets Café (he’s the 1996 Grand Slam champ), or Brooklyn Moon Café, or performing with Greg Tate’s old Medusa Oblongata…doin it. I know, ’cause I was there.
Saul and I met first in college during, yes, “the golden age of hiphop”; he dated a Nikki, I dated an Angie. I met painter Marcia Jones—the eventual mom of Saul’s amazing 14-year-old, Saturn—a year before he arrived in Georgia. We’ve bumped heads at Wetlands’ old $5 Soul Kitchen parties in the late 80s, seen a few shows together (Common, the Beatnuts, Gil Scott-Heron). The latest was Bilal, this past summer at La Bellevilloise in Paris. As of 2009, Saul’s boundless creativity has been erupting in the City of Light.
Speaking of eruptions, Volcanic Sunlight—Saul’s fourth studio album, recorded in Paris—will start bubbling over in spring 2011. I stopped by his penthouse space in the [undisclosed location] arrondissement to talk about the new record, his move here, his directorial début starring as Miles Davis and much more. Poet Aja Monetwas hanging out from America, visiting, assisting. And yes, the City of Love’s big enough for the both of us. (Lenny Kravitz, I’m not too sure.) In many ways, we’re each other’s ideal audience; glad to have him around.
This conversation was conducted over Miles Davis’s Get Up with It.
Tell me about your living outside of the US for the first time in high school.
Living outside of the country for the first time happened when I was 16. I lived in Brazil, in the state of Paraná, which is in the south, in a small city called Goioerê. And it was a small town where absolutely no one spoke English. Someone in my host family spoke a little bit, and other exchange students.
They spoke Portuguese?
They spoke Portuguese. And although for the majority of the time I lived there, I lived with a Japanese family who spoke Japanese in the house—the largest conglomeration of Japanese outside of Japan are in Brazil. The father was a Buddhist priest who owned sugar plantations, which creates the alcohol that the cars run on there. So he was essentially oil rich. They had their own plane; it was crazy. There was an intercom system throughout the house with birds living in the walls with microphones there, and speakers in all of the rooms. You could hear the birds in the walls.
Big tropical paradise with a greenhouse in the middle of the house between the living and the dining room. Crazy.
The thing is, in Brazil there was no middle class really at the time. And inflation went up 1,000% when I lived there. The money system changed over three times while I was there, as if we went from dollars to some other shit to some other shit.
You were there four months?
I was there for one year. There was so much that I learned from. One, I didn’t go to school while I was there ’cause school was on strike for the first four or five months of my trip. I was there to study, I was there to go to high school, to do 11th grade. But school was on strike, and I ended up learning English and meeting a lot of people before school even started. By the time school started, I was really close with the English teacher at that school. And so I would go occasionally to help her teach her English class.
I tried going to school for like two weeks but it was too much of an interruption. Because it was like, to have an American in their high school was too crazy for them. Even the teachers would stop what they were doing and just stare, or stand in a circle around me and ask questions. So it would be like I’d be holding court with the whole school. Like, “Is it true that Americans are more free?” “What it’s like to get sprayed by a firehose?” [laughter] Just like crazy, crazy questions.
The school was really mixed, actually. It was a poor school. In fact in my city, their high school, they didn’t have school during the day. They only had night school if you were in high school, because you were expected to work in the fields during the day.
Was it a third-eye opening experience living outside American culture for the first time?
I came from New York. And so I wasn’t exposed to any of that shit. Even when they asked me what it was like to be sprayed with a firehose, I was like, “I don’t know, ask my parents.” I had no idea. I was on some Cosby, Different World, Yo! MTV Raps shit. I was 16. I was trying to find out where I could find someone that could cut my high-top fade. [laughter] Drawing high-top fades for barbers like, “Just do it like this. I know it seems strange, but do it like this.” [laughter] Their clippers would be the mouths of clippers, but with scissors attached to it, so it was manual clippers.
I broke my wrists my first month that I was there playing soccer. I thought I was about to do this incredible feat after I had stole the ball, and got slide-tackled from behind, fell back and broke both of my wrists at the same time. My left one was the worst. I had to go to a hospital on a Sunday. The hospital was closed. And so we went to this doctor’s house. He took us to his office, which was across the street, like the YMCA type of place. And I watched them put weights on a pulley system as they had strings attached to my fingertips to try and pop the bone back into place. Like, “Add two more pounds.”
How long did that take to heal?
So, all of those things, plus the fact that I couldn’t find hiphop on the radio. All of these things added up to the fact that I was in my head and relooking at everything I once knew in a new way. In particular America. And the black experience. Because people in Brazil didn’t really know how to deal with me. They were like, “You’re American: that means you’re rich.” But at that time in Brazil, to be black pretty much meant you were poor. Like here, I see how they treat gypsies here in Paris. You can see a gypsy or someone like a beggar walking into a store and they go sss-sss-ssst. You know, that little sound to like, “shoo, shoo, get out.” I would walk in the store and they would make that sound. I would purposely say in English like, “What? Excuse me?” And they’d be like, “Ohhh! Welcome! Ohhh!”
This is in 1989 in Brazil. I’ve been back, but I couldn’t tell you the difference. I know that things have changed tremendously there.
In Europe, you’ve been taking part in symphony performances composed around your books?
Yeah, there’s two. There was a symphony for ,said the shotgun to the head., there was a symphony for The Dead Emcee Scrolls. They’re both done by Thomas Kessler, a Swiss composer who is about 78, 80. I met him in 2003 when he was commissioned by the Basel Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland to compose a new piece for their orchestra. He was going to record stores telling people that he wanted to do something that was with someone like a hiphop artist but different. And people kept suggesting me. And so he eventually reached out to me. And I was living in L.A. and he flew there.
My father had passed a few months earlier, and this old man showed up at my house who had flown over from Switzerland to talk to me about something I could barely make sense of. And then he was just like, “Just play this CD.” He had sampled my first album, the song “Our Father” where I had sampled my father? He had taken that loop of my dad speaking and composed a whooole orchestra, a whole piece, surrounding that, this 75-year-old man. So my father’s voice comes through the speakers and then all these strings and oboes and brass, and I’m just, “What the fuck is this?” “This is what I do. And I am here because…” [laughter] And I’m like, Whoa!
So we’ve been performing that all over the place. In the past two months, we’ve performed it in Oslo, Norway, with the Royal Philharmonic in Oslo. And then we just performed it last week with the Hamburg Philharmonic in Hamburg, Germany. We’ve also done it with Berlin at the concert house there, with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra; we’ve done it in Basel; we’ve done it in Stuttgart.
Then there’s the other symphony, The Dead Emcee Scrolls, which is written for a string quartet. We’ve recorded that with the Arditti Quartet, which is from London. We’ve performed that I think in Vienna, in Austria, and even at… Was it Duke University or something? We did it at some festival down south as well.
I’ve asked Amiri Baraka, “You critique America so much; why don’t you just leave?” He told me, “It’s my home.” Complaining about the US for years with friends, I’ve felt like an abused lover who keeps bitching and doesn’t leave the relationship. But I moved here mainly for the French woman I eventually married, not politics. What was your motivation?
Like you, I don’t feel like my action moving here was in any way politically based. I moved here after Obama was elected, which to me means it’s kind of an exciting time to be in America. And so there’s a part of me that would even miss what that could feel like. But on the other hand, I’m kinda just riding the wave. Because I do know to value this perspective that’s gained from living abroad, and everything that I learned when I lived in Brazil, and did eventually look at America and myself and the idea of power and all of these things, and influence and culture and new ways… I saw how much that affected me through time as I began to work creatively in writing and doing music and everything. All those influences from Brazil are huge to me, and very much a part of who I am. And thus, I value what comes from living abroad.
An opportunity came for me to move over here just through an old friend who offered me a place right when I was looking for a place in L.A. And it dawned on me that I could do it. I could actually go there and creatively and work-wise as far as what I was working on with an album and all that, I really felt like this could be a great place to do that from. I automatically started imagining this idea of reinvention, which I like that idea. I’m constantly playing around with that idea. It’s been a year and a half, and it’s been a really cool experience in every way.
How has dealing with Sony France for Volcanic Sunlight been different from your major label experience with Amethyst Rock Star?
Let’s just be clear. Just in the idea of a standard contract, because in America, the system was set up with a majority black entertainers, black musicians, and white contractors. These contracts were set up, because of the racism institutionalized and what have you, these contracts were set up to take advantage of the artist. So the standard contract assumes more, hides more, in the US than it does in France, where a standard contract was set up for French men for other French men, where they have this sense of loyalty to each other and this sense of, “I would never try to harm you, I’m an honest man.” And so just in what you get in a standard contract is shit that you’d have to fight the hell out of and would be impossible for you to get in the United States.
So that’s just on the level of standard. Now bring in lawyers and a little bit of expertise and some experience that tells you, “Well, I want even more than that; I want this, that and the other.” So I didn’t get a standard contract. I was able to determine and to declare what type of contract I would take and what type of contract I would like. Because of previous works and all that stuff, and positioning, they were willing to sit and talk with me.
I chose Sony France because when my first album that I did with Rick Rubin came out—I was on Sony before, that’s the first label I signed to—my experience was at its most positive in France. When Sony America at the time 10 years ago heard my album, they said, “That’s not hiphop. We don’t know what to do with it. We’re not sure we wanna put it out,” Sony France heard the same album and was like, “Are you crazy? We’re putting this out now.” And there was a year-and-a-half difference between when my album came out in Europe, started by France, and then in the US. A year and a half time. The US did it a year and a half later, after they saw what was happening in Europe.
All that was sparked by Sony France. Those people that did that then, where everybody else has been fired, those people have just moved up. Those are my friends for the past… Even when I was working albums on different labels, those same people would help out, make calls, do all this stuff, even though I wasn’t on their label anymore. So these are decade-old friends now that I was like, “Ahh, this would be…”
So my experience and the executive office and all that has shifted tremendously. Not only because I’m working with friends—because I’ve been working with friends, when I put stuff through The Fader afterwards, [Fader founders] Jon Cohen and Rob Stone are friends of mine too. And that was also a cool experience for me.
But it also has a lot to do with the kind of album I’ve made. When I moved here, I had all my demos for the album already done. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew that it was a dance album, that it was a pop album. So I believed that it belonged to the infrastructure that already existed, and it was a matter of how to best do that. When the opportunity came to move here, I also thought, “Wow, I bet you if I did through there…” I started imagining what I could work out, and I was able to work that out exactly.
Erykah Badu talks about being an analog girl in a digital world—
That’s great. I forgot about that. Because I have this phrase on my album: something, “analog spacegirl, digital Pompeii,” something.
How do you balance your roots-shaman style with cyberspace social networking? I know you’re @saulwilliams on Twitter, you’re on Facebook, there’s a Tumblr blog coming. Do you feel you have to unplug periodically?
To me, the Internet is kind of like a club or a party at the mall a lot of times. You can make a library of it, but it needs to be a conscious decision. And I really feel like I have no business interacting with… I don’t hang out at the mall. [laughter] There was a point where I did; I don’t do that anymore. And so like the only reason why I really would want to go out and be seen is if I had something interesting to share. And so that’s pretty much how I interact. Which means I’m not anti. I have accounts at different social interaction networks and I like those accounts. I speak when I feel like I have something to share. And I don’t mean simply something to sell. ’Cause to me that gets on my nerves too, when it’s just, “Yo, buy this!” No, but when I have something to share, then I’m really appreciative of the fact that those networks are set up, because it makes sharing easier.
What’s your social life like here? How do you find the French socially different?
Regardless of what your job is, the workday really stops at a certain time, like six or seven, and then it’s like, “Okay, put that shit away.” It’s time to have a drink, to eat, to sit around and talk and [it’s] like, “You need this just as much as you need to work.” It’s really impressed upon you here, like, “Dude, what are you doing? It’s Saturday. No, come to this museum with me.” It’s impressed upon you a bit more, like, take advantage of the other half of your existance.
Like France’s five weeks of vacation.
Regardless of what you do. Yeah, it’s crazy. Even with school. There’s something like 185 days in the school year in America, and there’s 135 days in the school year here? Which means that [Saul’s 14-year-old daughter] Saturn has so many days off and half days and all of this stuff. She’s in school right now.
My social life is different in those regards. But on the other hand, I’m still pretty much a… You know, Italo Calvino has that book, Hermit in Paris? I’m indoors a lot. I spent the first year here in the studio doing this album. So I was indoors then, and now I’m doing a lot of writing. Either way, I’m indoors quite a bit.
Do you have any favorite haunts here?
Yeah, there are places that I’ve grown to appreciate, some really nice places. I’m not givin em out! I’ll tell em to you! [laughter]
Explain a little more about what brought you here in 2009.
The thing that brought me here was that I was going through a divorce. So I wasn’t just moving in L.A., I was having to find a new place which was gonna be the beginning of my new life. So it was a bit deeper than that. When that opportunity arose—the dude was like, “Yo, you should take my place” and it was the same price as what I was looking for in L.A.—it felt like a miracle. It was like, “Oh my god… Yo, that would make me feel better.”
And why? Primarily, I had been in L.A. for 10 years. And I like L.A., you know, I don’t have any of the bad stuff to say that people wanna say. Like, I’m from New York, I like New York and I like L.A., and I embrace the contradiction. But 10 years is a long time, and I’ve realized that for someone like myself whose life seemed to be fixated somewhere between love and ambition, that I was also finding myself interacting… Actually, I still can’t even call it. But it had something to do with love and ambition. And L.A. is an ambitious town, and this is more like a city of love. And I’ve realized that I needed to kind of feed myself.
I missed city living, but I didn’t really miss living in New York. And so the idea of moving to a city was really exciting to me, and taking the métro, all that. I missed all those things in L.A. Walking! And so when I first got here, that’s what my social life consisted of. Just getting lost, and then getting a bike and getting more lost. That’s what I’ve been doing. Now it’s cold, so now I’m indoors.
A more hard-hitting question: Would you go on the record saying Evian tastes like farts?
[laughter] It does. I’ve realized what that is, it’s the sulfur in the water. I can taste too much sulfur in Evian, and so I’ve never appreciated it.
You’ve said you’re living your life as a poem. We’re in accord on that. I feel like, if you call yourself an artist, then what kind of work of art is your life? When you read the biographies of different artists, to me they read like the lives of famous people…even if they weren’t famous already, you know? Do you have encouraging words for Americans who want to live out loud a little more, or maybe leave their comfort zones in the US?
There’s this, I think it’s an Oscar Wilde quote, and I know I’m gonna misquote it so I’ll paraphrase. He says something like, “If you aren’t living above your means, then you ain’t livin.” [laughter] The decisions I make are not really based on money. They’re based on how I would like to experience and navigate through this life. And I kind of put that and love and honesty first, and trust that everything else will follow.
I lent you Miles: The Autobiography this summer for your Miles Davis project. You’re planning to star as Miles Davis in a film you’re co-directing. Can you speak on it a little bit?
One of the things I’m working on while I’m here is, I’ve connected with an amazing screenwriter named Olivia Basset, and she and I are conceptualizing a film on the love story that was between Juliette Gréco and Miles Davis. So, I came here thinking about that and Miles. There was this wonderful Miles exhibit. I’d met Miles’s son in L.A. before I moved out here, and I spoke to him about all this stuff. Then came out here and met Juliette Gréco, who’s such an amazing French icon for what she represents for the merging of politics and art, poetry and art, poets and philosophers speaking through a muse, of the whole movement of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and her relationship with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and Boris Vian and this whole circle. And how Miles and Charlie Parker came on May 8, 1949, and how they met. It’s documented, the concert, their meeting, and the love affair that followed, and the depression that followed with Miles when he went back to the States that led to the first time he ever took heroin. But I’m just focusing on those three weeks in Paris in 1949.
So we’ve been meeting with Miss Gréco and just talking to her and beginning the process of developing her story.
And it’s something you’re gonna direct?
Yeah, Olivia and I together.