Stromae Wants to Play

Stromae Wants to Play

Story by Shaad D'Souza / Photography by Marcus Cooper / Styling by Lisa Jarvis / Hair by Fitch Lunar / Makeup by Leticia LLesmin

For years, nobody heard from Stromae. At the beginning of the 2010s, the Belgian producer and rapper, born Paul Van Haver, established himself as a talented, forward-thinking luminary of the exploding EDM scene. Songs like “Alors on danse” and “Papaoutai” were big-room hits that told far deeper stories than your average radio smash, using strands of hundreds of different musical lineages to explore colonialism, generational trauma, AIDS, gender inequality and more. He was heralded as a prodigy — one deserving of his name, a slang inversion of the word “Maestro” — and achieved enormous success at home and abroad, selling out Madison Square Garden, selling millions of albums in the French-speaking world and establishing himself as a household name. With only two albums under his belt — 2010’s Cheese and 2013’s Racine Carrée — Stromae had already achieved more than most inventive, scrappy young performers could ever dream of.

Then, he vanished. In 2015, in the middle of what should have been a triumphant world tour, Stromae broke down, suffering something he describes as a kind of burnout exacerbated greatly by an anti-malaria medication he was taking. Rather than push through it, as hungry fans often expect of their ailing stars, Stromae took a step back, choosing to prioritize his health over his career as an ascendant pop star. Aside from a song or collaboration here or there, Stromae hardly released anything for years, instead putting all his focus into Mosaert, his label and his life at home with his wife, Coralie Barbier, with whom he would eventually have a son.

Time off is hardly a vacation, though, for a musician like Stromae. As his grand return to the spotlight, Multitude, proves, the past seven years have been fruitful.

Clothing and accessories: Gucci

He’s returned with an album that’s more exacting and powerful than ever, telling stories of the people society and pop culture forgets — sex workers, immigrants and parents among them — with a palette even more global than before. Across Multitude’s 12 tracks, Stromae brings together sounds from every corner of the globe, intermingling soaring Chinese erhu and ingratiating funk carioca, reedy Turkish zurna and skewiff reggaeton. He is as funny and as biting as ever, parodying cruel Karens on “Santé” and gormless womanizers on “Mon amour,” and even chronicling his own life as a shit-and-vomit-covered new father on the ludicrous and weirdly affecting “C’est que du bonheur.” Multitude does exactly what it says in its title, reflecting a breadth of experience and sound in an exhilaratingly fresh way.

The album’s a fittingly grand way to re-enter into the pop star conversation and one that’s been warmly welcomed by fans. Stromae himself hasn’t missed a beat stepping back into a high-profile guise: when he calls PAPER, he’s fresh off taping Jimmy Kimmel Live! (airing April 14 on ABC) and only has a moment to breathe before jumping straight into rehearsals for his looming performance at Coachella, where he’s billed second-line on Saturday night, a stone’s throw away from headliner Billie Eilish.

“There are [going to be] a lot of people from the business and industry there, [but] at the same time, at the end of the day it's just a crowd, like every other crowd,” he says. Seven years have passed since he last performed at the California festival and it seems like the time away has given him a newly liberated sense of perspective: “I won't lie, I have some pressure, but I just need to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and I'm sure it's going to be a lot of fun, because that's the goal.”

Clothing: LOUIS VUITTON MEN'S, Rings: Veert

Clothing: LOUIS VUITTON MEN'S, Rings: Veert

Multitude is striking for many reasons, but particularly the range of sounds on the album, all the instruments from these different musical traditions that you bring in, like the erhu, the charang and so on. What’s your process when putting these songs together and incorporating all these instruments? Are you pulling memories from your travels as a child or are you actively seeking out new kinds of music for inspiration?

It's a bit of both, to be honest. It's a lot of memories of music that my big brother used to listen to and it's also some stuff that I discovered thanks to my mother. It’s funny, because I just watched something about Hans Zimmer, the composer of the Dune score, and it's funny to see how we use almost exactly the same instruments — like bagpipe, zurna. My brother did a great job of looking for different instruments and I'm thankful [for that].

It seems like the two of you work really closely. Can you talk a bit about your creative process together?

I'm close to him because he's my little brother and we always played together when we were young. Actually, he's the first one I played my music to when I started producing. [Initially,] we didn't know that we were working together, it was just for fun. And then [when I became] a producer [and] I had to create a company, he was my A&R, then my creative director. Then I met Coralie [Barbier], who's my creative director and fashion designer. Yeah, that's the process. And actually, there is not only my brother and my wife, there is also our promotion and project manager, there is my assistant. We are a big team now, and I'm really proud and thankful to have them. Thanks to them, I have a really balanced life. I'm not working too much, I'm not too lazy, I’m just in between.

Clothing: Alexander McQueen

Clothing: Alexander McQueen

What kind of music has excited you over the past few years? Before you started on Multitude, was there anyone in pop culture you saw who was doing this kind of hybrid that you wanted to accomplish with this album?

I listen to a lot of music. I discovered a guy from Morocco who raps on traditional rhythms from Morocco and that's really impressive. He's really talented, his name is Patron. [I like] a lot of producers from Brazil. I discovered Ikue Asazaki, a Japanese singer. On the track “Invincible” and on the track “L’enfer,” I really wanted to sound exactly like the soundtrack of Ghost in the Shell, a famous manga from the ’80s. My brother was a big fan, so I know the soundtrack by heart and I wanted it to sound just like that. It’s interesting, because I thought it was Japanese choirs, but actually, it wasn't, it was a completely Bulgarian choir. It’s interesting to see how, when you dig in, you just discover that sometimes you are completely wrong about the origin of sounds and styles.

You’ve said that you don’t want your music to get too experimental. How do you manage that, when you’re also wanting to seamlessly blend so many different styles and textures?

I don't see my music as experimental, I think I'm always trying to do pop music. Mixing my music with traditional music, that was the goal with this album. But I don't think it's experimental, I'm not a big fan of experimental music. I'm the kind of artist that loves when a lot of people like [their music]. But, of course, I try to push boundaries. That's something I love to do — to do something different than I used to. If my music can touch a young boy of seven to a 77-year-old boy, to me, it's a beautiful gift.

Clothing: LOUIS VUITTON MEN'S, Brooch: Bulgari

Clothing: LOUIS VUITTON MEN'S, Brooch: Bulgari

Is that something you always keep in mind? That pop should always be reaching a wide audience?

Not all the time, but it has to be easy. Even if the process is not easy, it has to sound easy. That’s how I’d define pop music, I would say. As a listener, I have to have fun, first of all. And that's the reason why, at the very beginning of the composition of the album, during the first six months, it wasn't good at all. Because it was too complex and it was complex to listen to, too. And that's the reason why, after one year, we [made it] more natural, and more accessible and easier to listen to.

A song like “Santé'' takes a really interesting approach, the way you contrast this toast to underappreciated workers with this second verse where you inhabit the guise of someone really entitled and uncaring. Can you talk about why you wanted to include that portion of the song?

For “Santé,” the first thing that came to my mind was “Rosa, rosa, Quand on fout le bordel, tu nettoies.” And, actually, Rosa is the name of the person who cleaned up my house in Brussels, and it's funny because now I'm in LA and the one who cleans up the house is Rosa, too. But I started with those lyrics and then I said to myself, “Why not celebrate the ones who can't celebrate?” And I wanted to do a party song, a happy song and celebrate people.

At the same time, I didn't want to celebrate one social class compared to another one. So that's the reason why I talked about pilots, about nurses. For the second verse, it's funny because I came home and I was discussing [the song] with my wife. I was like, “What do you think about that?” Because my brother and me, we’re definitely focused on the music 100% and my wife is a bit less into it. So it's good to have another creative director’s opinion, [from someone who] is not as involved as my brother and I. She said to me, “Something you’re really good at is getting in the shoes of another character.” She gave me the idea of being in the shoes of this really bad customer that’s a shit to servers, and this kind of guy could be us. I love to put that kind of character in my music.

Clothing: Comme Des Garçons

Clothing: Comme Des Garçons

There’s a lot on this album about the burden that women take on in society. You have this amazing line adapted from French writer Simone De Beauvoir: “One isn’t born misogynistic, but can grow up to become so.” How did you grow to take on this feminist consciousness, and what were you reading or thinking about when writing a song like “Declaration”?

I wasn’t that confident to put the “Declaration” on the album. I was happy to hear that in the team, everyone was pretty okay with it and they liked it. But it's a lot of discussions with my wife, to be honest. She's definitely feminist. I think I am. It's always a question of who is the best feminist. You know, I'm not perfect. I'm trying to do my best, she's trying to do her best. We have a lot of discussions about it, especially when you have a baby. We try to split our tasks equally, and that's simply what it’s about, in “Declaration,” and also in “C’est que du bonheur,” which is the song about fatherhood. At the very beginning, I say, “You destroy the body of your mom.” That’s something we don't talk about that much, but it’s the truth. Being a mother is difficult after giving birth, your body is not the same. I just wanted to give this tribute to some stuff that we don't push enough. Sometimes we should talk a little bit more about it.

Multitude is your return to the public eye after quite a while away. I found that decision quite striking — the ability to take time for yourself, away from fame, because it feels like fans are very entitled with how they want access to stars all the time. Can you talk a little about that experience of pulling back, after you had become such a megastar?

I had a break of seven years doing nothing — no promo, nothing. We made, with our label, some video clips for Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa, Yael Naim and some French artists, but I had no spotlight on me anymore and that was really important for me. Something that I tell to my brother, my wife and all the team is that we have to have fun. As soon as it's not fun anymore, we have to stop. So I'm just trying to not be a victim of that. I just wanna have fun, have a good balance between my professional life and my personal life. I think that's very important.

Clothing: Alexander McQueen

Clothing: LOUIS VUITTON MEN'S, Brooch: Bulgari

Do you think musicians are slowly normalizing the creation of boundaries between their personal and professional lives? It feels like people like Billie Eilish and Lorde are really making it clear that just because they’re mega famous, they shouldn’t have to be giving and giving to their audience all the time.

I completely agree with them. I read something, a paper, about the mental health condition of artists, and I read that a lot of artists have to [always share] some news and post and do a lot of stuff around the real work, which is music and composition and singing at concerts. You have to just step back and take the time for yourself. Pay attention to your health, that's the most important thing. And it's the same not only in the music industry. I think we hear a lot [about] burnout in a lot of jobs, and we have to keep an eye on what we want to do and not just follow our ambition.

You’ve said that you think we should lower our ambitions until we’re able to just have the ambition to lead a decent life. Do you feel you’ve been able to manage that? It must be hard, especially when you’ve got so many businesses and people around you who really want you to be the most famous and most successful you can be.

Yeah, I have my ambition too, but today I'm lucky to have a baby boy, I'm married. I'm lucky to work with my brother. That's another ambition: to have a good family. And to have a good family, you have to work normally and not too much. And have a good balance. So, definitely, my ambition is not just to be successful. The goal is to have fun. I was just saying that to my brother the other day — I was just like, “Okay, we just have to have fun. The rest, being exhausted and not having fun, it’s not interesting.” My goal is: Okay, if we can have success and have a lot of this kind of achievement, that's cool. But at the same time, we have to have fun. There is a sentence in French, I don't know if I can translate it: the journey is more important, even, or as important, as the destination.

Clothing and accessories: Gucci

Multitude really tells stories about the kinds of people who are invisible in a lot of society: Sex workers, immigrants, people with mental health issues, which goes against the trend in pop music of writing about the perils of fame or stardom. Did it ever occur to you to write an album about your own struggles with fame or pop stardom?

That's a reason why I took the time to have a normal life and have [a life] other than touring. To be honest, I don't think my tour life is really interesting for people, or the fact that I'm famous. As a listener, I'm not a big fan when artists are [saying], “I'm suffering because I'm famous.” I prefer to relate to something that's more universal than that. I think that’s like People Magazine [set to] music, and I don't think it's really important or interesting. I prefer to perform from myself, telling stories that everyone can relate to. That's more important than my personal life. Something I can do is just tell stories, but I'm not good at telling my own story.

Stream Multitude by Stromae, below.

Photography: Marcus Cooper
Styling: Lisa Jarvis
Hair: Fitch Lunar
Makeup: Leticia Llesmin
Skin retouching: Mario Ernun
Nails: Brittney Boyce
Photography assistant: Nelson Castillo
Styling assistants: Raphael del Bono, Jasmine Amini