Marion Cousin, the ancestral song

Interviews 05.09.2023

Marion Cousin is drawn to the telluric force of folklore, the deep, ancient sound of our ancestors' songs. She collects traditional songs, interprets them, and renews them with the vibration of modernity. Accompanied by musicians such as Gaspar Claus and Borja Flames, Marion Cousin hijacks the traditional to experiment with the folklore that has enveloped the souls of cultures and peoples. What would South America be without Victor Jara, Violeta Parra, Mercedes Sosa, Yupanqui or Chavela Vargas? An empty well. Marion Cousin perpetuates tradition by modernizing it, taking it by the collar, looking it in the eye and offering it to us in albums such as Jo estava que m'abrasava (Balearic folklore) with Gaspar Claus, Tu Rabo Par'Abanico with the group Kaumwald, (Extremadura folklore). With singer Éloïse Decazes, she is preparing a new album of Portuguese tunes, Chants du Tras-os-Montes.

Marion, how did your musical adventure begin?
In 2006, while living in Barcelona, I met a musician from Valenciennes, Borja Flames, who had an instrumental group called Belmonde, and with him I formed the duo June et Jim, a nod to Truffaut's film and a small tribute to June Carter. But some time later, I wanted to go back to school in France. At the time, we didn't see much of a future for ourselves in Barcelona, because we were singing in French and figured there was no point in doing it in Barcelona.

Did you think your proposal would be better understood in France?
Yes, because the text of the compositions could be enhanced. Although we thought about it at the time, today I live in France and sing in Spanish, and Borja Flames also works in France and sings in Spanish!

The paradoxes of life...
Yes, it's curious. Anyway, in Barcelona at that time, there wasn't much space for any kind of music other than rock.

What's your background, Marion?
I don't have any musical training as such. I started taking singing lessons when I took up music, but my training is in theater. I studied dramaturgy and directing. Music has always been a dream of mine. As a teenager, I listened to grunge and, in the 90s, I wanted to start an all-female grunge band, but a lot of men didn't want female guitarists in their bands. I found my place in theater, but not in music. Then I met Borja and he suggested we form a duo.

You've released two albums: Les Forts (2012) and Noche Primera (2013).
Yes, and two EPs too. Between 2006 and 2013, we were quite active, playing festivals in France; but we were almost always classified in the French chanson landscape.

Were you influenced by French chanson?
No, because we didn't share the influences of French chanson. We were too weird to conform to the musical style of Brassens, Brel or Hardy. What's more, in France at the time, there was a great mistrust of the French language. If you sang in French, you were pigeonholed as a French songwriter; but if you didn't claim this heritage and went into weirder spaces, you weren't accepted at all.

Did you feel you were in an uncomfortable place?
Yes, because it wasn't our place. When we played in front of an audience that loved French songs, they were disoriented. Our approach seemed strange, austere and sad. It was a time when the use of French was rejected for alternative music, which seemed to have to be sung in English. But that changed between 2010 and 2012, and it became fashionable to write alternative music in French!

How did you come to discover the Ocora collections of French national radio?
These ethnomusicologists who went to remote regions of the world to record music that was neither commercial nor marketed, songs that came from the depths of a people, a culture, a soul, changed our point of view. I remember the change that came over us when we discovered Violeta Parra. We were in awe. This discovery led to June and Jin's second album, Noche Primera.

Did she influence you?
Yes, she did. She had done sixty years earlier what we wanted to do that year. We were enchanted not only by her music, but also by her attitude. Violeta would go into the villages with a guitar and get the locals to teach her songs, then she'd come back to Santiago and record those songs to leave a trace and let the world know about them.

This all happened in 2012. Did the discovery ofAlan Lomax 's recordings in the 1950s have a similar influence to that of Violeta Parra?
Yes. He's known for making the first small-town blues recordings in the US in the 1970s, the first to put a giant tape recorder in the trunk of a car to travel the US and record small-town bluesmen. Because he was a communist and there was a witch-hunt against communists, Alan emigrated to Europe. Of the five years he spent on the Old Continent, three were devoted to Spain, where he recorded all kinds of folk music: in Asturias, Extremadura, Valencia, Andalusia and so on.

And it was from this approach to folklore that Jo estava que m'abrasava in 2016?
Yes, based on the folk repertoire of the Balearic Islands, with Gaspar Claus.

In 2021, you released another album under the name Catalina Matorral, with Borja Flames.
Yes, these are songs we started in 2014 in Menorca and finished in 2020 in Burgundy.

What criteria do you use to choose songs from a traditional repertoire?
As I don't adopt a scientific point of view, I choose the songs I want to sing for their melody and text. In the world of folklore, I'm drawn to stories of violence against women, as if I could protest against the violence that is still perpetrated against women today. I have a penchant for the tragic, I think. I also steer clear of lullabies, because I find it very easy to emote from lullabies, and I try to stay away from that source.

What have you learned about the relationship between traditional and contemporary music?
That traditional music is contemporary, because it's still active in many countries. In France, it survives in certain regions, but in other countries, it has almost been banished and reduced to nothing. With Kaumwald, the duo I worked with on the songs of the Extremadura romances, I work with Ernest Bergez. He composes the songs with melodic and textual elements from traditional music. As a result, traditional music continues and perpetuates itself, and there is no difference between modernity and tradition, between the past and the future. Sometimes certain criteria are used to define music, but I don't think there's really any difference. Some records show that these romances can be played on baroque or early instruments, as with Jordi Savall, for example. Or molded in electronics, against a backdrop of sixties American folk.

Are you saying that traditional music renews itself over time?
Yes, when I discovered the traditional repertoire, I was obsessed by purity, by the idea of going back to the source. There are the songs of María del Mar Bonet, the songs of Lomax from the fifties. But there's a point where you can't go any further, because traditional music wasn't written down. These melodies, this musical background, are transformed. María del Mar Bonet, for example, developed it under the influence of English folklore. If we wanted to trace the origins of this traditional music, we'd have to fix this folklore in time. But what interests me is that this music continues to exist, transforms itself and never stands still.

How did your collaboration with Gaspar Claus ?
We didn't know each other, but I was familiar with his work. I went to one of his concerts and suggested we work together. We did a test, he improvised on the cello for fifteen minutes, and we knew immediately that we had to create music together. We spent a week in the studio and started working on the songs, without rehearsing in advance. I'd sing the song to him, summarize the lyrics and he'd find the right sound. Then we'd record the song.

Did you repeat this procedure with Kaumwald?
Yes, we did. With Kaumwald (Ernet Bergez and Clément Vercelletto), we booked a studio for two weeks and recorded one song a day. They set up their electronic equipment, looked for sounds and we did takes. It was very hard for me, I felt very fragile because I was singing all day and my voice was suffering.

Finally, tell me about your relationship and work with Eloïse Decazes.
The album has already been recorded and mixed. We're currently negotiating with record companies. I looked for the polyphonic repertoire of Trás-os-Montes, a province in northern Portugal. I wanted to work with another woman to interpret the melodies in the same tessitura. There's another reason too. After working with men, I wanted to play instruments and break the singer-instrumentalist dichotomy. I wanted to corrupt that format and not be the only singer. In fact, I like to confuse the two of us, to break down the idea that female singers have to be unique. I didn't want to be unique, to know that we're not in competition, that there's no harm in confusing us, because it creates a very interesting playground.

Interview by Txema Seglers

Photo © Borja Flames


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