WHEN CÉCILE SCHOTT put out her 2003 debut, Everyone Alive Wants Answers, it seemed to exist in a world of its own. Its sampled loops of strings and bells had the air of modern chamber music, the textures of ambient music, and the sensibilities of early 2000s trip-hop. Working under the moniker Colleen, Schott has spent the years since using live instruments and pedals to create a catalog of similarly unlikely crossover albums, and her latest is perhaps the most unlikely yet.
For Captain of None (released on Thrill Jockey in April), the French minimalist composer used a Renaissance-era instrument to make an album that nods to her lifelong love of Jamaican dub music. Emailing from her home in San Sebastian, Spain, Schott recalled family road trips soundtracked by the sonic playfulness of Lee Perry and the Upsetters.
"I distinctly remember listening to the music and even then hearing how different it was to everything we listened to." That interest in the music of Jamaica stayed with her, but it wasn't until revisiting her record collection a few years ago that she saw how it could apply to her own music. "I was ready to be inspired by music that's both very tight and very free, that can be colorful and brooding at the same time," she writes.
Captain of None—only the second Colleen album to incorporate Schott's own voice—builds on hypnotic chants that read as short odes to the natural world or critiques on the hubris of human beings. For Schott, it's "almost a concept album," with references that extend from the art of ancient civilizations to the mistreatment of animals, but purposefully left open to interpretation.
The instrument that provides the backbone for these meditations is the treble viola de gamba, a stringed instrument popular during the Baroque period, roughly the same size as a viola. While it's typically played with a bow, Schott plucks the instrument, creating short but intricate phrases. How dissimilar this is to dub is what makes the influence work so well. "I knew that my instruments and way of doing things were distant enough from the original Jamaican sound for me to be inspired by it without doing a pastiche of it," Schott says.
The music of experimental cellist Arthur Russell, whom Schott references as having a major impact on her recent work, might be a more direct link. Captain of None is a dub album in the way Russell's World of Echo is a dub album: It combines classical instrumentation with dub's unique qualities—what Schott describes as "the basslines, the echoes and delays, and the general openness about what a song can be."
While the new album is being called her most accessible work to date, it's still far from pop. It might push the definition of what Colleen sounds like, but is mostly just a more pronounced version of what Schott's been doing for over a decade: creating pieces of music that sit somewhere between the definitions of song, composition, and improvisation.
"I feel extremely lucky to have had an audience from the start," Schott says, "and I'd rather the audience be not very wide but listening to my music for the right reasons—that is, because they love the music, not [the] hype behind it."