"As musicians, we have to travel a lot," David Lemaitre sighs calmly. "Goodbye is a word we are forced to use on a daily basis. My younger brother just got a tattoo that says, `The idea is to be in a state of constant departure while always arriving`, and I really don`t feel I actually belong somewhere. But I like that. Take the best from all the places and people you mingle with. I don`t define myself through where I`m from anymore. It`s more important where you`re going."
This restless sense of adventure is quietly but seductively evident on Lemaitre`s debut album, Latitude. If there is a central theme to the record, Lemaitre says, it lies in his attempt "to play with distance the way it plays with us". As a man born and raised in La Paz, Bolivia, and now living some 6,500 miles away in Berlin, Germany, he knows what he`s talking about. Latitude, however, is far from unfocussed, even if its influences are unusually incongruous. Buried within its soul are echoes of contemporary songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Jose Gonzales – as well as older, more established names like Tim Buckley and Serge Gainsbourg – but the likes of Nicholas Jaar and Four Tet have also played a significant role. "They inspired me a lot to work with textures as a compositional tool," Lemaitre states admiringly. "I like to think of every instrument and element in a song as a percussive element and to let them roll and roll against each other. Rhythm is the most innate of all the musical elements for me. This probably comes not only from my Bolivian background, but also from my love of electronic music. That`s why I love sampling coins and corn flake boxes, like in `Jacques Cousteau` or the suitcase drums in `Pandora Express`."
Since leaving his homeland upon finishing college, Lemaitre travelled around Europe, following in the footsteps of his parents – a painter and an engineer – who spent time there as a young couple. Having attended a German school as a child, he ended up in Germany, where he slowly worked his way up from the south of the country, living in four cities before, two years ago, settling down – for now, at least – in the capital. "The word home in the traditional sense has changed its meaning for me," he says, "but I really feel at home in Berlin. It has a lot to do with my close friends and doing what I love."
Deceptively simple, Latitude is full of tiny details that hint at a colourful, international background that traverses continents just as Lemaitre has. There was, he recalls, always music in his family, and he was brought up on a diet of his father`s psychedelic rock and pop records – a collection that leant heavily on classics from Pink Floyd to Cat Stevens – as well as, simultaneously, his mother`s own interpretations of melancholic South American protest songs by the likes of Violeta Parra and Mercedes Sosa. These she performed in a rich, deep voice, and it was also she that taught him his first guitar chords.
Discouraged from pursuing music by an unsupportive teacher, Lemaitre nevertheless soon started a band for which he began writing songs. Over time, he began to crave the simplicity of solo performance, and, once in Europe, he slowly headed towards the intimate stages of small cafes, inspired by Jeff Buckley`s Live At Sin-e. His youthful investigations of a variety of styles, combined with a desire to experiment with different forms – he`s also tried his hand at jazz and electronica – ensured that his music developed a character all of its own, something that was, as he says, "nourished by distance and the contrast between cultures and countries. I think everything you really loved stays with you and pops out somewhere. I loved those records having so many different musical colours and going from a hippie jam to a ballad and back to a blues song. I`ve never been very conscious about styles and movements, and I really enjoy a record being all over the place."
Nonetheless, he remains bewitched by what he calls "naked and simple music. I like to think of songs as independent beings and to try to dress them the way it suits the song best, without thinking too much about finding a continuous line." This aesthetic is a defining feature of Latitude, much of which was recorded alone in his home studio, though he also worked in East Berlin`s legendary DDR Funkhaus and at the studio of producer Alex Sprave, who helped with additional recording and mixing. The album consequently shifts with ease from the ambiguously joyful `Megalomania` to the elegant intimacy of `Magnolia (Girl With A Camera)`, from the wild psychedelia of `The Incredible Airplane Party` to the sprightly, percussive `Pandora Express`, via the otherworldly, almost hallucinatory qualities of `Jacques Cousteau`, the South American swing of the quietly thrilling `The Doctor`s Wife` and, finally, an understated, elegiac cover of Nick Drake`s `River Man`.
The latter was, Lemaitre knows, a risky endeavour, but it`s an appropriate and honest choice that also nods to one of the ghosts that inhabit the record, especially in the string arrangements, which recall those of Robert Kirby, though Nico Muhly and the work on Sea Change of Beck`s father, David Campbell, also played a role. "I wouldn`t have touched Nick Drake`s songs," the half Bolivian, half Chilean musician admits, "except one day, when we were touring two weeks before finishing the record, a very old friend of mine played it to me after ages of not hearing it. We started to sing it backstage before concerts. I know many people will not be comfortable with me recording that song, but all the Latitude record was inspired so much by Sylvia Plath`s writing, and Nick Drake`s lyrics just closed the circle. It really means a lot to me."
As this might suggest, lyrically Latitude is not always – despite its often upbeat musical tone – entirely celebratory. "Berlin can be a very lonely place," he concedes. "Plath`s sensibility towards an unfulfilled life contrasted with this hectic city, where everyone is searching to find his very own dream. What if we fail? We probably will anyhow. Sylvia and Drake both gave up their life early. I still wonder if searching for beauty does that to you, you know? So basically I believe that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional, and you will never, ever make it alone. Berlin showed me that."
This conviction lies at the heart of Lemaitre`s meditations on the nature of love and its contradictions. `Spirals`, for instance, is about maintaining pride while admitting that one is failing, yet `Olivia`, a gentle serenade accompanied by a distant orchestra of broken violins, is about how one can feel concurrently close to someone, and yet shut out entirely. The unabashed romance of `The Pandora Express`, on the other hand, looks at the manner in which separation can heighten our sentiments, and `Magnolia (Girl With Camera)` – which sounds like it was recorded inside a piano covered in snow – is about two friends struggling not to fall for each other, confronting the choice between freedom and passion. But there are plenty of lighter touches discernible in songs like `The Doctor`s Wife`, with its painfully ironic final twist, and `The Incredible Airplane Party` – inspired by a dream he had while crossing the Atlantic – while the album`s arguable masterpiece, `Megalomania`, hides a subtle fury at contemporary values amidst its breezy, unforgettable melody. Like Lemaitre himself, Latitude is unafraid of crossing borders of all sorts.
Intriguingly, the musicians with whom he now performs live – in what he says is his favourite constellation to date, since it allows him to shift from delicate intimacy to symphonic intensity effortlessly – reflect his cosmopolitan approach to life. One, Joda Foerster, plays an array of instruments, from vibraphone and synthesiser to percussive suitcases, while Sebastian Schlecht (violin, cello and synthesiser) is half German, half Japanese. Adopting "an orchestral approach of looping ourselves and building big soundscapes", they perfectly capture the manner in which Lemaitre`s songs find just the right balance between melancholy and optimism. After all, as he himself says, "finding beauty will always make you sad in a way. Change is the only promise given to us, and yet still we are so afraid of letting go. There`s nothing worst than being blinded by the lights in your rear view mirror. Yesterday lies a million years ago, so we need to let go."
And that`s exactly what Latitude is: the sound of a man letting go, albeit in an unhurried, easy-going fashion. It is, Lemaitre hopes, "patient pop music", and that`s as close to a perfect definition of its contents as anyone is likely to come. After all, this is a man who`s come a long way, but knows there`s always further to go…
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