Thomas Jean Henri talks to Steven Johnson about making his new album Grande Est La Maison with Will Oldham and Kate Stables, being patient in releasing music, subjecting his art to scrutiny and remaking his songs with others.
This year perhaps more than any other has highlighted the value and importance of music in providing solace and escapism from the outside world. One of the albums that has stood out in doing this in 2020 has been Grande Est La Maison by Cabane, the alias of Belgian artist Thomas Jean Henri. It’s a point that feels even more apt on hearing him explain the name of his latest musical project. On a literal level the French word ‘cabane’ may translate into its English counterpart ‘cabin’, but Henri helpfully elaborates.
“Cabane is a small house, a temporary place from where you can hide yourself from bad weather. What I like about it is you can choose how to define ‘bad weather’. It could be social, it could be political, it could be related to the pandemic. I like the idea that everyone can have this small place just for themselves. We all need a place to live and sometimes need to share that place but everyone needs a ‘cabane’ for themselves”.
It’s a belief reflected in the warm, comforting songs found on Grande Est La Maison. When making the album Henri called upon assistance from various friends and former musical collaborators. It’s an impressive cast. Kate Stables of This Is The Kit and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy contribute exquisite vocals, Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas provides delicate string arrangements while Caroline Gabard and Sam Genders from folktronica outfit Tunng helped in contributing some lyrics. The album slowly formed over a period of years and this unhurried approach is evident in the songs. Henri is typically self-deprecating and open when describing the album’s background.
“The first track Sangokaku was released in 2015 but the album didn’t come out until this year. It took so long as it has been a complete self-production. Firstly, I needed to work to get enough money to pay for everything and secondly, I was lucky enough to work with talented musicians and they all have pretty busy agendas so I had to wait and be patient. I wrote the songs in Brussels and Caroline Gabard and Sam from Tunng gave me a hand with some of the lyrics. My English isn’t good enough so they co-wrote some of the lyrics”. He’s being unfair on himself; during our conversation he talks about his music engagingly and succinctly.
“Originally it was my idea to release just one single physical copy and travel with the album and organise listening sessions”
After working on the album for so long how did it feel to finally release it? “Mostly, I was just happy to finish it. Writing an album involves a lot of different tasks; recording, producing, promoting. It’s a lot of things for one person to do. I was just happy to release it, that was my goal. It seems that some people like it, so that was even better”. Answers like these demonstrate his humble nature and more follow as he explains how the different musical parts all fell into place.
Having worked with Kate Stables and Will Oldham before was it just a case of him wanting to work with familiar voices? Or did he feel their voices would suit the songs?
“Both. I’m just a normal guy, making my music in my living room and when I write the songs I don’t have any fear. When I write a song sometimes I’ll just think ‘oh, maybe Will can sing this, it’s going to be great, it’s perfect for his voice’. I’m lucky enough to have his email address so I asked him. Sometimes he says yes, like he did for these songs. Sometimes he never emails back and I think, well maybe he didn’t like the song” he laughs. “He recorded these vocals at his home in Kentucky”.
In a former life Henri was a drummer, first in a band called Venus but perhaps more notably also for Will Oldham during the early 2000s. The relationship extended to Oldham also asking him to record his 2003 Master And Everyone album. “He’s one of the most talented musicians I’ve been lucky enough to work with although I don’t know him very well. The last time I saw him was in 2013. My dream was to record these Cabane songs in the same room as everyone but it wasn’t an option. If we make another album and he still wants to sing songs I would love to spend more time with him as I think we could do much more”.
Henri went to Paris to record Kate Stables’ vocals and travelled to Peckham in south London to work on the strings with Sean O’Hagan. His relationship with O’Hagan dates back to 2007 when he produced the debut album by Henri’s former band Soy Un Caballo. O’Hagan’s luminous, signature string arrangements are one of the defining aspects of the new album and it’s clear Henri holds him in high regard. “He’s the best. He’s an amazing human being and an amazing artist. I’ve been very lucky to work with him. We worked together thirteen years ago on the Soy Un Caballo album. When that band came to an end I went back to London to see Sean and we spent weekends together listening to music and talking about football. After a few years I told him I had some new songs and it developed from there. He co-wrote two of the songs on the album (Tu Ne Joueras Plus À L’Amour and By The Sea).
The album’s lyrical themes are modest but lasting, largely focusing on the natural world and domestic settings. “I enjoy lyrics about the sea and nature but also about memories, love and home. When I’m thinking about Will Oldham’s voice for me it’s like being a passenger, he has a strange something in his voice. The sea is a nice way of talking about how you are far away from someone you love or your family”. It all comes together on tracks like Take Me Home Pt 1, where Oldham sings alluringly of how “the swell of the sea will take me home”. It’s one of many quietly engulfing moments on the album. Elsewhere, the tremulous, crystalline vocals of Kate Stables make equally striking an impact.
To coincide with the release of the album Henri also shared a ‘documentary’ style video where he interviews friends, asking for their thoughts about the album. It might sound like a fairly simple premise but it makes for interesting viewing and shows him to be something of a deep thinker on music in general. Did he enjoy subjecting himself to that scrutiny?
“In that video I was really asking myself what am I going to do with this album when it is finished? No one is waiting for it, no one is asking me to make it, we don’t really sell physical music any more so what was the point to do it? The questions were asked to my loved ones and people who I used to work with. What do they do with their art when they finish it? It was a big question for me, what do we do with our music, how can we move on and accept how it works right now.
“It’s inexplicable why music is so important for so many people in life but we can’t accept to give any money to pay for that music”
At one point in the video he talks about how he is considering only releasing one single physical copy of the album. It may sound both unusual and idealistic but merely reflects how he believes listening to music should be as special an experience as possible.
“It was a serious consideration for me to think about releasing it in that way. Originally it was my idea to release just one single physical copy and travel with the album and organise listening sessions. After meeting and hearing what these people said I finally decided to change my mind and release it normally.” Does he think access to music is too easy these days? Is it almost too readily available?
“That was the question. At first I wanted to think listening to music was the same as reading a book or watching a movie. If you read a book you’re not going to read it again for some time. You’re going to read it, enjoy it, then work on your memory of that book and what trace it left in your mind and in your life. I thought at first it could be done with music also but when I was talking to people about that I realised our relationship with music is different. Music is a bigger part of our lives than books or movies. When we travel, when we take the cab, the metro, when we walk so often we have music with us.
“At the same time it’s inexplicable why music is so important for so many people in life but we can’t accept to give any money to pay for that music. We have it for free and I can’t really understand how it is possible. I don’t want to be the older guy always complaining about it, I just want to think about how we can manage the situation right now. That was one of the ideas of the documentary – what can we do to stay positive, how can we live from the music we make?”
“Cabane is a project that incorporates photography, film and music. Those are the three sides of making art in Cabane”
As well as the video of interviews with friends Henri also created several shorter videos of performances of the songs. These pieces really succeed in conveying the warmth, peace and intimacy of the songs. Did he always want to add a visual element?
“Yes, we shot those videos in my apartment and the people you see in the videos are my loved ones. I thought it would be a good idea to make acoustic sessions of the songs. I worked with Jérôme Guiot, a talented director I have known for some time”. I suggest that all of the artistic elements have been carefully curated, something which Henri agrees on. “Curated is a good word – I’m a photographer as well as a musician and Cabane is a project that incorporates photography, film and music. Those are the three sides of making art in Cabane”. There’s an added poignancy in watching the films now given how these social situations are not currently permitted. They remind us of the communality of music, the simple joy of gathering to listen and play. “I hope we will be back to those situations soon. We need to see other human beings and share those moments” he adds.
The more we talk the more it becomes evident that human relationships and honesty are two of the foundations for much of Henri’s music. “I just make the music that is coming out of me, it’s not necessarily the music I like. For example, I’m a huge fan of the Pixies but give me a guitar and ask me to play some power chords and scream and that’s not going to be me at all but I enjoy listening to their music. When I make music I’m just trying to be honest and do the best that I can with the skills I have”. Let’s just move on by concluding that Cabane and Pixies exist very much at opposing ends of the musical spectrum…
There is one additional chapter to the Grande Est La Maison project, a sort of epilogue that saw Henri invite other artists to reinterpret songs from the album. These versions are sung by Raoul Vignal, Cavalier Montanari, Laura Etchegoyhen and Marc A. Huyghens and they reaffirm the beauty, strength and versatility of the songs. Where did the idea come from?
“I did not want to make any sort of ‘remix’ album but my idea was to ask people I love if they wanted to work with me on a cover of one of my songs. I gave them a free choice on what song to choose and I received each as a gift. The idea was to end the work on this album by giving the keys to this house to people I love and people I used to work with. These versions are no longer Cabane songs, they are their songs. It was a really nice journey”. One of the contributors, Marc A. Huyghens, was his former bandmate in Venus. Almost twenty years ago Henri had found himself discarded from the band in less than amicable circumstances but this ‘remake’ project brought the pair back together again. “Sometimes life can be hard but when you are able to work with people again after a long time it is a nice gift”.
Ultimately, that’s what Grande Est La Maison feels like – a special, lovingly packaged bijou gift. For now, Henri has tentatively returned to writing new songs and is looking ahead. “Let’s see if anything interesting appears over the next few months. If I have something to say I will say it, if not I will keep living my normal life”. Modest and unassuming to the last – it’s the Cabane way.
Cabane’s Grande Est La Maison by Cabane is out now. Cabane – The Remake Series is out on 4 December 2020. Further information can be found at cabanemusic.bandcamp.com