We had a pleasant interview to find out more about Jeremy Engel, the French-born, Dublin-based singer-songwriter, who knows his way around two of the most basic forms of communication: languages and music. Musically, he has a compelling, warm, rich voice and intuitive storytelling that makes him approachable to the deepest, intimate part of listeners’ hearts and souls. His most recent track, “I Got Caught,” is a testament to his musicianship and his passionate performance.
Ciao Jeremy! You do indeed have a lot up to your sleeves. You’re fluent in two of the most fundamental modes of communication: languages and music. Tell us more about yourself and how your musical journey started.
Ciao Viola! Thanks for having me in your magazine, it’s a pleasure!
I grew up in a small fishing harbor in Normandy, France next to the house of Guy de Maupassant and since then I’ve lived in quite a few countries, but I’ll make it short otherwise we need to get popcorns.
I started playing the guitar at age 14 but I never learned academically, instead, I met a totally wacky guy who taught me all the weirdest chords. I have always been playing but it is not until recently that I started recording my own songs and sharing them with a wider audience.
Would you say that your passion for languages gives you the privilege of being exposed to a wide range of musical styles and artists?
It certainly does, in different ways. We all know that we do not need to understand the lyrics to be moved by a song and it is kind of nice, it gives us the possibility to create our own meaning. But it is also true that understanding the lyrics gives an extra flavor, I can feel frustrated at times when I realize that I fail to grasp the deep meaning of so many beautiful songs in languages I don’t understand. I wish I could speak more languages but we only have one life, even if this life can be multiple.
Then as part of my work as a conference interpreter, I have had the opportunity to travel to many different places. I once was in the arctic circle for a conference on indigenous people and I had a chance to discover the Yoik, which is a particular form of singing performed by the Sami people. I remember a girl named Katarina Rimpi started singing, and this is one of the most stunning performances I have ever seen. Each Yoik evokes an animal, a place, or a person, it is truly beautiful.
Just for fun, if you had to pick a side between your passion for music and your passion for languages, which side would you pick?
I would definitely choose music. As surprising as it may seem I am not that passionate about languages, I am passionate about the possibilities related to languages. I love communication, contact with people, and languages are just one of the tools we use to communicate, but I would not define myself as a linguist per say.
If you remember, Nelson Mandela once said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Let’s say music is the universal mother tongue, and since I can be lazy at times I thought it would be easier to learn music than to learn over 6000 languages if I am to talk to the heart of every human being…
You’ve mentioned your admiration for Rory Gallagher and Ireland’s music. What are your other main influences?
My influences are very eclectic, but Leonard Cohen is definitely my main influence for his approach to songwriting and his absolute respect for the audience. But to be honest with you, I am always lost for words when it comes to talking about people who inspire me, it feels like I can never do them justice.
In your singles, you play both the guitar and harmonica. Do you play any other instruments? And which one feels the most like you?
No, I don’t play any other instrument, unfortunately. Both the guitar and harmonica feel the most like me, and since Rock n’ roll never preached fidelity and I always go from one to another.
I like the intimate and sensual side of the harmonica which becomes an extension of your breathing, people often don’t realize the unlimited possibilities this tiny instrument can offer.
On the other hand, when I play the guitar it just feels like home, it is reassuring, even though it is a house so big that I only know the entrance hall.
What inspires you to craft new music?
Pretty much everything can lead to writing a new song, a word, an emotion, a stare. However, oddly enough I tend not to write love songs even if there is some kind of love in every song I write. Certain topics demand a certain level of mastery that I just don’t have yet. If I had to write a love song today, I would only scratch the surface and it would be disrespectful. In other words, people do not need to hear that you’re in pain or that you have butterflies in your stomach, they know that already. If I try to write a song I want to partner with the listener to unchartered territory.
Is “I Don’t Want To Stay” your first work ever, or do you have some finished unpublished music?
“I Don’t Want To Stay” is not my first work. I actually recorded an entire album but I did not release it as I felt that the quality was not there. I like the songs on this album, they have potential but I was not satisfied with my vocals, although I know singers are rarely at peace with this. I will probably release them someday though, it is just a matter of time, there is no point in pulling on the leaves to make them grow.
Was it natural for you to find your alt-rock/folk sound, or did you experiment with different genres and styles until you found your own sound?
It was totally natural, I never thought about having a specific style to follow a trend or to please the industry, my music is just the result of my conscious and unconscious influences. I like “organic” music, with real instruments and real musicians, I never had a love story with a computer. The same goes for the vocals, if you need to use Autotune because you are pitchy, go back to work and come back when you’re ready. There is no shortcut to quality, and the road to get there is the final destination.
You started off with a bang with your award-winning narrative music video for “I Don’t Want To Stay.” So, as much as it is enjoyable to watch the live-performance music videos, why haven’t you considered making a narrative music video again?
I am considering it every day! The point is that you need to have a good idea, there is no point in making a narrative music video just for the sake of doing something, then you need to have the right song. It is also quite expensive; this is not something you do every day. On “I Don’t Want To Stay” I had the privilege to work with my good friend Cecile Ragot who is a talented filmmaker based in New York. She managed to gather a team of 12 volunteers, this was the experience of a lifetime and I would love to work with them again in the future, I owe them so much.
Do you have any plans to release an EP or album featuring multilingual singles someday?
I am currently working on a duet in English and Portuguese with a very talented Portuguese singer, something I have been willing to do for a long time, I hope we manage do to something nice! Stay tuned!
Your latest “I Got Caught” is quite moving. Where did the idea come from?
As surprising as it may seem, I don’t really know where the idea came from. Sometimes I start writing a song and I don’t know where it will lead me. This song ended up being about toxic relationships, but I didn’t particularly want to write a song on this topic in the first place, it just ended up there naturally as if the subconscious was involved in the process. Strangely enough, I would soon discover that this was a premonitory song and I was happy to have it. I usually don’t listen to my own songs, but I could relate to this one and it felt good to have it as if it was someone else’s.
Based on the previous question, can you tell us about the writing process? How did manage to convey the emotional complexity not only through lyrics but also in the instrumentation?
First of all, I am happy if you say you could feel the emotional complexity because it is never easy to convey. When you write a song you want to be simple but not simplistic. For this song I wanted to alternate between moments of tension and moments of peace. Dynamics are extremely important in a song since they are the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster. The circling guitar riff is both reassuring and distressing, like the daily life in a toxic relationship, you know it hurts but it is a landmark, it is home. I don’t really like to analyze the lyrics because I think words speak for themselves, I don’t act them out, at least I try.
Did any amusing incidents happen during the recording of the single?
We recorded this song at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin. My producer and all the musicians are Irish but since they know that I was born in France they always like to tease me. One morning, we started recording at 10 am, and by 11 am they had already brought bottles of this American wine to cheer me up… it was disgusting! …but I didn’t want to offend them. Maybe I should tell them that people in France don’t necessarily drink wine first thing in the morning.
We’d like to learn more about your upcoming plans.
Right now, we are working on a new song with an amazing electric guitar and some heavy harmonica! I am really looking forward to this one!
The idea is also to do more gigs but it is always tricky to find the right balance between my life as a songwriter and my life as a conference interpreter.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. What advice would you provide to young people who are pursuing their ambitions?
Since I am also considering myself as a young man pursuing his ambition, I don’t think I am in a good position to give any advice, but if you have any I’ll take it!
Thanks a million for your time!
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