Tsar B's stuff of life: 'I've never felt more like I'm in the right place'

Tom Zonderman

Every month, a Brussels artist grabs a few items from their closet to tell their life story. While she feasts on art and books in her flat in Schaerbeek, electro-pop musician Tsar B is reaching for the stars at the Ancienne Belgique during the Listen Festival.

Who is Tsar B?

  • Born as Justine Bourgeus in 1994 in Ghent. Has played the violin since the age of three and studied economics at UGent. Came to Brussels via a stopover in Antwerp, eventually finding her spot in Schaerbeek
  • Played with Antwerp rock band School Is Cool from 2012 to 2016. Had her début as a singer with a duet with Oscar and the Wolf in the film Black by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. Her debut single “Escalate” went viral on YouTube
  • Launches her first album, The Games I Played, in 2018. Has written the soundtracks for TV series such as FC United and Season of Sex. Released the concert film Les diners de Gala, an ode to Salvador Dalí, in 2021. To the Stars, her second album, has just been released
Tsar B - Alles uit de kast

Shirley Villavicencio Pizango
“I try to buy an artwork now and then, especially from friends. Like this painting by Shirley Villavicencio Pizango. Shirley grew up in Peru between the Amazon and Lima, but ended up in Ghent aged 18. That's where I met her, and we became friends. She usually uses a lot of colour, but in this work black and white dominate, which makes it even more unique. I wrote 'Brazil' for her, a song from my previous album originally called 'I wanna be your girl'. That song was about a difficult love, the pain and sorrow that haunts you, and I recognise that theme in this painting too. Painting and films can make me very happy, much more than, say, a concert. They fulfil me as a human being and make me feel all warm inside.”

“Early this year, I spent a month in Mexico City, to get away from it all before my album came out, but mainly to immerse myself in the art scene there. I love nothing more than snooping around artists' studios. Like Frida Kahlo's studio or that of Leonora Carrington, a British-Mexican painter who made surrealism a bit more feminine in the middle of the last century.”

“We humans are so small, just a tiny part of a fungus. You can spend whole days thinking very hard about who you are and what you do. I want to absorb as much as possible and find happiness that way. Not projecting yourself, but the opposite: having everything projected onto you. For me, therein lies the core.”

Tsar B - Alles uit de kast, to the stars

Alejandro Jodorowsky
“I very much enjoy reading biographies, much more than fiction – it's nice, but it's not real! (Laughs) Like this book, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Creator of El topo. It has only just arrived in the post, but I am already sure it will be my favourite book. Jodorowksy is an amazing Chilean-French surrealist film director who, outside of El topo, also directed Dune and The Holy Mountain, among others. In Mexico City, he worked with Leonora Carrington, the painter I just mentioned. When he went to visit her at her house, he reportedly drank blood from a glass, she had just collected it from a wound. I find that wonderfully absurd and enriching.”

“I can take a great deal of inspiration from someone's life. After reading Just Kids by Patti Smith five years ago, I realised I was not at all where I needed to be. From then on, I completely turned my life around. I broke up with the friend I had been with since I was 16 and worked incredibly hard on self-development. Partly by going out a lot, which turned out to be very constructive for me. Endlessly partying resulted in such deep friendships, it was magical. There is a reason why there are so many gabber and trance beats on my new record. It was in that period that I moved from Antwerp to Brussels. I did go through a crisis when I bought this flat with my new boyfriend. Was this where I wanted to be? Isn't renting more relaxed? Now I am sure. I feel like I'm a 'bruxelloise' because you don't have to be from Brussels to be one, you can just be yourself here. Not that I wasn't myself before. I found myself already the day after I broke up with my previous boyfriend.” (Laughs)

“My new album, To the Stars, can be seen as a journey through those years after that break-up. I found a lot of inspiration from our Belgian astronaut Dirk Frimout. He once wrote down what it feels like to go to space. The supreme pressure when you take off, then the weightlessness, a succession of intense physical experiences. Those four years in which I had written my new album were just like that. First very heavy, then very light, then I pushed really hard against things again. After which, like Dirk Frimout, I saw the world in a different perspective.”

Tsar B - Alles uit de kast - hondje

“I have recently become a real hippy when it comes to animals. I don't have a pet, but I do have a painting of Juliette, my parents' dog. At my parents' house, we looked after dogs trained for people in wheelchairs for many years. No dog stayed more than two years. As a kid, that was hard but also very educational because we learned to say goodbye. We were also proud, of course, because we always knew where the dog went.”

“All my friends are like dogs, they are supportive, loyal, unconditional. Unconditional love is always seen as the ultimate, but things also shouldn't exist if they poison each other. Healthy love is love where, above all, you work a lot on yourself. We are all a bit lost these days, we are very focused on finding ourselves. That is very valuable, because we are what we are to the other.”

Tsar B - Alles uit de kast - Synth

Udo Super Six
“When I was three, I started playing the violin, but from the age of fourteen I was in pop bands. At first I only performed as a musician, but on the tour bus with School Is Cool, I became addicted to the digital music programme Ableton. It is during the waiting game that the good things happen. (Laughs) From then on, I started making and producing music myself. On stage, this did not really manifested itself, I mostly sang and for the rest I was bored. There was an ego thing at play too, since nobody knew I had made those beats myself. They just told me my voice was great and my musicians were complimented on the music. I wanted to shout: 'Those beats are mine!' That gender inequality has flattened out by now. Maybe because the people I work with know what I do, or because the scene has changed. The music business is a microclimate, of course, it's not that women's rights have improved globally. But I do feel comfortable now.”

“I have this new toy, an Udo Super 6 synth, a real cutie based on vintage synths. I bought it to help me translate the spacey, Blade Runner-like sounds of my new album to the stage. Tsar B is mostly electronic, but with an analogue feel. We play with the philosophy of a jazz band. We do everything live and don't stick to samples and a backing track. During the try-out show, adrenaline was running through my body. It felt exciting again. This is a new era for Tsar B. I have never felt so in the right place.”

“That red-lit cross of the Basilica of Koekelberg is so cool that I wanted one like it for myself. So now there is one hanging above my bed, flown in from LA. I have a thing for crucifixes, like here (shows her tooth), I had a gold cross put on there. I reject the institution of church, but I love everything else about it, the music, the art, the architecture, the mystical, the overwhelming.”

“My father is an atheist, but I was raised Catholic. When I was six, my faith in Jesus was very strong. That was a bit dangerous. I would have jumped off anything, because Jesus was going to catch me. When we went skiing once, I abruptly went straight down a ravine. My father threw himself in front of me, saving me. ‘What are you doing?” he cried out, dismayed. I replied that Jesus was going to save me. (Laughs) He vowed I would never go to Sunday school again, but in the end I did finish it.”

To the Stars by Tsar B is out now

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