Something is brewing in Ghent: an army of independent women who are fearlessly turning pop inside out. Charlotte Adigéry is in the vanguard and her radical, multi-coloured pop is a perfect fit for the ever-groundbreaking BRDCST Festival.
"I think she’s better than Angèle,” our guest editor-in-chief says about Charlotte Adigéry. “Look at what she’s capable of. She’s got it!” Zwangere Guy, a baws (“boss”) like no other, is not the kind of guy you can argue with. But he does know what he’s talking about. Along with his buddies in the Brussels-based rap crew STIKSTOF, he invited the 28-year-old singer from Ghent for a guest vocal on the song “Nat” on their latest album.
Adigéry sang that track in Dutch, although she normally sings in English, and sometimes also in Creole. Creole? Adigéry is of Antillean heritage. Her mother grew up on Martinique, her father in Guadeloupe. Her ancestors were Yoruba and lived in West Africa, until they were taken to the Antilles as part of the Atlantic slave trade. But she also has roots in Benin, Italy, and Portugal. “It’s a typical Antillean mix,” the singer laughs. “I wouldn’t mind doing one of those DNA tests to see what kind of blood flows through my veins.”
The search for her identity and individuality is a driving force in Adigéry’s oeuvre, which she divides between her solo project under her own name and her band WWWater, in which she gives free rein to a rawer punk version of herself – the name refers to the power of water, with three Ws to visualize waves – with drums and guitars. She released the EP La falaise with WWWater in 2017. But it is Zandoli, her second EP as Charlotte Adigéry, that is currently garnering the most praise. When it was released in mid-February, Zandoli received plaudits from the leading American music website Pitchfork. In the meantime, Gilles Peterson invited her to the BBC and The Guardian called her “One to watch”. This spring, Neneh Cherry invited her to tour together.
From Deewee with love
During Charlotte Adigéry’s youth, music was everywhere. Her mother, with whom she forms the ska duo Chris & Charlie, was always singing, at home or in bands. Following her secondary school education, Adigéry studied journalism and nursery school pedagogy, but she soon realized it wasn’t her thing. She enrolled at the Herman Brood Academie, a rock school in Utrecht, but was told that she “wasn’t musical enough.” Things went better at the PXL academy in Hasselt. That was also when she started singing backing vocals for Arsenal and Baloji, which brought her to the attention of Stephen and David Dewaele from Soulwax, who were busy recording the soundtrack for Felix Van Groeningen’s film Belgica. “The Best Thing”, the track that she co-wrote with the Dewaeles, became one of the highlights of the soundtrack.
“They told me my voice would make me rich,” Adigéry grins. “That is obviously not important. I care much more that they were prepared to help me.” She worked at Deewee, their headquarters in Ghent, for several months. Not as a musician, but as an archivist. “They have sixty thousand vinyl records in their collection, and they want to digitize them so that if they find themselves crate digging in Brazil, for example, they can easily check whether they already own an album or not. I had to add the genre into the system, so I also had to listen to the music. I discovered many new things, like Bauhaus, but also techno and even Antillean stuff that I didn’t know.” Adigéry now uses this expansive knowledge as a music programmer with the VRT.
Another digitization collaborator was Boris Zeebroek alias Bolis Pupul, the multi-instrumentalist of, among others, Hong Kong Dong, The Germans, and himself. “I originally launched WWWater by myself,” Adigéry explains. “Drummer Steve Slingeneyer joined later, but I was still missing someone. A crazy guy on synths, for example. It turned out that Boris was that guy.” (Laughs)
Since then, Adigéry has released her own music on Deewee, the Dewaele brothers’ label. She describes being part of the tight, stylized universe of the Ghent-based Belgian music icons as a dream. “Of all Belgian musicians, I think I look up to them the most. I developed my new live show with them, they worked on it for a whole week. Stephen is filming the shows and he also took my press photo. If I zoom out for a second I think, shit, that’s a huge. (Laughs) Steph and Dave often see potential in me before I see it myself. They have a good eye for artists who make music based on their gut instincts.”
I am Charlotte Adigéry
It is that gut instinct that sets Charlotte Adigéry apart. She has no boundaries and is utterly uncompromising. In her musical universe, she happily blends punk, R&B, hip-hop, techno, rocksteady, and traditional sounds, while her angelic voice ties it all together. A mishmash, with no superfluous frills. “Steph and Dave are the first people to point out the essence. Something might be conceptual and glossy, and have lots of layers, but it has to be to the point. I do like a bit of glitter, but it can be suffocating.”
How much glitter does Charlotte Adigéry use? “When I was still working as a backing singer, I started wondering who I wanted to be onstage. I was still a fan of Beyoncé – now I think she’s a robot (laughs) – and I listened to her album I Am... Sasha Fierce. Then I started wondering who my Sasha Fierce was. I started out with WWWater and discovered my power and self-confidence by performing.
Onstage I am as pure as possible. When I am myself, I can’t blame myself for anything. (Laughs) I think that is important in life and it is important in art.” Adigéry refers to David Byrne and how the frontman of the Talking Heads derived a lot of power from his dopey, nerdy side. “Musicians, artists, but other people too, often underestimate their own stories, values, and background. No two people have the same story. There is always an urge to exaggerate things, especially in times of social media. But that makes everything so sterile.”
“The thing I find so boring about contemporary music is that it is often distant,” Adigéry continues. “There is a wall between the artist and the listener. Give people a chance to get to know you, dare to show them who you are: this is me. The trick, of course, lies in telling that story in a beautiful way.”
The story that Charlotte Adigéry tells is multifaceted and not necessarily unambiguous. Firstly because she simultaneously releases music under her own name and as WWWater. “Coincidentally, both are being picked up at the same time, but I consciously try to maintain a distinction. WWWater was my graduation project at PXL. The music is naked and dirty. I use it to translate raw, personal emotions, very intuitively and primitively. And therapeutically too. I can be really angry and mean, you know. (Laughs) But it feels good.”
Adigéry says that under her own name, she sings to make observations and to tell stories. The pop itself is a bit glossier, and the aim is more conceptual. “We have done a few performances at art galleries. There is more performance art to it.” But, she adds, both facets of herself are complementary. “Like a venn diagram. (Laughs) It is all just as much me, but I’m just speaking a different language.”
Figuratively, but also literally. Zandoli, the title of her new EP, refers to a lizard normally found climbing the walls of Caribbean homes. In her first single, “Paténipat”, she repeats a Creole rhyme, a mnemonic that helps in the transmission of traditional Martinican rhythms. “Freely translated that rhyme means: if you feel dizzy, keep going with your clothes off. (Laughs) It is typical of the humour with which Antilleans look at life. They are very good at keeping things in perspective and not taking themselves too seriously. Their metaphors are juicy and poetic, and sometimes even have a touch of the sadistic. They have fiery temperaments, they can get very angry, but also be very positive. What that rhyme really means is: if you are tired and feel like you can’t go on, cast off all that mental baggage.”
By dancing, for example? “I find that very liberating, yes. It is the best way to be in the here and now. Just like performing. Time stands still. You are in your body, which is your only instrument in that moment. Performing is the best link between your head and your body, without sinking in paralyzing, destructive thoughts.” It must be perfect for our hectic times. “Yes. That is also what my modest thesis at the PXL was about. About the rise of minimalist music as a kind of response to the oversaturation of stimuli with which we are bombarded nowadays. And how social media gets us addicted to it. They ultimately imprison you completely and prevent you from being truly human.”
The song “Paténipat” essentially means “what makes me, me?” “I wanted to dig deeply into myself,” Adigéry nods. “I have that Antillean side, but what is that exactly? How different am I from an Antillean because I grew up in Belgium? When I hear their music, it makes sense, but I still can’t dance like them. I can speak Creole, but not well enough to make jokes ad rem. I want to make it more my own language because it is a part of me and something I would like to pass on to my children.”
In “Paténipat”, Adigéry blends techno beats with rhythms derived from traditional gokwa. “You might compare that style of music to Brazilian percussion groups and capoeira. There are danced martial arts like that on Martinique too. That music originated among the slaves. Just like the blues in America, that was the only way for them to relax. Whenever I hear it, it speaks to the deepest part of who I am. Combining it with that slow techno is my way of bringing my world here and that world together."
Adigéry loves unexpected cross-fertilizations. Like the blonde wig that she wears during our interview, clearly a reference to the music video of “High Lights”. “I know I shouldn’t do it but / I love synthetic wigs a lot,” she sings like a mantra in that song. “A while ago, somebody told me that I change my hair too often. She thought I should only have one style in order to be successful. I thought that was a painful thing to hear and it made me feel quite insecure.
Until I had a kind of epiphany: no, damnit, I like things the way they are! For many black women, it is a kind of ritual to go to the hairdresser’s and say: who am I going to be today? There is pride in it, it is a celebration of yourself. Even if everything else was taken away from them, at least black women still had their hair. Which is not an excuse to make remarks about it.” Don’t touch my hair, as Solange sang about the way society deals with black hair. “Precisely. Hair is very intimate, you should keep your hands off it.”
Just after deciding that we have gotten to know her a little bit, Adigéry serves us the crux. “My music isn’t actually about me. It is about my perception of life and the message I convey. My voice is not the most important thing. I don’t think of myself as a singer, I find it too limiting. I make music.”