Interview: The Carmelittles’ Henri Poilevey on Wreath
Bedroom pop, lockdown albums… 2020 is the year that everyone’s making music on their own from the confines of home. But few are doing it with the sophistication and virtuosity of Chicago-based Henri Poilevey, who, as The Carmelittles, has just released his debut album Wreath. Described on its Bandcamp page as “A chamber pop oasis for anyone afraid of our technocratic world,” Wreath is a treat for fans of pop music that’s majestic, varied, complex and heartfelt. (You can hear one of the tracks, “Chlorine,” in the September 2020 episode of Gray Days and Gold.)
It’s an album that rewards not just attentive listening, but listening front to back in the sequenced order. From the amuse bouche of the opening instrumental track, “Baby Lucid,” through the extended intro of the second track, “Small and Confused,” which patiently adds layers to a repeating chord pattern for nearly two minutes before the vocals appear, the message it delivers is, “Welcome, sit back, settle in… this will be a journey,” which feels like a rarity these days.
I got in touch with Henri to discuss the album, and how he got here.
MG: Wreath strikes me as so much more fully-realized than most other people’s lockdown recordings. Even after multiple listenings I find the sequencing really delightful; it makes me feel like you’re conducting an experience for my benefit, and it makes me eager for what’s to come.
HP: Thank you so much! I’m glad you’re into the “journey” experience of the record. That’s definitely what I was going for. I paid a lot of attention to the flow and tracklisting of the record. It’s almost as important as the songs, especially for making the album feel “fully realized” as you say. I thought a lot about ways I can connect dots across the album. For instance, there’s a theremin on the first track, the last one, and the end of “Egregore” (the middle point of the album). The theremin melody is similar each time, but the context is always different. There are also lyrical threads all over the place.
I wanted to press this record to vinyl, but unfortunately it’s a little too long to fit on a 12 inch. I’m committed to making the next album 40 minutes and 8-9 songs, so there’s a Side A and Side B feel.
Is this the culmination of effort extending long before the COVID era?
Most people may be surprised to know that, although I didn’t start anything until January of this year, I actually did the majority of the creative work before the pandemic hit, especially the songwriting and getting the album themes together. Some people who’ve listened to “Egregore” call it a “coronavirus song,” but I actually did most of it in February. Between April and August was a lot of redoing parts, redoing vocals, fine-tuning and editing. I’m glad the songs ended up cohesive because they were a mess for a very long time.
Regarding your writing process, does either the music, melody or lyrics tend to come first, and do you favor a particular instrument when writing?
Generally with songwriting I’m a piano guy. Because I’m not a natural singer I like to play chords and come up with a melody in the right hand, then fill in the lyrics. My favorites on the album were the ones where I thought, “I’m not gonna make that to a song. The chords are just too simple.” I feel like writing “Thank You For Everything” was the peak of my creative season, even though it was so simple. It sort of tied all the songs together, and was the moment I knew what the album was going to be about.
You’ve been playing music since your teens (some earlier demos are on Bandcamp), but this is your first ‘official’ album; did you specifically set out to make an album?
I’ve been trying to make a proper album by myself for years. I actually had this album called The Great Through which I was working on intermittently for maybe close to five years. I just couldn’t get it done, and there was a lot in the way, so I finally scrapped it about a year ago. Maybe I’ll rework some of the songs, but honestly they bring me back to times where I was treating myself very poorly. So I definitely made Wreath with a start-from-scratch mindset. Two of the songs, “Small and Confused” and “Notice the Focus”, I actually wrote in high school, but all the other ones were written in the past year.
As DIY recordings go, your songs are remarkably orchestrated—bells, strings, harpsichord, and the aforementioned theremin all come to mind. Have you studied arrangement in a concerted fashion, or does it come naturally?
When it comes to arrangement, it’s actually more simple than it may seem. The first song I started recording was “Chlorine”—I knew I had to nail the drums off the bat because I didn’t want to redo them, and everything sits on top of that. Then the bass guitar comes second. When I had the drums and bass for “Chlorine,” I thought “this sounds so lame!” But then third I added the piano (I have an upright at home) and it just… tied it all together. Definitely a eureka moment, I knew that had to be the template for the whole album. For the most part, most other ideas just come before I realize they’re there. I knew I wanted reversed/warped backing vocals on “The Letter,” I knew I wanted “The Future Is Clear” to have a sci-fi sound, etc.
Let’s talk a bit about your background. When I first googled your name, the top results are tributes to your late parents (restauranteurs Jean-Claude and Susanne Poilevey) and their work. Your older brothers (Oliver and Nicolas) have taken the reins of the restaurant business, and I get the impression that you might be the most musical one in the family?
Yeah, my last name is definitely a sad Google search right now. I hope over the next few years it can be balanced out with some good news! I’m doing music stuff, and my eldest brother is embarking on new adventures as a restaurant owner and chef, which is really exciting. But your suspicion is right, I’m actually the only musician in my family. I don’t know why it ended up that way, but my brothers are very musical and could’ve been musicians given the training.
Do you remember what initially pulled you toward music?
I know when I was six I asked my parents to take piano lessons, when it’s usually the parents making their kids take lessons. My parents didn’t remember what initially inspired that, but I wish they did!
My interest in music took off at thirteen and fourteen, as it usually goes for kids. Initially I was a metalhead—Iron Maiden was my first concert and my friend and I were the youngest people there. The metalhead phase didn’t last. I started playing drums mainly, and a bit of guitar.
Ninth grade was great because I discovered everything for the first time. I know there was a study basically saying that whatever music you like at fourteen, no matter how embarrassing, you will like for the rest of your life. I definitely believe that. I’m pretty sure when I was fourteen I thought I was the only person who had ever listened to Kid A. Definitely an innocent time.
I think I was seventeen when I discovered some of the records that had the biggest impact on me—The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to name a few. The Soft Bulletin will always and forever be my favorite album.
I was equally inspired by my musician friends and the network of bands at my high school as I was by the music I was listening to. There were a ton of bands and some of them were really good. I graduated high school in 2012, which isn’t that long ago, but feels like forever ago in musical-era years. For instance, it seemed like rock music, or just the idea of being in a band, was a lot more relevant. Even if you weren’t very good, it was still fun and exciting. I don’t think it’s like that anymore. It seems like the type of kid who would start a band in 2009 would, in 2020, just start a podcast instead. So I do miss that. A world full of bands is a happy one. A world full of solo artists is… hit or miss.
GarageBand has finally supplanted actual garage bands?
That’s at least my observation of my immediate environment, living in a major American city—people and the world in general, especially the world of musicians, becoming more insular. Obviously this is exacerbated by the pandemic, but it was that way before. I think smaller sounds are thriving better on the smaller devices we use to experience media. The modern pop solo artists, Billie Eilish for instance, all have that sound like they’re whispering directly to you through your Bluetooth earbuds. It’s a trend so prevalent we forget it started no earlier than 2013. I wanted to do an album with a bigger sound because I have theatrical tastes, and I wanted to bring back energies that I feel are missing from modern music. I like minimalism but sometimes it comes off as a little pretentious.
Given all of that, what led you to tackle this as a solo project?
The album ending up as a solo album was just happenstance—I wanted to have creative control since I was writing the songs I wanted to record, and I didn’t have any musician friends that I thought were willing to work that way. Plus I had a space to record at home and enough equipment to start. I knew by doing it by myself it would be significantly less fun, but also a significant learning experience. And it definitely was. I learned how to mic a drum kit, how to play bass, how to sing (sort of), and how to mix (sort of).
What about the name Carmelittles—is it a riff on the Catholic Carmelite order, or other?
Yeah, it’s a riff on the Carmelite order, but I don’t think that’s as important as how the word sounds; I’m more interested in it being a made-up word. Also, I wanted to rebel against current solo artist trends by using a “The” name. I love the fact that “The Beach Boys” and “The Beatles” have really trite names but it doesn’t matter because their music’s amazing. Nowadays it’s a trend for solo artists to use your first name in all caps. When I see that, I think, “This person takes their career a little too seriously.”
I’m curious what it feels like to release your first major artistic statement at this moment, which precludes the old model (record-release show, tour, etc.).
This is possibly the weirdest time in recent history to be a musician. I’m not relying on playing shows as a means of income, but it really sucks for some of my friends who do. But I’m definitely trying to think of ways to make the best of it, and although this is definitely a bad time for artists who are in the middle of gaining momentum, this may be a good time for someone like me to start at basically zero. The stakes are pretty low, and there isn’t pressure to do overly-hyped album releases, or to do certain numbers within a few days of a release. People are at home, on devices, perhaps in a more introspective mindset. I like the idea of appealing to that. The album has a lot of themes of anxiety, and I think most can relate to that, especially this year. I like the idea of slowly building an audience and experimenting with different stuff on social media. But when the time comes, I would for sure want to play these songs live. The idea would be a four or five-piece rock band—very traditional. That would be awesome. I’m definitely looking for musicians that would be interested but I just don’t know enough people.
What’s your sense of the local scene, in terms of meeting like-minded artists and/or building support for the album?
I don’t know if the idea of “scenes” has disappeared completely, but it’s definitely died down a lot from the days when punk rockers would burn disco records. I personally can’t say I fit into any scene, but I also don’t really know what kind of stuff was happening in my city before the pandemic. But I’m for sure making music because I don’t see that much in the media world that I can relate to.
Obviously, we’re in a period of intense sociopolitical and emotional turmoil at the moment. Since you mentioned the themes of anxiety (and I detect some grief and loss as well, in tracks like “Thank You for Everything” and “The Letter”) in Wreath, I wonder: has focus on the creative process helped alleviate any of your own anxiety?
I don’t feel there’s much connection to what goes on in the political sphere to what’s going on in my personal and spiritual life. I guess that makes me lucky, but also I’ve always seen a bigger picture. Every moment we have an opportunity to choose between God and Ideology/self-worship. There’s no third option. What gives me anxiety is when I see more and more people choose ideology, and feel myself struggle against it. A good question to ask is, What’s worse, Trump himself, or someone who spends all their time and energy on Twitter, railing against everything Trump says for internet likes and retweets, and becoming miserable in the process? The latter scares me more, personally.
I think experiencing death and grief in the way that I did had an important effect on me. I felt I needed to become more sincere in what I did, and chucked out a lot of the irony I was raised with. Most importantly, I started to see everything as fundamentally personal. Literally everything that goes on in your head has to do with the people in your life, the people you want to be in your life, and the people you don’t want to be in your life. I wish I was taught that in college, instead of being doctrinated repeatedly into anarcho-communism. This is why making music is so important to me, because it gets the egregores and abstractions out of my head and back into a Christ-centered and personal mindset. There’s nothing more beautiful and anxiety-relieving than singing to someone in a heartfelt, sincere way—whether it be to someone you love, to God, or even a younger version of yourself—and every song is an opportunity to do that.
That sentiment—about singing to someone as a form of spiritual connective tissue—reminds me a little bit of the lyrics to Prefab Sprout’s “One of the Broken”: Sing me no deep hymn of devotion / Sing me no slow, sweet, melody / Sing it to one of the broken / And brother, you’re singing to me.
That’s a lovely verse! Songs fill with life what’s missing, or broken, or lost. Every musician is somewhat a descendent of Orpheus. You need to keep that within you, because otherwise it’s really easy for us artists and musicians to get distracted, and make things that fall in the dust really quickly.
You can find The Carmelittles’ album Wreath on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services.