Xarah Dion is Donna Summer For a Dystopian Metropolis

We spoke to Montreal synthwave artist, Xarah Dion about her new album 'Le Mal Neccessaire' and finding love in the oddest of places.

Dec 8 2014, 4:11pm

Montreal's Xarah Dion is a diva. After watching her perform last month at Ciro's nightclub in Toronto, one gets the sense that she's a musician in full control of her considerable talents, totally unafraid to unleash her semi-operatic vocals and multi-instrumental prowess on her audience. The PA blew a speaker before her set, but you wouldn't have noticed as she commanded a small fleet of synths, singing through heavy reverb with an ecstatic expression, eyes closed, total focus. Her new record, Le Mal Necessaire, self-released on Zodiaque Musique in November, posits Dion as a Donna Summer for a dystopian metropolis. The lead single “L'Asphalte Chaude” is a more doom-laden than euphoric sex jam, something to blare out of a crackling boombox on a terminal beach, Xarah's vocals both haunting and lustful in turns. The song's video of a blurry urban landscape captured on degraded film (literally, as the film itself was buried in videographer Guillaume Valle's garden for a time), with a lone female figure wandering only drives this feeling of sensual unease home.

Combining dark disco and pop sensibilities, Le Mal Necessaire breaks from the unified sound of synthwave, delving into sounds and timbres not far off from industrial and punk. And we talked to her about all the above as well as the current state of the synth scene.

Noisey: It seems like there's a sophistication in your music that hints at a more formal or classical background. Besides incorporating more modern styles, are you influenced by more classical ones?
Xarah Dion: I’ve been playing the piano, organ and harpsichord, since I was 10 so I find those have helped me with co-ordination; playing two synths at once, plus operating a drum machine and singing. Although, there's always an idea of “polishing” that is involved, even in my more minimal compositions. I find that listening to more minimal compositions makes me want to express my ideas in a more concise way, so that's how I approach my music right now.

It seems like synths, more than most other instruments, lend themselves to musicians who just want to bash away and experiment. Which is great, many classic bands started with a more minimal “punk” approach.
For sure. Music happens live in real time, and I find that I can lose myself more if I don't know what to expect, so it's a mixture of those approaches. I had played analog synths before, but they weren't mine but getting one of my own has really improved the feel of my music. Now that there's a chance I could miss a transition or something, the risk really brings out the momentum of the new songs.

Yeah, using hardware and just going with your intuition isn't just an aesthetic choice, it's a “fun” choice, and good music seems to originate from musicians simply having fun.
For sure, it's more fun, the energy is more uplifting and the sounds communicate better when you play live. Prior to that I played a few good shows but used backing tracks. I actually wrote on my Bandcamp that I only use hardware because that was an important step for me. I like using familiar, warm, and recognizable sounds, this familiarity gave me a taste to move forward. At this point I don't really want to invest in the usual synths, I want to start getting into the modular world, which is more experimental.

After reading translation of the lyrics, it seems as though you want to reference significant “characters” in history like Osama Bin Laden and maybe I’m reading into this too much, but you seem to be writing about the ways in which the idea of “love” gets twisted by circumstance or ideology.
It's interesting that you'd try to find the real characters behind the names because that’s how I wanted the lyrics to work, although the song “XXX” itself has a more personal meaning. Thats why when I write lyrics and sing, it's important to me that I communicate in a more unconscious way, other interpretations are fantastic, but they have different meanings to me. The song is more about finding the positive qualities in others, I'll leave it at that.

So, I was totally overreaching there.
Haha, yeah.

Yeah, the lyrics for that song are sometimes direct but still very dreamlike. “L'Asphalte Chaude” has an impressionistic feel, you're more describing the emotion of desire than telling a direct story. There's a lyrical mention of Aleister Crowley, does his concept of “do what thou wilt is the whole of the law” play into the album title?
To me the songs are still stories of a sort, but my way of being descriptive is less narrative, and more about imagery. I would say that “A Necessary Evil” is not the same translation in French, it's more like a philosophical figure of speech, not really an answer to what is evil. It's more like describing a hangover as the necessary evil to drinking too much, in a simplistic sense. It's more a reference to suffering, to unwanted feelings or events that happen to us that are necessary for our growth, and even well-being.

It really seems like the electronic and synth-wave scenes in Montreal are cranking out a lot of interesting music, you've got Marie Davidson, Police des Moeurs, Brusque Twins, there are a whole bunch, really.
I've actually been playing music with Marie for the last 8 years, we have a group together called, Les Momies de Palerme and released a record, Brulez ce Coeur in 2009 on Constellation records, a more ambient and experimental project. We both went in our solo projects, to explore more pop-y and personal approaches. Montreal's an exciting place to be for creatives, I'm often inspired by other projects, it's just a great place to live.

When you mention “personal” records, I think of your new LP and also of Marie's most recent one, Perte d'Identite, both are very intimate and raw, dealing with a themes of confusion and identity.
I would say that one of the characteristics of some of the synth artists here is that they tend to express a lot of personal things. They seem to have a desire to express something dramatic and take a personal approach to performance, whatever language they're singing in. An artist like Femminielli can sing in Spanish and still connect with the audience through the language barrier.

One thing I've noticed and can appreciate is that with synth music there seems to be a lot of co-ed bands and female solo artists. Overall, the broader scene seems more egalitarian, gender-wise.
I find that a lot of the synth scenes welcome more eccentric and marginal types of personalities and people usually they are the ones who are more egalitarian and open-minded. Honestly, that is where I feel most comfortable, not just in the synth scene but the underground alternative scene even the noise and punk scenes have more women active in bands. I'd say most of the underground is more welcoming in general.

Patrick Short is a writer and synth-pop artist living in Toronto - @KindestCuts