You guys. At BYT we are OBSESSED with Mai Lan (a French national treasure), and we were all basically screaming our faces off when we heard she would be playing shows in both NYC and DC this weekend. The first one will be tomorrow night at The Standard East Village (free w/ RSVP!), and then she’ll head down to ye olde Nation’s Capitol to perform a set at The W Hotel (also free w/ RSVP) on Saturday!
Regardless of whether or not you’re free to hit up one and/or both gigs, the best possible advice I can give you is to download Autopilote so you’ll never go without Mai Lan in your earbuds ever again.
And in the meantime, totally internet-eavesdrop on the conversation I was lucky enough to have with Mai Lan IRL over breakfast last week on the Lower East Side (she is just THE LOVELIEST, by the way); we chatted about her incredible video catalog, her earliest song (she was ten, it was about death), working with M83, her creative process and MORE! So here we go with all of that:
You’ve been making music for a while, and it seems you’ve been very interested in it since childhood. (I saw that photo of you on Instagram where you’re singing into the mic as a kid.) Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
When I was starting piano, probably about ten, I started to invent songs. There was one about death. [Laughs] And it was just me dying. Like, the lyrics were basically, “I’m dying!” and at the end I pretended to die on the piano. My parents were laughing so hard! I still have the words, so technically I could still play it!
You should DEFINITELY bring that back as a track for this project!
[Laughs] “Hey guys, this is the first song I ever wrote!”
And when did it click for you that you might like to pursue this full-force, so not just as a hobby, but as a career?
Probably when I did some songs for the score of my brother’s movie, which is called Sheitan. There was a cover that I did of a rap song which was full of bad words, and I covered it in a folk style for the movie. Then, suddenly I had tons of fans, and they were like, “We want more!” So it’s always been a passion, but that’s how it started to feel real.
It seems that visuals are also a passion of yours; your videos are all incredible! And you worked with Adan Jodorowsky to make “Les Huîtres”, yeah? How did that come about?
I didn’t know him at the time, but obviously I knew of him. So I was looking for someone to help me create this vision I had; I had a very specific idea in mind, and I didn’t necessarily want to let someone else come in and do something different with my music. And I was introduced to him through a friend that way, and I told him that it was a song about oysters, and that I wanted to be the queen of these oysters, and that I wanted to be dancing. So he said, “Yeah, okay!” And he was so inspired that by the next morning he’d written to this crazy Italian decorator [Paolo Calia] who had worked with Fellini. Such a good guy. And he [Adan] wrote to all of these different artists to work on the video. So that’s how that came to be, and it was all really fast.
That’s amazing. And what about the interactive video you just released for “Pumper”? It is SO GOOD.
Are you familiar with L’École Bleue? It’s a design school, and when we were thinking about doing the video for “Pumper”, we got a tweet from those guys, some young people who said, “We want to do a video for you!” So we said, “Yeah, sure!” And they were so excited, and they wrote the whole thing super precisely. They spent about three months doing all the animation work. But it was crazy, because it was so in tune with my tastes, and we hadn’t even really talked about it. They were just so precise. It was even better than anything I could have envisioned.
Did it take long to film since most of the effects were put in during post-production?
No, it was just one day. And it was the easiest video I’ve ever done. I’ve done so many where I’ve felt like I was going to die! For example, the one for “Pas d’amour”, I was in cold water the whole day and the whole night! I couldn’t move because I had to stay in position, and I basically had to drink a whole bottle of tequila. It’s good that it was in the dark, because I was completely purple! So that one was the hardest, although “Vampire” was also hard. But yeah, “Pumper” was just me in front of the green screen. Super easy.
That’s fantastic! It’s rad that you’re so open to doing collabs, too. Obviously those are more visual, but what about with songwriting? For example, how’d you get involved with M83?
I met Anthony [Gonzalez] at a party in LA, and I’d been out there to write songs for about two weeks. So at this party, we listened to all the songs that had gotten finished, and he was sitting there, and he kept saying, “Is that you?!” And we got along pretty well anyway, because obviously we’re both French, so I came back the next month to start working together. Working with him was one of the best experiences; we really connected, and we got along really well. I came back for a few more sessions, et voilà!
Incredible! So that was obviously a pretty fortuitous situation, but what do you do if you find yourself trying to work with someone and it’s just not going well, and you don’t vibe? Do you just have to persevere?
Yeah, sometimes it’s not a good match, but that’s okay, you know? You can always find something to do. Something always comes out. Sometimes I’ll start a session that has a weird vibe, and I’m like, “Okay, I don’t like this guy, I don’t like the sound,” or whatever it may be. But as you work together and decide you’re going to do something together, you just kind of work through it. It’s the same as with any relationship. Sometimes you just have to work at it. Things can be good if you look at them the right way.
Totally. Now, when you’re working on your own to write lyrics, do you generally think about them in English from the get-go?
Yeah, it’s usually English first, which I know is kind of weird because it’s not my first language, but most of the music that I’ve listened to since I was super young has had English lyrics. So it just naturally comes that way first. French has so much directness, too. It’s really hard to keep a strong, youthful feeling with French lyrics, so that’s why English is good a lot of the time. The two songs that are French in my album, you know, when I sing them in France, everyone sort of stops what they’re doing and listens really attentively. They’re touched by them. And I think that’s the emotion, and the directness coming through.
And so “Autopilote” is one of those songs that’s sung in French. What can you tell me about that one?
Yeah, that was the first one that I wrote on the album. I’m basically saying that my body is dead; life goes on, but I can’t keep driving, I have to go to the engine room to repair myself. So I’m saying I’m not available anymore, kind of like a ghost. And I’m saying that I’m sorry I can’t be here for you, because I’m not in a position to help anybody.
Have you ever had an experience performing a song live that was very personal, and you had a sort of visceral response to that?
There was one time that was really crazy, many years ago, and I realized that the song I’d written was totally about a subject that I’d completely ignored, or hadn’t been aware of previously. And this song was meant to be sung at a special moment, so I performed it, but it was incredibly difficult. It was the first time I was totally living in the moment. It was totally surreal.
Maybe that experience aside, have you always enjoyed the experience of performing in front of a live audience? Or has that taken getting used to?
No, I was even scared to sing in front of my mother at first! I’ve always enjoyed singing, but deciding to be a singer is different, you know? Singing in and of itself feels really natural, but it’s that moment where you say, “Okay, now I’m gonna be singing for you guys!” on a stage that it’s like, “Ahhhh! This is super weird!” I didn’t feel like I had any authority to call myself a singer, you know? My voice was super skinny, I’d never taken professional voice lessons or anything like that, I didn’t know what to talk about in between songs…it was just kind of a whole process to decide it and accept it. But now it’s really good. Now I really love it.
And let’s say you’re not performing live, and you just want people to listen to your album. If you could curate a special immersive experience for first-time listeners, what would that look or feel like?
I think it’d have to be super loud. I think it’s a city vibe, you know? There’s some anger, some strength, that comes from the city, a big city like New York or Paris. The subway, the nightlife…lights…I think it would fit well with that kind of environment. (And you’ll of course have to be able to dance at some point.
Which is pretty perfect, because both the NYC show and DC show are highly metropolitan, highly danceable environments. Make sure you head to whichever adheres to your geographical location, and grab a copy of Autopilote for your permanent listening pleasure!