After twenty years of making music, Tellier has built a legion of fans around him that depend on that quintessential French reputation of an artist deeply conflicted, and someone who has a penchant for melodrama. Like the best of them, Serge, Brel or Piaf they are able to turn their dirty, worn-out hearts full of ash from their cigarettes into works of art.
In particular, you recognize from spending time with Mr Tellier that he inhabits a type of nervous laughter which he regularly breaks into. It’s an abbreviated laughter one which says, I am in possession of sincere insecurities and equally a desire to connect with you – I can’t quite work out which one that is.
At 45 years old, and after crafting six very diverse themed records, Tellier releases yet another brilliant signature record, ‘Domesticated’ a hommage to home life, named by the queen of the silver screen, his close friend Sofia Coppola. ‘Oui’ is the undoubted highlight of this current record.
Tellier is an artist who came to the forefront of the music world in 2004 after his breakthrough track ‘La Ritournelle’ received global critical acclaim. Nicolas Godin of the famed French electronic duo Air said of the track, “We all had this childhood dream of writing a pop classic, and he did it with La Ritournelle.” Since then he has been putting out consistently sublime almost fantasy-like tunes such as ‘Divine’, ‘Look’ and ‘Fantino’.
Tellier has made a long journey to get where he is, a person who suffers with the darkness of the world but equally finds beauty in it where he can. To this day, it’s incredible that through all the ups and downs he is still here, standing on the same boulevard, making music that is layered with the same colours of sadness, pop sensibility and rich gallic melodies.
Surprising me with his vulnerability and endurance, he talks to me about his time in a psychiatric hospital, why he loves and equally hates Los Angeles and why he continues to hold onto that signature beard of his.
Sebastien Tellier © Valentine Reinhardt
I see you smoking. It’s such a precarious time for health. Have you ever tried to give up?
Well yes. I’ve tried many times eventually I will give it up, but maybe in one to two years.
Where are you right now? I can see it looks like your record label or your home?
I’m at home.
Has the pursuit of music brought you prosperity?
I don’t know; I have a big house. But as an artist, you know it’s not always the same. You make a lot of money, but after you spend it, then you don’t have any money. Sometimes I’m rich, and then sometimes I’m poor. However, I have a beautiful house and a beautiful garden. But you know, I don’t have a Rolls Royce, a car, or anything like that. I just have a beautiful house.
What do you spend your money on?
I spend a lot of money on food, restaurants, parties and I have to travel. Back in the day, I spent a lot of money. I would buy a lot of expensive clothes, and I had a Porsche 911. But then one day, I was in a really beautiful part of France, and this guy took me on his boat, I was watching the big houses, beautiful, gorgeous houses and I was feeling really good.
This day I said to myself, I prefer just to watch than to own. When you own something, big problems begin. I don’t want problems. I want a simple life. Not simple, but an easy life. If you have many houses and many cars, and many people working for you, it’s a complicated life.
"I understand that life is not sad or happy. Even for rich and poor people. Most moments are somewhere in between."
Well, I’m actually based in Stockholm.
So you’re not confined.
No, I went for drinks in a bar yesterday.
Ah to drink in a bar, I don’t like to drink at home. I never drink at home. If I have guests, we’ll have a beer, but I don’t drink at home at all because I have my kids. I really miss going to a bar, and joining some friends and having a glass of wine. This ambience. I’m living in Paris and in Paris you have nothing to do other than go to a bar.
Does Paris love you?
I’m not sure, maybe in terms of music, I feel a lot of Parisians can sometimes love my music, and I feel understood by a lot of Parisians. But in another way, I don’t feel good in Paris because people are really serious. It’s a serious city. If you go during a weekday in Paris everything is grey. The sky is grey, the clothing of the people is grey. It’s a grey city.
Don’t move to Los Angeles Sébastien – I know you want to but don’t do it.
It was my dream to go to LA for a long time. I love it: the colours, the tropical gardens, the beautiful architecture. Sometimes you go in LA, and you can see a guy with special hair driving a Rolls Royce. It’s quite free in terms of its image. But after years and years, it becomes very different. It is very serious, and full of rules. In Los Angeles, people are really afraid of the police, and I don’t like this addition at all. I remember a few weeks ago before the disease COVID-19, I went to Lisbon in Portugal, and I loved this city because I was not afraid of the police. You feel it’s not a big deal. You can do small bad things, not bad but a little bad. I like this freedom. So I guess step by step I became a very European guy.
Sébastien Tellier – Stuck in a Summer Love (Official Video) from his latest record Domesticated
Talk to me about your dreams right now. We’re living in one of the strangest moments in history. What have your dreams been like?
I need to see the end of the Earth. Even though I have a beautiful garden, it’s a garden in Paris. I need to be free and to see something far. A city I love is Calais. When you are on the beach of Calais, you can see the big rocks of the UK; I like this.
On the horizon?
My dream is to live at the end of the world. That’s why I love Portugal because it’s at the end of Europe. I love Calais because it’s the end of France. I love the end of something. My dream is to go somewhere on the border, the last stop before the ocean.
But I also mean dreams of sleep. Are you dreaming?
I dream that I am renting a big house on the beach with a friend. This dream is coming a lot to me, like a bad personal relationship. At this time, I dream a lot about bad relationships with people. Or I say something to someone, but they understand something else, and it’s complicated. It’s not a dream; it’s more a nightmare. The last one I remember, it’s complicated, but it was about a bad relationship between people. I love dreams, but at this time I don’t have beautiful dreams.
Sébastien, I want to talk about the music you make. I think what’s interesting about your music is, you tread this line between humour, the vaudeville aspect, the sexy clown. But at the same moment, I hear deep within the DNA of your music a deep sadness and a feeling of sorrow. You walk this tightrope between the humour, and the sorrow and the sadness which lies deep within your heart. Tell me about this balancing act.
Yes, for sure. I try to; it’s a big painting. In fact, I try to paint all over the world. I don’t want just to show a part of the world. I want to show everything. So I try to be happy. I try to be unhappy. I try to be cool; I try to be uncool. I try to be everything. But it’s impossible to be everything. I wish my music could explain the total experience of life. Step by step, I understand that life is not sad or happy. Even for rich and poor people. Most moments are somewhere in between. Life is a type of salad. There’s a lot of pieces of a lot of things. Sometimes it’s a good piece of salad, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes even the good parts are not fantastic but just a little good. So I try to find this balance in my music as an artist.
But you’re right. I think my heart is, in a way, I’m a sad person. I find beauty in the world, but at the same time, I see the ugly side of the world.
But that’s what I mean. For instance, when I hear the song ‘La Ritournelle’, I think it’s the most brilliant song. But I think when I hear your music in general, like the latest track you made is called ‘Oui’, it’s the same experience I feel. At the end of the day you’re alone in the house, your heart is sad, and you’re calling out for help.
Yes, it’s true, because the world is a sad place with death, and disease, and heartbreak, and it makes no sense. Sometimes I feel the world is upside down. It’s bullshit. So it’s true. I’m disappointed with the world. And it’s true I was depressed, but this was more at the beginning of my career.
You had a blue period like Picasso?
I went to a psychiatric hospital and drug counselling early on, so I have this inside me, this pain. But it’s not every day like that. I have good days. And when I talk with my shrink, he tells me, “You’re a lucky person. If I compare with my other customers, you are quite lucky.”
It is hard to lie if people can see you through your music.
Yes. I saw a documentary about me; it’s called Many Lives. The guy did a very long documentary. He shot me for more than ten years, maybe fifteen years. When I’m talking, it’s easy to see, this guy who is fragile. When you see the documentary, you see a fragile guy, somewhat shy and fragile.
So does that mean you feel like you’re lying a bit with the persona you’ve created?
Yes, it’s true. But it’s not a lie. My wish is to attract people to me but not to be there so that I can be loved and be understood. I’m not understood. I’m a small artist. I’m not Jay-Z, Pharrell, a huge star, but I don’t want to be in front of people and create a situation, or a bad ambience, you know. I also want to give pleasure, joy and happiness. That’s why I created music like ‘Divine’.
"I’m sure if I change my beard I will look like a naked rat. You know these rats without hair?"
Tell me about your relationship with Sofia Coppola, because she named your latest record Domesticated.
Sofia, she’s so cute, so sweet, really intelligent, bright. She’s perfect. I met her a long time ago when I was opening for the French artist’s Air. So when we went to Los Angeles, we saw very often Sofia because she was friends with Air. Sometimes she would bring us to the restaurant or somewhere to discover Los Angeles. And through Sofia and her brother Roman, I discovered Los Angeles. It was great. And after, Sofia, she took two songs from me to put in her movies, Somewhere and Lost In Translation.
Yes, she used ‘Fantino’?
Yes, ‘Fantino’, and the other is ‘Look’. So we have this relationship. She’s the wife of a really good friend of mine, Thomas, the lead singer of Phoenix. So that created a few bridges between us and so that’s all our relationship. Sometimes I see her at a fashion show and say, hi, how are you? But it’s not like we’re on the phone every day.
So the fashion part. The image part is very interesting for me. I’m naturally attracted to you. Not in a sexual way, but it’s alluring. Why do you grow this beard for so long? Does it have a symbol for you or you just leave it?
The real reason is just I don’t like the bottom of my face. I have very elastic skin, so without a beard, my face is always changing. But with the beard, I still have the same face. The same guy every day, you know. I just have a beard. It’s easy. I’m sure if I change my beard, I will look like a naked rat. Do you know these rats without hair?
We call them mole rats.
Yeah, I’m sure I’m a mole-rat.
But in terms of the fashion, you’re doing this Chanel campaign at the moment. Tell me about your history with this area?
The last Chanel fashion show, the magazine Vogue, they ran an article, and it was so crazy. It’s like wow, and because I was wearing a Chanel jacket which was for females.
My first step in the fashion business was with Karl Lagerfeld, the designer for Chanel. He called me to play music during the Chanel fashion show. I don’t know why but he said, I want Sebastian close to me to watch the show. So it was my first step in the Chanel ambience. And step by step, I met the core of Chanel. It’s a big company but with only maybe three or four people driving this huge company. There was this little group around Karl, then when Karl died, Virginie Viard took the place of Karl.
Getty Images, Sébastien Tellier at Paris Fashion Week 2020, March
Karl Lagerfeld seems so scary to me; I wouldn’t want to meet him.
No, no. I was super afraid of him, but he was very nice, and always saying something nice like, “ah I love your style.” He was a very good joker and always giving people gifts. One morning he came to Chanel with a hundred iPads, and he gave iPads to everyone. He did something cool for me because Chanel, they don’t design clothes for men. And Karl, he did this shirt just for me and my design before he died. So I have this positive memory of being in my living room and happy. I respected Karl. For me, Karl was a master. I didn’t know him so much of course, but he had a significant influence on me. And for me, Chanel is part of my family. I go to all the Chanel fashion shows in Paris. I go to all the parties.
You have to take me some time.
Usually, it’s a fantastic party. For me it’s good because you know, I’m forty-five. I don’t like so much to go to the discotheque and party. I need to drink for sure, and I need to party, but not in a discotheque or a bar. So Chanel is fantastic because it brings me the party side of my life.
So when you go to a party, you must be the centre of the party?
I like to be at the centre of the party. I remember I went to a show, and the singer on stage stopped and said: “Sebastien Tellier is here.” Jean-Michel Jarre did it at a big venue in Paris. He stopped at one point between songs; he took the microphone to talk to the audience and the same with Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I went to his show in Paris and one of the musicians between two songs, he said, “Tonight, the show is for Sebastien.”
No! Brian Wilson?
But it’s not from Brian Wilson; I guess it’s because of his position. He knows someone I know.
But this is the thing. Peers respect peers, I assume?
But I am not sure; I don’t feel super confident. Before I go to a party, I’m afraid, and before to go on stage I’m afraid. If someone in the venue says my name, like Jean-Michel Jarre, I get super nervous, and I pretend not to care. But after, it’s a good memory and I love to tell it. But with Brian Wilson, I think the message was not from Brian, but I think it was a message of one of the musicians with him.
One final request, if you would be so kind, a favourite lyric of yours in French, I would love it if you could repeat it for me.