Who the hell is Stromae?
You’re to be excused for wondering this, if you happen to live within the confines of the United States, at least for a little while longer. Take note, however. Paul Van Haver, AKA Stromae, the Belgian EDM/hip-hop phenomenon that has sprung to superstar status in Europe, is beginning to make inroads into this country. With a Kanye collaboration under his belt and a spot on Lorde’s curated Hunger Games: Mockingjay soundtrack, plus a full fledged tour that includes major festival stops, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all dancing in the streets to his unique, quirky, funky blend of rap and techno.
We sat down with him in New York the other day, fresh off his promo tour through the music vortex that is SXSW, where he played multiple shows and announced his presence with omnipresent “Who the hell is Stromae” posters, which managed to somehow rise to the surface of the annual event’s paper mache layer of fliers. Far from seeming like your atypical asshole American celebrity, Stromae was calm, affable even, and composed, even as we laughed over his occasional struggles with English, what with French being his primary language, and the nature of celebrity in the ol’ USA vs. Europe.
So how did SXSW go?
I guess pretty good! The posters were everywhere. I’m so thankful to the people who did it. I was pretty anxious before the first show, but every show we did the job, and I got more okay after each. The show in the Fader For was with just a DJ and a microphone, and it’s been a long time since I had to perform like that. Everything, the whole show, is on you, and I forgot how difficult it was.
How do you feel your reception in the United States has been?
That’s the reason why we decided to launch the campaign was, “Who the hell is Stromae?” That’s the reality, you know?
What’s it like to essentially start from scratch over here?
It’s good for your brain! It’s challenging for me, you know? When you do the same thing all the time you get bored, so it’s good to start something different, (winning over) people who don’t understand the words you’re singing. It’s a new challenge.
Are you going to start releasing music in English now, too?
No. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I prefer to sing in the language I’m more… Maybe in 10 years if my English is better.
Do you think the music translates well even when people don’t know what you’re saying? House and jungle music from the ’90s used to feature other languages, and people still got really into it.
People may not maybe understand the words, but they understand the honesty. It’s a bit cliché to say that, but I’m convinced of it. If I was just trying to imitate an American or English singer, it would sound fake, I’m sure of it. It has to be genuine. (Laughs) I tried to sing some English sentences at home, and it didn’t work. I have some English words on the first album, but any time I try to do it, you miss something. You think it’s just a simple translation from French to English, but it’s so different as far as the understanding.
So how do you like the United States?
That’s a difficult question! I wanted to discover the real United States. Not New York, not LA, and we did it. A bit. The vision we have of the U.S. is just the big cities, and that’s one side of the country, but not the only one. We went to Minneapolis, for example, and Philadelphia. It was really interesting to discover that there is, like in Europe, different cultures.
What’s been your favorite part?
The positivity of everything. I think that’s our problem in Europe, we used to be a bit negative on everything. That’s good sometimes, but when it’s too much… It’s not good. It could also be a problem to have too much positivity in America, though. The middle is the way to go!
What have you enjoyed the least?
The junk food. I think it’s good to eat a bit of everything, but when you eat too much junk food, it’s bad for you, and for your brain. You don’t understand why, but you feel sad. It’s because of the junk food!
At home you’re a celebrity. What is the difference between the cultures of fame here vs. at home?
The difference is the name that you use. “Superstar” and “star.” I don’t like the word “star,” even if it’s a compliment. That’s the worst thing that could happen to somebody! It’s really dangerous for your mind. There is no star system in Belgium, maybe because we’re such a small country, and it’s not possible to have stars, but I think it’s good. In Belgium we are proud of nothing, and that’s the reason I’m proud of my country. And if one day everyone is proud of being Belgian, then I wont be proud to be Belgian any more. Does that make sense? The most dangerous thing in my job is to use words like “star” or “genius.” I was exactly the same before the success, and now after it I’m trying to be the same. The music was the same from the moment I released it until now. I didn’t do something to make it a big success, the people decided to make it a big success.
So you’ve got a big tour coming up, with dates at Coachella and Madison Square Garden. What is your ultimate goal for the United States?
I would like to be considered just like any other American artist, even if the music is in French. I cannot say it’s going to be easy, but I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s a bit pretentious, yes, but that’s a part of me, so… (laughs).
You’ve collaborated with Kanye and Lorde. What were those experiences like, and how did they come about?
Republic (Stromae’s label) asked for a wish list, and we put Kanye West at the top. Without thinking it was possible, of course! We were honored to have him on a track, but I never met him. With Lorde it was different. She called my manager to get a track (for the Hunger Games: Mockingjay soundtrack). It’s a track from my album, called “Merci,” and she decided to do a new track with it. I was touched by the way it was important for her to have my opinion, even with the people she wanted to invite on the track, like Pusha T and HAIM. I met her after the track was done, and she was just human, simple and really nice!
Is there anyone else you’d like to collaborate with?
Adele! And, why not? Kanye again!
What is your take on Kanye and his whole crazy universe that he commands? You say it’s not good to be a star, but he’s like the ultimate superstar.
I think he’s really honest. One thing that I share with him is his vision of creativity with no barriers. I think he’s completely 100% honest with his, like, “OK, I’m a big superstar, and I’m this, and I’m this.” Sorry, it’s a bit difficult in English. When you compose something, of course you’re proud of it, but it’s not your job to say that, that’s maybe the thing that I don’t share with him, maybe because I’m shy. But I understand it. When I am in front of my computer, I can say the same thing, “My song is the best song on the air!” I heard him say in an interview that racism is a dated concept, and I think that is true. Social issues should be more important than racism today, you know what I mean? It’s easy to say “You are racist” or whatever, and we have to fight against that, but social issues are more important.