"If I keep on releasing music it has to have something new about it... of course it's not easy to renew yourself whilst staying true to something that's yours, and which you have managed to develop. It's inspirational that Jamaican producers can turn one song into many different things. It makes you think - ok, am I really doing everything that I can? When I think that I am free, am I really that free? Am I not setting myself some barriers? So I thought that I would see how it feels if I became more experimental - if I just start pressing the record button, turn some dials on my pedals and just become freer."

In between the rumbles and buzzes which pepper our skype-based conversation, Cécile Schott, aka Colleen, sounds energised and enthused about her new album, Captain of None - her fifth full length album to date, and her first for Thrill Jockey. Since she first came to acclaim with her 2003 debut Everyone Alive Wants Answers she has pursued a musical path which has encompassed music created from looped samples, as well as baroque inspired ambient acoustic music, and dreamy minimalist songs. Captain of None is yet another progression; it is a looser record which flirts with dub and distortion to great effect, although all the sounds on it are manipulations of one single instrument, Cécile's viola de gamba.

"Yes, it's a treble viola," she explains. "It's the family of the viola de gamba, not the viola that you find in a string quartet. You only ever hear it in the context of baroque music. I put a pick-up on it and I tuned it like a guitar which gave me a sound which gets pretty low but is not as low obviously as a bass viola. I had started to experiment playing that way already on (previous album) The Weighing of the Heart. I really love that sound and it just seemed like a natural thing to use that as the main instrument. Then I found out that by using an Octavia pedal I could do some bass lines so that's why on the record even the bass is also made on that small instrument."

The bass is certainly more evident than on your previous records.

For the past two years I've listened almost exclusively to Jamaican music and it led me to incorporate bass lines although I don't think my bass lines particularly sound like Jamaican bass lines, and anyway they are made on a viola! The thing that I took the most from Jamaican music was the general approach of being very open to what the song can become, because Jamaican music is really based on the idea of an embryo of melody and occasional lyrics, but then it can become a completely different song according to how it is interpreted by the musicians and how it's going to be produced, and that was very inspirational to me. I couldn't help but notice the sense of freedom the sense of experimentation from all those producers from the '70s and I thought ok, this is actually something that I should try to incorporate myself in the music that I am making and basically that set a chain off, of decisions. So I decided that I would only use my treble viola and I would only pick it and get really into delay and echo and just try to have a more live way of recording on Captain of None.

Is that something that will translate to your live set-up?

The funny thing is that for the first time I'm actually going to play an album almost in its entirety - I'm able to play seven out of the eight songs on the new album - which for me is incredible. Some of the songs on Captain of None were born as songs during my rehearsals when I was rehearsing for The Weighing of the Heart. Sometimes you grab your instrument and you start playing and it sounds good and then that becomes a new song. So I also improved my live set up - I've got a couple more pedals and a couple more ways of sampling myself live, so people really are going to hear the album which is unusual. For people who have come to see me live before that's going to be quite a big change.

It seems like a "noisier" record, there's more distortion for instance, which isn't something that I would associate with your music.

I like to try and have some elements that really bounce off each other or even contradict each other. Just before I was recording the new album I dug up my first seven inch ('Babies') from 2002 and on the B-side I had forgotten that there was a really distorted part during the song. It was kind of an angry part and I thought that was strange because I didn't really explore that afterwards and a little lightbulb went off in my head as I thought that was something to consider. The other thing is that the subject matter on this album - even though it may look very abstract - it does mean something to me. Regarding the human experience in general, my experiences in life. I think the album is very much about tensions that you can have within yourself, so when you say there is distortion - not an angry vibe but certainly a different vibe to what's been on my previous record - to me that's also true of the subject matter.

Why did you call it Captain of None?

I can't remember how I actually found the words but basically, I was going through a moment of feeling lost, and I started finding those obsessive repetitive chords and I started finding this melody and I tried to write lyrics corresponding to how I was feeling - but also I just wanted to say something about the human heart and mind when you get lost and you don't really understand yourself anymore, maybe you start feeling like you're another person, and maybe you don't know yourself that much so basically the lyrics started from that. I truly do not remember how it happened but I had those lines come into my head, "captain of nothing, captain of none" and mostly it means that you are not captain of yourself, it doesn't necessarily mean "I'm not the captain of other people," it's more like I'm realising that I'm not in control anymore.

You use the computer for everything when creating the album, so is it made in a similar way to your earlier records - building loops on the computer?

Yeah I still use the same programme as when I started (ACID Pro) but the big difference is that on the first album everything was taken from samples from other records, afterwards I always recorded everything - so every single instrument that you hear is always, always me - it's me from start to finish, you know, composing, interpreting, recording, mixing, choosing which effects. The first album was all samples, usually from CDs which I borrowed from the Paris music libraries - which are incredibly well stocked and have anything you would look for - and everything since that has been me making the sounds.

That's good because between the first and second album, it's not that jarring a transition, given that one has found sounds and one is performed by you.

Well in the way I use samples I was really trying to find stuff which people couldn't recognise and most of it was acoustic, because those were the sounds that I was really into. I liked the idea of making acoustic based music which wouldn't really sound acoustic so when I changed to the second album I think that's probably why it seemed like not a huge a difference in terms of sound.

A thing I like about your songs is that they shift and change within the song, sometimes it can be dramatic change and it sounds like there are three songs in one, and I think that's something which you have carried through your work.

When I finished The Weighing of the Heart I realised that a lot of the songs were built in three parts and I thought, oh my god it's like a kind of... (she pauses and laughs) not a gimmick, because I would never consciously use a gimmick, but it looks like that everything that I do it has some kind of intro or first part and then it's got a second part but I guess that's just the way it's evolved for me naturally. 'Lighthouse' on the new album is one of those songs which has a little intro then an instrumental then the end part. I guess it's like a song within a song and little twists and surprises which hopefully turn each song into a little world of its own.

There was a six-year interval between the first three albums and The Weighing of the Heart. How come?

When I reached the end of the third album (Les Ondes Silencieuses) it was like a cycle coming to an end, especially because at the time my dream had been to play the viola de gamba and try and make a modern music album with an old instrument. I think that once I finished the album I not only had reached that dream, let's say, but also, I think I was becoming very tired of the activities surrounding making music. I was still excited about playing shows but traveling was beginning to be less exciting and just there was lots of administrative stuff to deal with. I was starting to see more negative sides of music making and I had kind of lost the thrill of it and I wasn't sure where to go, so that's why I stopped. I think my body and my mind really requested that rest and little by little I just recovered the desire to make music again, but when that came back I knew that I had moved on. I think that my albums always showcase some kind of change but it's not always conscious.

You were an English teacher in Paris and you gave it up after the release of the third album, did that have a factor on why there was such a break in your music?

I resigned at the end of 2007 but then that's when the creative crisis hit me. It was a bit of a weird situation to have just left my job and then not even feel like making music anymore, but I have no regrets whatsoever, and I'm also grateful for the teaching and grateful to know what a regular job is like, and English studies has served me so well, and I have a lot of respect also for the job of teaching which I think is pretty tough because you are not really free to do what you want.

How did you survive during that five or six-year gap? What did you do?

First of all I did play shows until early 2009 and secondly, I am very lucky with sync licensing so basically I get quite a few regular offers - mostly for documentaries, short films but also sometimes feature length films - that's one of the things that kept me going financially. The other thing is that I moved from Paris to Spain so that's a cheaper place, but also I think it helps if you have - let's call it a minimal lifestyle! I don't need to go out or buy clothes or go to far away locations on holiday. I'm happy mostly just making music, listening to music, reading, being out in nature, walking and bird-watching, and these are all things that cost you zero money, so I think it's one of the ways in which you can survive in like, a period of creative drought.

And when you returned to music you decide to introduce lyrics to your work.

It's more a case of me wanting to learn and wanting to go further than what I do, so the singing and the writing lyrics thing came around because during the break I realised that for my whole life I had listened to a lot of music with lyrics, so I just had the desire to try and sing, and to try and say things with lyrics. It took me some time to manage to do anything decent in these two areas, but it set something in motion for me.

What are your lyrical influences - who made you want to write words down?

I think that Townes Van Zant is just an incredible writer. I also really like Stina Nordernstam, and I like them both because I think they have an ability to tell stories in their songs. However, from my own songwriting abilities I could see from the start that wasn't really the way that I am inclined to write, so my way of writing would be more inspired by I guess a more poetic approach. Before writing the lyrics to The Weighing of the Heart I read a lot of poetry - I was reading haiku anthologies; I read the entire collection of Emily Dickinson's poems, that sort of thing - to try to study how people write. Arthur Russell and Moondog would be two people whose lyrics I really appreciate - they are minimal, sometimes you don't need many lyrics, sometimes it's just like three lines, so that's how it started for me.

Why did you choose the name Colleen?

With hindsight I'm not sure it was such a good choice. Basically I chose it because of the word Colleen in Irish meaning young woman, young girl. At the time I was studying English and sometimes you open a dictionary and your words fall on the word at the top of the page and that was one of the words that I had in my bilingual dictionary. I just loved how it sounded, how it was written, and also that it was easy to pronounce in pretty much any language. I liked the fact that it was full of curves and loops which reminded me of the music I was starting to make, so that's why I chose it. I didn't realise that most people would think of Colleen the name, and not Colleen the word!

As our conversation draws to a close I suggest that, because of the enthusiasm and energy which she has for her current music, a follow-up to Captain of None may not be that far away.

What makes you say that? I think you have a crystal ball. It's true actually, like last month I was really feeling like doing some new recording, but the reality of promotion means that I don't have the time to start anything now, but I'm also thinking that I probably should use that momentum. I think I'm in a very good place right now. Actually I finished recording this album in early July 2014 so for me I have been waiting forever for its release, so hopefully there will be another one, in not too long a time, but the important thing is, that again it should be an album that has something new to say so I guess however long it takes then its fine. If it's in one year that's amazing, but if it's in two or three years, then that is also good.


Captain of None is out now on Thrill Jockey Records. Check out her forthcoming live dates below.

  • Fri May 8th Lisbon, Portugal - ZDB
  • Sat May 9th Braga, Portugal - GNRation
  • Sat May 16th Nevsehir, Turkey - Cappadocia Festival
  • Sun May 17th Nevsehir, Turkey - Cappadocia Festival
  • Sun May 24th London, UK - LSO St Luke's ^
  • * support from Caoimhin O' Raghallaigh
  • ^ support from Ex-Easter Head Island