Paul Van Haver is your favourite artist you’ve never heard of. Originally confining himself to hip-hop under the moniker Opmaestro, Van Haver later changed his stage name to Stromae (inverting the syllables of Maestro) to match his new pop alter-ego, one that would go on to work highly in his favour. Boasting fans such as Kanye West, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Anna Wintour (standardly), his music is omniscient without being invasive. And a quick scan of his YouTube page also reveals he was behind some of the biggest tunes from the last few years, all while remaining relatively anonymous.
Stromae's first album, 2010's Cheese, produced cuts like "Alors On Dance", the enormous number one single across half of Europe which spawned a remix collaboration with Kanye and a queue of rappers, singers and producers wanting to work with the 29-year old Belgian. This was followed up by 2013’s Racine Carrée—which, again, featured an admirable list of pop classics, from the lusty "Tous Les Memes" and the lamenting "Formidable" to his dancefloor-ready new single, "Papaoutai".
Racine Carrée, Stromae’s second album, was an even bigger explosion, leaving the tunesmith wary of the world and the new-found attention heaped upon him. Complex UK recently caught up with the hit-making pop factory to discuss how he dealt with culture barriers as a youngster, the World Cup, and why he thinks having so much attention and fame isn’t "natural." It’s deep. Trust.
Interview by James Keith (@JamesMBKeith)
Your mother’s Flemish, but you were raised in a French community. Do you think this has influenced the way you use language in your writing? How do you bring together and channel your influences?
When you grow up with two languages, you get a mixture of different phrases and sentence structures. Particularly with Belgian people, you get this unique blend of Flemish and Francophone. So I'm sure it has influenced my way of writing and composing, especially in the way I used to make compromises in language. In Belgium, because we speak two languages, we will always make compromises in the way we speak. We always have to make compromises and it's especially so in my case, because I'm exactly half and half: I speak French but I'm originally Flemish. The best lesson I had in my boarding school was, what you're thinking is not original. It's not because somebody has thought the same as you—which is natural, I agree—but that there are only so many common experiences in our lives.
One of the themes you explored on "Formidable" is the idea that there's good n bad in us all. Is that something that runs through all of your music?
Because I'm not an adult yet—or, at least, because I don’t feel like an adult—I cannot make choices. That's my real problem. I think that's the reason I'm always saying things like, "There’s good and bad in us all." I see something and I say, "Okay, maybe no one else could think the same as me and it’s difficult to just have my opinion." When it came to these subjects, I used to say, "I have no opinion." It’s a little bit hard to say that, but that's the way I actually define myself. For example, on "Bâtard" from Racine Carrée, I ask: "Who's the best? The extremist or the one who can’t make a decision? Neither!"
Maybe I can't make a decision, but I'm no better or worse than the guy who makes the wrong decisions. We judge extremists to be worse than the inactive. It's really funny, because, I think I have a child's view of life. I used to say there are bad people and good people and now I'm just beginning to understand that, actually, it's too simplistic to think of life like that. That's why I play this guy who could be me, you, or anybody. It's too easy to say he's a bad guy because he's drunk, and just because he's drunk he's this bad person.
In the video for "Formidable", you get approached by the police asking if you would like a lift home and if you’re okay. Were there many negative reactions?
I was inspired by lots of things for this song, but one of the main influences was an experience I had a few years ago. Two or three months before the video was made, there were some people that filmed me and decided to put it on the internet. I discovered it and I discovered it was more interesting for people to see this video instead of the one in Brussels. I was surprised by the reactions and maybe, subconsciously, I was thinking, "Okay. They want blood! I'll give them blood!" So that's why I had a pretty bad view of human beings at this time and I was really surprised to see that, actually, it’s just humans as we are 33% ignorance, 33% empathy, 33% voyeur. I was expecting more negative reactions against me, but was really surprised to see people are good. We are good!
"Alors On Danse" was a massive hit that seemed to open a lot of doors; Kanye West showed his appreciation for it by adding a few verses on the remix. What was it like working with him?
Even though I never met him, it was reassuring to discover you have this special way of composing or thinking. For me, it wasn't possible to talk what he's talking about. In his music, he talks about clubs, and girls, and stuff. At first, I was like, "Can you understand the lyrics in my songs?" His are about champagne, and naked women, and swimming pools. But that's his vision. He wants to talk about his vision, and that’s totally cool. It's not a problem to combine them both.
Belgium played very well in the World Cup, recently—they certainly did a little better than England! How did it feel when your song, "Ta Fête," was chosen as Belgium’s World Cup song?
Like the Kanye remix, I didn’t want to do it at first. But sometimes, you just have to get out of your comfort zone. At the end, I was like, ‘Why not?’ Who do you think you are making music for? Trendy people? Popular people? That’s not my way of composing. I don’t want to seem like that. I’m trying to fight against snobbism. I’m not making music for the intelligentsia or for dumb people. I’m just making music for anybody who wants to listen. I was surprised to see how snobbish I could be, which obviously is not a good idea, but I’m proud of that song and I’m proud they chose it. And, actually, the song was already a done deal—it wasn’t like making music for the team. I was proud to have their enthusiasm to have the music, and we were really enthusiastic to have the music as the anthem of the Belgian team, for sure.
So what have you got planned in the future? Another album?
For the next album, well, I think the success of the second one was so huge that it would take lot of time to just have a normal life and actually be normal, so maybe I will leave two or three or even four years out before making another—I’m not sure. I want to be making music, but also have a normal life. Of course, traveling will always be something I want to do, too. I’m more worried about my sanity [laughs], and being with my family. I understand how one can become completely crazy because of this success. It’s not extraordinary at all to react that way. But I don’t think it’s natural to have this kind of attention... I think I’ll need a few years to heal myself.
"Papaoutai" is out on September 8.