Q & A: Stromae on being human

Hailing from Belgium, Stromae (aka Paul Van Haver) performed in Portland for the first time on April 7 at the Crystal Ballroom to a sold-out audience.

Before the show, Stromae interviewed with the Vanguard, where he shared his philosophies on life, music and the human condition.

Stromae has gained notoriety in the U.S. and across the globe, especially since the rise of his break-out single, “Papaoutai,” in 2013.

The song “Papaoutai” is about the absence of Van Haver’s father, who was a Rwandan architect. The song is a play on the French phrase, “Papa ou t’es,” which means, “Dad, where are you?” His father later died in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

“I don’t want to say that my story, the genocide story is my story as a Rwandan,” Van Haver said. “I just want to say—okay, that’s a part of my story—but…I was born and raised in Brussels. I cannot say that I suffered a lot because of [it]. I suffered a bit…but I cannot say more than a Rwandan [in Rwanda]. It’s important for me to explain this. But it is a part of me.”

Van Haver also said he was excited and anxious about performing at the Crystal, which he said would be good for the show. And as a first-time audience member, I’d have to agree.

VG: With old school hip-hop, there was an element of social commentary—there was more of a message—not unlike your latest album, Racine Carée, but so much hip-hop and dance nowadays, especially here in the U.S., is centered more on vanity and superficiality.

Where do you think you fit in as an artist?

Paul Van Haver: I think it’s—I have the same feeling about the American music. But…actually, the pop music in general.

I think it’s good to have fun…I think it’s good, but that’s not the only part of life. So that’s the reason why I choose to compose and write [more about being human]. So if there is a positive thing, there is also something really a bit sad, and that’s good. I’m not saying that sadness is bad. I think ups and downs are complimentary and really necessary. Just being in happiness all the time—that’s not really, that’s not possible.

For me the definition of life is melancholy. I think this word is more honest and the best definition of life.

VG: You have a background in classical music. How do you think that has shaped you as a musician?

PVH: When I was a teenager, I thought that there was only one kind of music, you know? …And for me it was hip-hop music. But when I grew up, I just realized that other kinds of music kind of influenced me a lot, before and even after and during my hip-hop period. And I just realized that hip-hop was as important as classical music, as folk, as salsa music, Congolese rumba…And not only music, actually—all kinds of expression.

VG: Who are some of your major influences?

PVH: If I had to choose one person it’s Cesária Évora. She’s a Cape Verdean singer. I made a song on my album which is a tribute to her. I was talking about melancholy, and for me that was the face of melancholy. Never be sad all the time; never be too happy. She was just what she was. And she was just performing on stage, nothing…too much, nothing too [little], and just in the middle. Human. And performing, singing…You can feel something—not a hard life, but not an easy life, like every life, actually. And at the same time, something really proud in the performance, in [her] posture…The way she was singing it was so—yeah, I think that is the face of dignity.

VG: Would you consider yourself a realist?

PVH: Myself? Of course! [Laughs] You could say, of yourself, that you are a realist, but I am trying to be the most honest I can. It doesn’t mean anything, of course, because you’ll always think that you are honest with yourself and with everybody. But, I mean, yeah—I’m just trying to be the most realistic and the most honest. I think that everything is a balance [in] between. There is a bit of everything in everything. I don’t know if you understand what I mean.

VG: You mean that everything is interconnected?

PVH: Yes. Kind of, yeah.

VG: Would you say these things we’re talking about, like reality, a mix of emotions making up the human condition, and your desire to be sincere to your audience, is that the message behind your latest album?

PVH: I think so. First, just being honest with yourself, then your entourage, and then the audience. I think if you are okay with yourself, you’re okay with the audience.

I don’t make music only for myself, of course. I think it’s 30 percent of each: 30 percent I make music for myself, 30 percent for my family and entourage, and 30 percent for the audience. It has to stay like this. Otherwise, I would just be completely crazy.

If you are not really okay with your music, before success or whatever, before you believed [in] your album, it’s better that you don’t release it…If you make the music only for the audience, I think it would just be sad after success, or no success, actually. If you have no success, you will just have regret about—‘I didn’t make music for myself, so that’s the reason why I’m just depressed.’ And the other way around, because making music only for yourself is just selfish and not really interesting.

That’s the vision I have. Of course, I’m not judging anybody.