“Is this demonic?” entertainment correspondent Tanika Ray jokingly whispers, as singer Saul Williams leads a mosh pit in the African chant of “Explain My Heart.” Drummer Pegasus Warning pounds out tribal beats up in L.A.’s El Rey Theatre, while Williams holds court in a fly Edwardian jacket that could’ve been nicked from Prince’s backstage room at First Avenue back in 1983. DJ CX Kidtronik blends in heavy-metal effects that sound like old-school Run-DMC. French keyboardist Julian Chirol puts a trombone to his thin lips for some melody. Overall, the band brings Williams’s fourth studio album, Volcanic Sunlight, to life in a shamanistic ritual that justifies Ray’s innocent question.
On a world tour, Saul Williams promotes his most pop-flavored record with the kind of rock chops that his former producers Rick Rubin (Amethyst Rock Star) and Trent Reznor (The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!) would respect. Living in Paris with his teenage daughter since 2009, the poet-actor-MC also recently filmed Aujourd'hui in Dakar with Senegalese director Alain Gomis. A model of the Black renaissance man in these post-millennial days, EBONY spoke with Williams about living abroad, signing with Sony France, and being an analog dude in a digital world.
EBONY: What was your motivation for moving to Paris?
Saul Williams: An opportunity came for me to move over here just through an old friend who offered me a place right when I was looking for a place in L.A. And it dawned on me that I could do it. I could actually go there and creatively and work-wise as far as what I was working on with an album and all that, I really felt like this could be a great place to do that from. I automatically started imagining this idea of reinvention (and) I like that idea. I’m constantly playing around with that idea. It’s been a really cool experience in every way.
SW: Let’s just be clear. Just in the idea of a standard contract, because in America, the system was set up with a majority Black entertainers, Black musicians, and White contractors. These contracts were set up, because of the racism institutionalized and what have you, these contracts were set up to take advantage of the artist. So the standard contract assumes more, hides more, in the U.S. than it does in France, where a standard contract was set up for French men for other French men, where they have this sense of loyalty to each other and this sense of, “I would never try to harm you, I’m an honest man.” And so just in what you get in a standard contract is shit that you’d have to fight the hell out of and would be impossible for you to get in the United States.
So that’s just on the level of standard. Now bring in lawyers and a little bit of expertise and some experience that tells you, “Well, I want even more than that; I want this, that and the other.” So I didn’t get a standard contract. I was able to determine and to declare what type of contract I would take and what type of contract I would like. Because of previous works and all that stuff, and positioning, they were willing to sit and talk with me.
I chose Sony France because when my first album that I did with Rick Rubin came out—I was on Sony before, that’s the first label I signed to—my experience was at its most positive in France. When Sony America at the time heard my album, they said, “That’s not hip-hop. We don’t know what to do with it. We’re not sure we wanna put it out,” Sony France heard the same album and was like, “Are you crazy? We’re putting this out now.” And there was a year-and-a-half difference between when my album came out in Europe, started by France, and then in the U.S. A year and a half time. The U.S. did it a year and a half later, after they saw what was happening in Europe.
All that was sparked by Sony France. Those people that did that then, where everybody else has been fired, those people have just moved up. Those are my friends for the past… Even when I was working albums on different labels, those same people would help out, make calls, do all this stuff, even though I wasn’t on their label anymore. So these are decade-old friends now that I was like, “Ahh, this would be…”
So my experience and the executive office and all that has shifted tremendously. Not only because I’m working with friends—because I’ve been working with friends, when I put stuff through The Fader afterwards, [Fader founders] Jon Cohen and Rob Stone are friends of mine too. And that was also a cool experience for me.
But it also has a lot to do with the kind of album I’ve made. When I moved here, I had all my demos for the album already done. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew that it was a dance album, that it was a pop album. So I believed that it belonged to the infrastructure that already existed, and it was a matter of how to best do that. When the opportunity came to move here, I also thought, “Wow, I bet you if I did through there…” I started imagining what I could work out, and I was able to work that out exactly.
EBONY: Erykah Badu talks about being an analog girl in a digital world—
SW: That’s great. I forgot about that. Because I have this phrase on my album: something, “analog spacegirl, digital Pompeii,” something.
EBONY: How do you balance your roots-shaman style with cyberspace social networking? I know you’re @saulwilliams on Twitter, you’re on Facebook, there’s your Tumblr, MartyrLoserKing. Do you feel you have to unplug periodically?
SW: To me, the Internet is kind of like a club or a party at the mall a lot of times. You can make a library of it, but it needs to be a conscious decision. And I really feel like I have no business interacting with… I don’t hang out at the mall. [laughter] There was a point where I did; I don’t do that anymore. And so like the only reason why I really would want to go out and be seen is if I had something interesting to share. And so that’s pretty much how I interact. Which means I’m not anti. I have accounts at different social interaction networks and I like those accounts. I speak when I feel like I have something to share. And I don’t mean simply something to sell. ’Cause to me that gets on my nerves too, when it’s just, “Yo, buy this!” No, but when I have something to share, then I’m really appreciative of the fact that those networks are set up, because it makes sharing easier.
EBONY: What’s your social life like in Paris? How do you find the French socially different?
SW: Regardless of what your job is, the workday really stops at a certain time, like six or seven, and then it’s like, “Okay, put that sh*t away.” It’s time to have a drink, to eat, to sit around and talk and [it’s] like, “You need this just as much as you need to work.” It’s really impressed upon you here, like, “Dude, what are you doing? It’s Saturday. No, come to this museum with me.” It’s impressed upon you a bit more, like, take advantage of the other half of your existence.
EBONY: Like France’s five weeks of vacation.
SW: Regardless of what you do. Yeah, it’s crazy. Even with school. There’s something like 185 days in the school year in America, and there’s 135 days in the school year here? Which means that [Saul’s teenage daughter] Saturn has so many days off and half days and all of this stuff. She’s in school right now.
My social life is different in those regards. But on the other hand, I’m still pretty much a… You know, Italo Calvino has that book, Hermit in Paris? I’m indoors a lot. I spent the first year here in the studio doing this album. So I was indoors then, and now I’m doing a lot of writing. Either way, I’m indoors quite a bit.
EBONY: Explain a little more about what brought you here in 2009.
SW: The thing that brought me here was that I was going through a divorce. So I wasn’t just moving in L.A., I was having to find a new place which was gonna be the beginning of my new life. So it was a bit deeper than that. When that opportunity arose—the dude was like, “Yo, you should take my place” and it was the same price as what I was looking for in L.A.—it felt like a miracle. It was like, “Oh my god… Yo, that would make me feel better.”
And why? Primarily, I had been in L.A. for 10 years. And I like L.A., you know, I don’t have any of the bad stuff to say that people wanna say. Like, I’m from New York, I like New York and I like L.A., and I embrace the contradiction. But 10 years is a long time, and I’ve realized that for someone like myself whose life seemed to be fixated somewhere between love and ambition, that I was also finding myself interacting… Actually, I still can’t even call it. But it had something to do with love and ambition. And L.A. is an ambitious town, and this is more like a city of love. And I’ve realized that I needed to kind of feed myself.
I missed city living, but I didn’t really miss living in New York. And so the idea of moving to a city was really exciting to me, and taking the métro, all that. I missed all those things in L.A. Walking! And so when I first got here, that’s what my social life consisted of. Just getting lost, and then getting a bike and getting more lost. That’s what I’ve been doing. Now it’s cold, so now I’m indoors.
EBONY: Do you have encouraging words for Americans who want to live out loud a little more, or maybe leave their comfort zones in the U.S.?
SW: There’s this, I think it’s an Oscar Wilde quote, and I know I’m gonna misquote it so I’ll paraphrase. He says something like, “If you aren’t living above your means, then you ain’t livin’.” [laughter] The decisions I make are not really based on money. They’re based on how I would like to experience and navigate through this life. And I kind of put that and love and honesty first, and trust that everything else will follow.