“I’m still kind of pinching myself,” says Miel de Botton on the line from her home in London, keen to discuss her forthcoming debut, Magnetic, whilst offering insights to circumstances that both instigated and hindered its making.
Indeed the Swiss-born philanthropist would be the first to concede that while the double album realizes her life’s abiding passion — to craft and interpret music for the masses, to sing intimately personal songs that reflect universalities of the heart, particularly French chansons she first heard as a child that continue to resonate with her as an adult — it does so as a result of much self-scrutiny and reflection.
Raised in relative affluence, coming of age amid the implicit (and sometimes overt) expectations of scholastic and professional accomplishment, particularly those of her father — Gilbert de Botton, who died at age 65 in 2000, was a venerable financier and fine art benefactor — she wavered between his wishes and her own ambitions. She studied law at Oxford, later worked as a clinical psychologist in Paris. As she entered her forties, having married and divorced while raising two young children, de Botton ultimately decided to pursue her artistic promise in earnest.
Produced by Andy Wright (whose credentials include works by Duran Duran, Simple Minds, and the Eurythmics), Magnetic is whimsical in some moments, solemn in others, and altogether inspired throughout.
Was there some sort of realization that your passion was translatable as talent? Most people reach a point where they recognize that they can’t go any further than their passion.
It’s interesting. It did take a long time, and I think that time was actually beneficial to me because it was a time of maturing. Then suddenly things did seem to all line up and doors were opening. I had a lot of enthusiasm and passion and … I had a beneficial environment, I guess, that I’m very grateful for. I wish it for the maximum number of people out there, but I can’t fully explain why me at this stage because I’ve myself got a sense of wonder about it.
How did you connect with Andy Wright?
That was one in a series of coincidences which were, I think, quite magical. I was working with a band before and I couldn’t find a producer who was giving me a reasonable offer. I asked this lady, who’s my healer, and I was just chatting to her and I said, “I’m really having trouble.” She said, “Why don’t you come to this event next week. I think this producer, Andy Wright, might be there.” So I looked him up, and I thought, My God, this guy is the real deal. So, yes, I met him there, and his first question was, “Are you incredibly ambitious?” And I said, “Why, yes sir!” [Laughs]
The chemistry between you two in the studio has been good?
It’s been really good. I think initially we were both a little bit on our guards and didn’t really know what was going to come out of this. Gradually it just grew stronger and stronger to the extent that we’ve just got this great creative synergy where I come in with my words and my melodies and he puts them to orchestration and instrumentation. It’s just so fabulous. It blows me away every time.
Have you been singing throughout your life or have you only come to it within the last few years?
I’ve been doing it throughout my life just to bring me a feeling of joy and a kind of healing thing in in my life. I just love to do it, singing and dancing. But in a more structured way I’ve only been doing it for three years, but I have been very actively doing it with two voice coaches who are classically trained. They have developed my voice; it’s been really amazing. I’ve seen it develop with their teaching, and that’s been an amazing process.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Leonard Cohen is one of your biggest influences. How did his music first enter your life and ultimately have such a profound effect on you?
He was played to me in my childhood by my parents. The music that went through the house was mainly classical. We had some Janis Joplin, and a lot of Leonard Cohen. So I sort of grew up with him, liking the melodies but obviously not understanding the words so much. Then, when I was a teenager, I connected with his words. That was when I really connected with him.
Growing up you weren’t encouraged toward the kind of ambition you’re now pursuing, but rather toward a traditional, education-based kind of career. Your father, in particular, was someone who greatly supported the arts and who appreciated the talents of those artists. Still — and it seems contradictory — it seems like he didn’t feel that a vocation in the arts was on par with, say, being a doctor or a lawyer.
It’s an interesting question because, I must say, I think this was very much lying dormant. People would say I had a pretty voice and I had a lovely voice and things like that, but it was not something that stood out. That’s why I think the timing was… In a way, maybe it was meant to be. In any case, it just took some time to mature. Nobody really thought it at the time, including me. I loved to sing and that was my dream, but I’m not sure I even voiced that, to be honest. I think it was just something that I loved. I never thought of it myself even as something vocational. So maybe it was all just a blind spot that we had, I don’t know.
So this wasn’t a case where you professed your desire to pursue your musical ambition and you were denied.
No, no. But maybe the blind spot was due to the fact that we were all very academically pushed and that this was not something which would have been considered necessarily a career, a serious career. So I think there was some of that involved, but none of it was voiced.
What I’m getting, then, is that your father wasn’t necessarily disparaging any sort of artistic course. He didn’t even know it was there to encourage.
Exactly. To be honest, he was quite disparaging about the psychology initially. He always said it was akin to flower arranging. He was much preferring the law; that was really his preferred [option].
In a general way, though, your father’s wishes for you were ultimately in looking out for your wellbeing. He wasn’t encouraging you to pursue something just for the sake of pleasing him; he was trying to get you to do something that would provide for you in the future.
Exactly, but in so doing he definitely did have trouble accepting the psychology. When he saw that it was serious, then he accepted it. But he said, “You finish your law degree.” Then he wanted me to continue to become a solicitor or a barrister, and it was my brother [author/philosopher Alain de Botton] actually who intervened and said, “Leave her in peace. She wants to do psychology.”
As you’ve now come to music after doing other vocations, some of which were rewarding in their own ways but ultimately weren’t as fulfilling to you as a career in music, what finally convinced you to turn your passion into a professional pursuit?
I think it’s a combination of internal and external factors. I was a clinical psychologist before and I did that for many years, but I had stopped doing that quite a while ago. I had a personal tragedy. My father died very suddenly. I decided just to take a break, raise my two children, and I think there was a growing freedom in me in feeling that I really wanted to pursue what I wanted to do in life, and that life can be short. But I think it was just gradually with maturing with a feeling of freedom and joy, and that was coming out in singing and dancing with people around me, and they picked up on it. I think that’s how it happened. Everybody, friends and people who worked with me, [were] suddenly picking up on it and all saying, “You should speak with this person. You should speak with that person. Your voice is really lovely.” It was mainly about freedom and joy and enthusiasm after a lot of hardship — I [also] got divorced — a lot of sadness. Out of that came a feeling that I wanted to be free of that and fully express myself. I think the inner then influences the outer.
Do those hardships you’ve been through inform your songwriting or come through in your music in some constructive way?
Yeah, definitely, maybe in the same way that Leonard Cohen uses it. There’s a mixture of melancholy mood and searching for joy. One cannot really go without the other. I think if you’ve lived through the melancholy you long for the joy.
Magnetic will be released on March 9.
For more information on Miel de Botton, please visit the artist’s official website.