IMAGE: Tod Seelie
[FRANCOPHONE POP] Last year, Portland singer-songwriter Casey Dienel was battling a serious case of writer’s block. Crafting a follow-up to her acclaimed debut, Phylactery Factory—a lovely album of jazzy compositions and lush arrangements—was proving immensely difficult. So instead of trying to break the curse by re-creating the sound and feel from her debut, Dienel found herself drawn to a different type of music, one rooted in something a little dirtier and sexier than what she’d previously committed to tape: Francophone pop.
“Honestly, I’m drawn to French because it’s a sexy language—I identify with its sensuality,” Dienel says. “The musician in me is a sensualist, one more concerned with how words and sounds feel than with their subtext. French pop is sexy because it’s so playful.”
Dienel, who grew up on the East Coast and began writing her own tunes (including music for her high-school group—which played together for all of five days—named Hellen Keller) at age 8, first visited Portland to record her debut in 2007 for local folk and pop mainstay Hush Records. She made Portland her permanent home almost exactly one year ago. In October, the 24-year-old—who has recorded under the name White Hinterland since 2008—released Luniculaire, a five-song EP sung entirely in French.
A swirling, varied collection of covers of avant-garde standards by Serge Gainsbourg, Brigitte Fontaine and Françoise Hardy, Luniculaire also contains two Dienel originals written in French. She initially conceived the project as a love letter to some of her favorite music, admitting that writing songs in another language was “really hard,” even though she studied French in school and reminisces about hearing Yves Montand and Edith Piaf singing stuff like “Aux Champs Elysées” and “La Vie en Rose” in class.
While Dienel has a lovely, lilting and often pretty voice on her debut, the music on Luniculaire is wilder and more adventurous than anything from her early days. The new spirit is supported by a handful of local contributors including Shawn Creeden (percussion, tapes, saw) and guitarist Alexis Gideon. On the EP, Gainsbourg’s “Requiem Pour un Con” is transformed into a loose strut—Gideon’s wild guitar flourishes and Creeden’s funky bursts of percussion take over where Dienel normally plays the Wurlitzer organ. And while the EP’s cover songs are lovely, Dienel really shines on original “Chant De Grillon,” where she uses her voice—and a language most American listeners won’t be able to comprehend—to create a mysterious, beautiful soundscape.
“The best part was getting to play with imagery, both lyrically and melodically,” she says of her new approach to making music, “getting to use my voice as an instrument instead of acting as some sort of narrator. It was really exciting to try something new, and I think I landed on something closer to what I’d been going after all along.”
SEE IT: White Hinterland plays Backspace on Monday, June 1, with Bodies of Water and Ah Holly Fam’ly. 9 pm. $8. All ages.