Interview Celine Cairo: “I don’t always feel comfortable in the male dominated music industry”


Dutch singer-songwriter Celine Cairo released her impressive debut record Free Fall last year. She left her folky singer-songwriter sound behind for a bit and explored the soundscapes of synth pop. She recently released the video for her single ‘Quicksand’, shot in Iceland. A Bit of Pop Music had a chat with Celine about her trip to the land of Fire and Ice, her journey as an artist and the under representation of female artists on the radio.

You went to Iceland to film the video for ‘Quicksand’. What was it like?
“For me Iceland was almost like a mythical place. It brought us an insane amount of great artists so there must be something in the water there! ‘Quicksand’ is about holding on when you go through dark periods in your life. We went looking for the rawness and pure nature of the Icelandic landscapes as we thought it would fit well with that message. I was there with the director and an assistent who drove us around in a van. We knew of a few places we wanted to visit, but it was mainly us driving around, looking for beautiful spots.”

That sounds awesome! This is the first time you are doing some choreography as well! How did that happen?
“I met a girl from Hamburg who came to Amsterdam to help me out with the idea for the choreography. She taught me how to improvise and helped me be more free in my own skin. I worked with her intensively for three days and she even came to one of my shows. The sad thing is that she suddenly passed away and I heard the news on the day we were heading to Iceland. It was so absurd. She was only 28 years old, a healthy dancer. Although we were of course shaken by the sad news, we decided to still go and finish what we started. We gave our all to create the most beautiful visuals we possibly could in her memory.”

Did you write ‘Quicksand’ about a specific setback you had to deal with?
“I am open about the fact that I deal with periods of depression in my life. I experience highs and lows and when I am down for a period of time, this sometimes takes longer than other times, I have to climb out of that somehow and that is what I wrote this track about.”

Interview continues under video

You went to LA to record your debut album. You said that you found a freedom there that you didn’t feel at home. How come?
“It was my chance to reinvent myself. I could be playful and experiment with my sound again. In the Netherlands people saw me as a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a specific style and when I wanted to move to that bigger synth pop sound, people would ask me if I would still be me. When I arrived in LA, nobody knew me so I really found the fresh start I needed. In LA I didn’t have to look back anymore. It was the vibe of being away from home that opened things up for me.”

Do you think you have found your own sound on Free Fall?
“When I started out I did not even know this was possible! The search for what I want to do musically is still going on, so I don’t want to repeat myself. I definitely will continue this path and find ways to improve it. I am in the midst of creating and the new music is going to be dreamy, melancholic and probably a bit more organic again. On the last record, ‘Sweet’ is the only song recorded live by the full band in the studio and I love the way that sounds. There is something pure and beautiful in that live sound. Don’t worry, we’re still going to keep the prominent drums, synths and the wide soundscapes!”

Do you ever have moments where you doubt this career path?
“I definitely had a few of those! I sometimes feel like The Netherlands is a small and one dimensional country when it comes to the music industry. I hate to complain, but for example the lack of Dutch female artists on the radio is a thing that bothers me. The majority of the music on the bigger stations is international, and within the group of Dutch artists that gets airplay, female artists are severely underrepresented. Even in this day and age you need a certain amount of airplay to grow. When everybody who hears the new tracks, keeps telling us what we do is great, but then in the end we hardly get played on the radio, that is disappointing. It does influence which festivals or clubs you are going to play so in that sense radio is still important, but luckily it’s not the only way.”

Do you feel like you have to work harder to be recognized as a female artist?
It is hard to pinpoint concrete examples, because it is more of a tendency in society. Generally speaking when a woman releases music, we don’t usually assume that she wrote it herself, produced it or played several instruments. There is prejudice on different levels and as a female artist, it seems harder to be taken seriously. A male singer-songwriter never gets the question if he wrote a song himself or co-produces his music, you just assume it. Dutch radio is dominated by men and everyone is expected to be funny and light in interviews, to play the girl-next-door role and that just feels weird to me. There is almost no room to talk about the art, the meaning of songs and that is a shame because all artists have stories behind their tracks. I don’t always feel comfortable within that little world and I can’t be the only one.”

Are there ways to work around radio in the age of streaming?
“Yes, because of streaming we can all grow steadily and you can reach an international audience, which is exciting. There are upcoming artists who have incredible social media strategies and I am trying my best with my small team as well. It is great to be able to reach out directly to the people that listen to your music.”

Do you have any specific goals with a next record?
“I used to have a lot of goals and hopes, but I have learned by now that things never go according to plan. You can end up in a completely different place than what you had in mind but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The most important for me at the moment is to maintain that joy that creating music brings. Of course I would like to play the big venues and festivals, but as long as I keep growing while enjoying this, I am satisfied.”

Great, thank you so much Celine. Last but not least, I have a few dilemmas for you. You can only pick one answer!

Doing Eurovision or a talent competition like X Factor or The Voice in UK/US?
“Eurovision, definitely! It is such a big platform and ever since Anouk participated for the Netherlands, it has become more credible here again. If I can work with the people I want to and write a song with them, I would definitely do it. Sign me up!”

A number 1 album or a sold out tour?
“…Sold out tour. Performing live is the best and most important part of this job for me.”

Playing the biggest venues in the Netherlands or playing small venues internationally?
“Going international! That would be a lovely, nomadic way of living. Performing gives me energy so that sounds ideal.”

Having a hit with a song someone else wrote which you performed or success as a songwriter for other artists?
“I would prefer the success as a songwriter, because being able to tell my story is essential for me and that is more important than having a nice voice or being an entertainer. To communicate my feelings and people being able to relate to that, is what it’s all about for me. I am teaching myself to be more open and to share more about what moves me and that is a process that I will probably be working on my whole life. So if you take that away, there really isn’t much left.”

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