- Emma Le Doyen
- Breakfast with Phoenix: 'When you're not thinking about it,' says Mars, 'that's when you're the most innocent.'
With all the negative events rocking France recently — immigrant-rooted xenophobia, the subsequent rise of fear-mongering far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (thankfully just defeated), and a volley of devastating Nice/Bataclan/Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks — you would expect that the latest album from the country's leading alt-rock export Phoenix would be one gravely grim experience indeed. Instead the three-years-in-the-making Ti Amo — which will be released June 9 — arrives on rollicking, disco-era roller skates, the perfect soundtrack to a sun-baked, beach party summer.
Staying upbeat and optimistic during such serious, soul-taxing times wasn't easy, says singer Thomas Mars, who had some distance from homeland occurrences, residing as he does in New York's Greenwich Village with his wife, filmmaker Sofia Coppola, and their two daughters, Romy and Cosima. But beginning in 2014, he spent 10 days of almost every month in Paris, where he and his bandmates had taken over the top floor of a converted old opera house and were punching in daily, 10 to 6, to write and record. Somehow, they came up with synth-rubbery thumpers like "Tuttifrutti," "Goodbye Soleil," "Fleur de Lys," and kickoff single "J-Boy," which is kept aloft by so many calliope-fluttering keyboards it could pass for carnival music.
"When we were recording this album, we saw the world change, and in Paris you saw a real shift," says Mars, who's relieved that Le Pen was resoundingly defeated by Macron. "And Paris is a city that never changes — it's almost like a museum city, in a way. But we did see it change for the first time, we saw a different atmosphere. And the times were changing, as well — all of our musical icons died in one year, and all of these things kept happening." The singer says he knew that politics would play a part in Ti Amo, just not on its lyrical surface.
So Mars doesn't consider the record escapism, or even a blinders-on denial of his societal surroundings. The subject is carefully cached inside a church-reverent recital like "Role Model" or the breathy jangler "Fior di Latte," he swears. "But like with everything we do, it's pretty cryptic. We knew that we wouldn't be able to be blunt or overt. And it was pretty selfish in a way, at a time when you're not supposed to be selfish. But we love music so much that, to us, it's a world of possibilities."
The Grammy-winning Phoenix burst onto the world stage with bubbly 2009 hits like "1901" and "Lisztomania." Over the past decade, the band has methodically collected vintage synthesizers and other instruments from dusty warehouses and online vendors, including Michael Jackson's original mixing desk from Thriller. Installing the arsenal at the opera house studio, they recorded hundreds of hours of material, then tinkered with it until a distinctly Franco-Italian vibe coalesced. "I wouldn't say it's a love letter to Europe, but it's definitely full of these feelings, based around fantasy and freedom."
Ultimately, the vocalist says, he was inspired by the wide-eyed innocence of his daughters as they made drawings. In fact, he absentmindedly doodled the graffiti heart that became the album cover while chatting on the phone. "When you're not thinking about it, that's when you're the most innocent," he says. "And it's the same with music — you have to get lost and get in these spaces where you go somewhere else."