Ambient music has never been more necessary. Lives are lived at a faster pace than ever. Digital communications mean we never fully switch off. And social media steals far too much of our time. For these reasons and more, cerebral detoxes are vital and what better way is there to disconnect and reconnect than by immersing yourself in ambient?
Tapping deep into his own emotions, French-born LA-based artist Hugo Paris has a special gift for crafting breathtakingly gorgeous soundtracks that can sooth the soul and calm even the most overactive minds.
Out now on Decoy Recordings, his new album ‘Nouvelles Aurores’ is his most vulnerable yet – eight tracks of ambient, suspensory synth drift and weightless melodic magic that melts away your woes and slows your heartbeat. It’s where emotions ebb and flow like gentle tides and where sorrow and joy dance together in delicate balance.
We deep dive into Hugo’s ambient world…
Main photo: Clamber
While your last album ‘Threaded Habitat’ was about the end of cycles, ‘Nouvelles Aurores’ is about new beginnings. Can you explain this concept a bit further?
‘Threaded Habitat’ was about closure and acceptance. ‘Nouvelles Aurores’ is about letting go of the past and opening up to new horizons. For me, each is a phase when coping with the changing nature of things I wish were permanent. There’s a gestation period to get from one phase to the other, which is the time it took for ‘Nouvelles Aurores’ to come together.
In what ways is this album your most vulnerable to date?
After writing and performing ‘Threaded Habitat’, I had a dry spell, feeling scattered and somewhat uninspired. I had to slow things way down and tune deep into myself to write ‘Nouvelles Aurores’; these songs feel like the closest to my core. Most are first takes, played by hand and minimally edited. Fully played on hardware – synths, tape loops, pedals, drum machines and guitars) – the mixing sessions are very simple. There’s no hiding behind layering. What’s there is what was played, and most of all, expresses the emotions I was feeling.”
Why are you attracted to making ambient music in particular?
Sound has captured my attention for as long as I can remember. As a child, I found music extremely moving but I was also almost pitch deaf. Musical education was not something we could afford, but I did enjoy a very contemplative childhood, with lots of alone time. I’d spend hours losing myself in the complexities of the sound of water flowing down a stream, a hand brushing on paper, wind tousling leaves…
With decades experience as a musician, my pitch recognition is now in a comfortable place, but I have kept a very strong, and maybe my deepest, connection with all the in-between harmonics that invite introspection and mindfulness by adding flavor to the listening experience. Ambient offers the opportunity to slow things down and lean into that space.
What gamut of emotions do you hope the album evokes in its listeners?
I believe that connection brings the security and satisfaction our species needs. French Writer Jean D’Ormesson said: “Merci pour les roses, merci pour les épines”, which translates as “Thank you for the roses, and thank you for the thorns”. He develops it into “Life is not a perpetual celebration; it is a valley of tears and a valley of roses. When we talk about the tears, we should not forget the roses, and when we talk about the roses, we should not forget the tears.” My hope is that listening to the album will encourage loving one’s roses with their thorns.
What is ambient’s role in the world of music?
I’ve always found it challenging to neatly classify music into genres and sub-genres. Perhaps because I experience music on a more emotional level, and look for nuances, variety and pertinence, which leads me to often miss the genre-specific cues. It seems to me that the more rigidly defined the artistic approach becomes, the more utilitarian the result tends to be. Ambient takes many shapes, and sometimes to specifically meet an important purpose – from inducing a sense of calm to aiding sleep or sharpening focus, which is much needed for many of us.
Yet, another important paradigm also exists, one that embraces the chaotic beauty of the human experience without attempting to steer the listener toward a specific emotional state. Proposing a dialectic form of expression, it allows listeners to wander freely through the full range of their emotions. That speaks the most to me as an artist.
Talk us through the core kit used to create ‘Nouvelles Aurores’…
I’ve gone through a lot of instruments over the years. In 2018, when I lived in Portland, I moved into an 8ft-by-8ft tiny house, which radically changed my sense of space consumption. So, I sold a lot of equipment and went back to the essentials. That’s when Novation asked me to make a soundbank for their Peak-8 Voice Polyphonic Desktop Synthesizer, which was graduated to a Novation Summit once I moved back into a larger space a few years later.
After spending so much time working with modular synths, I really missed the visceral experience of playing an instrument in a more deliberate way through a musical interface. So, with the Summit facing the window of my Portland studio, a lot of sessions for the album were tracked simply playing keys, which was very cathartic for me.
I’d previously spent three years conceiving and developing the Spherical Wavetable Navigator synth for 4ms Company, after which I had to step away for a little while before coming back to it with a renewed outlook. ‘Duality’ was recorded with a prototype unit I had left back in my hometown in the South of France, and that session was the most pivotal point in bringing ‘Nouvelles Aurores’ to life. That evening, I found my creative footing again and that’s when I knew I had an album coming.
During the last phase of writing the album, I started a guitar mentoring programme with Brian Green. He has acts like Pomplamoose, John Legend and Michael Bublé on his portfolio but he is also an amazing ambient artist. He helped me reconnect with my first instrument and opened avenues that led to me playing guitar on the album, which also has guitar parts from AMULETS and Slow Coast.
Which of your field recordings on the album was the most challenging to source?
The field recordings on the album came to me very serendipitously. The most striking example is the hand drum-sounding metal pieces in ‘Duality’. They were recorded on a playground during a layover in Montreal.
What’s the most extraordinary length you’ve gone to in order to record a particular field recording?
I visited Ireland this spring and went across the country by bus. A massive thunderstorm struck while I was in Galway, and I’d never heard anything like this continuous rumble of thunder. The sky was grey and threatening and there was an apocalyptic feel in the air, but no rain. It was the perfect opportunity to record isolated thunder, so I walked as far as I could from city sounds and ended up at the very end of a long pier, timing the lightning and the thunder until it was too risky.
There are several collaborations on the album. What, for you, is the beauty of collaborating with other producers?
When collaborating, my creative process goes from being a monologue to a conversation. It opens up a healthy amount of fun push and pull with distractions that excite my creativity. New ideas propel me in differeent directions and I love giving away tips while adding a collaborator’s creative voice into my process. Not many things beat getting in a flow state with a collaborator.
Oftentimes you revert to the first take even when you have several to choose from. What draws you to first takes?
When I listen to music, I’m not looking for perfection in the execution. I’m drawn to expressivity and raw emotion. It’s the same when I record. I go towards what resonates with me, and the intention always feels the purest on the first or second take. The same applies to speech. If I say the same thing to someone a couple times in a row, my delivery may improve but the very spark I’m trying to convey dissipates.
Tell us more about the Spherical Wavetable Navigator you created and developed…
It’s a six-channel synthesizer that can create everything from lush soundscapes to percussive harsh noises, with a novel three-dimensional sound exploration scheme, and a unique interface that favours both exploration and performance.
I was head deep into modular at the time but felt that something was missing. With their “lab equipment” feel, a lot of modules are highly intimidating and discourage exploration rather than foster curiosity. I don’t understand why we make such a big deal of the technology when devices like smartphones are far more complex and yet are designed to be so user-friendly. 4ms Company agreed, and they’re now manufacturing and selling the SWN worldwide.
My main focus was the user experience. I wanted the SWN to have a colourful and inviting interface with audio-visual feedback for all its controls so that users across the ability spectrum could enjoy exploring the synth, without holding a Ph.D. or even reading the manual. At the same time, the instrument is extremely deep. It took three years to develop and I still hear of new ways to play it from artists around the globe.
The SWN’s timbres are organised in an imaginary spherical space. It can play six independent notes that can each follow their own pattern in that space. Achievable sounds range from soothing soundscapes to edgy metallic percussion, and it has a witty LFO section offering an infinite amount of self-patching options for generative music, relieving the need for a sequencer, and an intelligent keyboard-like interface that allows you to play in virtually any combination of keys. You can also record your very own sonic spaces. The recordings are broken into little segments that become the DNA of your sound.
We understand Vangelis had two SWNs. That’s some serious bragging rights! How did you react when you discovered he was a fan of the SWN?
I was in complete disbelief. It’s such an honour that the SWN be part of his process, especially during the precious last years of his life. Getting this kind of feedback, alongside all the artists reaching out has been the most beautiful reward I could imagine for the three years I spent focused on its creation.
The late Vengalis is considered one of the most influential figures in electronic music. Who have been the most influential artists on your own career?
Growing up with a deep-rooted connection to the world of sound but lacking the music theory and pitch recognition, I felt very isolated in my ways of experiencing sound. I felt deeply liberated when I later discovered the boundary-pushing musique concrète of Pierre Henri, Schaffer, and San Francisco’s early tape music scene.
I have a background playing in heavier bands – I think once again due to my fascination with the nuances found at the fringes of sonic exploration. This Will Destroy You is a band that reinforced my desire to explore wide emotional dynamics with instrumental music.
During the ’90s, high-end production seemed key to establishing yourself as an artist. But when I lived in San Francisco’s Mission, I’d make weekly visits to Aquarius Records and Pyramid Records. Both stores had a selection of local handmade cassette releases. These really opened up new horizons for me and resonated with my thirst for grit and the unexpected. Alessandro Cortini recorded his ‘Sonno’ and ‘Risveglio’ albums in his hotel room while touring with Nine Inch Nails, using just a portable recorder and a very minimalistic hardware set-up. Those expressive albums, with all their intricacies, really influenced my decision to put raw emotion over production.
Tell us about the Nobel prize-winning project you were involved in?
I had the exceptional opportunity to work on the aLIGO project for five years. The project uses large scale (4km x 4km) laser interferometers to detect gravitational waves from Earth. Before the project, the existence of such waves was just theorised. The first detection occurred in 2016 and led to a 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. This was the beginning of a new era of astronomical observations. Now the observatories, one in Louisiana, the other in Washington, make regular detections that help us understand our universe better.
I was part of the team that worked on keeping the expensive lenses the laser goes through still. We used heavy structures mounted on springs, themselves mounted on hydraulics. All those platforms have sensors measuring their motion and actuators pushing back to stabilize the optics. I was in charge of commissioning seismic isolation platforms at the Washington site and I developed the signal processing schemes that automatically stabilize them by reading the sensor data.
Any other incredible projects up your sleeve?
Last spring, Joachim Garraud (David Guetta, Beyonce, David Bowie) invited me to his solar-powered studio, which is set up in a tour bus. We took it to the Californian desert, and produced a song a day, moving from one location to the other daily. Talented producers Trovarsi and Franck Martin were with us, along with a camera crew that documented the adventure. The resulting EP is out and a movie documenting the project is currently being toured in the US and Europe, alongside live performances when everyone’s schedules allow it.
You recently moved from Portland back to LA. What do you find most inspiring about the City of Angels?
Growing up in the South of France, I’m big on sunshine. I live by the ocean now and I swim and surf. Connecting with the shifting forces of the sea early in the morning sets my day on the perfect track.
I’m also very fortunate that my label, Decoy Recordings, moved from Portland to LA as well. LA is very exciting, yet it’s also great to have people you trust around – a solid core to enjoy an exciting environment.
Where else do you draw inspiration from?
I cannot spend a day without reading. While I also read non-fiction, my main source of inspiration are novels. I’m big on character development; I like feeling as if characters in a book enter my life.
I also watch a lot of world cinema. I try to go to the movies at least once a week. I’m drawn in and inspired by the humanity of the film characters, their nuances and complexities, their elegance and edges.
Where can we see you performing in the near future?
I’m still sharpening the format for the live show for ‘Nouvelles Aurores but I will be performing on an island in Brittany, France, next June, during a very special event that historically features Yann Tiersen (Amelie, Good Bye Lenin!…) and Marc Caro (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children…).
How would you describe ‘Nouvelles Aurores’ in one sentence?
‘Nouvelles Aurores’ is a fragile and nuanced reflection on the inner self, embracing the complex shades that make it beautiful.