Photo: Anthony Ghnassia
Tchami Talks Debut Album 'Year Zero,' New Single "Faith" And Producing Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica'
Tchami might be having the best year ever, and in 2020 no less. Over the last decade, he's performed at some of the biggest festivals in the world, amassed hundreds of millions of online streams and launched the future house genre. This year, the Parisian DJ/producer upped the ante: As one of the featured producer's on Lady Gaga's latest hit album, Chromatica, he's put his magic touch on one of the year's biggest pop releases.
After first working with Gaga on "Applause," the lead single from her 2013 album, ARTPOP, the pop queen once again tapped Tchami for Chromatica. He co-produced four of the album's tracks, including lead single "Stupid Love" and mega radio hit "Rain on Me" with Ariana Grande.
"The vibe in the studio was open," Tchami said of the creative process behind Chromatica. "[In] the end, I was just happy to be there and come back when my help was needed."
As the overwhelming success of his earworm tracks continues to build, Tchami is closing out the year with the release of his forthcoming debut album, Year Zero. Set to release later this year, the album is an "illustration of where I am right now as an artist and also as a human," he explains.
So far, Tchami has rolled out five singles off Year Zero, including his latest, "Faith," released Sept. 25. The up-tempo house track centers on a haunting sample from legendary soul-jazz singer Marlena Shaw's 1969 song, "Woman of the Ghetto," a stark portrait of Black life in America during the tumultuous decade.
"There is a fascinating aspect about sampling in the way that you're able to bring something from the past and its aesthetics into a new time and place," Tchami says of the distinctive sample driving "Faith."
GRAMMY.com caught up with Tchami to talk about how he experimented in the studio on Year Zero, Lady Gaga's fearless approach to music and his ongoing chase to "master the alchemy of making great records."
Your new single, "Faith," samples Marlena Shaw's 1969 song, "Woman of The Ghetto." How did you discover the sample in the first place?
About two years ago, during the first studio session for the album, DJ Snake came to me with this idea to sample "Woman of the Ghetto" by Marlena Shaw. I made the first sketches around the a cappella that we extracted from the original version. The creation process around it was really similar to doing a remix.
What drew you to the sample for this specific song? What made you want to use it for "Faith"?
In the early 2000s, I was buying a lot of vinyl records in France. It could be any type of genre, and as far as I can remember, I always liked to incorporate samples in my music. There are ups and downs due to clearances, but it's definitely not new to me. There is a fascinating aspect about sampling in the way that you're able to bring something from the past and its aesthetics into a new time and place. Again, nothing new here, but that's my thinking behind all my sample choices.
I called it "Faith" to punctuate Marlena Shaw's powerful message in her original song. I don't write lyrics at all, even if I try to, and, like many others, my words often fail to express my intentions. That's why I mainly choose to stick to the musical side to express myself; I have found just that in electronic music. I can't hide the fact that I have been touched by records with a powerful message in my life and I wanted my first album to represent that as well.
You're releasing your debut album, Year Zero, later this year. How do you plan to make the album stand out from your previous releases and projects?
I surely went deeper in my sonic explorations, tested new BPMs and song structures. I also wanted to be in a studio creating with songwriters. Since I mainly make music from home, I wanted to shake [up] my creative process a little bit. We had some wonderful moments during these sessions. If I have an obsession in life, it's definitely knowing enough about making a record from scratch, alone or with other people in the room. Everyone's energy is important and I pay attention to everyone.
The main reason for this album to exist is that I wanted to challenge myself. At some point, I was asking myself, "What's next for you Tchami?" Another EP? Countless singles? [There's] nothing wrong with that, but the challenge wasn't there. And as a listener, I just love the album format. But the main wall I kept hitting was, "How are you going to keep the listener engaged through the whole album?" Well, I guess I'll have the answer soon enough.
The term "year zero" carries a lot of different meanings and definitions. For instance, it's used to describe "the beginning of revolutionary change" or "the beginning of any new system or regime." What does Year Zero mean exactly in the world of Tchami?
I think Year Zero is a good photograph/illustration of where I am right now as an artist and also as a human. I have lost family members during the making of the album, I had to terminate some friendships that were unhealthy. Those who know me know that I can be too agreeable most of the time because I believe in people's vision and want to help them achieve it. The cost is putting myself aside. I also think this is a good reason why I'm a good asset in the studio for other artists. But all this led to an inner revolution that started with the Tchami project and continues with this album.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoy healthy collaborations; that's what this LP is about. Music is a therapy for me before being a job. I am also conscious that the title can resonate in other ways, especially during these times, and I can't stop people [from thinking of] it. Once the album is out it's up for debate and interpretation. It's meant to be shared, experienced, and maybe be a part of you for some time.
You co-produced several tracks off Lady Gaga's new album, Chromatica. How did that opportunity come about for you?
[GRAMMY-nominated producer] BloodPop and I were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, as simple as that. I think he wanted to work with other electronic music producers to shape the Chromatica [album] with him and Lady Gaga, so I'm glad I was one of them.
Beyond the fact that this is an exciting project to work on, the vibe in the studio was open, and as far as I know, I had full latitude to work on every song of the album. [In] the end, I was just happy to be there and come back when my help was needed.
Have you always been a fan of Lady Gaga's music? Or is this a more recent development?
What I like the most about her is the big picture she paints, not only with her music, but with all her artistic and aesthetic choices. It always makes sense. She is not afraid to challenge herself in other music genres and makes it look effortless. I think it's powerful not to let people put you in a specific box; if you want to do something else, you should be proud and praised, too.
Lady Gaga has always kept one foot in the pop world and one foot on the dance floor. For example, electronic artists like David Guetta, DJ Snake, Infected Mushroom, Zedd and Madeon have produced for her. Does this dance-pop crossover make it easier or harder for your individual sounds and styles to come together when producing for Gaga or a similar artist?
Unless I'm asked to, I never try to bring the Tchami sound forward when I work on somebody else's project. Bringing my best game means sometimes getting Tchami out of the way because we're trying to write a whole other story. I make all kinds of music in my studio that never sees the light of day, so working on other projects is always an opportunity to surprise people. Maybe the most important thing isn't the sound signature, but the creative process and being able to co-create something unique each time.
Do you have plans to continue experimenting and producing in the pop world? Are there any other genres you're interested in exploring or experimenting with as a producer or artist?
Pop music is a vast world, plus it is one of my guilty pleasures. So why not? I'm interested in other genres, too; maybe [working] with live instruments a bit more. I'm also deeply invested in the mixing and mastering aspects of a record. I think it's one of the key reasons why a record is satisfying to one's ear and potentially timeless. [More so] than genres, I'd like to master the alchemy of making great records.
Your label, Confession, has helped globalize several breakout electronic artists, including Malaa. What's the label working on for the remainder of 2020 and going into 2021?
2020 is definitely a year we take to reflect on the label's direction. We will continue to give a voice and a platform to emerging artists, but also to initiate and engage more in collaborative efforts such as new compilations and live events.