Roosevelt on Imposter Syndrome, Remixes, and the Cultural Politics of Singing in English

Roosevelt on Imposter Syndrome, Remixes, and the Cultural Politics of Singing in English
Courtesy of Ninja Tune

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Longtime fan of Marius Lauber, who makes exquisite and very tuneful electronic pop music as Roosevelt; I interviewed him ten(!) years ago for Pitchfork's Rising series, and he's got a great new album out Embrace that might just be his strongest yet. We hopped on a call last month and caught up about his creative headspace and a few other topics.

One thing that caught my eye while I was reading the press materials for this record was the notion of imposter syndrome in the music industry. Tell me about what your experience has been like with all of that in the last few years.
I was coming off of tour and spending two months in Brooklyn, and my plan was just to live life for a second, because after Polydans came out in 2021 I just wanted to zone out and be more distracted by everyday things rather than thinking about the next record immediately. That worked for a couple of weeks, but then I realized that I just needed to make a record—purely for myself. I shift towards extremes a lot—I've never had good routines. But experiencing that urge to make another record, I was almost surprised by that, because a few weeks previous I was quite overwhelmed and wanted to take a break. But I had that urge to lock myself away in a cabin in Twin Peaks, California and did a big part of this record.

Whenever I think about this record, I think about that time of feeling the very natural instinct to write new music. I was really happy that it happened. It came to me really naturally. The imposter syndrome is something where, I don't know any other musician who doesn't feel like that, to be honest. I think it has to do with the American market getting bigger for me. It's not natural, as someone from Germany, to have that level of success in the States that I have now. I do enjoy it—it's not something I'm struggling with, per se—but maybe that's why I need breaks sometimes. I need to reflect on it, which is why it's probably good for me to have geographical distance from my biggest market.

A lot of musicians I've spoken to in the last few years have considered packing it up completely. Did you feel like that at all?
In different forms. There were moments where I was like, "I don't need to tour anymore," because I'm in a quite privileged situation where I'm not the drummer of a band. I could just make records and just play two festivals a year. I question the structure of it, and that's happened with a lot of people because there was almost this kind of reset on everything. All the years before were about this machinery of putting out albums and touring them, and when it all came to a halt a lot of people questioned different parts of the model, or the whole thing.

For me, doing this record was almost a selfish thing. I just listened to what would be best for me. If you'd asked me before I wrote the demos, "Why did you do the last album?" I would've said, "I wanted to keep the machine running." I wasn't even aware that I really need to do this, and as an artist, that wasn't a positive realization.

I think COVID just made you realize things that you didn't even realize before. I was a little bored by everything, and when I put out the last record I thought, "The next one's coming out in 2025." I wasn't like "That's it," but I definitely thought, "I need a break." For me, luckily, the outcome was realizing that doing music is almost a therapeutic thing for me. It's part of my personality, rather than just me going to work. And maybe I perceived it that way in the years before, so having that realization was an important moment for me. It's actually very healing, and it made me realize that there's less separation between me and the music I make for Roosevelt than I realized.

How old are you now?

At this age, what do you think you've learned about yourself over the last few years?
There's been changes in lifestyle, and moments that your 20s were building up to that maybe never came. And the second part of the realization there is that it's totally fine, which was very important for me to reflect on over the last few years. It even comes down to my artistic choices. I don't want to put too much importance on the pandemic, because maybe it would've come up for me anyway, but a big part for me was grabbing onto what I loved instead of searching for the better version of myself. I don't want to sound too cult-y, but that was a big thing to realize: Just continue doing your thing without questioning it.

I read that you were traveling while creating a lot for this record. Some artists really need to be situated in one place to create. What's your preference there?
For me, it was always doing a record in the studio, and either it was shut down afterwards or I wasn't feeling it in the same room anymore. So I'd build a studio in the corner, or have a shared studio, and I did a whole record, and then I'd go in the same room and it'd feel like I was just making b-sides off the last record. A certain setting is always connected to a certain emotional headspace. So that never really worked for me. I always had to change rooms and scenery.

I had a big studio setup for Polydans, and I was really proud of it, but when I went back in that room after the record came out I just couldn't find what I wanted to do. It felt like I was doing too much of the same thing. Part of it is also technology. I never even had the idea to make music on my laptop, for some reason. I did remixes here and there, but I never did any music on there. But the M1 Macbook Air came out, and it made a big difference. It sounds weird that it's a part of it, but it's insane how much software and plug-ins can handle. It came out right around the same time Fred Again... also embraced the mobile production thing, and I was inspired by that.

I'd talk to other producers and they'd say, "I don't have a studio, I don't need one." It also has to to do with American markets seeing my more electronic side and realizing that my music was quite electronic, and I could do it outside the studio. Some bands don't have the choice, but I have the privilege of producing on the road, whenever I want. That freedom was really inspiring, and making a demo on my flight to L.A. and then renting a studio there to record drums—being able to produce music anywhere, in 2023 that was weirdly a new thing to me, and it was super inspiring.

When we last talked in 2013, you said lyric writing wasn't a concern for you. Has that changed?
It has a more important role in what I'm doing now, whereas 10 years ago I had one line and I put reverb on everything. I really try to actually write lyrics and see it as an art form now. The fact that it's not my mother language still makes it not too natural. It's still pretty hard and out of my comfort zone. It takes weeks sometimes. You probably wouldn't be able to tell, but sometimes a song is finished in two days and the lyrics take me weeks and weeks.

I could never do instrumental tracks and put that out as new Roosevelt music. It goes back to the imposter syndrome thing. I'm singing these lyrics to people and their language is English, so I'm like, "What am I even trying to tell you guys?" Weirdly, in America, some people think I'm from the UK, or the States, and that's not because my accent perfect—I think it got better—but it's because they don't care. They see singing in English as more of a singing language, and American pop music and English pop music encourages this concept of lyrics as supporting certain notions. They don't have to be the main attraction of the song, which is still my concept. I'm more happy with my lyrics now than I am years ago, but I'm not a storyteller or a singer-songwriter. It's more of a tool for me to get more insight on how I felt when I wrote the instrumental.

Whenever German journalists review my music, it's always a huge topic for them. "Well, how do Americans like your accent?" Even with English-singing German bands, "Oh, he sounds very American." But in the U.S., nobody cares, which was super liberating. Even bands like the Notwist, with the heaviest German accent, are sometimes being laughed at in Germany for it, but in the U.S. they are like, "We can understand you." I love how they're open to interpretations of their own language, whereas in Germany they're more self-aware. When we did the booklet for the new album, we put the lyrics on there, and I was like, "Are these lyrics good enough to print on the booklet?" But I've come to a point where I like the moments in which I'm challenged. In the beginning of my career, I was trying to push them away or even quite literally put tons of reverb on them. Now, I like the feeling more of being exposed.

You do a lot of remixes, and remixing is a bit of a lost art these days—even as it's so essential to the vitality of dance music. What makes a remix satisfying for you?
For me, it always comes down to keeping the vocal structure intact. That's where the emotional core of the song is. Re-harmonizing that is super interesting to me—keeping the energy and emotion but switching on a different light. I often remix songs that are not as upbeat, and sometimes the lyrics end up having a slightly different meaning with what I do. That's what makes for the most interesting remixes, when you take on something from an emotionally different perspective, keep the essence of it, and look at it from somewhere else.

I just remixed José Gonzélez's "Swing," and it was very light and sweet, and I did an acid disco thing with it. I DJ with it a lot when I DJ now, and seeing the dancefloors sing along to those words...those moments that shift how the song comes across are really interesting to me. I could never just take a vocal and chop it up and do something completely different, but there are other people—like Four Tet—who do excellent remixes that way. There's no one recipe, but I always look to shed a different light while keeping a certain element in there. I think of myself as the band's or artist's producer and restructure the whole thing—that's the most fun way, to me.

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Jamie Larson