Empathy and gentle encouragement are all well and good, but sometimes you need browbeating into action. How else to explain the appeal of fitness instructors, BDSM and Marie Davidson? Since her first dancefloor-adjacent release in 2014, the French-Canadian producer has made intimidation her brand, disparaging the shallow side of club culture and its self-destructive behaviours in a voice that could shrivel ripe plums. It wasn’t just a pose, either. Each record, from Perte d’Identité (identity loss) to Adieu au Dancefloor (goodbye to the dancefloor) to her breakout, 2018’s Working Class Woman, sought enlightenment amid the sadistic aesthetic.
The latter was conceived as an “anti-burnout” record, even if lead single Work It, with its exhortations of “sweat dripping down your balls”, was often misinterpreted as a productivity doctrine: the real work, Davidson avowed at the song’s conclusion, was nurturing oneself. Planning to tour it for a year, then take a year’s sabbatical, she thought she had built-in limitations that would allow her to do just that. Yet she succumbed to burnout anyway, ending up plagued by chronic insomnia, a sleeping-pill addiction and strange rashes. “It’s like a domino effect,” she says. “You get caught in a spiral until you realise: this is not working any more.”
Down the line from her Montreal home, Davidson’s Quebecois-accented speaking voice is much warmer than the Slim Shady-inspired persona captured both on that record, and on Renegade Breakdown, the pulsating title track from her fantastic fifth album. That song is a feint: the rest of the album marks a complete break with club culture, embracing the influence of weirdo French chanson artists such as Christophe and Mylène Farmer, synth-prog and off-kilter funk, Marianne Faithfull and Billie Holiday in their grande dame phases. Davidson also sings for the first time, a twisted cabaret croon tracing her final departure from the dancefloor and the damage it wrought her.
She quit on a high, shortly after headlining Berlin superclub Berghain on her 32nd birthday, and only ever doubted her decision when people kept asking if she was scared. “I was like, wait, should I be scared?” says Davidson. Yet she trusted herself. “It was confirmed by my intuition that it was the only way, actually, because there was no way for me to go on the way I was before. My body was talking to me and telling me that it was time to change.”
She is concerned that her decision was framed as bitterness towards club culture: not at all, she clarifies. The problem was that work had become an addiction like all the others she had bounced between: alcoholism and substances in her 20s, anorexia throughout her life. “Often I was confused between my ambitions, my expectations, the expectations of the world around me, my upbringing, my life, my friends, my relationship, my job,” she says. “I think most of us feel that way these days.” During her sabbatical, she realised that she needed to explore new creative horizons: namely the idea for a band she and husband Pierre Guerineau (also her counterpart in the techno duo Essaie Pas) and producer Asaël Robitaille had long fantasised about starting. They named themselves L’Œil Nu (the naked eye), and took inspiration from the records they would play at living-room afterparties.
A self-proclaimed workaholic working during a sabbatical might seem self-destructive to the point of perversion, but collaborating with old friends offered Davidson a reprieve from the stress and alienation of the solo grind. As the trio crowd around a webcam, they recall meeting at La Brique, a Montreal show space co-run by Davidson and Guerineau, in the early 2010s. It was a cornerstone of the city’s then-buzzy DIY scene: a little-known artist called Grimes rented a rehearsal space there. The trio were more catalysts than stars. “We were the under-under-under of the underground,” says Davidson.
Robitaille describes their 20s as “a long period of exploration, losing ourselves a little bit sometimes, partying hard”. Now all in their mid-30s, they’re “more grounded and back to old loves”, he says – hence the reclamation of music with an uncharitable reputation for being uncool. “When you’re a teenager you hate the French chansons de variétés you listen to on the radio with your parents,” says Guerineau. “Then you get back to it: it’s a part of yourself, of who you are.”
It reflects Davidson’s Jung-inspired belief that humans have a true self and a persona. The latter, she says, is useful. “It’s like the filter – and as an artist, it’s what you decide to show to the world.” The problem comes when you overly identify with the persona and can’t distinguish between the two identities. “What brought me to anorexia was complexes and the relationship with the self and the image and the persona, and what you want to show the world. What the world doesn’t see is the weakness, the fragility, that you try to hide. But of course it shows.”
In parts, the funny, poignant Renegade Breakdown explicitly addresses Davidson’s career overhaul: baroque prog epic Back to Rock finds her literally shunning one genre for another; on the glimmering lounge jazz of Just in My Head, she asks: “Why the music feels lame?” But the deeper core of the album asks whether, beyond altering superficial circumstances, humans are actually capable of real change. Davidson thinks so, “but it takes very hard work and a lot of patience. It’s about getting to know yourself better to make better choices.”
She is getting there. A naturally impatient person, she has been trying to “cultivate empathy and patience”, and putting her foot down with her label about respecting her insistence on working at a slower pace. Her insomnia has subsided. Confronting her eating disorder meant it “eventually took less and less space in my life”. She has revealed her vulnerabilities on record before, but previously they were shielded by the iron-clad girding of industrial techno.
On Renegade Breakdown, they are starkly exposed over wheezing vocals and gothic folk: the airless, ominous Lead Sister examines the poison of perfectionism through the story of Karen Carpenter, with whom Davidson feels a kinship. The song Sentiment is its opposite: her commitment to changing her nature, no matter how hard it is. “I’m not as attached to my persona as I was before,” she says. “So I don’t mind showing my fragility and my wish to have a life that would be a bit more peaceful.”
Yet Davidson admits that it’s only since the pandemic that she has truly slowed down and acknowledged the toll that her old working life took on her body. “Just now, since a few weeks, I’m feeling like I’m getting my health back,” she says. “I even walk slower now.” But this recovered workaholic is pessimistic that the pandemic will lead to a better work-life balance in general. “Capitalism is a strong entity within our world, unfortunately,” she says. “As long as the world is run by big corporations and capitalism and corrupted politicians and big-ego CEOs and marketing, I don’t think that things will change so much.”
She can feel the potential for change in the air, and the resistance against it. But the latter, as she has learned the hard way, is futile.
Renegade Breakdown is out now