Belgian singer, songwriter and producer Justine Bourgeus, aka Tsar B, has recently released her self-titled debut EP, nine months after her debut single ‘Escalate’. At just 22 years old, she has impressively written, recorded and produced most of the album alone in her Belgium apartment. A self-taught musician, Bourgeus has been making music since she was fourteen years old, playing in bands and winning numerous music competitions along the way. When I speak to Bourgeus in her native Belgium, she’s at a gas station with her friends after spending the day scouting out a location for her next video. Having made the video to accompany her first single, I discover this do-it-yourself approach is at the artistic heart of everything she does.
“When I make music, I am always listening but also seeing a certain kind of atmosphere or image that reflects the music I make,” Bourgeus tells me. “I picture the atmosphere and colours created by my music as I record. The video clip is already in my head when I'm playing the song for the first few times. But the idea in my head is always too strong to convey to other people – it’s too difficult for me to tell them what I see and for them to get it exactly right, so it’s good to direct the video myself as it’s always closer to what I have imagined. It’s always quite stressful, but also a lot of fun.”
Bourgeus plays violin, piano and synths; the majority of the instruments are played by her (the exception being a guitarist she brought in), in addition to the song-writing and most of the production. She tells me that she has written and recorded her debut EP at home over the past year.
“It was quite a simple process actually. I randomly started working with Logic. I made some beats and I liked to change instruments into other orchestral sounds. I wanted to do everything myself until the end, but I knew that to make it a complete, finished work, I needed some second thoughts on it. My good friend Oliver Symons helped. I told him I was very happy with certain songs but I felt the structure wasn’t quite right on some or that they needed more finishing touches. We started to finish the songs together in the studio, adding or deleting stuff to make them the finished product. There was a mixing part but 90% of the music was just done in my apartment. It was mostly just me and my headphones, keyboard and violin. I invited a guitar player to come and play which was fun. It was very simple and I like it that way.”
Bourgeus takes her key instruments of piano, synth and violin and puts them through her computer, making enigmatic and unusual sounds to striking effect. “The beats on most of my songs are electronic and I use synths to make these myself. I play violin and piano and the rest is Logic. On stage, I also use my violin but it never sounds like a violin. I spend a lot of time making instruments sound like something else! It might sound like a really weird guitar or cello on stage. It’s fun to do but I really don’t like playing instruments in a ‘normal’ way anymore.” Like one of her inspirations, Grimes, Bourgeus seems to enjoy the freedom of working alone, allowing her ideas to emerge organically. “I’m already working on four new songs and I think my album will be ready in a year, maybe a year and a half. I keep on working but I don’t want to force or rush anything. All my songs come very naturally from a very pure place – I don’t want to ruin that by making songs just for the sake of it. They have to be right. Sometimes I am in my studio for a month and I haven’t written anything, but that’s okay because I’m very critical: it must feel right for it to have a chance to make it onto my album.”
Perhaps one of the most overt features of Bourgeus’ music is its originality, something she describes as “dark blue RnB or the anthem of the dream you had last night.” Like a darker FKA Twigs, melancholic eastern tones brood alongside strange off-beats and ominous sounding instrumentals.
“I don’t know where the music comes from – maybe it might come from my dreams or the unknown part of my brain. There wasn’t a genre I wanted to do. I wanted to make something new. Two years ago I started working with Logic and I loved using orchestral instruments like flutes and violins. I like to take them and turn them into something very different. I start by using acoustic instruments then I take them and start getting weird sounds out of them – things that are out of the ordinary or unusual. This was done out of instinct rather than anything consciously.”
Intoxicating and dream-like, Bourgeus voice is like a classical-sounding Bjork at times. She also uses Eastern and not Western scales to help fill a greater range with her voice. “I think my voice has changed over the years but I always use the Arabian scales – they have so many more tones than Western ones. I wanted to try them so I started singing them a lot. I was also influenced by a great deal of classical music like Handel too. From the age of five I played classical violin, and it is still very much my favourite kind of music. It’s the only kind of music that still makes me cry.”
I ask Bourgeus about her musical influences. “For me this EP is one of the purest things I’ve done. It was my first EP and based a lot around the instinct of my youth. It was something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. At fourteen years old, I knew I wanted to make music, like Eastern music with a lot of bass on it. And without really thinking about it, this was the result. Everything was very natural and once written down it was clear it was a part of me.”
“I knew from a young age that I liked dark basses and Eastern sounds. I was quite interested in them because of some of the songs of Jeff Buckley. ‘Grace’ was incredible and especially ‘Dream Brother’ off that record. It was one of the craziest songs I’d ever heard and one of the most influential. Bjork and Holy Other too. I was flabbergasted when I head Holy Other. It was this crazy electronic music and I knew when I listened to their beats that I wanted to do something similar. It changed my way of thinking about beats.”
Her first single ‘Escalate’ appears on the EP alongside her latest releases ‘Myth’ and ‘Swim’, a song mixed by Liam Howe who has worked with FKA Twigs, Ellie Goulding, and Marina and the Diamonds. I ask Bourgeus to talk me through some of the tracks.
“‘Myth’ was just the third song I had ever written. It was a happy song to begin with and had a samba drum but I always tend to go to the darker side, and this ended up going massively in that direction! What was a very light song turned into a hugely melancholic song and it was a great contrast to where it began. It’s a song about dreaming and walking into a dream and maybe fighting against it, like being sucked into the unknown." "‘Swim’ was conversely the first song I ever wrote and it’s about running away. I’m creating the video for it now and I’m constantly re-listening to it as I want every shot to reflect how I saw it emerge in my head. All my music is quite aggressive too, ‘Escalate’ is quite an aggressive track. ‘Swim’ is about not giving a fuck anymore and getting out of something.”
I ask Bourgeus about her enigmatic and ominous lyrics which, against the drone-quality of some of her songs, creates a sense of unease and dark melancholia. “In the beginning, I was very scared of lyrics. I wrote my songs with a special sort of non-English – it was sounds really, not English at all, like a weird pigeon-English! I really had to think about the lyrics for ‘Swim’, changing them from what they first were a lot. After that, it somehow became easier. Sometimes now, I don’t have to think – I’m not scared anymore. I’m not really a person that listens to the lyrics first when I hear something – I’m listening to the sounds and the atmosphere created by the music itself. Lyrics are so personal and when I write them, I guess I do fear sharing them sometimes.”
Despite being unsigned, Bourgeus’ live performances are increasingly growing with an upcoming show in London’s The Waiting Room and more dates being planned across Europe. This year she has played a range of shows including a set at Lowlands, Borgerwod Festival, and a larger show in her native Belgium. “I did my first big show at Ancienne Belgique earlier this year. It was quite pressured but also very cool. It went so fast and in just a couple of months we grew so much. We’re planning to tour Europe and I feel these shows have made me ready for it now.”
Being surrounded by friends who work in the arts has helped Bourgeus, especially with the live elements of her shows. Rehearsing with a band consisting of close friends she has played with for years, she has also enlisted the help of her fashion designer friend for her performance outfits and others to help with the filming for her videos. “I have a lot of good people around me in the arts. They are very talented and it’s such a luxury to have as they help me out so much. They want to do things for me without getting rich!”
The process of song making and lyric writing is something Bourgeus feels is getting quicker with the more experience she gets. “‘Swim’ and ‘Myth’ took a long time to make and the early versions changed a lot. All the other songs after that were much faster to make. ‘Escalate’ was perhaps a couple of months. I wrote it and then two weeks later I worked on it with Oliver for two days or something and then we were happy with the finished song. It’s a process that’s going faster and faster too, like I have four new songs written and ready to finalise. I think I learned to write better songs and picked up steps along the way of how to best record a song which also helped me. I’ve now been writing for two and a half years. When I’m at home, I’m always on Logic, always experimenting and making new sounds. That's likely to be my life for the next few months, that and hopefully more touring.”