A stunning debut that took a long time to assemble, the serene beauty of Air’s first album highlighted the versatile strengths of the French duo. It’s a record that merged deep synthesis, live instrumentation and layered arrangements to build one of the finest records of the ’90s. 20 years on, it’s high time we studied the making of Moon Safari…
Moon Safari – it’s a record that even today, seems to be everywhere. If you don’t own it, you’ll at least be familiar with its songs. From the dark swagger of the still-ubiquitous Sexy Boy, the laid back cruise of opener La Femme D’Argent and the record’s all-out-classic All I Need, the tracks on Air’s debut album have, over the last 20 years, seeped into the aural landscape of popular culture.
Hailing from Versailles in Paris, architecture student Nicolas Godin and mathematics student Jean-Benoît Dunckel first met when a mutual friend introduced Godin to Dunckel’s band, Orange. Godin, however, was already a keen musician in his own right. The two found they had similar musical views and aspirations and, before long, Air (an acronym for Amour, Imagination, Rêve – Love, Imagination, Dream) was born. An EP, Premieres Symptomes, offered an early (if rougher)indicator of what lay ahead for the pair sonically…
American singer Beth Hirsch, who made a significant contribution to Moon Safari, as lead vocalist/co-writer on two of the record’s key moments – single All I Need and You Make It Easy – shared with us her recollections of the musical/creative scene in Paris during the period in which Air formed and how she came to meet them.
“I went to Paris in the early ’90’s to be an au pair,” Beth remembers. “At that point I had graduated university with a degree in theatre and was planning to act in Anglophone theatre ensembles. Within a few months of arriving, I became friends with a big group of young internationals, mostly photographers and architects. The group kept growing and growing and we partied all the time. A few of them had guitars and we would jam at parties, on the Seine, and anyone who wanted to could sing along.
“One night a couple friends and I were singing from a Chris Isaak songbook and they said ‘Wow, you sing really well’. From then on, every time we went to a party, they’d ask me to sing and through these parties I started to meet music producers who invited me to sing on their projects. The next year at my birthday party, a friend named Marc Collin saw the guitar in my flat and said, ‘Do you write? Play me something!’ I showed him a song called Miner’s Son and he suggested we record it at his studio. This became my first EP (also called Miner’s Son) and he signed it with Rough Trade/Paris. We started working with another producer named Étienne Wersinger who lived nearby in Montmartre. One day there was a guy sitting on the couch and Etienne introduced us. His name was Nicolas Godin…”
“Nicolas said “Etienne showed me your project – I really like it”. I asked him if he was in music and he told me that he and his partner Jean-Benoît were making an album as Air and that they would like me to get together with them and sing on it.”
New Star in the Sky
The tracks that made up Moon Safari had been built slowly, though some ideas had been conceived in the various flats, houses and small studios that Nicolas and Jean-Benoît routinely found themselves in. Most of the major writing work took place at Studio de Saint-Nom on the outskirts of Paris.
The inspirations for many of the musical adventures stemmed from the intellectual pursuits of its creators, for example – as Jean-Benoît states in an interview with The Guardian, “The track New Star in the Sky (Chanson Pour Solal) came about because I’d studied astrophysics and was into stars, planets and Einstein’s theory of relativity. I was singing about space all the time and reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. The characters in the book go on a safari into the past to see dinosaurs. I just loved the word safari.”
While Nicolas applied his academic studies of architecture to the arrangement of the music, building rich frameworks for tracks such as La Femme D’Argent, Kelly Watch The Stars and Le Voyage de Pénélope, initially these musical structures were assembled with the imposed restriction of using an eight-track Fostex D-80 recorder so as to avoid digressing too much away from the core ideas.
Beth Hirsch tells us that fundamentally, their initial ideas were created with real instrumentation. “The underlying content of their music was eclectic and they liked working with real instruments. From what I listened to, it was afterwards that the more electronic elements were brought in.”
The record’s relaxed feel – often described as ‘loungecore’ – incorporated a wide range of sonic textures, generated with an assortment of hardware that included a Casio Casiotone, a Korg MS-20, Moog Minimoog alongside the unmistakable Fender Rhodes.
Godin’s use of classic equipment, particularly the second-hand 1960s Hofner bass was another important hallmark of the record, with its distinctive ‘cool and dry’ tone discovered when he plugged it into a guitar amp instead of a traditional bass amp.
His sultry, weaving bass plays an integral part on the record, often (particularlily on La Femme D’Argent) becoming the lead instrument in the arrangement. Acoustic guitars feature, as do live and synthesised strings. As Beth recalls, the writing and recording process was as similarly relaxed as the album’s feel…
“The making of Moon Safari was very slow. The guys knew that they had to make the record their way. I remember them saying there was a lot of pressure on them to get it done as quickly as possible, but they resisted and did it on their terms. The way I was used to working was much faster and I was highly impressed by their focus and level of detail. Also their understanding of song structure. They really know how to build very solid music.”
Moon Safari tracklist
- La Femme D’argent
- Sexy Boy
- All I Need
- Kelly Watch The Stars
- You Make It Easy
- Ce Matin La
- New Star in the Sky (Chanson pour Solal)
- Le Voyage De Pénélope
The Space Age Carpenters
The music that became one of the album’s standouts, All I Need, is characterised by the addition of Beth Hirsch’s vocals, creating a sound that the band describe as being akin to a ‘Space Age Carpenters’.
Beth told us that in the early stages of their collaboration, “they gave me an early version of the music [based on track Les Professionnels from their first EP]but even in that raw state I could tell the song had something special. I immediately found a melody and shortly after wrote the lyrics for it. We were actually going to call it ‘I’ve Been Wondering,’ There’s a high part in the chorus where I’d sing that, but in French, the r’s are hard to pronounce so they decided to change the section and the chorus became a vocal wave instead. The record company re-named the song All I Need based on the first line in the verse.”
We ask Beth if they and she worked together to craft the melody. “No, the melody was mine just as the music was theirs. But our parts inspired each others. I remember trying some background vocals and they said, ‘You’ve got to sing those BVs (background vocals) everywhere!’ We worked off each other.”
Godin and Dunckel’s relative inexperience in the studio actually served the duo well when it came to approaching sound. Instead of using traditional rack-mounted effects, the pair would plug in their keyboards and synths to a range of pedals originally designed for guitar, creating a distinctive and unique flanged, distorted and tonally shifted treatment, while the lush and ornate string sections (notably on Talisman) were a combination of the Solina String Ensemble, generated and some live strings which were recorded by David Whitaker at Abbey Road.
As Jean-Michel told The Guardian, “We were in this legendary studio where The Beatles had recorded, too shy to even speak to the orchestra. So David took us off to his home in the countryside and we ended up discussing Rachmaninoff. He helped us to overcome our shyness and make something massive and expressive.”
Something to give
While the band embarked upon building the painstaking instrumentation, Beth recalls that the lyrics of All I Need were inspired by that time in her personal life. “It was the mid-90s and it was a great time to be in Paris and I was having, on the whole, a wonderful time, discovering music and other artists, and how amazing the whole scene was. That’s what I tried to express in the lyrics of the song.”
Air’s satisfaction with this, their first collaboration with Hirsch, led them to record a second for the album, You Make It Easy. Beth recalls that, “the label encouraged us to work together more, so the guys showed me that piece of music and in a similar way to All I Need I found the melody and lyrics quite quickly and the rest of the production flowed after that.”
Beth continues, “the inspiration for You Make It Easy came from a little summer romance I had at the time. It was a nice time and a good story. Since it was happening to me, it was easy to write and it all came together in a seamless way”.
Though many often mistakenly attribute the classic Sexy Boy vocals to Hirsch, it was actually the sound of both Godin and Dunckel singing into a series of vocoders (a Korg VC-10 and Roland VP-330). Sexy Boy would become one of Air’s signature songs, being the first single from the record. The infectious melodies, androgynous vocals and dark strut of the distorted, stabby rhythm making it an instant classic that demanded radio play.
It is, however, perhaps the least representative track from the record, with the vast majority of the material having a serene, detached quality. Nicolas would tell The Guardian that the origins of Sexy Boy were quite spontaneous.
“One day I played a riff to Jean-Benoît and he said ‘sexy boy’ – that was how we got the song. If we’d sung ‘sexy girl’, it would have been a disaster. Sexy Boy felt different. The song was about who we wanted to be.”
Once the tracks were recorded, the marketing begun and Beth Hirsch recalls that, “they had a great machine behind them. From what I remember, they had their label (Source) in Paris, a bigger label behind that in the UK (Virgin) and the US was also greatly involved. There were so many players and components that were giving it everything they had. That aspect was impressive to me, coming into the industry fresh. They knew it was going to be a success. They were confident and very happy with it. It was exciting.”
Released in 1998 to a relatively muted response in their native France, but massive success and critical acclaim in the UK (then just sweating off the last remnants of Britpop), the record would become an almost overnight modern classic. It’s aural textures were gentle, but fascinating, making it an easy buy for devotees of wildly different genres, from house and jazz to indie. It was a ubiquitous sight on CD racks over the next few years.
Jean-Benoît told Stereogum that, “People thought that we were DJs, and they thought there were a lot of samples on the album which is totally wrong. There are no samples; it’s all played live. So it’s true that people didn’t really know what we were at the time, but we are musicians. We were really playing and we were playing with other people, too.”
20 years on from the record’s release, Beth Hirsch still thinks fondly of Moon Safari. “The music itself, I think, stands the test of time. As for my personal favorite songs, I just loved L’Femme D’Argent. When I heard that for the first time, we were listening in their studio in the forest and I was like, ’Wow, they are special artists and this is going to be a very special record’. I’d never heard anything like it before. I also loved New Star in the Sky, which Jean-Benoît dedicated to his son. It was very sweet.
“The time period felt ‘greater’ than us and the album reminds me of that,” Beth concludes. “The impact that All I Need has had on people over the years, along with the memories that they share with me about it have been incredibly humbling and heartwarming.”