Charity “Album” Review: Woodkid and Nils Frahm – Ellis Soundtrack

By on Wednesday, 6th July 2016 at 12:00 pm

Header photo of Nils Frahm’s hands taken from his Facebook

Regardless of which side of the Brexit vote you sympathised with, I think we can all agree that the emotional toll of human migration is worth some, if not all of your waking empathy. This Friday, a collaboration between Woodkid, the nom de plume of French singer/songwriter Yoann Lemoine, and celebrated German composer Nils Frahm will be available for purchase, with all proceeds going to a very worthy cause. And this new release from London avant-garde indie label Erased Tapes couldn’t have had better timing.

Ellis is a short film by JR, a mysterious artist described in this article in the Independent as “the French Banksy”, and written by Eric Roth. The film follows award-winning American actor Robert DeNiro, as he wanders the hallways of the now abandoned Ellis Island hospital complex, now the home to JR’s Unframed art installation. As we follow DeNiro, his spoken word narration is as arresting as the bleak environment through which we are led. This is definitely a case of imagining ‘if only walls could talk’, yet at the same time, DeNiro’s narration is equal parts hope and humility. This is a film about the great sacrifices made by those who passed through Ellis Island and looked to America as the great land of opportunity, the safe haven protected by the gaze of Lady Liberty.


As if the film and DeNiro’s contributions weren’t enough, there is also a beautiful score composed by Woodkid accompanying this poignant narrative. The mini-album being released this Friday comprises two tracks. ‘Winter Morning I’ is Woodkid’s original instrumental with piano and strings. This original feels more like what you would imagine most film scores to be. Most of it, through a sombre mood, elicits gentle emotion while remaining firmly in the background. Thanks to the beguiling string orchestration at its conclusion, the lightness makes you feel like you’ve been picked up and twirled around, as if a wide-eyed child with innocent wonderment.

A reworking by Frahm, ‘Winter Morning II’ with DeNiro’s vocal contribution utilises the harmonium. Woodkid says of his collaboration with Frahm:

I had worked with Nils before and I wanted him to create a sound for this piano part that I composed that was extremely gentle and organic. I wanted the listener to hear the mechanisms, the breathing of the instrument. I wanted it to be imperfect, to sound like a ruin, a trace, an echo, the way the pastings on the walls seem to be ghosts, almost imperceptible. After a few rehearsals, Nils stripped down my piano parts and we removed almost all orchestration around the piano. He then worked on the extended version that is his interpretation of my piece, with Robert de Niro’s vocals.

Nils Frahm is the kind of too intellectual composer whose genius I did not want to investigate too deeply. I always assumed I would embarrass myself in my ignorance of what he did and how he did it, because too many of my musician friends revered him. I can now say I have a bit of that feeling why he’s held in such high esteem. Working with spoken word and music on the same track in a film, there are limitations: you neither want the music to overtake the narration, nor do you want the music to be superfluous. Instead of piano, Frahm’s take with harmonium feels as solemn as being in church. DeNiro speaks the voice of a desperate man turned away and refused asylum. There is hope when he describes those who have gone from walking to running, who have succeeded in escape, “they were at last…home.” The solemnity turns into an awful, sickening feeling when DeNiro says, “[I] am the ghost of all those who will never get there.”

In our safe, heated first-world abodes, we cannot begin to imagine the horrors of those trying to escape civil war. And really, listening to a song about the pain and suffering of those who went before is not going to change things for the better. However, there are two things we can do that will make change happen. Listening to this mini-album by Woodkid and Nils Frahm – as well as watching JR’s film Ellis – will open your mind and heart to the plight of those less fortunate, of those refugees who are our fellow human beings. And by buying this mini-album from Erased Tapes, you can take donate directly to the nonprofit Sea Watch initiative, dedicated to the protection and rescue of civilian refugees trying to reach Europe’s shores. Stream both songs below, and preorder the mini-album on vinyl, CD or digital download directly from Erased Tapes’ online store.


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