Emerald Leaves Shimmering in the Light of Dawn — An Interview with Alcest

It was five years ago that Alcest released their sixth studio album, Spiritual Instinct. The world then was a different place, a place where we moved freely and without as much care as we do today. Then, suddenly the global pandemic wrapped us all in a cocoon of isolation. Our lives became small, confined to bubbles and pockets of in-person social contacts, often limited to the family and friends within arm’s reach if any at all.

Emerging from this chrysalis, many of us, myself included, found a renewed appreciation for the things that truly matter. It was as if we were dreamers reborn, children rediscovering the wonders of the world. This sense of renewal is palpably woven into the fabric of Alcest’s latest offering, Les Chants de l’Aurore, which translates from French as “Songs of Dawn.”

Alcest has always been a band that I enjoyed drifting into; listening to their music is often a portal to an otherworldly realm. Yet, Les Chants de l’Aurore stands as their best work yet. It is an album that will surely draw in new admirers by tempering the darkness of its trace elements of black metal with luminous, euphoric tones. In fact, it’s the perfect entry point for the band, given that its composition leans more so toward shoegaze and post-punk than their past few records. And this new album feels like a storybook, a self-contained universe, revealing its true beauty only when experienced from beginning to end.

Photo by Andy Julia

I had the pleasure of speaking with Neige of Alcest about the pandemic’s profound impact on his creative process and personal life. He shared how the lockdown granted him the rare gift of time, allowing him to reconnect with family and friends and to step away from the relentless cycle of touring that had dominated the past decade. This pause was a much-needed respite, helping him to recharge and approach the creation of Les Chants de l’Aurore with a fresh perspective.

Neige spoke fondly of his admiration for Slowdive and the cherished collaboration with Neil Halstead on the track “Away.” He recounted with awe the honor of being invited by Robert Smith to perform at the Meltdown Festival, a testament to Alcest’s enduring influence. The new album, he explained, marks a return to the spiritual themes that defined Alcest’s early work, a journey back to the mystical worlds that first inspired their music. I was in Paris when the lockdown started.

Neige: Yeah, it’s a beautiful city here, but the lockdown was a little bit tough because I guess it was the same in America, but in Paris, apartments are not very big,  and to be forced to stay inside for such a long time, it was not easy, but it was interesting as well because, as a band, we’ve been touring so much and so hard for the past ten years and, I guess I was having a little bit of, burnout, and as much as Covid was horrible for a lot of people, the only positive side to it was that I was able to have a break from music and reset and recharge batteries and see my family that whom I haven’t seen in years because of the all the crazy touring. So it was actually very beneficial for the new album to be able to start from, from the fresh, you know, again and not just jump from a tour to the writing process again, like we’ve done so many times, and to have an actual break because it was really nice and…

I’m sorry, I didn’t listen to your full story. You told me you were in Paris just before the lockdown. Yes. I barely got out of Paris. I got one of the last flights out. Although there would be worse places to be in lockdown, I didn’t live in Paris, so being stuck there would have been difficult.

Neige: Of course.  I think it’s a shame to be in Paris and not be able to go outside and see the architecture, go to some parties, and meet people because the people here are quite interesting. The city has a lot to offer. I’m not from Paris. I’m from the south of France. But I’ve been living here for 17 years, I believe. With the lockdown, were you able to reconnect with things? I remember spending some time with my mom. I was able to look at her old photographs and see things I hadn’t seen in years.

Neige: Yes. I kind of forget that there was a life outside of the band. It was for a long time. And actually, there are all these friends whom you never really have a chance to talk to. So I spent a lot of time just writing messages to my friends. And I’ve taken this habit of calling my parents every day because they are getting older and I’m an only child. So, they are the type of parents who care a lot about me. So, since COVID, I’m still calling them every day, even just a little bit, for five minutes. That’s wonderful.

Neige: Yes. These little things, which I think are the positive side of what’s happened. And maybe people are a little bit more focused on what’s important in their lives. Exactly. I definitely came out of this whole experience more focused on personal relationships and things that really matter to me, and the things that really inspire me. Nice shirt, by the way.

Neige: Oh, thank you. It’s it’s my all-time favorite band. Like number one. I love Slowdive. And I love that collaboration on the track “Away” you did with Neil Halstead.

Neige: Oh, yeah! I was really young. When we met the first time, I was still in my mid-20s. And I was such a fanboy, you know? So I was terrified when I met him, and it was very difficult to hide my fanboy-ness. So I was shaking, and oh my God, when I think about it now, it’s a bit embarrassing. But, he was really kind to me, and he saw that I was a younger musician, not as experienced as he was, you know, and he was very nice.

When I discovered Slowdive, quite a long time ago, they had really disappeared from the map of music. Nobody really knew them. They were some kind of ghost band from the 90s. But I was feeling there was some buzz, like people were talking more about Slowdive. And I told him: “Dude, if you reform the band, people are going to go crazy!” And he was like, “Ehh, no, I’m not sure. it’s an old band.” And it’s funny because a year after they actually reformed, I traveled to London just to see them, and then they became huge. Now, they are humongous. All these kids discovered them on Spotify or TikTok or something. And I also saw them two times these past few months, and in the crowd, there were teenagers. It’s so weird and so cool too! I used to buy bootlegs to get some of their early EPs. As a kid, it was often hard to find some of their music besides Souvlaki and Just for a Day. For example, the self-titled EP and The Blue Day EP were out of print, and those were the only places you could hear “Avalyn.”

Neige: Yeah, and one of my favorite things from Slowdive are these outtakes from a Souvlaki. It’s called “I Saw the Sun.” And you’ve got songs like “Silver Screen,” “Joy,” and “Bleeds,” and these are songs that were never released on an album, but they are available on YouTube, and I guess there probably were some bootlegs that were released. These are some of my favorite songs from the band. And I once asked Rachel if they planned to rerecord or rerelease or whatever, and I don’t think they like these songs. It’s a shame because they are really amazing. You should listen to them. It’s called Souvlaki: Demos & Outtakes.  Your new album Les Chants de l’Aurore is my favorite record from Alcest so far!

Neige: Oh, I’m so happy because  I’ve been a fan of for a while because I’m a huge fan of post-punk. So I was a bit surprised that you wanted to cover us because we are a little bit in a different scene,  but not that much.  I think you can hear my influences, like The Cure, Slowdive, or Cocteau Twins. I can definitely hear Cocteau Twins and The Cure. And I’m not surprised that Robert Smith had you play at the Meltdown Festival in London.

Neige: Yeah, exactly. He invited us to play because he was a fan of our album, Kodama, and he asked us to play the full album. So I got this email from our booking agent. He said something like,” Okay, are you sitting down now?” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sitting down,” and he said, “Okay, so Robert Smith is a fan of Alcest, and he wants you to play Kodama in full at his festival. And I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” You know, because, I mean, it’s Robert Smith. He’s one of the main reasons we are talking now. And the way so many people are into post-punk, in new wave, The Cure are such an important band. So to have someone like him, just the simple fact that he knew us, it was already amazing, but that he was a fan and wanted us to play at his festival. It was such an honor. That was quite an amazing lineup that he put together.

Neige: Yeah, too. Yeah. And I think it was Nine Inch Nails, Deftones, My Bloody Valentine. A lot of amazing bands, Mogwai too.

Neige: Thank you so much for what you said about the album. We really put all our hearts and soul into this one, as we always do. But maybe this time, even more than usual. We really took the time to make sure to make something really, really strong and interesting. And I’m very, very happy about what you said. I know it took a bit more time than usual, like five years. But with bands, after a while, it’s very easy to fall into this trap of releasing albums too often and losing inspiration. So I’m really afraid to be one of these bands who have one or two good albums in the beginning, and then people are like, “Yeah, it’s not as good as it used to be.” This is my worst nightmare. I really don’t want to have this type of discography with one or two good albums.

This is going to be the seventh album. So, the more time passes in our career, the more crazy I get towards really wanting to make the best possible music I can make. No fucking compromise. You forget about the label. You forget about the fans. You forget about everyone, and you just really try to be as inspired as possible. And it’s not always easy when you’ve been doing music for such a long time. And, even after ten, 20 years or more of making music with this band, I still have plenty of doubt. Am I legitimate? Am I doing the right thing? It’s like you are never really at peace when you are writing music. A good comparison for this record is when Slowdive did their self-titled album in 2017, which was absolutely amazing.

Neige: Yeah. It is amazing. Les Chants de l’Aurore gives me the same feeling.

Neige: Oh, wow. I was reminded of the first time I listened to classic shoegaze records like Slowdive’s Just for a Day and Ride’s Nowhere. Although it’s very different, and it’s not as sad as those.

Neige: Maybe the Ride thing comes from the fact that I think, on Nowhere, the drums are mixed quite loud for being like a shoegaze record. You can really hear the drums, whereas with Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine, the drums are there, but much more like in the background and on our new album. It’s the first time that we mixed the drums as loud as they are. So, in the beginning, I was not really sure because process music is way more focused on the melodies, you know, and the moods and on the atmosphere. But our drummer, Winter, he really puts a lot of effort into drum parts and everything. So we thought that maybe we could have the drums a little bit louder this time.

Photo by Andy Julia Your previous album, Spiritual Instinct, was a very dark and heavy record.

Neige: Exactly. For the Alcest standards, Spiritual Instinct was a dark record, and I really needed to step away from that because it was a time when I told you I was really tired, kind of disconnected from my own emotions. And because when you are always touring, you are always with people like you are never alone. So it’s very easy to kind of lose touch with yourself. And what were your first inspirations? What motivated you to create this music project?

So I guess I was a little bit confused and frustrated, and that’s what you can hear on Spiritual Instinct. And I desperately needed to connect with my spirituality again. Even in these times when I was a bit confused, this spiritual instinct title means that even when feeling lost,  I still could feel this inner world inside me and this spirituality. It didn’t go away. When COVID happened, we had this break, and I really refocused on what my main inspirations were for this band and what I wanted to express with this band. And I realized that I wanted to go back to the concept I had on the first albums. The first two albums are about this other world.

When I was younger, I felt like I was connected to some other place. A very beautiful place. And that’s what I was talking about in my first albums. And that’s the reason that I created Alcest; I wasn’t really able to speak about it. Spirituality is not always easy to put into words because people will tend to you that you are religious, and it’s not the case at all. I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual. So it’s not easy to talk about it. So I used music instead, and the new album is coming back to this other world, which is a world of light and harmony, and I guess that’s why it’s very different from Spiritual Instinct, which was a bit more on the darker side. Spiritual Instinct has a very gothic feel, for lack of a better word. But this record feels something like Art Nouveau in comparison.

Neige: Even in the visuals and all the graphic elements. I love the fact that the cover alludes to the first album, Souvenirs d’un autre monde,

Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde

Neige: The girl with the flute. Yeah.

Neige: “Memories from another world” is what it means in French. It’s a reference to the first album in the sense that it’s almost like the little girl of the first album grew up, and now she’s turned into an adult as much as I grew up with this project. I started Alcest when I was 14 or 15. I was a kid, basically. And, both this character and I grew up within this world, in this Alcest world. And you can see her again as an adult on the cover of the new album. I also love how the opening track alludes to the cover with this Japanese word. “Komorebi.”

Neige:  Yes. It’s an ecstatic track. It’s almost happy at times. It’s full of light. And I love that in Japanese, there are some words that are not really possible to translate into one English word or one French word, but they are a concept. So Komorebi means the rays of the sun that shine through the trees during spring. And it almost makes the leaves turn into emeralds, like some kinds of jewels. And I thought it was very beautiful. It is very beautiful. I wonder if you are fascinated with gemstones. You may have been asked this in an interview before, but most of your records seem to have a track named after a gemstone.

Neige: Yes, actually, it’s kind of a small tradition that we have. “Komorebi.” is a kind of modern version of the first track of the first album, “Printemps Emeraude.” which could be translated into Emerald Spring, So we had the emeralds on the first album. Then we had “Opale” on Shelter, “Onyx” on Kodama, “Sapphire” on Spiritual Instinct, and “Amethyst” on the new one. So I guess I’m just gonna do them all! But Amethyst has a special meaning because purple is the color of mysticism and spirituality. So that’s what it refers to. And I thought this was it was the perfect moment in our career to use this stone as a song title. It has a very strong meaning. Are you into the esoteric, like mysticism, as part of your spirituality?

Neige: Not really like this in the sense that I’m not following established ways of thinking. Or I have a very personal and instinctive vision of spirituality because I don’t want to read too much about it because nobody knows. Everyone thinks that he’s right about these things, but I think there are as many different truths as there are people on earth. And no one knows. No one can pretend that he or she knows the meaning of it all. Is there a god, or? But I think that if you really listen to your emotions and to your intuition, because I am a very intuitive person, you can have a much deeper connection with this spirituality and with this type of thing than just reading something in a book. Or collecting stones or whatever. Some people need to go to church to feel a connection with something higher. But in my case, I need to go into nature, so I spend a lot of time in the south of France, near my hometown. There is very beautiful nature, which inspired me since the beginning of the band. And, when I am in these special places, in the woods or near the forest, near the sea, It almost works as a bridge between our reality and something more grand. Like, you can really feel that there is something behind this. At least, that’s what I feel. That everything has a meaning. And we are here for a good reason. And that’s pretty much what I speak about in this project. Thank you. I’m just thinking about how you’ve said previously that you were inspired by Princess Mononoke and that there is this aspect of Japanese Shintoism where everything in nature has a spirit.

Neige: Yeah, exactly. I think it comes from the Shinto beliefs in Japan. With Shinto, they believe that everything has a soul. There is a spirit in everything, like there is a spirit in this tiny river of a village. There is a spirit in an item, and everything has a soul. I guess that’s why they respect nature so much. Because there is the spirit of the mountain and the spirit of the sky. I guess it’s a little bit metaphorical. I don’t think Japanese people are really saying that everything has a soul, but it leads them to respect everything. To give some respect to all the things that were around them. And that’s something I really like in this culture. God is called Kami in Japanese, and they basically have a Kami for everything. And you can clearly see that in Princess Mononoke. The way they picture the spirit of the forest, this huge oak kind of creature. It’s it’s really beautiful. Going back to the album, I feel like the first half is joyful and euphoric. Then, the second part gets a little bit sadder but still joyful. Joyful in a sad way.

Neige:  Exactly. That’s true. The album gets a little bit darker in the last songs. The last song, which is a poem by a French writer called Guillaume Apollinaire, is “L’adieu.” which translates to farewell in English. And it’s not as dramatic as it sounds. It’s the title of the poem that I took. But it’s it’s quite a sad song.

Something I like to do in the albums is to give them a little bit more depth towards the end. So you end up in some kind of mysterious zone. You don’t really know what to do with your feelings. And it gets really a little bit more tense. And I don’t know, maybe I’m not such a big fan of 100% happy endings. Maybe I like to complicate things a little bit towards the end. In the end, listening to it felt like leaving the world of a really good book and that bittersweet feeling when the story is over.

Neige: That’s a great way to put it. And the piano track, “Reminiscence.” That song feels unlike anything you’ve done before with Alcest.

Neige: Exactly. It’s the first time that we have used a real piano in an album and made a fully acoustic song. The instrument that you hear that sounds a little bit like a cello. It’s not a cello. It’s called the viola da gamba. And it’s a very old instrument. And everything is acoustic. It’s a very simple song. It’s some kind of an interlude. but it has a very deep meaning for me because it was recorded on the very first instrument I touched in my life, which is my grandmother’s piano. My grandmother was a piano teacher, and she taught all the family how to play music. And what you hear on the record is the sound of this instrument, which all of my family use. And we all learned how to play music from it. So it was a nice homage to what my grandmother has brought to me because without her, maybe I wouldn’t have made this music. It’s wonderful.

Neige: Yeah, it’s very different from others. It’s crazy because there are almost black metal parts, some moments which get really heavy and, and a litte bit angry too. And then you have this very delicate, simple, tiny piano track. It’s quite interesting. “L’adieu.” is also very different.

Neige: Yeah,  it almost has some kind of soundtrack approach to it. I would really love to hear this song in a movie one day. That guitar riff feels like a motif. It feels like a mood or a character.

Neige: In the song, it changes a little bit. Then you have the vocals, which join the guitar and do the same type of melody, but yeah, it’s a melodic pattern that comes back during the whole song. Are you looking forward to playing these songs live, and are you eager to get back on the road after all this time?

Neige: Yeah, it’s been a long time since we played, and we have a big European tour planned for this album. And some venues are really big, like I wonder how it’s going to be, but our booking agent told us that the tickets were selling pretty well, so I guess it should be fine. For example, we are playing at a venue in Paris called Olympia, which is the same venue where Edith Piaf, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones played. It’s not the biggest venue in Paris. Like, definitely not. There are stadiums, arenas, and stuff. But this venue is probably the nicest and most historic in the city because I think it’s the oldest venue too. It’s legendary. So for a tiny underground band like us, which comes from the countryside, to have a chance to play in this room, it’s incredible. And it made me reflect upon the career that we have had and where I come from because I really grew up in this tiny, tiny town in the south of France, and I didn’t have any contact with people in the music business or even other musicians. There were really not many musicians, and seeing that some years after we get to play there, you know, it’s a very strange feeling. Can you tell me who designed the album cover?

Neige: The cover was painted by a French guy called Yoann Lossel, and I have been a fan of his work for a long time. So it was a very big honor for us to work with him. And it’s actually a reinterpretation of one of my favorite paintings. It’s called “The Spirit of the Plains,” and it’s by an Australian painter called Sydney Long. It’s painting in the Art Nouveau style. But the format was a little bit off for being on an album cover. So I asked this French artist, Yoann Lossel, to reinterpret everything and turn it into a square and make it his own. Change the colors and give the painting its own touch. When we received the final result of the painting, we were blown away. And it’s funny because I actually thought, “Oh, my God, I hope the music will be good enough.” For example, when the artwork makes you feel stressed, the music may not be good enough and may not give justice to the artwork. I guess that says a lot about the artwork. §

Les Chants de l’Aurore is out now. Order Here

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