Song Deconstructed: ‘Whole’ by HEZEN
The award-winning French singer/producer explains the roots and development of a song originally written for a ballet and circus show
With Caribbean, Tamil, and Jewish origins, Sara Hezen grew up outside Paris with a family history of displacement, resistance, and resilience. Finding escape in fairy tales, myths, and science fiction, she began writing songs as a young teenager. Sara went on to study politics and her postgrad brought her to London where she discovered the electronic music scene.
Her influences include Bjork, Massive Attack, Sia, James Blake, and Lana del Rey. Self-taught, she produces and mixes herself and was awarded a Next Pencil at the 2019 D&AD awards for Best Composer for her score of Prada’s sci-fi short Nylon Farm.
Safe + Bound is HEZEN’s second EP, tackling a range of subjects from loneliness to depression, desire to revenge, connecting the dots between deeply personal experiences and collective phenomena. Here she explains the make-up of one of the EP’s four tracks, Whole…
I originally wrote Whole for a ballet and circus show produced by Chivaree Circus last year, called Crash. The story was based on a French ballet called La Sylphide, a tragedy in which the Sylph, a fairy-tale character, falls in love with a mortal. I instantly connected with her, and the song ended up being a catharsis for my own emotions at the time. To me, Whole is about the pain one experiences when on the personal journey of coming to terms with who they are, good and bad. We are so lonely in the universe, and nothing makes sense. Realising it is terrifying. But one day we’ll stop looking for happiness and wholeness outside of ourselves. That’s when we can truly be complete, and truly love.
The song follows a verse-prechorus-chorus/hook structure, with a middle-eight, and lyrical motifs in the first line of the verses: “I don’t fear silence / storms / time”. I wanted to convey a sense of pride, from someone trying to hold it together, tip-toeing by the edge of sanity, wrenched by loneliness and sadness. The pre-chorus, by contrast, is a desperate plea: “Hold me close, need to feel the warmth from someone else”. In the hook, my Whole is echoed by a choir, which I thought was an interesting contrast as the character sings about loneliness. I was inspired by what the chorus in an opera or a Greek tragedy represent; they act as a kind of narrator, a commentator on the dramatic action.
For this song, I really wanted to play with contrasts in the production. It’s a ballad in 6/8 so by nature has a very dreamy feel. I blended very soft and enveloping sounds with more aggressive and jarring ones, like in the verse where the warm mellotron melody clashes with the harsh digital stuttering synth at the end of each bar.
While the verse is soft and dreamy, the chorus/hook comes in with a distorted and pitch-bent synth, and together with the “whole”s they almost sound like howls of grief…
I love a good middle-eight and, for this one, I wanted to have something almost religious sounding. I realise now I did the same for the first song of Safe + Bound, Bring Your Alibi. The song drops to a more organic and melancholic sound, with a choir, a piano and a few cymbals. Where the chorus feels like a jolt, a self-preserving expression of the deepest loneliness that also makes you feel alive, the numbness then starts to settle. She starts to give up.
After the middle-eight, the drums stop and I sing the first line of the pre-chorus. Then instead of falling back onto the same minor chord, I changed it to its major form. It suddenly lifts the song and brings the emotion to a new level.
In The Studio
I work in Ableton Live and exclusively with VSTs. For this song, I used the amazing Monark to emulate the mellotron sound and made it grungier with Waves’ OneKnob Phatter. The “screamy” synth in the chorus was made with Absynth and thoroughly destroyed with Soundtoys’ Decapitator (my favourite effect plugin, I think). For the choir (singing “whole!”), I layered multiple takes of me singing and added a bed of “oh”s choir samples from Omnisphere.
This song is meant to be over-the-top and self-indulging – there is something very Disney-like about it, but there’s also this underlying despair and utter sadness, almost violent. I tried to think of this contrast at every level of the writing, in the lyrics as much as in the production.
HEZEN’s second EP Safe + Bound, featuring Whole, is out now. Check it out on SoundCloud.