Published Mar 28, 2019For the time being, Jean Cousin — the mastermind behind the airy, minimalist, ambient electronic sound of Mise en Abyme, the second album under his Joni Void pseudonym — lives in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal, subletting an apartment through friend and collaborator Sarah Pagé. Hailing from Lille, France, Cousin relocated to the city to study film in 2012, but his immigration status still requires he exits the country every six months.
"The official excuse was studies at first," he tells Exclaim! over the phone from Montreal. But when asked about his relationship with the city, he now says "It's home."
A prolific bedroom producer, Cousin previously self-released a sizable catalogue of original albums and remixes on Bandcamp and Soundcloud under his former Nine Inch Nails forum username johnny_ripper. But where he once shared his music and interacted exclusively with an online community, Mile End offered invaluable face-time.
"Coming to Montreal, it was suddenly like, whoa — I can actually do this in real life," Cousin reflects. He soon forged friendships with members of the local music community and became embedded in the DIY/loft scene, playing live shows, organizing concerts in unconventional venues, and moving in with the collective at apartment show space The Plant in 2015.
Eventually, Constellation Records expressed interest, and Cousin took it as an opportunity to reinvent himself, shedding his old name and with it some unwanted associations with Jack the Ripper. He adopted Joni Void in its place.
The new name furthered the tradition of anonymity surrounding Cousin's earliest work, while the work reflected the comfort he had found amongst the influence of others. He also liked that "it was kind of gender-neutral."
Ushering in a new era of collaboration, the music Cousin makes as Joni Void is anxious and full of borrowed sources. For his 2017 label debut, Selfless, he solicited friends for vocal submissions and gathered clips from experimental film and other found sounds; Cousin played no instruments on the album, instead meticulously crafting his materials into hypnotically locked rhythmic sequences in editing suites. His own voice was glaringly absent, or at least sublimated in the swirling pastiche of collective experience.
When he visited Toronto's Royal Cinema for an album release show, the music just played out over the theatre's soundsystem while feverishly synchronized film collages projected on the screen like experimental music videos; there was no performer in sight.
But if Cousin was doing his best to erase himself then, his follow-up reasserts his autonomy in the wake of the personal drama that followed him at the end of 2017.
In the wake of its release, Selfless was receiving critical praise, and Joni Void was getting booked to share stages with the likes of Do Make Say Think and Jessica Moss. Allowing himself a break and the luxury of privacy, Cousin moved out of The Plant while remaining a part of the collective, still programming shows in the space while living out of his own apartment. He'd just wrapped up a tour with YlangYlang and Kazuki Koga when someone broke in and made off with a lot of gear. YlangYlang's Catherine Debard was visiting at the time and lost everything she needed to perform.
"She moved to Hamilton and she was coming back to Montreal, so we did a show at The Plant. Two days later she came to my place and she was about to play a show, so she had all her stuff in her bag — all her gear, all her belongings," Cousin explains. "We went out to get some food I had ordered — like literally 15 minutes — and we came back and someone had broken in and stolen her stuff and stolen my two computers. Like, what the fuck?
"It was the most surreal thing because it was basically the back door of my kitchen that I had left unlocked so it meant someone knew that the back door was unlocked and had seen us walk out."
Around the same time, immigration denied Cousin's application for a work permit and prevented him from applying for post-graduate schooling, while a conflict involving his former roommates at The Plant made working with the collective more challenging. With the robbery, home didn't even feel safe. Cousin felt haunted.
"It just felt like in October everything came crashing down."
Increasingly alienated, Cousin retreated from the community he loved and grew disenchanted with social media. In November, he formally removed himself from The Plant collective and stopped booking shows, announcing some final gigs to close out the year and quitting Facebook before returning to France to be with family for the holidays.
Meanwhile, Cousin was quietly making progress on new music.
"That robbery was a catalyst," Cousin explains. The second Joni Void album was conceptualized that night, as Cousin set about assembling what would eventually become "Lov-Ender" from a phone recording of a mushroom trip he shared with Debard back in 2016.
Mise En Abyme ("placed into abyss"), the new album is named for a formal aesthetic technique that involves placing an image within itself, often so as to suggest an infinitely recurring sequence. Cousin wanted the record to account for the various traumas he'd overcome, an idea partially inspired by time spent in France watching home videos with his family.
"We watched this VHS tape of my mom and dad's wedding reception, and that was my first time hearing my dad's voice since his death — since I was five. I'd never seen that video. I'd never heard a recording of his voice," he says. It served as a reminder of his own resilience.
"I just felt like I was time travelling through all my trauma or something. That definitely inspired the album."
He set about hiding Easter eggs on the album like totems to personal struggles and the versions of himself he's left behind. "Safe House" samples the title track from Lagwagon's Resolve, a cherished album from Cousin's teenage years. "Persistence" refashions material from a Rhodes piece Cousin once composed for an abandoned johnny_ripper track. "Paradox" documents the process of assembling the album itself, incorporating mic checks, feedback and glitches from failed takes. Ultimately, Mise en Abyme functions like an origin story more than diagnosis.
"It's me being like, 'Okay, these are the experiences I've had in my life'; 'This is the filter I'm always gonna have in the way I experience things,'" Cousin says. "That's not like, 'Oh no, it's always gonna be this way'; that's always gonna be my story. Even if I get over it, even if I get better, it's gonna be about how, before that happened, it was all bad, and now it's better."
If Selfless was an out-of-body experience overwhelmed by the inescapable mechanics of modernity, Mise en Abyme functions as an interior inventory, encouraging meditation through subtler dynamics.
For the most part, Cousin is working more quietly here, incorporating mostly wordless vocal contributions from friends like Debard, Sarah Pagé, Naomie De Lorimier (N NAO), and Selfless contributor Noah. And although he's previously resisted singing on recordings — a decision he chalks up to "a lot of voice dysmorphia" — after difficulties securing clearance for some sampled materials, Cousin's own voice even landed an appearance on "Voix Sans Issue." (Pointing out that it's supposed to be an album about finding his voice, Cousin says it actually "makes more sense" than what he'd originally intended.)
Today, Cousin is doing better. Everyday Ago, a nomadic event series/community archive project he started as a way to put the means of concert production back in the hands of the artists, just celebrated its one-year anniversary; he's back on good terms with the Plant collective (at the time of our interview, Everyday Ago has two upcoming events scheduled in the space); and he recently entered a new romantic relationship.
He remains determined to see through the immigration process, applying for permanent residency while trying to navigate the chicken/egg paradox of residence and employment requirements. For now, he says, this works.
"I'm at a point in my life now where I've never been better, so it's kind of weird talking about this album where I'm like, 'Whoa, that was the complete opposite!'"
Mise en Abyme is out March 29 via Constellation.