MICHELE MARTIN, host:
He has an elegant name that suggests a man of many continents, and he is. Corneille Nyungura, known simply as Corneille, was born in Germany to Rwandan parents who were studying abroad. Eventually, they went home only, he says, to face the genocide that took hundreds of thousands of lives.
But Corneille survived and made his way back to Germany and eventually to Montreal, where he began honing a distinctive R&B sound, which has led to sold-out performances around the world. And he's presenting his unique sound now to American audiences in his new album, "The Birth of Cornelius."
And he joins me now in NPR studio 4A, along with guitarist Andy Dacoulis. Corneille, welcome.
Mr. CORNEILLE NYUNGURA (R&B Singer): Thank you.
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
Mr. NYUNGURA: Thank you very much. Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the music, and I'd love to start with a song from the new album.
Mr. NYUNGURA: Of course.
MARTIN: How about, how about "Too Much Of Everything"? So we can start with too much.
Mr. NYUNGURA: Okay.
(Soundbite of song "Too Much Of Everything")
Mr. NYUNGURA: (Singing) You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But you're so many other things that only I understand. You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But I love you like no other can. But I love you like no other can.
If I could be perfect only to match one half of you, then that would be perfect. But with nothing else left to prove to you, how could I deserve you?
You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But you're so many other things that only I understand. You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But I love you like no other can. But I love you like no other can.
If I was nothing but beautiful inside and out, my past included, now wouldn't that be wonderful? But I wouldn't have cried and sweat to earn it, to deserve it.
Oh, you're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But you're so many other things that only I understand. You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But I love you like no other can. But I love you like no other can.
They say a woman is closer to perfect than a man will ever be. If there's any truth to that, then you were born way ahead of me, plus you grew to become more than a woman. But this love is going to make me work myself up to you, to work myself up to the best of me.
Yeah. You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But you're so many other things that only I understand. You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But I love you like no other can. But I love you like no other can. You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But you're so many other things that only I understand. You're too much of everything, and I'm just a man. But I love you like no other can. But I love you like no other can.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. NYUNGURA: Thank you. Thank you.
MARTIN: That was "Too Much Of Everything." Do you want to tell us what or who inspired that song?
Mr. NYUNGURA: Who. More like who than what - or both.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NYUNGURA: Who is actually my wife. And I found marriage to be a really good, sometimes hard but really good school of life. You're forced to let the other person challenge you and go with it because you have no other choice, really. And…
MARTIN: I was about to say.
Mr. NYUNGURA: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So the song is about sort of accepting my limitations and sometimes shortcomings as a man and accepting to let somebody else in in order to learn and grow.
MARTIN: Why is this album called "The Birth of Cornelius"? Is that like…
Mr. NYUNGURA: Because…
MARTIN: …an English alter ego? Or…
Mr. NYUNGURA: No, actually, because Cornelius is my name at birth. And my father, who picked that first name, obviously did not think long term because when I went back to Rwanda, I had difficulties blending in with kids who had shorter and cuter names. And so when I was seven years old, I sort of translated Cornelius into Corneille. And now I figured I'm going to the States and I'm - maybe I should get back to Cornelius. It sounds better than - you might have a hard time pronouncing Corneille, but you're doing a great job. So both names work.
MARTIN: How did your sound come to be? I just hear strains of ballads. I hear -I mean, I hear some John Legend. I hear - how do you think of your sound? How did you develop your sound?
Mr. NYUNGURA: I try not to think of it. I've heard a million labels. I've heard R&B. I've heard world R&B. I've heard pop, soul, Afropop soul, all kinds of things. And I guess it all applies because it's - all of my influences are in there. And they're very audible, you can feel them, you can hear them.
MARTIN: But you had such an interesting background. What's the soundtrack of your childhood?
Mr. NYUNGURA: The soundtrack of my childhood, a lot of things. Up until the age of seven, being in Germany, a lot of Abba, a lot of Euro, you know, not some - I didn't pick it. I was only a child.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NYUNGURA: Although Abba, great, great melodies. So…
MARTIN: I wasn't hating.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NYUNGURA: It's good music.
MARTIN: Did you hear Motown growing up?
Mr. NYUNGURA: Unfortunately not. I've got to discover Motown only much later, because when I got to Rwanda, I got into all sorts of music, local stuff that we were listening to. I got into reggae. I got into Michael Jackson, obviously. And then when I really thought I could do this for a living, I got turned onto early '90s hip-hop, all that, you know, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest and all that stuff. But then I was more into the singing part of that. I loved singing. And so I got turn onto R&B. And as I grew older, I wanted to know where that came from. And that's how I got to Motown and the Sam Cookes of this world and the Nat King Coles of this world.
MARTIN: We're going to have you hold that thought right there, because we need to take a short break. And when we come back, I want to get in to talking a little bit more about how your personal history is being reflected in the new album.
So, stay with us. We're speaking with Corneille about his new album: "The Birth of Cornelius" on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michele Martin.
(Soundbite of song "Back to Life")
Mr. NYUNGURA: (Singing) You found me such a mess and still you took my hand, and helped me out of numbness, became my true strength. I'd been running looking for a home, and when you saw me out of breath, from running on my own, is when you kissed me out of death. Now that I'm recovering, I'm so glad for one thing only. I'm so, so glad I let you in because…
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're back now in Studio 4A with the artist Corneille. He's playing songs from his new album, "The Birth of Cornelius." And like so many R&B albums, most of the songs are about love and longing and loss, but the album speaks to deeper losses, the kind of losses that most people can only imagine.
Corneille, it's been reported that your parents and your entire family were wiped out during the Rwandan genocide. You know, it's hard to keep repeating that information, and I'm wondering how it is for you to keep hearing it.
Mr. NYUNGURA: It's definitely better. I'm better with it now because I've had to live with it in the public eye for a good seven years now, ever since my first French record came out. And it's hard to deal with a personal part of your life that is so out of the ordinary when it's constantly put out in the public eye.
MARTIN: Something, not just, you know, something, but something so profound, something that is not just a personal crisis but is an existential crisis, is a genocide, is a crime against humanity.
And a lot of us, you can't even - it's something you can't even really wrap your head around.
Mr. NYUNGURA: Yeah, you can't really wrap your head around it, obviously, especially, you know, living here, living in the West because it's so foreign. It's so - it's not something that anyone could possibly relate to because it feels so out of the ordinary.
But as years pass by, I've learned to sort of, if I can say that, reconcile with some of those memories, not the specific memories that have to do with the genocide because those are just horrible memories, and I don't - I still can't really deal with them, and I probably never will be able to because it's just, it's something that comes with such trauma that I'm probably going to deal with it for the rest of my life.
But I've learned to sort of pick and choose what it was out of that experience that I was able to use and turn into something positive, and I think my personal story is not as dramatic as the story of that genocide or the story of the people because I was fortunate enough to have such a loving family until I was 17.
MARTIN: In fact, you wrote a song about that, which I know that you didn't feel prepared to sing in entirety today, "Foolish Heart."
Mr. NYUNGURA: Yes.
MARTIN: It is so lovely. I just wish I could get you to sing a bar, a couple of bars or a phrase, just so people can…
Mr. NYUNGURA: Oh, I most certainly could sing a verse or a chorus. It's a hard song for me to sing because I guess it was so honest when I recorded it, and credit to Linda Perry, with whom I co-wrote that song. She really pushed me to say whatever I was holding back.
I guess she's kind of known for that, because it's so brutally honest toward the end of it, and it's the only song that I still haven't performed. We've done pretty much all of the songs on the album except for that one, but we could totally - maybe we could do a verse and a chorus and - okay.
MARTIN: All right. Here is "Foolish Heart."
(Soundbite of song, "Foolish Heart")
Mr. NYUNGURA: (Singing) Wait. There's so much I haven't said. I'm so sorry I've been weak. I'm so sorry I've been afraid. But this foolish heart of mine just can't take the pain.
I hope you understand it, 'cause I every time I realized you were gone, it made me feel so helpless and alone. I needed to get through it, and now your memory is tearing me apart. And I don't know what I'm left with but this foolish heart of mine. It can't ever win.
MARTIN: Thank you.
Mr. NYUNGURA: Thank you, thank you.
MARTIN: There's another song, very personal, called "I'll Never Call You Home Again." Can you tell us about that?
Mr. NYUNGURA: Yes. That's a song that I wrote because for about six years since the release of my first French album, I was constantly asked to go back to Rwanda as a symbol for the idea that the Rwandan people can, indeed, reconcile, and so especially having the notoriety that I had and having left the country in the circumstance that I left it, if I could go back, then it would surely be of great symbolic value, and so I was constantly being pressured to do that.
And I guess I felt some sort of political responsibility to say, you know, to stay positive and say yeah, sure, I'll go, you know, and I don't have any hatred in me. I don't really have any bitterness or any sort of anger in me, and I stuck with that positive message a little too much, so much that I completely forgot myself.
I totally forgot myself, and then the whole idea of this record and the motivation, the inspiration of this record was to try and be as honest as I could possibly be as a human being, and one of the issues that I wanted to address was the truth about how I feel regarding my parents' country. And "I'll Never Call You Home Again" is obviously pretty self-explanatory, and it was also a thing of the moment.
At that point, I wanted to express that anger and not say never, never, but just be honest and say for now, it's not happening because home means where you're most comfortable at. And Rwanda was obviously - or the memory of it was far from it.
But as time goes by, I'm - again, I'm separating things, and so the three months of the genocide are far from being all I know from Rwanda. I have amazing childhood memories from Rwanda, with my family - and that's what I'm starting to get back to.
MARTIN: How were you able to survive?
Mr. NYUNGURA: It's a long story, and I don't like to get into it, but it's sort of a classic case in Rwanda, where entire families would be killed, and then one member or two members would be able to escape because it was chaos, and there was no - it wasn't as well-organized as it's been put in the media.
It got to a point where it was just chaos, and human beings, you know, getting in touch with their most animalistic - and just going nuts. That's what it was.
MARTIN: Do you feel up to singing this one?
Mr. NYUNGURA: Oh yeah, sure. Yeah, sure. That one is not anywhere as hard to sing as…
MARTIN: Okay, and before you go on, I just want to remind our listeners that you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're joined by singer Corneille. He's performing songs from his new CD, "The Birth of Cornelius." Here's his song, "I'll Never Call You Home Again."
(Soundbite of song, "I'll Never Call You Home Again")
Mr. NYUNGURA: (Singing) Last time I saw you, you were filling your rivers up with blood of your own. Last time I saw you, you were wearing fire and burning our souls to the bone.
And that's how I remember you. It's how I remember you. So please forgive me if I never call you home again. So please forgive me if I never call you home again.
Last time I saw you, you looked like apocalypse, hell and then Genesis. Last time I saw you, you were stripping me of anything and anyone that was mine.
That's how I remember you. That's how I remember you. So please forgive me if I never call you home again. So please forgive me if I never call you home again.
And I know I had told everyone I'd return, to forgive, but that was before delayed anger got to me and burned all I had left to give of hope, I hope to get to find it again.
Next time I see you, if there's a next time, I hope you can take care of your own. Next time I see you, if there's a next time, I really hope you've learned to take care of your own.
'Cause that's how I'd want to remember you. That's how I wish I remembered you, or I'll never, ever, ever call you home again. Or I'll never, ever call you home again. Or I'll never, ever call you home again.
Please forgive me if I never call you home again, again.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. NYUNGURA: Thank you. Thank you.
MARTIN: So how are you received in different countries? Do people react differently depending on where you are? And I was also curious about, is it, does it feel different singing in English as opposed to French?
Mr. NYUNGURA: For the first question, there's not that much of a difference from an audience to another. I've been fortunate enough to play for audiences that were very receptive of me as a human being and as an artist, as well.
And so the difference is not that big, and as far as your second question, yes. There's a huge difference between - for me, writing in English and French are two completely different processes.
The French language is a very, very, very demanding language with its own rules that you can't really bend. So sounds like aw(ph) and ruh(ph), and try and have a run on aw(ph), it sounds awful, and you lose the word. And French speaking people are so attached to their language and the meaning of words and in such a conservative way.
So you can't - it's hard to get out of that paradigm, but as for English, you can sort of wing it as long as it sounds great, the melodies are great, it grooves, the music sounds good. You know, you can appreciate a good song with average lyrics or not-so-meaningful lyrics.
MARTIN: Speaking of words and their meaning, there was one song on the album I am very curious about, which is "Murder."
Mr. NYUNGURA: Yeah. Not to be taken literally, of course.
MARTIN: I know, but if this was the Jonas Brothers, I would be - you know, I would get it, but it basically says that if you break up with me, it'll be like murder, right?
Mr. NYUNGURA: Yeah, basically.
MARTIN: And I know you're saying, this is not a threat. I mean, the lyric says this is not a threat, but if you walk out that door, it'll be like dragging my heart out on the concrete. It'll be like murder.
The only reason I'm curious about this is, like, if you were 17 and, you know, grew up in the 'burbs and nothing had ever happened to you, I could see why that, but you actually do know what that word means, and I was a little puzzled by that.
Mr. NYUNGURA: Well, there lies the irony of things, and that's why I wrote that song. But also, I just wanted to share the experience exactly as you put it, of someone who, of whom you would think, well, he's gone through some pretty dramatic things. Why would he say that?
Well, because in that instant, that was the moment that got me to break my wall and say okay, well, I might have lost things in the past in circumstances that I had no control over, but in this matter, I do have control, and if I lose in this matter, then I'm the one to blame.
And so everything was linked, and it became bigger than it would've normally been.
MARTIN: What shall we go out on? What - will you play something for us to say goodbye?
Mr. NYUNGURA: Yeah, something a little bit more upbeat because it's been sort of morbid for the last couple - the last two songs, it's been a little sad.
MARTIN: That's true, and I do want to say that the whole album is not sad. It's actually very enjoyable to listen to.
Corneille joined us in NPR's Studio 4A. He was accompanied by Andy Dacoulis. His new album is called "The Birth of Cornelius." It is available now. You can watch a video of today's performance by Corneille, download a free track from the album and listen to hundreds more studio sessions by other artists by logging on to our music website. Just go to npr.org, and click on music. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. NYUNGURA: (Singing) I'm working my days and drinking my nights away. I got a million-dollar view overlooking my neighbor's pain, but that don't faze me, no, 'cause something real good's on my TiVo today.
But if that's all I need, then why does it seem like a sad, sad illusion of happy as we're paying our way to misery? Yes, it's a sad, sad illusion of happy, and we're fools, fools for calling it living free.
I'm drinking my days and crying my nights away. I got about a million contacts in my iPhone and no one read messages today, but that don't faze me, no, 'cause I got a thing with a dot-com girl. And for a dollar a minute, we can talk about love. She says she'll marry me someday, someday.
Yes, it's a sad, sad illusion of happy, as we're paying our way to misery. Yes, it's a sad, sad illusion of happy, and we're fools, fools for calling it living free, living free, yeah.
These are the days of the liberation. These are the days of the soul salvation. These are the days of the liberation, the liberation, yeah.
It's a sad, it's a sad, it's a sad, sad illusion of happy as we're paying our way to misery. Yes, it's a sad, sad illusion of happy, and we're fools, fools for calling it living free.