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"Two years ago we were in Paris, without homes, in a very critical state," she exclaims. "We left Paris for Finland to work on our music and try to survive on what we had."
Romantschuk is recounting the origins of the duo she formed with French soundtrack composer Laurent Leclère. The history of the pair, now known as Mi and L'au, has quickly developed a mythological air -- the tale of two young lovers fleeing cosmopolitan Paris for self-imposed exile in an isolated Finnish cabin. It's a beautiful story -- but that's only half of it.
"We met in 2001 on Halloween," the waifish singer remembers. "One night, Laurent asked me to sing some of his lyrics. A week later, we had our first gig in Paris."
The musical and personal chemistry was instant, but the honeymoon ended when Mi and L'au encountered serious financial difficulties. Paris was no longer the city for them, so they fled to Romantschuk's homeland to live a simpler -- and cheaper -- life. From their secluded collaboration came a demo, promptly mailed to the Swans' Michael Gira.
"Michael answered by organizing a concert in Finland and coming to see us," recalls Romantschuk. "After that, he flew us to New York and we recorded the album -- all in two months."
The duo's self-titled debut quivers with fragile, exquisite music. With each adding a voice -- hers delicate yet sturdy, his hesitant and formal -- the couple crafts songs that spurn contemporary structures for something ancient and organic. Most of the tracks contain only the sparsest of instrumental accompaniment, like a cautiously plucked guitar or mandolin, leaving the voices vulnerable. According to Romantschuk, the music's naked feel reflects where it was conceived.
"When you play music or sing by a lake," she explains, "the resonance carries the note until something stops it. We played a lot with just listening to the note.
"After living in Paris, going out and being outside yourself, we really went inside ourselves," she adds. But even in the idyllic Finnish landscape, one cannot live on music alone. Mi and L'au needed to eat, and Gira came to the rescue.
"Michael contacted us just as we were about to go back to the factories," marvels Romantschuk about joining Gira's Young Gods Records. "We had to find some solution to survive."
Suddenly, in a whole different life, she and Leclère find themselves playing loud rock clubs across the country, where they silence and enrapture crowds with their arresting performances. "The audience has really been with us," Romantschuk says gratefully. "We had one place where people were so listening to us that they didn't buy a drink during the whole set."
That might not be good news for club owners, but it's music to Romantschuk's and Leclère's ears, who had no idea they'd find such an eager, sympathetic fan base for their graceful, austere compositions.
"We've been lucky," Mi says, humbly.
Indeed. And now, so are we.