‘Wait, What?’ Pomona professor’s latest album is a treatise on life and love

A hand scrolls on a computer screen to Pierre's album cover of Wait, What? with headphones strewn on the keyboard pad.
Pierre Englebert — the H. Russell Smith professor of international relations and professor of politics at Pomona College — released his third album, titled “Wait, What?”, on Nov. 11, 2021. (Kirby Kimball • The Student Life)

“I was making love to Scarlett Johansson, / Who calls me Mr. Handsome,” Pierre Englebert croons to open his new album, “Wait, What?” Arresting, unexpected and deeply funny, these lyrics set the tone for the rest of the album and the musical journey on which it takes its listeners. These lyrics come from “Scarlett, We Need to Talk,” a sharp, unconventional love song and a fitting opener for the witty and entertaining album.

A Pomona College professor since 1998, Englebert is the H. Russell Smith professor of international relations and professor of politics. Specializing in African politics, he is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Englebert has always loved music, playing in his own band in college. After losing touch with this passion, he recently found his way back to the joy of music during a sabbatical, where he began to take music lessons at the Claremont Folk Music Center and, eventually, Pomona itself. 

With his five children now past elementary school, Englebert found he had more time for his passions. 

“I mean, having the kids was great,” Englebert said. “But now that’s over, time has opened up, and I think that music was like, ‘Hey, I’ll take up the space available here.’ And it’s been wonderful. I’m so grateful.” 

After many evenings spent with his guitar, Englebert released his third album, following “Back to Plan A” and “Well, not a moment too soon.” The album contains songs that are deeply personal as well as deeply smart and humorous, “a balance of silly and heartfelt songs,” according to Englebert. The variety of songs include “Claremont, California” — both a love letter and historical account of Claremont — and “A Manly Man I Am,” a criticism of those that oppose freedom of gender and sexual expression coupled with an affirmation of the beauty of love, no matter who it is between (and in all of this, a truly delightful Stan Lee joke). 

This album marks a new stage in Englebert’s musical exploration. 

“‘Back to Plan A’ was my first time going back to music, and so it was kind of rock music,” he said. “And I was just starting, so the compositions were less elaborate, and I didn’t try hard to do a lot of different harmonies and all that. I was new.” 

This time, Englebert was more invested in the creative and production process, wanting to showcase his new grasp of music theory.

“I was really trying to make better music.” —Pierre Englebert

“With this album, I took four classes in the music department, so I became a little more grounded in the music theory part,” Englebert said. “And so I was more explicit in my mind about trying to do something that’s better quality. I thought, ‘I want to work on this. Let me think of a nice progression between these two chords. If it’s a simple transition, let me add more layers.’ I was really trying to make better music.” 

This attention to musical detail shines in the tracklist. For example, “Scarlett, We Need to Talk” has a “more classical bend to it,” according to Englebert. When listening to the album — which features more classical instruments, complex chord structures and melodies than his previous work — listeners can definitely notice the added nuance and texture.

Englebert has also taken more creative risks with this album. The last track, “Like a Virgin,” is purely instrumental, and “Long Story Short” is a mid-album interlude inspired by an assignment Englebert completed for a music theory class that asked students to include as many secondary dominant chords as possible. 

“If I do my homework, I’m gonna get something out of it,” he said. 

The album also functions as a cross-section of Englebert’s work as a politics professor, his research into African politics and his music. Songs like “In the Zoom Breakout Room” chronicle an emerging Zoom romance, inspired by Englebert’s observations of student interactions during online school. “Yo, Boy!” is a song about the horrors of war, inspired by Englebert’s research on civil wars in Africa. 

Looking to the future, Englebert’s plans include more music, potentially released as singles whenever songs are ready. He is also looking at performing his work at live concerts, an exciting new development in his career as a musical artist.

At the end of the day, however, it truly is all about the music. Music means a lot to Englebert, and that passion and care for his craft can be clearly felt when listening to the album. After his time away from music, his return has bought him creative and personal fulfillment. 

“Oh, my goodness, it makes me so happy,” he said. “I feel like I didn’t realize how much I was missing it. It’s really been incredibly enjoyable, satisfying and liberating. So I really love it. When it comes to my music, I don’t really have any other goals, except to make music. Music has become a great part of my life, and it makes me happy, and I hope it doesn’t go away.”

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