At a performance early in December at Tokyo’s L’Institut Francais, two French singers — Francoiz Breut and Jeanne Cherhal — demonstrated different approaches to French pop for the new millennium.
Cherhal, who accompanied herself on piano in a muscular, dramatic style, came across as a ballsy singer-songwriter who seems more tradition-bound. Even non-Francophones could tell by her emotional delivery and exaggerated music-hall chord changes that she was telling stories. Each song would end with an eruption of laughter from the audience, which seemed to indicate punch lines.
Breut’s appeal was less clear-cut. Accompanied on electric guitar by Boris Gronemberg, she often sang with her eyes closed, falling into the melodies and letting them take her wherever it was they were going. She is clearly the servant of the song, and a very faithful one.
The next day, Breut, dressed in jeans, a well-worn leather jacket, and a colorful muffler, sits in the sun outside L’Institut Francais at a wooden table, drinking mineral water and talking about herself. Her third album, “Une Saison Volee (A Stolen Season),” which was released in France last spring, is out in Japan on Jan. 25.
New French pop is difficult to sell outside Francophone markets, even in Japan, where old-timers like Jane Birkin still sell out concert halls and albums by her late husband, Serge Gainsbourg, never seem to be discontinued. But Breut’s records contradict most people’s prejudices about French pop because she never limits herself to a characteristic Continental style. Much of her music has the dusky, melancholic air of American alt-country, and The Velvet Underground tends to get mentioned in reviews of her work.
Unlike much earlier French pop, she avoids emotionalism for the sake of drama. Her attitude is cool, but her delivery is warm, almost personable. It may explain why so many contemporary French songwriters have offered their wares to her.
Breut explains that in traditional chanson “the music was just background for the words.” Chanson is basically storytelling that takes advantage of the naturally musical sound of French, so too much melody in the accompaniment might be distracting. She adds that for “about 10 years, maybe a bit longer,” some French musicians have been looking beyond “traditional chanson artists like [Jacques] Brel and [Georges] Brassens. They were really influenced more by Anglo-Saxon music.”
Their main goal was to make the music as important as the words, and she herself was attracted to their approach.
“I was born in Cherbourg, a small port town in Normandy, opposite England,” she explains, “and I really turned toward England for music because it was easy to listen to English radio. Later I would go to England to buy new albums — The Fall, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pere Ubu.”
Like many musicians, Breut started out as a visual artist. “I studied art for four years, but it wasn’t something that really agreed with me. I was more interested in telling stories.” In 1992, when she was living in Nantes, she met another artist, the singer-songwriter Dominique Ane.
“He’d just started putting out his own albums under the name Dominique A. and we formed a little group just to amuse ourselves, with an American vocalist and three guitarists. Kind of edgy folk music, but we also did covers of people like Jonathan Richman and The Kinks.”
Ane encouraged Breut to develop her vocal talents and eventually asked her to sing on his second album. The two became an item.
“His third disc, ‘La Memoire Neuve,’ was a minor hit in France,” she says. “We sang a duet called “Le Twenty-two Bar,” which was a success, but I had never really sat down and decided that I would pursue a career as a singer. It was all by chance.”
Eventually, Ane wrote some songs just for her. “We ended a tour and went into the studio and made my first album, very quickly, in just three weeks.” Titled simply “Francoiz Breut,” the record, produced, arranged and written by Ane, managed to cross borders through word-of-mouth, gaining a distribution deal in the United Kingdom and even attracting the attention of Howe Gelb, the eccentric godfather of Southwest American indie rock who was inspired to dedicate a song by his band Giant Sand to Breut.
It would be another three years before she recorded her sophomore effort, “Vingt a Trente Mille Jours.” She and Ane had a child together, but their relationship started to unravel.
“We had separated by the time I started my second album,” she says, and adds with a laugh, “Actually, we had already started making it before we separated, so we had to finish it.”
The experience was painful.
“There was a lot of baggage between us, but there were good moments. We recorded it in Spain, in Andalusia, an idyllic location. The music was really influenced by the place itself.”
Ane wrote two-thirds of the songs on “Vingt,” but the process was different from that on the first album, which was mostly made up of quiet songs. The songs on “Vingt” received considerable input from the musicians, and listening to them one hears a larger creative enterprise. In addition to extra songwriting contributions from French stars Philippe Poirer, Philippe Katerine, and Jerome Minier, soundtrack wizard Yann Tiersen (“Amelie”) and Calexico member Joey Burns lent their instrumental and production services.
While Breut’s characteristic languor keeps the songs earthbound, the playing and arrangements often veer off on totally unexpected tangents. The use of strings and multilayered guitars give the record a monumental feeling, and Breut’s voice, suppler and more confident than it had been on the debut, stands up admirably to the ambitious production. The record attracted even more far-flung praise, though it didn’t necessarily shift a lot of units overseas.
Breut’s life underwent another sea change between “Vingt” and “Une Saison Volee.” With Ane mostly absent from her life, she had to take charge of her career. She moved to Belgium and formed a backing group, auditioning the members.
“I met Boris, whom I’ve been playing with now for four years,” she says. “And I wanted to work more with a friend, Luc Rambo, whom I’d toured with in the past and who is good with samples and sound collages. For the third record I wanted to work in a different way, and I contacted people who said they’d write songs for me. Some other people sent me lyrics and [Luc and I] would make these tapes. He became a regular member of the band, along with Boris, a drummer and a bass player.”
Having been a singer who sang in front of a guitarist or pianist, Breut was now in a real group with an organic sound. “Saison” isn’t as daring and surprising as “Vingt” but it’s a more mature album. The songs are sophisticated and focused, with a more pronounced alt-country lilt and a darker electronic mood.
The French pressing of the CD also comes with small booklets that include her playful illustrations, which provide different interpretations of the lyrics to some of the songs. She’s taken this concept even further into multimedia.
“I created a sound installation called Jukebox,” she explains. “It was a little hexagonal box with enough room inside for five or six people. The door closed behind you, and inside there were eight boxes with large books, each one illustrating a song. The people who entered could listen to the songs that corresponded to the books with headphones.” The installation toured France.
Breut is happy if people can’t quite nail down her music or her art. “I hope I am more in the modern tradition, rather than the grand tradition of chanson,” she says pointedly. Each of her albums contains at least one song in English, a language she would like to do more with. “It’s a lot more elastic,” she says. “French is quite structured in its way. In fact, when I sing in English I have greater freedom in terms of what I can do with my voice. In French, for example, I can’t cry out. If I shout it sounds dreadful. French singers who do that, like Lara Fabian, I find unbearable.”
“Frankly, I’m fed up with chanson,” she says. “I’m not particularly proud of being French — after all, I live in Brussels.” Commenting on the recent racial unrest in France, she says that she “can’t imagine it happening in Brussels. I think it’s a lot more integrated. In fact, it’s the opposite of Paris in that the poor all live in the center and the rich live on the outskirts, where it’s green.”
And where does she live?
“Me?” she says. “I’m in the center.”