As a genre, chanson is difficult to pin down. In French, it simply means “song,” and for most of France’s history the word described anything from madrigals to romantic poetry. Since the end of World War II, it has come to represent a pop style that places a premium on the fluidity of the French language. Though chanson enjoyed a brief spurt of popularity in the United States in the 1960s thanks to the off-Broadway revue “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” and Frank Sinatra’s championing of Charles Aznavour, English-language chanson always sounded clunky, owing to the more angular rhythms of English speech. Chanson has made more of a lasting foothold in Japan, where the language seems better suited to its formal contours.
Dominique Cravic, who was first inspired to take up the guitar by the music of chanson god Georges Bressens, isn’t really familiar with Japanese chanson. “I’ve been talking to Japanese journalists all week, and they like it because they think it’s about people crying over lovers and such.”
Cravic is sitting in the Tokyo office of his Japanese record label with singer Claire Elziere, who has just released an album of classic chanson for the Japanese market called “Chansons d’Amour de Paris,” a title that can be taken two ways. “They’re love songs that take place in Paris or love songs about Paris,” says Cravic, adding that all were originally written between 1930 and the early 1960s, “before rock ‘n’ roll became dominant.”
“I heard these songs in my cradle,” says Elziere, who was born in 1971. “Every French person knows them by heart.”
French pop of the ’60s marked a conscious effort to move away from the melodramatic character of chanson and toward a bubblier, more British sound. But even Serge Gainsbourg, the master chameleon of French pop in the ’60s and ’70s, couldn’t completely revoke his debt to chanson.
“Every time a new style of music came out, Gainsbourg was clever about using it,” says Cravic. “But the songs of his that you could call standards are more in the chanson tradition.”
Elziere and Cravic used a more traditional style for the album. Rather than the full orchestrations often associated with chanson, they did it in the musette style.
“Musette was first recorded at the end of the 1920s,” Cravic explains. “It was weekend dance music for the working classes, the result of a meeting between the music of Italian immigrants, who played accordions, and that of the people from central France, who tended to own the Paris cafes where it was performed. It was popular music but it could be very sophisticated.”
The music on the album is limited to a small acoustic combo — Cravic on guitar, Elziere’s longtime accompanist Gregory Veux on piano, and 67-year-old Daniel Colin, one of France’s most famous accordionists.
Two songs also feature Kazutoshi Negishi on the Okinawan three-stringed sanshin. Last year, Elziere and Cravic were performing in Okinawa and stopped by a local instrument shop, where Cravic tried out a sanshin himself.
“I was impressed by its sound,” he says. “It has tonal similarities to the banjo, which was used in musette before they used guitars.” Cravic sent Negishi the tracks for overdubs. “We’ve still never met this guy,” he admits.
The selection on “Chansons d’Amour de Paris” is quite varied in mood. Some songs are jaunty, some wistful, some defiant. However, there is a belief among some younger French musicians that chanson sacrifices music for the sake of the words.
Cravic disagrees, though he understands how the myth was perpetuated. “Georges Bressens is considered the greatest chanson writer, but when most people talk about him they talk about the lyrics. His arrangements were simple, and I think people were misled by that simplicity. If you listen carefully to his melodies, his subtle changes, he was a master musician.”
Elziere’s vocals are restrained and conversational, but the people who originally sang these songs were often actors as well. Yves Montand, one of the most popular postwar singers in France, provides an interesting example.
“Musically speaking, he wasn’t very good,” says Cravic. “He couldn’t always find the melody and he was bad with beats.”
What people saw in Montand was the immigrant who made it good and was the acolyte-lover of the most popular French singer of that or any other era, Edith Piaf.
“Piaf was just a natural,” Cravic says. “She was a monster on stage.”
Elziere covers three Piaf classics on the album. However, she didn’t include the signature Piaf song, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” probably because, like “My Way” — an English-language standard that borrows style points from chanson — it is the kind of song you sing at the end of your life.
“Only Edith Piaf could do that song,” Cravic says.
Challenged, Elziere breaks into a lusty chorus of the song, and then turns to Cravic. “I think we should try it.”
Claire Elziere, Dominique Cravic and Daniel Colin play Dec. 3 at Sakurazaka Hall in Naha, Okinawa (7:30 p.m.; ¥4,000;  860-9555); and Dec. 5 (7 p.m.) and Dec. 6 (6 p.m.) at Hakuju Hall, Tokyo (¥6,300,  00-3337).