On a somewhat sunny day in September last year, the French singers Camille and Mélanie Pain pulled up in a yellow cab at the meatpacking district salon Bumble and Bumble with French producer-DJ Marc Collin. The event was an art world party hosted by New York City-based Hint Magazine and attended by beautiful-important people on the level of Jeffrey Deitch, Fischerspooner’s Casey Spooner, and former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha. Collins helped Camille and Mélanie—whom he’d worked with as producer on the upcoming compilation album, Nouvelle Vague, which will be officially unveiled with a live set April 12 at Joe’s Pub—set up a simple stage with a guitar and a couple of microphones. Producing a mixture of smoky, anxious vocals amid bossa nova-inspired guitar chords, the singers proceeded to fade, royally, into the background.
Silly, predictable fashionistas! This was not just some isolated incident, where self-important New York personalities flutter about their business while ignoring one or another well-meaning foreign musician. (Collins, who says the event “was the worst thing we’ve ever done,” revealed that at least French actress Elodie Bouchez, also in the crowd, paid her dues to the musicians with a chat and a few rhythmic steps.) That the entertaining crew was French, of course, steeps the dismissal in a rich history: Aside from an erratic chain of exceptions, including the cultish attention slathered over ’60s icon Françoise Hardy and electronic savants Air and Daft Punk, Americans have been turning their noses up at French pop music since long before France asserted its moral superiority as the most stylishly vehement critic against the Iraq invasion.
Yet—what is that soft crooning you hear?—things are changing. “Six years ago, everyone thought French music was horrible,” says Dan Cohen of V2 Records, who’s been instrumental in bringing both Nouvelle Vague and Air to the U.S. This time, it’s not coming in the form of refitted retro or poppy techno, but in the most seductive shape of all: the French chanteuse. A cluster of talented, quietly toxic French female singers are making their way to these shores. Among them are Carla Bruni and Coralie Clement (sister of French pop star Benjamin Biolay)—whose solo French-language albums Quelqu’un M’a Dit (V2) and Bye Bye Beauté (Nettwerk), respectively, were officially released in the U.S. this spring—and the Israeli-born, Paris-raised Keren Ann, the best-known figure in the scene, who set the ball rolling with her U.S. debut, Not Going Anywhere, last August. None of them are at the peak of fame (Italian-born, Paris-raised Bruni is best known as a supermodel, a career she has given up for music), all of them perching on a windowsill somewhere between the French underground and the worldwide pop music scene—one that is largely determined by an American market. And it seems this spring they are ready to pounce: Wrapping themselves around outward-pointing traffic signs on their CD sleeves, crawling up street-facing windows, they are slowly sidling out of Montmartre and into Lower Manhattan.
photo: Sanchez & Mauro Mongiello
It was in a small, dark studio close to Montmartre that Collins recorded Nouvelle Vague, the covers album on which Camille, Mélanie Pain, and freelance singers with names like Sir Alice, Alex, and Daniella D’Ambrosio (actually a native New Yorker) reclaim the songs of skanky, messy late-’70s new wave frontmen such as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and the Clash’s Joe Strummer with their petite-cheeked, cocktail-sipping, deep-throated je ne sais quoi. It was just a few arrondissements over that Camille recorded her second and latest album, Le Fil (The Thread), which is being fabulously received in Europe (its U.S. release is still in negotiation). And when, after three albums partially written in Montmartre, Keren Ann was looking around for a new base, she chose the area north of Little Italy. The resulting record, Nolita, came out in Europe last November and here in March on Blue Note imprint Metro Blue.
Where Not Going Anywhere sauntered along with sturdily pretty melodies and hearty lyrics of love and loneliness, Nolita ventures into a more opaque, mystical sound—still heavy on melody, but more exploratory acoustically, and revolving lyrically around general themes of expatica and cultural dissonance. “Think I’m gonna stay/Think I’m gonna marry you/for myself/somewhere I would like to be cold and safe”—so goes the title track, sort of; the lyrics are not exact, Keren says, but “I think I like them better.” Says the 31-year-old singer of her New York: “Nolita is not necessarily about New York; it’s stories about New York’s mistresses. I believe I was one of them at some point and still am.” On the inside cover, Keren Ann’s strong, long face—a face only enhanced by the singer’s brunet, forehead-length bangs reminiscent of such obvious influences as Joni Mitchell and Astrud Gilberto—presses itself out through the window of Café Gitane on Mott Street. The cover depicts two tiny Keren Anns perpendicular to one another, in front of a looming painted wall. “One is me, the other is my narrator, ” she offers. “One is a New Yorker, the other is a Parisienne. All of the above are a possibility.”
And, though Nouvelle Vague is thematically entirely different from Keren Ann’s raw, steady singer-songwriter tradition, as a package it occupies the same seductively aloof, woman-of-the-world territory, enhanced not least of all by the urban-girl images on its cover and website. Where Keren Ann plants her high-cheekboned profile among downtown Manhattan neighborhoods, a series of photos on the Nouvelle Vague website locates the album’s singers contemplatively in inner-city Paris: Voluptuous Mélanie Pain in a lilac T-shirt crouches on a dirty white porch, looking down; Camille’s ghosty black eyes stare out through the blue of a moonlit Paris night. The album’s cover is a color photocopy showing a black-and-white etching of a slit-eyed, wavy-haired seductress whose long neck stretches upward in a come-hither-if-you-dare posture.
“Most of the singers aren’t very famous but all are steeped in the underground culture of Paris,” says Collins who, along with his partner Olivier Libaux, handpicked the singers as much for their reputed vocal talent as for their youthful removal from the cultural and political significance of these punky songs of the Clash, P.i.L, the Dead Kennedys, XTC—the hard-edged sounds that occupied New York City’s and London’s influential undergrounds of the ’70s and ’80s.
And even beyond the thoroughly easy allure of the girl-face images, the album itself beguiles. The production is spotless in a my-pants-sit-perfectly-on-my-hips because-of-the-simple-fact-that-I-am-French way. The twentysomething singers of Nouvelle Vague turn lines like “hope the chip shop isn’t closed ’cause their pies are really nice” (from the track “Friday Night, Saturday Morning,” originally by the Specials) into misty, squealy, sharp-chinned poetry. Collins even manages to incorporate the potentially tinny, crass sounds of seagulls, waves crashing, and burbling crowds into a whispering, percussive whole. The album’s sound was intended to provoke a general image of a girl on a beach with a guitar—Collins says the simple image of Mélanie Pain singing P.i.L’s “(This Is Not A) Love Song” was his initial inspiration. But the project is better imagined as something created in an all-girls boarding house (or small-offenders jailhouse, if you like) on the streets of 1930s Paris.
And, with the album’s impish, brooding head shots evoking black berets, hard red lips, and finger-length cigarettes, it’s evident that 1930s Paris is where this imminent vogue derives its sauce. Camille, Keren Ann, and their loudly pensive posses are reviving the influence of a potent line of French personalities—Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Catherine Deneuve—and have wooed U.S. audiences with a seemingly magic formula, equal parts The Second Sex and Amélie. In 1965 (yet another wartime parallel?), New Yorkers couldn’t pass a deli without the sweet, unparalleled licks of Hardy’s “All Over the World” floating out around them: “All over the world, others are sad tonight.” Now, there’s nothing so complicated in the mussy charm of a woman gasping as she sings with a French accent, “I drank 16 beers, started up a fight . . . I’m rolling down the stairs, too drunk to fuck.”