Songlines Guide to French Chanson: Biographies

Posted on February 5th, 2013 in News, Recent posts by .

In the current issue (#90, March 2013) Philip Sweeney examines the defining artists and history of French chanson. To follow on from the issue, here are introductory biographies of selected artists mentioned in the feature.

Charles Trenet
From his teenage fascination with jazz as an art student, via his huge success in the 30s, to his rediscovery as national treasure in the Mitterrand years, the author of ‘La Mer’ dominated French song until his death in 2001.
Édith Piaf
Édith Giovanna Gassion, stage-named Piaf, or sparrow, rose from poverty in the workers’ quarter of Belleville to consecration in the 50s and 60s as France’s musical ambassadress and the embodiment of the passionate theatricality of a principal strand of chanson.
Jacques Brel
Brel arrived from Brussels in the 50s Rive Droite cabaret world of Paris as an austere young singer-guitarist, earning the nickname ‘l’Abbé Brel’ (Father Brel). He became a powerful performer and brilliant writer. His 1977 comeback after ten years of retirement in Polynesia was a major event in French music. A year later he died.
Georges Brassens
Born in the Mediterranean port of Sète, Brassens emerged into 50s Paris as a workers’ poet, an anarchist-aesthete, who wrote songs prolifically and performed with a strangely effective mixture of timidity and bawdiness.
Léo Ferré
Born in Monaco, Ferré started his career in the celebrated restaurant-cabaret Le Boeuf sur le Toit in 1946, on the same bill as the young Charles Aznavour. Apart from his own complex, allusive song-poems, Ferré adapted Baudelaire and Rimbaud, produced an opera and an oratorio and espoused the post-1968 rock revolution, before retiring to Tuscany.
Juliette Gréco
Born in Montpellier and raised in Bordeaux, Gréco was imprisoned as a member of the resistance during the Occupation, began acting in the 40s and debuted as a singer at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, prompted by Jean-Paul Sartre, going on to become an icon of 50s Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Monique Andrée Serf, aka Barbara, was born in Paris, studied singing at Paris Conservatoire and made her name in the Rive Gauche chanson clubs of the 50s, particularly l’Écluse, where her intensely dramatic, virtuoso vocal performances earned her the tag ‘la chanteuse de minuit.’
Serge Gainsbourg
Lucien Ginsburg began as support act to the bohemian songwriter and novelist Boris Vian, and wrote hits for a roster of glamorous female artists, including Juliette Gréco and Brigitte Bardot. His own work drew upon sources from classic chanson to rock and reggae, all marked with his strikingly original lyrical talent.
Françoise Hardy
Born in 1944 in Paris, a demure and beautiful 17-year-old political science student sent an amateur recording of her song ‘Tous les Garçons et les Filles’ to Disques Vogue. It sold two million copies and launched Hardy on a career in which her simple, fragile voice matured into one of the most respected in French popular music.
Alain Souchon
Born in Casablanca in 1944, singer and actor Souchon’s formative influence was as much the Beatles as Brel and Brassens, and, with his song-writing partner Laurent Voulzy, he has always steered a path between instrumental fascination with things Anglo-American and a serious lyrical intent.
Têtes Raides
Founder Christian Olivier, an art student fan of the Clash, gradually moved closer to the world of chanson as lyrics became more central to his music. By the late 90s, the band had half a dozen successful albums and a sold-out month’s season at Paris’ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the old music hall once home to the greats of chanson realiste.
Dominique A
The future leader of chanson minimaliste began as an impecunious amateur rocker in Nantes. His back-to-basics record ‘Le Courage des Oiseaux,’ recorded in his bedroom on a Casio synthesizer, was a succès d’estime with the Paris public, his recipe described as “a modern flirt with the highest traditions of Barbara…”

Once categorised as a singer of ‘chanson bébête’ – silly chanson – Katerine is a soft-voiced, irreverent faux-innocent and leading figure of new chanson of the 90s. After a conservative Catholic upbringing, he began home recording and writing and producing for other artists.
Benjamin Biolay
The singer-songwriter and producer, often spoken of as the new Gainsbourg studied music in the conservatoire of his native Lyon, and started his rise to fame with local group the Affaire Louis Trio, before his first solo album created unstoppable momentum as a performer, writer and producer.

To read the full feature, including a selected discography, see p36 in the current issue of Songlines (#90).

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