Tuesday, January 08, 2008

carla bruni

Any misgivings that pundits may have had over Carla Bruni’s ability to make the transition from the catwalk to the recording studio have been wholly dispelled by the runaway success of her debut album Quelqu’un m’a dit [Somebody told me]. The record has sold 950 000 copies in France and made the former model a household name whose aquiline features can be seen on the pages of anything from serious broadsheet press such as Le Monde to glossy women’s mags such as Elle. Perhaps more significantly the album has met with effusive critical acclaim among the not so easy to please French music press. Les Inrockuptibles, considered by many as a touchstone for all that’s hip and happening in the land of Serge and Johnny, was happy to highlight Bruni alongside such luminaries as Norah Jones, Vincent Delerm, Vinicius Cantuaria and Femi Kuti in an issue of the magazine that focused on the best of World Jazz and Chanson. Bruni’s success has gone far beyond her French territory. Last year Quelqu’un M’a Dit turned out to be one of the top selling French albums abroad, going gold in Spain, Germany and Portugal and platinum in Switzerland. Across Europe sales of the special edition CD/DVD release of the album have also been impressive. The singer seems to have touched listeners in no uncertain terms. A recent guest appearance at the Parisian venue L'Elysée Montmartre with Daniel Lanois, the superlative songwriter/producer who’s C.V includes work with such illustrious figures as U2, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan, confirmed that Bruni has been warmly received by purveyors of quality music, fellow artists wholly dedicated to their craft. Quelqu’un M’a Dit is a record that belies any expectations of a face being used to sell CDs instead of designer labels. Bruni is not the window dressing for an uberproducer’s preconceived designs. She is a songwriter and guitarist who is actively involved in the genesis and evolution of the music she performs. Ten of the 12 pieces on Quelqu’un m’a Dit are either written or co-written by Bruni. She is a lyricist of substance, somebody who can reflect upon both her place in the world and also characterise those she has seen around her. Ready-made disposable ditties on love and relationships do not sit well with Bruni’s intelligence; she may write an unashamed eulogy to Raphael, the man in her life but she does so with a certain amount of finesse and wit. “He may look like an angel but he’s a devil of a lover/When he rolls those hips and gives me a velvet look I’ll be up all night.” The expression of the female libido is not something that Bruni will shy away from. Perhaps more important than her candour is a desire to reverse sexual archetypes. Woman can behold man. Woman can appreciate man’s beauty. Woman can be subject. “Usually she is the object of the songs,” Bruni observes. “She can be the name of the song or she can be the muse of the song but the man is never really the muse. “There are lots of songs named after women but few named after men. What I like is to talk about desire in a very masculine way. It’s a bit masculine to take your husband’s name and make it a song. I suppose it’s not a very classic feminine thing to do… all the more reason to do it.” Bruni’s lyrics have a freshness and lack of inhibition that are pleasing to hear at a time when strong voices – both male and female– are increasingly hard to find in mainstream pop. As much as she’ll worship at the altar of the man she loves she’ll also assert herself on an equal footing to a man. J’en Connais [I’ve Known A Few]is perhaps the strongest example of this. A snappy, puckish canto, it sees Bruni reeling off a list of all the men she’s ever known in the time-honoured tradition observed by her male counterparts. Turning the ‘girl in every port’ cliché on its head, Bruni runs through a wide range of social and physical archetypes to create a gallery of characters who have inhabited her world – real and imagined. More pertinently she gives a questioning voice to her mother who fears for her daughter’s failure to stay on “the right track.” But Bruni revels in her own convictions and signs off with no hint of apology; some may curse her but it makes her smile nevertheless. Then there’s the irreverent Le Plus Beau Du Quartier, a most wry tale that doffs its cap to cross-channel cross-dressing. “The inspiration for Le Plus Beau Du Quartier was actually British men,” she chuckles. “They have this lovely tendency to dress like ladies. This song is actually my Italian version of that so it’s me dressed like a man. “It’s a woman who’s dressed like a man, she’s a very handsome man but she cannot get love because of her appearance. From Monty Python to Benny Hill, English people like dressing up, they like costumes, they like the fun of it. There’s a strong humour in a slightly strange appearance that I really like. It’s not at all a Latin thing, they’re just too serious for that.” Born in Turin, capital of Piedmont, Italy to an Italian father and a Franco-Italian mother, Bruni came to live in Paris at the age of 7. She started playing the guitar herself around the age of 8 or 9 but only sang with friends or when she was alone “just for the pleasure of playing… it was always other people’s songs.” Her childhood was marked by a wide range of musical influences. On the one hand her father, a classical composer and her mother, a concert pianist, weaned her on Chopin, Mahler and Schubert. On the other there was pop music that came in many guises; French iconoclasts Serge Gainsbourg, Leo Ferre and Barbara and British legends the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Clash. Then there were American icons such as Bob Dylan, Talking Heads and Rickie Lee Jones, Muddy Waters and Ella Fitzgerald. Bruni also remembers spending about five years listening to nothing but The Velvet Underground. Funnily enough that band’s singer Nico was also one of the few model-turned-singers who hasn’t been sneered at. Before long Bruni had the urge to create herself. “I also started writing from a very young but it was usually poetry and then I’d write little melodies but never use them with lyrics. Then I started putting everything together. It was like a puzzle.” Although Bruni launched her modelling career in 1986 and went on to become one of the prized members of the supermodel league, she continued to sing and play her guitar - sometimes in hotel rooms after shows. When the modelling tailed off, she began to play more and more and eventually decided at some point in the late 90s that it was time to record. “Once I realised that that was the next logical step then the songs started to get tighter.” Bruni made her way into the world of French pop by way of a major songwriting role on Si J’étais Elle, a graceful album by the much respected singer Julien Clerc. Armed with a wad of her own songs, Bruni then turned to her longstanding friend the producer Louis Bertignac who “incubated” spare, sober demos that impressed him enough not to want to radically re-arrange them. Bertignac is a seminal figure in contemporary French music. Co-founder of Telephone, a kind of “Gallic Rolling Stones” that enjoyed substantial international success in the ‘80s, Bertignac is a gifted guitarist and songwriter who has subsequently gone on to enjoy a glittering solo career. His playing and production on Quelqu’un m’a dit evince great finesse and attention to detail. It was perfect for Bruni. The DVD that accompanies the CD gives a vivid insight into the chemistry between producer and artist. In Serge Bergli’s hort film, Bruni is seen at work with Bertignac in the studio, sharpening the finer points of songs that are often proof of the old adage ‘more is less. Indeed Quelqu’un M’a Dit is an example of the artistic depth that can be created by subtlety and economy. Bertignac’s guitars and occasional keys and percussion are used as fluttering backdrops to Bruni’s distinctively hoarse half-spoken half-sung lead vocals. The template is classic, the lack of pretension admirable. “The record is very French, I suppose,” says Bruni. “And many people say that it’s very chanson française but to me it’s really a folk record, I really like simple songs with arrangements. There is space in simplicity. And it can be used really effectively.” Words of wisdom from one of the most unlikely of success stories of contemporary French pop. Bruni has defied the cynics who may have dismissed her all too rashly as nothing more than a pretty face cashing in on her fame. What Bruni has done is show that judgments should be made ultimately on what people do rather than where they come from. Her music speaks for itself, independently of its author’s much celebrated beauty.

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