“We two, how long we were fool’d / We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return” (from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” 1855).
I’ve always associated French pop with French lyrics, 60’s singers like France Gall, Brigitte Fontaine and Françoise Hardy or 80’s synthpop artists like Elli et Jacno, Etienne Daho, Les Rita Mitsouko, Indochine…I was utterly fascinated by that unique sensual and ‘charmant’ French-singing factor.
Despite the well known French chauvinism clichè, I found out, with my great surprise, that until recently an indie pop album in proper French language was still regarded as a novelty.
The hugely talented Paris’ guitarist and chanteuse Agnès Gayraud aka La Féline is one of the spearhead of the DIY underground movement of outsiders La Souterraine, born against the ‘globalization of indie’ in favour of the rehabilitation and diffusion of French as the language of their own indie pop, they define this task as ‘L’archéologie du futur’.
After an impressive debut album ‘Adieu L’enfance’ in 2014, La Féline (name inspired by the cult Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 b-movie “Cat People”) is ready, in her new guise of a sensual ruthless and untamed warrior called Senga, in perfect vivid fusion with every little particles of the nature, to impetuously take ‘la pop à la française’ and, why not?, the international one by storm.
I’m Italian and did not find anything about your project in my country, even if my town is few kilometers from the French borders…I guess it will be the same in many other places, so please could you introduce La Féline to our readers? How did the project start?
Actually, I was supposed to tour in Italia last summer, but it eventually did not happen! To be fair, I have some “happy few” fans from Italia who buy La Féline‘s albums on Bandcamp, and write me through my site. Even if there is no official promotion in Italy, there is always an unofficial net of amateurs that reach you and share something, and I find this very beautiful. Well to introduce my project for the majority who have no idea of who this French singer can be, I would say I started in Paris under the name of La Féline (after Jacques Tourneur‘s “horror” movie of 1942) around 2008. I compose songs and record them since I was a kid. I was offered a guitar for my 13th anniversary: at the time, I was eager to play the riff and solo of ‘One’, a Metallica‘s track (on ‘And Justice for All’). I was a huge fan of them at the time! I would be more a Robert Wyatt, Talk Talk, Christophe or Gérard Manset‘s addict now but I have to admit metal was part of my adolescence before I discovered indie rock and then old school hip-hop…I had bands during the high school and the college. I’ve always wanted to do that, to be a musician, a singer, but I kept studying so my mother didn’t freak out. So I kept doing both serious (with a Phd in philosophy) and discreetly insane with a second life of music, stages, musicians, irrational emotions and youthful joy. In Paris, during the first years of 2010, I was slowly introduced to the underground scene. There are many actually, but let’s say, I met people who shared my passion, and I was gradually able to play in the hip underground places in front of a growing audience. I released some EP’s (‘Cent mètres de haut’, ‘Wolf & Wheel’, ‘Echo’) and then my first complete album ‘Adieu Adieu L’Enfance’. It was a long and difficult way, some majors were interested but I guess I didn’t (want to) fit exactly, so I really felt at the time what an indie posture meant, and I finally turned it into a strength, doing whatever I wanted. ‘Adieu L‘Enfance’ (released on Kwaidan Records in 2014) had a very nice reception here, I mean not through promotional bullshit but the reception of real people who cared and were touched by its sounds and meanings: I even received letters from people who said they were touched to the heart. It was an important release for me. The sound was a bit new wave inspired. Now I just released a new one, ‘Triomphe’, and was happy to feel that even if it is quite different, the fans followed. Well I guess La Féline has to see with the metamorphosis that leads from the first album to a second, from an avatar to the other, but rooted in a very basic and, let us say, sincere, even childish, need of expression. I would like my music to feel both familiar and a bit strange, both like home and disorientation. That’s probably why there are some kind of immediate songs (almost “hits”, let us say indie hits) and more hermetic, strange songs, in La Féline. I am happy with mediation and with immediacy.
What type of music or artistic influences were you emotionally exposed to as a child and teenager? Was there a moment when you decided that music was what you wanted to pursue?
I was born in France, but my mother comes from Andalucia. Even if she was never a musician, she’s got a great musical sensibility. Since I was a kid, I heard her singing, cantejondos and Spanish lullabies: I always loved the mix of sweetness and violence you could hear in them. She and my sisters were listening to records of Paco Ibañez, a Spanish singer who adapted poems of García Lorca and Lope de Vega, also with this mix of warm humanity and dark melancholy. She had a cassette of old French songs (medieval ballads or anonymous political songs of the XVIII and XIX Century) sung by a very well know actor here, Yves Montant. Same contrast here between melody and deep thoughts that I think shaped my musical and poetical sensibility. I actually made a cover of one of the songs Montant sung ‘Le Roi a fait battre tambour’, on a EP called ‘Echo’. I was also exposed, as everyone else, to the mainstream sound of the radio: the French pop of the late eighties was not so bad actually, with Etienne Daho‘s’ ‘Tombé pour la France’ or Daniel Balavoine‘s ‘Le Chanteur’. I remember I was also fond of Deee-Lite‘s hit, ‘Groove Is In The heart’, with all its unexpected breaks. I discovered Ennio Moricone on TV, with an advertisement for dog’s food (with a big dog running in the field). It was ‘Chi Mai’ – fact that I discovered afterwards – but that music sounded to me merely irresistible (and still does, especially when I discovered the whole soundtrack it came from, “Erotico Mistico“.
John Lennon said (even a genius can talk nonsense sometimes) “French are good for wine but not for R’n’R’’. In the last years there’s a new growing generation of French-singing pop artists, I’m thinking about La Femme, Laure Briard, Planète Rouge, Rémi Parson to name a few. In a period of increasing homogenization, it’s important to defend our own cultural identities, in this regard the seminal DIY collective La Souterraine has been a sort of stepping stone for your career as musician, could you better talk about it?
Yes, this is a massive topic here in France. The funny thing is that the French complex of inferiority concerning its supposed non-musicality is not recent, and far older than John Lennon and modern pop music. Jean-Jacques Rousseau mocked French language’s poor sonorities yet in the XVIIIth century, so weak compared to Italian and the expressivity of the opera buffa, that sounded to him as the real musical language. I wrote a small essay about it in a nice musical review called ‘‘Audimat’’, and it was titled : ‘‘Français, seconde langue’’, meaning ‘‘French, second tongue’’. The essay was an attempt to map the relationship of French singers towards the pop idioma which is deeply established in our minds as the English one: and my thesis was that, whatever happens, if you are a pop musician, French does not come first but always as an effort to adapt to a model that was actually shaped after another idioma, other accents and sonorities, and also, after another relationship to language and literature themselves. One of my hypothesis was that the French had a kind of superiority complex towards the pop idioma, supposedly more simple, an betting on immediacy rather than on hermetical constructions, because being an old poetical tongue, self conscious and focused on meaning rather than on sounds. In his ‘‘Defense et illustration de la langue française’’, (1549) Joachim Du Bellay says that poets have to get rid of the old medieval songs, ballads and rondeaux. Except with some very beautiful poets like Verlaine, French poetry has built itself against ‘‘chanson’’, against melody, against songs. When Serge Gainsbourg managed to mix pop and this very French culture of poetry, he put perfectly on stage this unequal relationship: there are always duos with him and his libidinal tongue of educated man (French poetry) sharing double meaning words with an ingenue who almost talks by onomatopeas (see the song ‘Comic Strip’) that incarnates in a way the naive pop idioma). And of course the ingenue doesn’t get the double meaning (see ‘Les sucettes à l’anis’) but she is so cute to observe. This is only an example because, French indie pop – the bands that you quote and La Souterraine‘s spirit – has to deal with other problems (escaping from the authentic but non very erotic nor enough youthful tradition of ‘‘chanson’’, but also from the shiny but inauthentic habits of what we call here ‘‘la Variété’’…) I guess as writer and a singer, I am precisely dealing with this kind of double bind: trying to find the adequate mix of immediacy and hermetics, the true balance of an authenticity that would not have to give up eroticism nor the body. I am not expert enough in Italian pop, but I recognize this kind of dialectics, fragile and beautiful balance also in Lucio Battisti‘s or Franco Battiato‘s music.
About two years have passed since your debut full length ‘‘Adieu L’Enfance’’, an album that had a considerable echo in the French musical press, describing your sound as a blend of cold wave and new wave analog synths with Johnny Marr-like guitars lines, all filtered with your personal contemporary sensibility. What’s happened in the meantime? How has your music is evolved and refined, in a constant search of your true signature sound, compared to your first one? Did you have different influences and add new instruments this time?
Yes, ‘Adieu L‘Enfance’ was conceived and recorded in quite minimal conditions. I wanted to fit to my real material conditions that were : living in a small flat in Paris, owning a mic, a guitar, a bass, a JX3P synth and a TR808, and doing it alone and then the two of us, Xavier Thiry (my friend and producer) and I. So when you listen to ‘Adieu L‘Enfance’, is a quite a feeling of these instruments with their typical sound, mixed together in a genuine way, and that’s the kind of “transparency” I was looking for, because the album was also about being naive and falling at the same time into the deep thoughts related to time and death. In a way, releasing this album allowed me a kind of catharsis. And more and more when I played it in concert, especially in band, I started to miss another dimension. The songs and the sound of ‘Adieu L‘Enfance’ were both raw and shy, and I missed a little more body and trance. I felt a bit caught in a very ethereal incarnation and I needed more flesh the music: that’s why I figured it out with a more acoustic sound, acoustic drums, woods and brass (there is some saxophone, flute, even octobass on ‘Triomphe’). And I had also the opportunity to record it in a wider place, at the Performing Art Forum of Saint Erme in Picardy. We’ve chosen a room and set up the whole studio with my faithful crew (Xavier Thiry, Guillaume de la Villéon, sound engineer, a drummer (Franck Garcia), a flutist (Mike Schmid) and a saxophonist (Yoann Durant), who I met there. It was a lot of fun to record, I would even say, a lot of exultation. They loved the songs, they got the general vibe, the need of a wilder expression, and we had all of us a very nice journey in the same musical delirium. I was inspired by many things, but mostly by the last releases of Talk Τalk, ‘Spirit Of Eden‘ and ‘Laughing Stock‘, mixed with my taste for pop melodies and other fantasies, like the memory of a Chinese women singing alone with a one-string luth, that I heard once during a trip, fifteen years ago in Asia and that partly inspired ‘La Femme du Kiosque sur l’eau’. With those drums, flutes and more trance-like musical moments, I felt I could go back in the forest (‘Senga’ is a song about a fantasized double who would live in the forest and survive there in a kind of harmony, the chorus is translated and adapted after Walt Wihtman‘s transcendantalist ‘Song Of Myself’). Since the song describes the bright side of this fantasy, I wanted the videoclip to show the dark one. I was inspired by stories about a savage woman who was captured in the mountains of Ariège (in the South of France), during the XIX century. She escaped twice, and was recaptured before she died in the convent where they had locked her). Well the whole album is quite shaped by this tension between a need of exultation, of instinct’s liberation and its repression.
Why did you title the latest album ‘Triomphe’, is it a way to exorcise the concerns of the usual ‘‘difficult’’ second album? Did you, thematically, have an all-encompassing musically and lyrically vibe/building feeling you wanted to portray with this release?
The word ‘’Triomphe’’ has actually nothing to see with commercial success, even ironically. It is about the Dionysian influence I was obsessed with conceiving the album. (It is the original word to describe the processions of bacchants during the Dionysian festivities during the Antiquity). As I said, I wanted the record to connect more intensively to the flesh and to deeper experiences, ritual or trance sensations, even through structured songs. The previous record had something to see with a kind of Apollonian sense of symetricity, with balance and transparency, the new one meant for me confronting to a kind of mangrove, allowing myself to introduce a little more chaos. The album comes with a text I wrote, titled “how I triumphed in dreams”, that you can read in French. (It was translated for Crush Magazine‘s last issue, n°12). But it’s true that I was fun to use a term and a feeling which would be more easily heard in hip-hop aesthetics that are far more concerned with power than indie pop!
While the lyrics of your first album dealt with your own personal experiences and obsessions in a cathartic way, in this new one the fantasy and imagination seem to be taking over: Greek gods, Manga influences, Tokyo, Hayao Miyazaki, Walt Whitman, ‘Senga’ the ruthless warrior, ancient myths, sensual and vivid atmospheres, intense colours, the impending presence of the nature, intriguing titles like ‘Samsara’ and ‘Le Royaume’. It seems you bury layers of story and meaning into your lyrics, merging reality and fiction and leaving the listener to unpick your secrets. Am I wrong? It’ll be confusing for some men (usually critics) that tend to oddly presume that female singers have just an autobiographical approach in writing…
Ah ah, that is maybe why I feel a bit upset when I am referred to only through the prism of female pop, and why I feel sometimes like a misfit in the female scene to which French magazines sometimes want me to belong! I think most of the pop songs are made of autobiographical elements, and actually there are parts of my life in this record, but my life is itself melted with these kind of visions, if I am faithful to the way I see the world, it is made of these unexpected elements that you call fictions but that are philosophically and existentially essential to me: each word I wrote here is necessary in that way, not a pure arbitrary or decorative fiction so it sounds strange. ‘Gianni’ is a seducer, his figure melts with the one of Don Giovanni and, he’s at the same time, a real guy reading the cards to me. ‘Comité Rouge’ is just an empathic regard on a political community I am close to, in these very dark times of “merry crisis and happy new fear”. ‘Samsara’ is my feeling of the eternal repetition of suffering and desire, turning into the joy of rebirth. Some people feel that my lyrics are very encrypted, but it is in a way very explicit too, while maybe on topics or through visions that are a less common in pop music.
Please, could you associate each song of the new album with a feeling, an image, a movie, a book, a line or whatever comes to mind?
While composing the album, I had set a collection of pictures. Here they are, as a little fresco: let us say that the reader finds by himself to which of the songs of ‘Triumph’ it refers! There is only one missing: I found no picture for it.
Recently I was talking about the Simon Reynolds’ book about the increasing obsession for the so so-called ‘‘retromania’’ and the reunion bandwagon (someone says ‘‘that nowadays just the dead or the insane ones are not playing r’n’r’’). What’s your opinion about the music/pop of the 2010s with all its sense of inauthenticity insincerity and pretension of avant-garde?
This is a big question (and I am currently writing a whole book looking for an answer, or thinking to new ways to put the question). I would say at least that there are two very distinct questions here, one about the present and future of pop music, reclaiming a kind a diagnosis, and another one on the essence of pop music: inauthenticity is a flea that affects recorded popular music since it was born, since Leadbelly appeared on the cover of his record with a costume of prisoner that Lomax asked him to wear even if he did not want to. But the beauty of this musical art is precisely to constantly fight against inauthenticity, to always fall back into it, for many different reasons, and to negate it. On the diagnosis, I think Simon Reynolds‘ book is a great book, and even greater when it is not about retromania itself but when it is about the melancholy of the critic trespassing from the age of rarity to the age of abundance, from selected and precious records, to the evidence that, as a matter of fact, there are so many tunes to listen to now, that a whole life is not sufficient to listen to them and that you necessarily miss the main part of it. As a composer, I’d rather not be obsessed with retromania. Of course I feel we heard a lot of different styles now, and everything is supposedly “available” – even if this is very ambiguous, because availability doesn’t mean that you necessarily access to it – but I feel that what I do has not already been done, not because my music is especially “avant-garde”, but because in the way I mix different elements of music that inspire me, visions, idioms, I have at least the idiosyncrasy of my expression, at least my fragility or my inability to do the music I aim to as perfectly as I wish. I definitely believe in the luck of idiosyncrasy: there is no “progress” in music, there are differences, meaningful differences, and athus novelty, even if every novelty has not a huge cultural impact, even it is heard by a hundred people and not billions. When you listen to the records of John Fahey, you feel this tiny but absolute power: something unheard is happening, not through genre, not through hype, or a general movement of the youth, but through idiosyncrasy, a fragile, vulnerable but irreducible sense of novelty.
After the long-standing collaboration with the French electronic artist Mondkopf, still part of the new album with the track ‘Trophée’, have you got in mind any new one for the future?
Yes, I do. We just recorded an EP together, which was a great experience: we are waiting for the right moment to release it and perform it live. It is coming soon!
I’ve read you made a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Yassassin’ from the 1979 ‘Lodger’ album, curiously never played live in his entire career. Will it be released at some point? How about the recent iconic departures, such the ones of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince just to name a few. Have these affected you?
I did it on air for Radio France last summer I think: it was great fun because we played almost unprepared with Bertrand Burgalat (a great French composer, arranger and musician), he played the bass. It is probably a song that David Bowie did not take very seriously, but I’ve always enjoyed its harmonies and strange exotic feeling, even if it is partly parodic for Bowie (I think he described it as a Turkish reggae one). Concerning the departure of all those great figures of rock’n’roll, it is sad, of course, and quite premature, especially for Prince and Bowie. I have written about Bowie and Leonard Cohen for Libération. They defined so many things for rock, and popular music in general. I guess we just feel that popular music as we discovered it is not anymore the music of the present but constitutes yet an inheritance, that means something that can be inspiring but also forgotten or destroyed by history. It makes them both “classical” and very vulnerable. But this breach of vulnerability is also necessary for newcomers to do something singular out of this past. And also, pop is a miraculous form of art: it keeps their voices alive, eternally and everywhere, so I sometimes wonder what do their death actually changes in our experience of them, except the fact that they cannot release new records or appear aging in google images or in the gossip columns.
I notice and appreciate that on your social pages you always have a nice straight approach with your followers, readily answering to all their comments…I guess this will be even stronger in your live dimension… Within 2017 you’re going to undertake an extensive tour, hopefully in Europe too… What’s your favourite part about playing live and can you remember your first performance?
I am glad you appreciate my efforts! Well, communication through social pages is sometimes a bit puzzling for me. I don’t very like to address abstractly too many different people at the same time (and that’s a tragedy, because I think pop is all about this ability!) In a way, I am better with comments and commenting the comments, because the one-to-one relationship is back even if in a very basic way. I love playing live for this too: I observe the people’s expressions when they listen to the music and it’s always very beautiful because people think that you don’t see them when they are in the dark watching you, but I do see and feel them of course. Paradoxically, I feel very strong when I play solo, because when you play solo, especially in front of a huge crowd, you look in a way so vulnerable that it is as if people were empathically intensifying their attention to what you do. It allows a special connection between you and the audience. But I love playing with the full band too, because you feel you are going to keep the promises of the songs, especially the promise of power. People will not need to care for you but you will completely take care of them, you will be able to wrap them in your sound. My last big concert in Paris, at La Maroquinerie was an intense moment for that: we were five on stage, with the saxophonist Yoann Durant, and it was so exciting. My first “real” concert, I think was in Marciac, when I was still a teenager, around 1996, during the jazz festival, on a stage for new talents. I remember I performed a cover of Janis Joplin (covering Kris Kristofferson), ‘Bobby McGee’. It seems so far now; I don’t even remember how it felt. I had so much fantasized and anticipated this moment, that the fantasy is even more objective in my mind.
What current bands/artists are you excited by at the moment?
I’ve been enjoying the record of a young French guitarist called Raoul Vignal: ‘The Silver Veil’ (released on Talitres Records). It’s a mix of Nick Drake but with a pinch of French accent and preciosity. Not very far from Mike Wexler – from New York –, using also a very subtle guitar picking to build a kind of folk of the Anthropocene (check his last beautiful album, ‘Syntropy’, on Three-Four Records) In the opposite side of the aesthetic spectrum, I’ve been listening a lot to ABRA‘s first EPs, the r’n’b lo-fi queen of Atlanta. I enjoy when music is able to become so pure on the one side, almost intellectual, and so sexy, physical, on the other side.
Many thanks for being our welcome guest and all the best for the new year, just a final question: is there anything important I forgot to ask you and would you like to say to our readers?
Thank you for all the questions, and the little oddity. I guess, for now, let’s keep some things unsaid!
Photo credits: Benoît Chapon