Born in Cherbourg but currently resident in Belgium, chanteuse Francoiz Breut has recently released her fourth, and best, album À L’Aveuglette. She talks to Rockfort about her beginnings with partner (musical and otherwise) Dominique A, her collaborations with Calexico and writing lyrics for the first time.
Rockfort: Can you tell us about how your recording career got underway?
FB: It all started it 1997. Before that I sang with Dominique A, I performed with him in duos, I did backing vocals, keyboards, and then after a long tour with him he…he had started writing songs for me, he’d written ten or so songs… and a record was born. I didn’t realise it was going to become so serious and important in my life – as it was, being on stage was by no means a natural thing for me. I was interested in music, and the process of making a record, but I didn’t really see myself performing those songs on stage.
Rockfort: What were your ambitions then before you started making music?
FB: I studied fine arts, so I drew a lot… I still do in fact (Ed: Francoiz is an illustrator of childen’s books). At that time I was contacting editors to try to get my illustrations used, and I started working on books an exhibitions. So I was more interested in image s than telling stories through the medium of songs.
Rockfort: Did Dominique A write songs for you because you had expressed any particular desire to sing or did he just present you with some songs out of the blue?
FB: Yes, he presented me with the songs… I was singing more and more on stage, there were duets, and he said to himself “Ok, I’ll write her some songs so she can sing for longer on stage.” And so I thought “Why not? Singing more might be rather nice” …it was really little by little like that. When we recorded the album (Ed: 'Francoiz Breut', released on Bella Union) it was very fresh, there weren’t any rehearsals, so it’s an album that’s pretty direct, and as far as the singing goes it’s not very elaborate, its pretty flat – something I’m still accused of, actually! – so it really came like that, little by little.
Rockfort: Was there a particular moment when you realised this was becoming serious for you?
FB: Yes, from the second album. After the first album I did a little tour with about 20 dates and then I had my first child so things came to a halt for a little while, then I did some dates again the following year and Dominique started proposing material again – then the label became interested, we had the financial means and we went to record in Spain, I called on lots of collaborators, we recorded the strings in Budapest – suddenly the whole thing became more important.
Rockfort: Which other songwriters did you work with apart from Dominique A?
FB: From the second record I started asking other writers like Jérôme Minière, who was on Lithium – the same label I’d started on – then Philippe Poirier (Ed: From the group Kat Onoma) and (Philippe) Katerine as well. And then on the third album I asked even more people, calling on people that I’d met on the road, some closer friends.
Rockfort: What did Katerine write for you?
FB: He wrote a song called ‘L’Origine du Monde’… he sings a bit on the record as well, incidentally… but he wrote this song which is the most uplifting one on the album.
Rockfort: The new album is the first one on which you’ve written all the lyrics. What took you so long?
FB: Because I figured that you don’t become a writer… well, I’m not really a writer, but… you couldn’t just start writing like that, and there were so many talented people around me each with their own distinctive songwriting style, that I couldn’t see the point. It was nevertheless something I wanted to do – I like writing, but I write more for children really and it’s not the same thing at all. But for three records I’d been interpreting songs and I loved it, I loved being a vessel for other people’s words but I really had a desire to work in a new way, to really understand what it meant to write a song, how to complete a short text like that, and work with my band… the band are people I’ve worked with for a long time, we’ve spent a lot of time on stage together, and they encouraged me too, so I went for it.
Rockfort: Was it a difficult process?
FB: Yes it was difficult.. as it happens I’m wondering how I did it because I’m trying again and it’s not happening!... but what’s great is the way the music sparks ideas. I was writing the lyrics in my corner, and then after I shared them with the band I ended up reworking them – it’s not just poetry that was then stuck on top of the music, the music really influenced the words and that’s what I really enjoyed about it.
Rockfort: Can you tell us a bit about your connection with Calexico?
FB: I met Joey (Burns) and Joey (Convertino) while they were on tour with OP8 (Ed: collaboration with How Gelb and Lisa Germano) and at that point I discovered their album and we shared a stage for two nights. After that we kept in touch and I suggested having them sing on my second album, then our paths continually crossed – they’ve invited me to come and sing when they play live, and Joey is so open and likes working on lots of different projects – he’s workhorse, he always doing 15,000 things at the same time – and on the third album he said “If you need a double-bass player, a voice, I’m ready to come and help you out”, so I invited him to come and play on my third album and now I’ve been to Tucson, Arizona where the drummer in a group from Nantes, the French Cowboys, organised a party to celebrate his tenth wedding anniversary, he brought all his friends from Nantes over and we did loads of concerts – we did two with Calexico which was fantastic because we did my whole repertoire but with Calexico. So there you go, it’s something that endures, even if we only tend to see each other twice a year!
Rockfort: What about working with Nantes duo Mansfield TYA on the new album?
FB: That was the same really, I met them doing a gig, they were supporting us and I was totally floored by their performance, it was very moving and so I asked them to come and play on the record.
Rockfort: You said that initially you were nervous on stage, but now it seems to be a genuine pleasure for you, you appear to thrive on it.
FB: Yes, yes, with me it depends… for me when the audience is supportive, and the give something back then I’m there for them and I give the best of myself, while other times it feels like you’re performing to a wall and then I’m much less at ease. So at the beginning when I started I was petrified, then gradually I become more and more confident but sometimes that fear can come back if I find myself in front of a difficult crowd.
Rockfort: What reaction do you get from British audiences?
FB: People seem happy even if they don’t understand much – I don’t stop the gig to check if they’re following what I’m singing – but I feel something in spite of all that. They might only catch one or two words but the music ensures that it all gets across. When I see an English group I don’t understand everything they’re singing but it’s really the music that carries everything and ensures that the feeling gets across.
Interview by Ludovic Merle and David McKenna, translated into English by David McKenna