Frànçois and the Atlas Mountains: Plain Speaking

Ahead of their concert at the French Institute on 20 June for Exhibition Road Music Day, Rockfort's French correspondent Ludochem spoke to songwriter Frànçois about the journey that took him from Charente-Maritime to Bristol, and the genesis of his most recent album 'Plaine Inondable'.

Rockfort: ‘Plaine Inondable’ is your first ‘official’ record. 

F: Yes, that’s right. I was a member of a number of groups, like lots of people, when I was a teenager in Charente-Maritime. But my first real album was ‘Les Anciennes Falaises’ which I recorded in 2004, my first year in Bristol. I met Movietone, who lent me an album to record it.
Rockfort: At the time did you already know Movietone personally?
F: I knew them musically. And then I was lucky enough to meet them quite easily when I was actually in Bristol. I saw an ad, they were looking for someone to play trumpet. I was hired as trumpet players are pretty rare on the indie rock circuit. Then I met other musicians, like Jess D. Vernon of Morning Star, who has since moved to Paris.
Rockfort: So was the idea of moving to Bristol to meet artists you admired and collaborate with them?
F: Exactly. I loved the trip-hop scene at that time, Tricky, Portishead… but the person I really wanted to meet was Aphex Twin. I even went to Wales full of hope that our paths would cross but I never met him.

Rockfort: There are also French influences in your music.
F: The fact of having gone to England made me look at France with the eyes of English person. There, people are very knowledgeable about whole areas of French culture that aren’t hugely celebrated in France: Françoise Hardy’s 60s pop, for example, or the films of Truffaut, the Nouvelle Vague.
Rockfort: You started your career in England. Do you feel people are more open there?
F: When you’re in a foreign country, you become more extroverted, therefore perhaps people react even more positively. But it’s true I immediately had opportunities to do small gigs. The fact of being French certainly helped, this exotic aspect.
Rockfort: You do cultivate a certain air of mystery. Until recently, there were very few images of you available. With your recording name, just François, that creates a certain anonymity as well.
F: At first I really wanted to show the reality of my life in my songs, and even on the internet. I created little booklets, kind of diaries that I made photocopies of. I wanted a certain transparency. But having hung out in underground circles gave me a taste for mystery. Sometimes, the fantasy is more interesting than the reality.
Rockfort: Why did you put an accent on the ‘a’ in your name: Frànçois. That’s not very common in France.
F: One of the reasons (there are several) is that when I was a child I had a tuft on my head that I could never get rid of, and I was able to represent that in the name.
Rockfort: Did the fact of the Spanish label Lejos Discos putting out some of your demos as the ‘Brother’ ep two years ago give you a new focus?
F: Yes. A bit. In fact, the songs I liked best weren’t chosen for the EP. I let the label choose the tracks, I really wasn’t interested in the project then.
Rockfort: Are Lejos Discos Francophiles then?
F: To a degree. They like 70s Finnish psychedelia, which I’m really not keen on, as well as Brazilian music, the tropicalist movement. They’re very eclectic!
Rockfort: Your voice has a very distinctive tone. When did you realise that you had a rather particular voice?
F: It’s funny, the other day with my friends from Saintes – the town I come from – we were having fun trying to copy each other’s voices, and no-one could imitate mine.
Rockfort: Did it take you some time to find your voice?
F: When I record myself, I do a lot of takes and I rarely like it to begin with. It’s quite a lot of work. In fact, I go through periods when I like my voice, and others when I don’t like it anymore.
Rockfort: As listeners, we’re all more or less at home when you sing either in French or in English. And it’s quite funny to move from one to the other and have both languages co-existing in the same song. It leaves people feeling disorientated.
F: Really it’s as a habit as old as French chanson itself, the idea of borrowing words from other languages. For me, it fits with the path my life has taken. I’ve lived in England and been a French teacher there.
Rockfort: Your previous albums were more like attempts to write in a certain style (punk, lo-fi..). With ‘Plaine Inondable’, you now seem, while retaining certain core elements, to have freed yourself from labels like that.
F: I see it as my most committed record. For some time, I had wanted to make a record based around the piano. I don’t know what the team behind me had in mind but, personally, I didn’t imagine turning these particular songs into an album to begin with. It was more a case of experimenting with my friends from Uncle Jelly Fish. I had even contacted Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares to provide the choral parts, but eventually, for practical reasons, I went with a Basque polyphonic group. We were so happy with the result that the members of Uncle Jelly Fish decided to send the recording to several labels, and Talitres responded favourably.
Rockfort: You can hear the influence of central Europe and the East, which you also get in classic French chanson like Brel. What’s the reaction of English audience been to this more open sound?
F: In England they’ve been surprised, but also very enthusiastic. They can hear this French influence and they’re intrigued by it.
Rockfort: It feels as though you’ve really widened the scope considerably for what you can do with your next recordings.
F: I don’t really know what’s going to happen after this album. Some might think that I spread myself too thinly but I think there’s a warmth that’s common to all my songs. Others reckon that I’m incapable of concentrating one thing, but I think that we only have one life and that you should try everything.
Rockfort: You seem pretty self-confident, it’s actually quite rare for recording artists.
F: To be honest with you, that’s quite a recent phenomenon. I surprise myself by enjoying my own drawings and listening to my own songs. The confidence comes from there.

Interview by Ludochem. Translated by David McKenna