Catching up with Arnaud Fleurent-Didier in Montréal during the FrancoFolies de Montréal was surreal. The city-centre festival itself is well organised, had great audiences and sympathetic venues – a dream.
But the particular venue of his band’s first live show – of the two they played – was strange. The Espace vert Desjardins is a small, temporary, grass-covered outdoor auditorium hidden within the massive concrete Place des Arts complex. It was akin to a lush back garden being dumped in the centre of London's brutalist South Bank arts complex. The grass-lined stage sported a row of bushes along is edge, like the over-decorated window of butcher’s shop. Arnaud Fleurent-Didier’s modernist recasting of 70s French culture could not have been showcased in a more incongruous setting.
But incongruity is no problem for Arnaud Fleurent-Didier. The French critic Valérie Lehoux has pointed out that as he searches for his place in the world, he challenges us – challenges us to do so too. His recent album, the lush and atmospheric 'La Reproduction', is one of this year’s most striking – a conjunction of perfectly-conceived music and lyrics that look back through Didier’s experiences of family life and growing up. A concept album and, as Lehoux says, it’s possible to recognise yourself there – should you be French .
In a Montréal café, he responds to whether 'La Reproduction 'reflects the French growing-up experience by saying “I can’t tell you my album is universal, I don’t know.”
With an album that puts his parents under the microscope, it must follow that they may not have been too happy. “It was difficult for them to listen to the album,” he acknowledges. “They understood it, but found it tricky – and with how it reflected their own parents too. Now everything is ok, they are proud.”
'La Reproduction' must be considered a breakthrough: it’s on major label Sony. Although Didier previously issued his own records independently, he’s retained the rights to the vinyl edition despite being signed to the multi national. The musical influences of his teenage years were indie too. “Daft Punk were going to raves,” he says. “But I was listening to The Smiths, then The Wedding Present and shoegazing.”
Asked why he didn’t pursue an indie/guitar direction, he says “it’s impossible in France. Singing in English is not natural. I compose French songs. Air, Daft Punk, Phoenix, Sebastian Tellier – in this group of bands I’m this silly guy who sings in French. I’m in love with the meaning of songs, the meaning of the album. It’s very old fashioned. When I was working on the album I was listening to a lot of Wings and Pierre Vassilu
– he is the single artist who has most impressed me.”
Being in thrall to the album overall is nothing new. His second album 'Portrait d’un jeune homme homme en artiste' “was a reference to Joyce,” he explains. “It was a big piece, difficult to make as it was a kind of concept album about a person who wants to deliver art – it was a reflection of me.”
Now though, he’s on stage playing an album entirely conceived in the studio and entirely recorded digitally. “Thanks to modern technology I can make the music I can make my own strings, orchestra. All the instruments on 'La Reproduction' are played by me except the flute. But it's just impossible to play the album live. Live, it’s bit more pop. I love to take the songs and change them, we play 'My Space Oddity' very short, 'La Reproduction' very long. I look at my band constantly for inspiration – [bass player] Milo and [keyboard player] Dorothé are the first people who wanted to play with me. Now there are five of us it works better, but I don’t like the fact that I’m the singer, that they are the band.”
Based on the Montréal shows, if there’s any problem with reproducing 'La Reproduction' live, it’s that Didier thinks too much. He spent three years creating the album in the studio and the spontaneity of a live show is a very different thing. He admits it is “very difficult to change from studio to live.”
But once the show begins – even in the weird green-grass space – he loosens up, playing off and with the band. Less thought is usually bad. But for playing live, for Arnaud Fleurent-Didier it’s a necessity.
© Kieron Tyler 2010