BOOK: Portrait En Clair-Obscur

In 1964, Elle magazine reported Barbara as saying that the choice for her was between death and singing. Her benchmark song ‘À Mourir Pour Mourir” – a positive look at suicide – also laid it out. This singer-songwriter’s self examination was done in prose, in song, in an arena where, in turn, she was open to examination. In this book, Barbara’s mid-1960s assistant is quoted as saying that Barbara’s “analysis was done in her songs.” 

There’s no doubt that Barbara made an impact in France, yet for us non-Hexagon dwellers, she’s little known. A stroll through one of France’s megastores will turn up box sets and DVDs – clearly she’s important to French culture and cherished, but unlike the male arm of ‘50s/‘60s/‘70s chanson Française – Léo Ferré, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Serge Gainsbourg – Barbara hasn’t figured strongly on the non-Francophone international radar (although Marc Almond and Mika have covered her). Jeanne Cherhal and Zazie offer testaments here. It might be possible to ascribe this lack of international profile to sexism, but it’s undeniable the quartet mentioned here were very male, full-on live, sweating while emoting (although Gainsbourg developed a sensitivity and Brel was a friend of Barbara’s).
Barbara occupied what seems to be a unique position, a non-interprète female writer of chanson Française (only Anne Sylvestre springs to mind as a potential other candidate. Juliette Greco’s canon had drawn from a male pool of writers). This definitive biography, published in 2007 ten years after Barbara’s death tells the story and offers context. It also clears the fog for the non-French.
Rather than taking the easy or usual biographic path and telling a linear story, Télérama’s Valérie Lehoux goes further, analysing the lyrics and relating them back to Barabra’s life, digging into the myth, the rewritings of history and setting all this against both contemporary events and the certainties of Barbara’s life. The writing is active, moving things along. It’s also interrogatory. Pauses are taken to ask questions. How was this event reflected later in song? How did Barbara later relate this event? Did this really happen?
And on its own, it is an extraordinary story. As a Jew, the young Monique Serf spent WWII moving around France, mainly the south. She was born in 1930, and the war experience was impactful and formative. The family were denounced as Jewish, and always ready to move. Her early years were punctuated with horrific family experiences, rape, sexual abuse from her father at age ten – he absented himself from the family after the war. Yet she began performing music during WWII in Saint-Marcellin. Her first known performance was a run through ‘La Complainte de Petit Éléphante’ followed by – weirdly, considering her family’s religion – an outing of ‘Ave Maria’.
She dreamt of music and back in Paris after the war she attended conservatoire. By the mid 50s she was writing and performing – her songwriting nom-de-plume was Andrée Olga. She took the stage name Barbara Brody for shows in Brussels in 1950, soon shortened to Barbara (her grandmother was called Varvara). Her first release was in 1955 on Belgian Decca. Yet it was only in 1958 that she made an impact on the Parisian cabaret scene. Her first ten-inch album followed in 1959 and 1960 and 1961 respectively saw the releases of 'Barbara Chante Brassens' and 'Barbara Chante Jacques Brel'. All the time she was writing her own songs. Finally, in 1964, 'Barbara Chante Barbara' was issued.
Her songs were allusive yet autobiographic. “L’Aigle Noir”, issued in 1970, refers to the shadow cast by her father. “Nantes”, from 1964, is also about her father (he had decamped to Nantes). “Gottingen”, from 1965, examines reconciliation with Germany. These were powerful, yet the delivery was intimate and accessible. Equally intriguing was her image. She always wore black. It was hard to determine her sexuality; although she wasn’t androgynous, there were hints of barriers being crossed.
In that spirit, her music was taken to unusual places. She appeared in Lily Passion, a play she co-wrote, with Gérard Depardieu (the main character commits murder when he hears a song, Barbara’s character dies in the finale). She appeared in New York with ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. She suffered from throat cancer in 1990s, yet returned to recording and the stage. Her voice had changed, but she didn’t submit. She died in November 1997.
Her life reads like a series of battles, yet each obstacle fed her art. If any case needs be made for Barbara, then this book makes that case.
© Kieron Tyler