As Serge Gainsbourg's classic 'Histoire de Melody Nelson' gets a sparkling reissue, Rockfort presents an excerpt from a 2006 interview for Resonance FM with the brilliant architect of the album's sound, arranger and composer Jean-Claude Vannier.
Rockfort: If you have to put your job title on a form, what do you write?
J-C V: Well maybe I have no job, but when I was young I expected to be someone who writes… music or words, or someone who draws… but I did not wish to be on stage. And if I am on stage it’s because certain of my songs cannot be sung by another person. So I sing them.
Rockfort: Because they aren’t able to?
J-C V: Not that they aren’t able, they sing better than me, but it’s not for them. For example, I sing a song about transvestites and I know a lot about these people, and some French singers are afraid to sing this sort of song.
Rockfort: What is your background?
J-C V: I come from a protestant French family… very strict… and they didn’t want me to make music or any artistic activity. I did not learn anything at school – I was obliged to learn by myself. And I began playing piano and orchestra very quickly with a few pieces of music I had collected here and there, and I learned through life, with other musicians.
Rockfort: So have you had any formal training?
J-C V: Not at all. I’m an ‘autodidact’.
Rockfort: What is it about an artist that makes you want to work with them?
J-C V: I don’t work with just anyone, I work with people who like me and who I like. Because I’m not able to go in just any direction – I write what I can and it’s not automatically good for this or that singer.
Rockfort: Do you have to like the person?
J-C V: Yes, I have to be a friend, and Gainsbourg, for example, was somebody who worked with me and a friend. Sometimes I worked on songs without him, and sometimes I worked on songs with him, but we were friends all the time.
Rockfort: On ‘Histoire de Melody Nelson’, for example, how was the work divided?
J-C V: When I was in London with Serge, I was living at the Cadogan – the last hotel that Oscar Wilde slept in before going to jail. Serge said to me, “I have the title for an album, and it’s ‘Melody Nelson’. I said “So?” “That’s all.” (laughs) “Do you have some tunes in your drawer?” And I did not know this expression, I was surprised. And I made some tunes for ‘Melody Nelson’ and after he made some others and we did the arrangements.
Rockfort: So the arrangements – were they written together?
J-C V: No, when I write, I write all by myself.
Rockfort: With the rediscovery and appreciation of ‘Melody Nelson’ has come that of ‘L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches’.That album, apparently, was intended to be a crazy journey for the listener…
J-C V: I don’t understand very well what happens, because when English people seemed to have interest in my album, I thought they were joking with me, and then I understood they were sincere. But at the time when I was writing ‘Melody Nelson’ with Serge and when I wrote ‘L’Assassin des Mouches’, the first years when the albums were in the shops, they had no success. Absolutely none.
Rockfort: What about critical success?
J-C V: No, we were very disappointed. And after years and years passing, I understood that people loved this album, and that was a surprise for me – and the same for ‘Assassin Des Mouches’. And I’m not able to say if this thing is good or not good. So if people say they like the albums, I’m very happy, but I don’t understand why they like the albums now and did not like the album at the time.
Rockfort: Maybe a bit of distance allowed people to appreciate them...
J-C V: Maybe, but it’s not fine art, it’s only songs, and songs have to be understood at the time they go to the public.
Rockfort: Do you not think perhaps it was ahead of its time?
J-C V: Maybe… we can say that about a painting or a symphony but not about songs. Songs are in the year, in the week…
Rockfort: Do you like the ephemeral aspect of songs?
J-C V: Yes, I like songs very much because they’re tiny, they’re cheap. And I like to be in European capitals and hear singers… in London, or Barcelona, Berlin, Prague… and I don’t understand the language, but women and men singing with just a piano and guitar, I love that. Because you have three things: the voice, which is not so good, the music, which is just song music, and the words, which I don’t understand all the time… but these three things make something of genius, extraordinary, amazing, great. It’s a mystery.
Interview by David McKenna