I spent a few years living in France, and made it a minor quest to try and discover what was happening and what had happened in the popular music scene over there that might be comparable with the rock and pop and soul explosion in England and America, the artists who might be a powerful force yet not altogether visible to the snobby Anglais.
As it happened I accidentally had discovered one of France’s major 20th/21st siècles talents long before landing myself down on la ferme: Brigitte Fontaine had been brought to my attention by old faithful mag The Wire (it being the music bible of the leftist thinking intellectual set, packed to the gunnels each issue with a million free thinkers and music anarchists I have never heard of). With a career kicked off in the mid-sixties by mentor Jacques Higelin, the singer was immediately recognised as a formidable and non-conformist talent. Her first “proper” album Brigitte Fontaine est…Folle had all the charming aspects of a trad pop LP but with an undercurrent of mad indulgence or sinister intent never far away. In 1971 the singer signed a high-profile petition together with 343 other women, stating that she had terminated an unwanted pregnancy before abortion became legal in France – placing her firmly in the rebel’s camp as far as mainstream pop stars were concerned. Within a couple of years she created a thing of beauty with the record Comme à la Radio. Utilising the talents of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and her partner Areski Belkasem’s gentle Albanian acoustic guitar musings, this album prematurely anticipated the coming of “World Music”. During the 70’s Brigitte and Areski poured out further intimate sketches in their massive LP Vous et Nous and an eponymous album where one track was primarily Brigitte whimpering and crying. Not exactly Rumours, then…
During her entire career this woman has also published books and plays, seemingly unable to constrain her creative impulses, while still delivering a series of albums with an ever-changing style, regardless of musical fashions of the time. Knowing it is one thing to embrace a musical happening – but worth nothing if the root of the music doesn’t come from the soul. While she has been lauded by innovative French songwriters and producers (Higelin, Ettiene Daho, Noir Desir) as well as an eyebrow–raising cast of international players like Sonic Youth, Björk, Jarvis Cocker and Stereolab, Fontaine has forged ahead making vital–sounding records. Importantly, sometimes high-vibed rock and roll records! Something that can seem a rare treat in recent decades. A scan across her LPs since the early 90’s reveals such gems as her collaboration with the late Alan Baschung, Cité, fiery fuzzy guitar extravaganzas like Dans la Cuisine, and the self-loathing heat of Conne. It’s at these moments that one is reminded of the sheer bloodymindedness of a talent born for longevity. As England’s M.E. Smith sings his own song into a world with no option but to listen, so Fontaine must be acknowledged as a similar one–off (but not going off the rails) power and talent.
If any proof was needed that this anarchic spirit blazes as bright as ever just take a look at online clips of her receiving the Médaille de la Ville de Paris in 2012, and take pride in her sublime and quietly wild behaviour throughout. Beautiful as ever, her creative journey continues – dangereux – always reborn as she sang: *“a small pale sun on the run in the sky, guide the Carmens to a new hymen” and we all sigh FAR OUT!
* a very loose translation from Les Carmens, 1988