Carla Bruni's New Album 'French Touch' is Modernizing Classic Poetry
Combining 18th-century poetry with modern lyricism is no small order – thankfully, Carla Bruni is here to do just that. The Italian-French songwriter with a history in politics is slowly taking the world by storm with her new folk vibes and classic appeal. It’s deep, it’s strange, and it’s nothing like what you’ll hear on the radio today – Bruni is truly ushering in a new era. MILK.XYZ sat down with the artist to talk her upcoming album, the stories and inspiration behind her lyrics, her musical idols, why she’ll never be “commercial”, and why we’re so grateful for that. Read the full interview below to take in all of this French perfection.
Are you touring in New York this time around?
I’ll be doing a performance in February, I have to go to Europe first, because it’s simpler. I actually sort of trained in Europe, and then come to America, then South America, and then Asia, and even Australia. Little by little so I can bring the children. Touring is not so simple when you’re a girl with small children. You have to lead them all the time, it’s horrible.
Can they come with you at all?
C: They have school, and their life, and their friends, you know? I don’t want to sort of, you know, when it’s like holiday time, and it’s 10 day traveling, I bring them. I bring them to Greece, and we take holidays in Greece.
Is that why you were saying it was easier to travel there, since it’s closer to France?
In general, we start touring in Europe, because most of the songs are covers, but out of all the songs that I wrote myself, this is my fifth album, and I’ve been a songwriter, but it’s very French. I mix up some American songs that everyone knows, and some of my French songs that people actually know in Europe. When I play the songs in New York, Los Angeles — this was like three years ago — the audience was mostly American, and I didn’t know what they actually got, since my songs are so French, and a couple are folk songs. So they very much rely on the lyrics, you know. If you don’t get the lyrics, you know.
There are so many French people living here though that maybe a lot of them make up the actual crowd?
Yeah, well, the truth is that the crowd was mostly American.
60%. There is a really big singer in France, Johnnie Holiday, he must be 60 years old, he’s like the Stones in France. Anyway, when he comes to play in America, he has full rows, but they’re all French people. All the expats going to his show. But me, no, it’s American people, so I’m glad to have this album, at least they’re going to get the songs. I can mix them up with my songs, and explain a bit.
You said also that you used to live here too. Were you doing any sort of performance back then?
No, I was modeling when I used to live here. I came here a lot when my husband was the President of France for the United Nations, you know, stuff like that. Humanitarian things, you know, wives, and First Ladies, and stuff. It was not for music. I lived there when I was your age? How old are you?
Even when I was younger, when I was 19, but I was a model then, so I had a lot of work, but no music. Just modeling.
It’s a different world.
Yeah, not really, it’s show-business. It’s a different world from politics, but not so much a different world from music. It’s all mixed up. I could see it now because I went to Milan for Versace, homage, you know, and they got all the girls from my time, at the tableau, and it was great fun. I’ll show it to you, it’s amazing.
You’ve kind of in a way lived so many different lives now, because you were doing this when you were in New York –
At least three. But now people are living so much longer, and, so that was the Versace thing.
I want to ask you about the album. It is kind of the first English language stuff you’re releasing in that way.
Yeah, I released an album of poetry like Emily Dickinson, Yates, all very romantic poets from the end of the 19th centuries. But there’s something about poetry that’s kind of complicated.
I took the poems, and I made a song. I put music on it. Some of the songs for me, they’re so modern and understandable, but people, like especially people find it complicated. Like the lyrics, “I’m looking face I had before the world was made.” So fantastic. So deep and strange, but maybe it’s a little intense, for singing. People love the album but they told me, oh my god, the poems are so…
Abstract. But I didn’t find them as abstract. The poetry of Emily Dickinson was incredibly feminine and modern, even though she died in 18-something and it was never published when she was alive, but now she’s the biggest American poet alive! Poetry was destined to be not famous. You know, success, maybe if she was born today she’d be a superstar. Maybe she was too melancholic. So this is the first album of very accessible songs. Normal songs, if I can see. Not famous, basically. You’re pretty young. From our generation, the first song was from 1945, a love letter, the most ancient one, and the latest song is “Depeche Mode – Enjoy the Silence”, I don’t know what is Depeche Mode in American, I’m not sure if they’re big. But in Europe they’re huge.
So you’ve done stuff in English-
Yes, but it wasn’t very commercial.
There was a language barrier because people couldn’t understand it as well?
I loved it, I had so much fun doing it, but people find it extremely sophisticated somehow. Some are not so sophisticated, they’re direct.
Do you have a preference, if you’re finding poetry, or if you’re going to do covers of songs that already exist, but between those two, do you ever find words that are already there and then interpret as opposed to writing your own?
Yes, the words are coming from the past. Some of the words, they didn’t have, and I got my friend Marion faithful to help me, because she studied Shakespeare, old theater, she’s from England, she has the most amazing accent. I didn’t want to spoil the song, you know, destroy them with French or Italian accent. This is more simpler, this album, because they’re covers, most people know them, while of course there’s no Read, and the Stones, and then country songs, and two from very classic films, both sung by divas, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, fantastic.
Were those songs always a big part of your life? Like since you were very young?
Since I was a teenager, my parents gave me a guitar at the age of 10, maybe 11, and I never took lessons to play guitar, because it’s quite easy to play by ear. What I did was, I tried to play the songs, and I probably did it wrong, but I managed to play them for my friends for my parents. I know them by heart, I can feel them when we’re rehearsing. I know them by heart, and I played those songs before I wrote my own songs, and I played many of them before the album, from Bob Dylan, from Leonard Cohen, from Blondie, from every type of, you know, any type of music really. American music also, the blues, Bessie Smith, and all the people from the 30s and the 40s, Billie Holiday, so I was trying to play what I was listening to. And I was listening to so many different types of music, maybe even jazz. At my time, I was listening to every type of music, really.
For the ones that have been in your life since you were a teenager or something, it’s interesting how the meaning of the song will change over the course of your life because you begin to understand it more. I think when I was a teenager, I thought I really understood adults, but even since then, certain things that were older songs back then, I’ve completely re-contextualized the meaning. Are there songs on this album like that?
Yeah, probably. You’re absolutely right. To tell you the truth, until the age of 19 years old I didn’t really speak English. I would know the songs by heart, by phonetically, this was for every song. I would go like, “clo yuh eyes… hmmmm, hmmmmm”. Until 10 years after, I realized that the Beatles wrote, “Close your eyes, and tomorrow I’ll kiss you,” and I was like, this is great! But before that I would just sing the songs phonetically, and that was a great help for my English accent, because I’d learn the sound before I’d learn the meaning. Then when I’d learn the meaning, everything clicked! So definitely, your question is more and more and more then right, you know, because not only one changes from the age of 15 until the age of 35, there’s a gap. There’s probably less of a gap between 35 and 60, but the thing was that… [vacuum noises] They’re cleaning the carpet, which is something we don’t want. But at least the carpet looks perfect.
No, the carpet will be perfect. There’s a bright side to it.
It’s very strange.
I probably brought in a lot of dirt myself.
Me too. Not only does your soul not absorb the songs the same way from when you’re a teenager or an adult, but knowing the songs phonetically you can interpret whatever about the songs. Of course, I knew the words, “love”, “kiss”, but I remember going to my high school degrees at the age of 17, just before university, the last exam before university. We had an English exam, but we only had one year of English learning! So anyway, so this is about Martin Luther King, and you know he made a very famous speech called, “I Had a Dream”, I didn’t know what to write, I hardly spoke English, and I’m reading this text from Martin Luther King and it’s fantastic, it’s against racism, it’s one of the most famous speeches that everyone knows in the world, but I didn’t quite get it. I didn’t know what to write about it. I got a very good grade because I used quotes from a song by the Stones called “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Jumping Jack Flash”, and it says, “he was born in a crossfire hurricane”, so I wrote about Martin Luther King, “he was born in a crossfire hurricane”. The song goes, “I was born in a crossfire hurricane”. So I wrote that about Martin Luther King. I mean, “Jumping Jack Flash” could have been playing for 35 years [hums].
And your teacher didn’t recognize it?
No, he didn’t recognize it at all! But he didn’t listen to the Stones at all obviously.
That’s amazing! That’s a really good way for kids to just write the lyrics to a song.
I think it’s a really good way to learn a language, you can do that with Spanish. Spanish is quite an easy language to understand, a Latin language. Also Italian. You can learn Italian phonetically, and you’d be surprised by how catchy it is. So all these songs are coming from a time where I was playing the songs, as if I’d wrote the songs, but it was more like to play songs with my friends. They’re all famous songs, so people would ask me for it, but it’s also my special choice, you know.
I know also with the album you were working with David Foster, so when it came to either choosing the songs or how you were going to interpret them, how would the two of you work together? I feel like also if you’re doing covers, a song might mean or have different things for him that he could teach you and vice versa?
Absolutely. The one that we pick up at the end, were the songs that we changed, you know, as if we take very famous songs and then we put them on as an outfit. Make it fit. Sort of make it fit. The funny thing with David Foster is that he has great talent, and he’s crazy about jazz and music, and a great musician himself, but he’s used to a very grand production, like when he worked with Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson, people like that. He was producing a large, with a lot of lyrics and strings and chords, and trumpets, and stuff.
It’s like cinematic.
Yeah. Cinematic. But for my album, he kept saying, “Oh my god, I produced this album with my arm behind my back.” I thought it was a huge production for me, because I’m playing folk songs, you can play my stuff on a guitar. I could go down to the metro with a guitar and play with my heart.
If you’re bored.
I could check out what the people think. It’s very easy to play, you know, my songs. We produced these songs as if they were my own songs, and that was the funny part.
What is it you’re approaching with that? In terms of making something your own.
Change the tempo. For some of the songs like the AC/DC songs or the Rolling Stones songs, we make it more feminine. Do something feminine about it. Like “Miss You” from the Stones could be a disco beat. An album that they made in the 70s, it was very disco beat. Well, we made it sort of Latin. We gave it something more Latino, so that gives it something feminine. Something more… something more latin and more feminine. Like a girl version.
I mean, it’s still danceable.
Like it’s not super slow or anything in that way. Most producers tend to be men more often than not, but do you work with more females when you’re putting something together like this, or has it historically been more guys?
I worked with a female just before this, I took on a female producer, she’s a very nice girl from France. I worked with her husband on a previous album, he’s a very famous French producer. But I did the second album with her, which was very nice, because I think it brings another coloring. But David could be a woman or a man, it doesn’t matter because he’s such a great musician. He has an incredible ear and this very male energy but he knows how to choose. He knows how to stop you from going in a wrong direction, which I can go in a wrong direction for like weeks, but we did it two weeks. We did it one week in Paris, one week in LA, and then it was done. So much fun, so much fun.
So he’s kind of like a creative guide in a way. Like if you’re going down a wrong path, he’ll put you back on the right one.
He has all this experience, and all this talent, and all this experience, and all these years. It was good fun to do this album, yeah.
How do you usually approach that process? For example, if you writing your own song, do you ever already see visuals or colors in your head?
Yeah, I do have a very, very, I would say, I’m crazy about simplicity. Even in the video, I never imagine anything that crazy or wild. What I like is clear message, and a simple look. Go for the message. To me, simplicity is glamor. But, I mean, I love also very, very sexy, incredible videos, where the girls are so made up, and all the stars here in America are dancing with the people and all that. But to me, a video can be a bit of film, like a little film from the 30s or 40s, it doesn’t have to be with makeup and hair.
It can be more classic.
I like those videos too, but what I like is that it has more of a strong message. But also, it’s a question of age. I’m not 25, probably if I was 25 I would go for sexy, more radically sexy videos, but at my age, I like to find another message. Something a little more personal and a little more mysterious. Do you know what I mean?
And classic too. It’s not going to feel like something that’s super easy to say what year it came out. Like I feel in the future it’s not pegged to a certain time. Like it has a little more diversity in that way, whereas a lot of American younger stars can look at an older video and know exactly when it came out because it’s a trend. And you know when it started and when it ended.
And they’re looking to attract very young people. Me, I’m looking to attract whoever is attracted to it. Of course, I don’t have ambitions of being first, like I’m not that type of artist. I love it when I have success, but I’m not really writing stuff towards success. Everyone prefers success to failure, but I’m not that commercial. If it happens, probably it’s by luck. But I never tried, because I can never force myself to write some music that is, you know, corresponding to R&B, I couldn’t write it! I wish I could, but I just couldn’t write it.
Right, it wouldn’t be truthful, I guess, in a way. If that’s not how you measure success necessarily, like when you release an album like this, what makes you feel successful? Is it response your peers or from fans? Just a mix of everything?
Success is to do something that is coherent with you. My first album that I wrote as a songwriter, it was supposed to sell two. I thought I was going to sell three. My mom, my sister, my friend, you know. And it sold all over the world, over 4 million now. And it’s so French, you wouldn’t believe it. It sold in America, it sold a lot in South America, because it has something Bossanova in it, some songs are just with a guitar, one guitar. Not even a drum, not even bass, not even strings. No production. It’s also nice when success is a miracle, and it doesn’t come from something that is so fashionable, and you’re always a la mode, because that’s how you have success. Like today with the Instagram, but I’m not always sure it brings you so much success. Maybe you can sell some makeup, and that’s great, or some perfumes, but I’m not sure you can sell an album.
Or artistry in general maybe. I think it fits back into the world of trending stuff, and when something is trendy, it has mortality because as soon as that trend is over-
And also, if you have a lot of success with very young kids, then they grow up, and they change. I can see that older girls, like my daughter is 6, so she likes this singer for 6 months like crazy, and then she changes. It’s incredible. Young people, children grow. And when they grow, they switch from one taste to another. Adults, people like me, we’re faithful, because it brings back memories, and we don’t identify ourselves with one image. Do you know what I mean?
There’s a Nina Simone quote where she says something along the lines of, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times”, and how every artist or performer is finding some way to say something. Some of the music that you’re covering is older, but you’re doing it in sort of a modern way. How do you try to reflect the times or in general, the world, through your art, even if it’s a cover?
You know how we reflect the times? I would say there is something out of time in these songs, for instance, and the good part is not to try to follow something fashionable because something that is fashionable become the mode very soon, as you said. So try to find something out of time, maybe is the best way, you know, to be into your real time. Because you include, instead of including one year, let’s say 2017, you’re including three, four, or five decades maybe. Now since people live until they’re 80 or 100, and music is so reliant. Your generation will live more! 25 years old, you got healthy. People from my parents’ generation are all smokers, are all drinkers [laughs], but what I mean is that songs are like perfumes. Did you notice when you, sometimes when you come across a perfume, like a perfume that you used to know or used to wear, brings you back to your family, either an old friend, either someone you met when you were a teenager, and then the perfume goes into your nose, and you go, “ah,” and it brings you right back. Perfumes are very fast reacting, they’re very connected to our brain, to our cells in our brains, to our memory cells, and so does music. Because in art, you can read a book and go back into memory, or look at a painting or a sculpture, but music is definitely the most connected.
There’s something psychological about it.
There’s something psychological about it and physical, like through your ear into your brain, and all of a sudden, there you are, 20 years earlier, five years earlier, or 3 months earlier, and maybe you’re in New York with friends, or alone, and you get the perfume or the song, and it brings you back there. That’s what I believe. To me, music is, you know, my work is like, music, in general, brings eternity in one second. That’s what I like about these songs. They’re eternal songs. They bring us back in one second, to the first time, we’ve seen them or heard them.
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