Sixties sensation Francoise Hardy on her lifetime in music
PUBLISHED: 10:00 24 December 2018
The singer Françoise Hardy, who had her first hit as a teenager in the yé-yé era, has just released her 24th studio album. She tells Eddi Fiegel about her life and career
The French have a way of doing their own thing; not least when it comes to music. Just a few years before the barricaded streets of Paris made world headlines in May 1968, a new generation of French pop stars had emerged, performing songs bursting with the optimism and dynamism of the decade.
Françoise Hardy, France Gall, Sylvie Vartan, Jacques Dutronc and Michel Polnareff became household names with an infectious musical mélange that was part 1960s beat-guitar twang, part Gallic take on the early rock’n’roll lite of British teen rockers such as Cliff Richard and Helen Shapiro. Their sound was nicknamed ‘yé-yé’, probably in a nod to The Beatles, whom the acts adored and whose American-inspired ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ refrain in their 1964 smash She Loves You was, amazingly, still considered slightly shocking at that point.
Françoise Hardy was, arguably, in a league of her own. In 1962, when she was just 18, her self-penned hit Tous les Garçons et les Filles sold two million copies and when other hits followed such as Mon Ami la Rose, her face became a regular fixture on the covers of Paris Match and other fashionable magazines of the day.
But she was more than a teen phenomenon: her fans included The Beatles, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and Mick Jagger, who declared her his ‘ideal woman’. while Bob Dylan dedicated a poem to her on the sleeve of his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan.
Hardy stood apart from her contemporaries both musically and visually. The songs of her fellow yé-yé artists had a jaunty joie de vivre and singalong exuberance, most notably the Serge Gainsbourg-penned hits for France Gall such as the Eurovision-winning Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son and Laisse Tomber les Filles, and Gainsbourg’s own duets with Brigitte Bardot including Docteur Jekyll et Monsieur Hyde. By contrast, even Hardy’s more upbeat numbers had a plaintive quality that matched her more poised image.
In Tous les Garçons et les Filles, she sang of a young girl who walks alone while watching young couples pass by, hand-in-hand, gazing into each other’s eyes. Many of her ensuing lyrics were equally sad, not least her heartbreaking 1973 classic Message Personnel, in which she tells a lover of her fear of expressing her true feelings. The fact that she wrote her own lyrics seemed to cement her role as the patron saint of the dispossessed and heartbroken.
Hardy’s image also set her apart. While Sheila, Sylvie Vartan and France Gall sported neatly coiffed bobs, flipped curls and pleats, and were often photographed jumping or running, Hardy’s record sleeves showed her looking composed and pensive. With her insouciant fringe, glacier cheekbones and soulful eyes, guitar strapped to her back, she looked as if she had wandered out of beatnik-filled Greenwich Village, albeit with a hearty soupçon of Parisian chic.
Five decades on, Hardy, now 74, has released a new album, Personne d’Autre, her first for nearly six years. The beautifully melancholic air is very much in keeping with her earlier hits. She also remains strikingly elegant, her hair short, lustrous and white.
The singer was only forced to take time out due to a long struggle with lymphoma, which she survived thanks to a new type of chemotherapy. “I almost died,” she tells me.
She had no plans to make a new album, but happened to hear the 2005 song Sleep by Finnish alternative rock band Poets of the Fall and was so taken with it that she contacted producer Erick Benzi, with whom she had worked previously. “I loved this song so much that I wanted to adapt it in French and record it myself,” she says. Benzi not only agreed, but sent her the melodies he had written for several new songs, with a view to her writing lyrics, and an album was soon in the making.
Hardy’s lyrics reflect her traumatic recent experiences and create a strong sense of impending mortality. The music itself has an air of plaintive sadness very much in keeping with her earlier records. I ask her if that was intentional. “The musicians I work with know that I am fond of slow and medium tunes,” she replies. “They know I am romantic and sentimental, above all.”
The album’s recurring themes of love for someone now far away, reminiscences of past love and indeed the title itself Personne d’Autre (Nobody Else) can also be read as a love song to her husband – the singer and actor Jacques Dutronc, although Hardy denies that they refer to a particular person.
Dutronc was ‘yé-yé’s irreverent pin-up playboy and one of France’s biggest stars in the 1960s and early 1970s, scoring huge hits with Et Moi et Moi et Moi, Les Cactus and Il est Cinq Heures, Paris s’Éveille’. When they got together in the late 1960s, the pair were the ‘Mick and Marianne’ of French pop.
Although long separated – Hardy lives alone in Paris, while Dutronc is in Corsica and has had another partner for the past 20 years – they remain legally married and keep in touch. They also spend time together with their grown-up son Thomas, who was born in 1973.
Hardy has described Dutronc as the ‘man of her life’ and when it comes to her lyrics, the truism that ‘happiness writes white on the page’ clearly strikes a chord. As she tells me: “The great French poet Alfred de Musset wrote that the most desperate songs are the most beautiful ones, and I think it, too. In classical music, the most beautiful musical themes are often those of the adagios.”
Music was always an escape for Hardy. Her wartime childhood was not a happy one because her parents were unmarried in an era when this was considered shameful; her father was mainly absent and her mother “had no money”, as Hardy tells me. She was brought up by a domineering and highly critical grandmother but salvation came in the form of a guitar bought by her father. “[My mother] wanted my father to do something for me when I got the baccalauréat and I hesitated between a small transistor radio and a guitar. I don’t know why I chose the guitar – I did not know anything about music, but my choice was decisive for the rest of my life because I found out that with only three chords I could compose tunes myself. At the beginning they were terrible, of course!’
These days, Hardy concentrates on looking after her health and answering emails from friends. Her autobiography, The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, has just been published in the UK, and she has also written books on her recent passion – astrology. Does she have an average day? “Yes,” she says. “I am a kind of hermit. I get up very early, go to bed very early and watch good movies, TV series or political programmes in the evenings. I live alone and have no secretary, so like everybody, I always feel like I never have enough time.”
When it comes to reading, romantic literature has always been her favourite: “Edith Wharton, Henry James, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Rosamond Lehmann, Daphné du Maurier, etc. But, of course, I read other things. Right now, I am reading a very interesting book Assad, about what is happening in Syria. I also read books about astrophysics and quantum physics.”
Meanwhile, the records which Hardy and her fellow yé-yé artists made in the 1960s are once again in vogue and she is delighted that together they have gained new generations of fans. Despite the differences in style between Hardy and her contemporaries, she always felt a kinship with them.
“I felt very pleased [to be grouped with them] because at that time we were all crazy about the same British and American songs, and influenced by them... yeah yeah. We came also from the same modest background. Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Vartan, Sheila, Jacques Dutronc, Michel Polnareff and I started to become famous at about the same time. It contributes to a special kind of bond between us, we are a kind of family... Johnny’s death [in December last year] made me very unhappy and still does.”
Hardy never thought that the records would remain so popular decades after they were made. “After my first one-year contract, I signed my second for five years. My first song had been a huge hit, but I was secretly convinced that in five years nobody would know me any more. I have always lived with the thought that everything could stop from one day to another.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Sylvie Vartan had hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and carried on touring into the early 2000s, performing jazz ballads at sell-out world tours. These days she tends to appear mostly in news stories related to her grown-up children.
France Gall continued to record and tour until she announced her retirement in 1997. She died in January 2018.
Sheila has performed in various incarnations including Sheila & Ringo with her singer husband, and the disco act Sheila and B. Devotion. At the age of 73, she is now working on a new album with producer and musician Nile Rodgers, with whom she first worked in 1979.
Michel Polnareff has toured on and off since the 1960s and released albums into the 1990s. His 1967 hit La Poupée qui Fait Non was covered three decades later by English indie dance band Saint Etienne. Despite suffering illness in recent years, he is apparently planning a major tour.
Jacques Dutronc devoted more of his time to acting from the mid-1970s, appearing in films by Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Lelouch. From 2014-2017, he toured with Johnny Hallyday and Eddy Mitchell under the collective name of Les Vieilles Canailles (‘The Old Gits’).
Jacqueline Taïeb scored her biggest French yé-yé hit in 1967 with 7 Heures du Matin. In the 1980s, the Tunisian-born singer wrote Ready to Follow You, which became an international hit for American singer Dana Dawson. Taïeb is still recording and in 2015 released the light funk message for world peace, Peace, Love & Action.
REVIEW: Personne d’Autre
New recordings by 1960s stars have a tendency to disappoint. Personne d’Autre, however, still feels very much like a Françoise Hardy album and the beauty of her voice and music puts the recent wave of French-speaking models-turned-singers in the shade.
Aged 74, Hardy obviously produces a different sound from her teenage yé-yé days, but she is singing of a life’s experiences, and her voice remains warm, intimate and extraordinarily youthful.
There is an ethereal quality throughout Personne d’Autre, especially on the opening track À Cache-cache, and producer and co-writer Erick Benzi’s gentle, spare and tasteful production allows her voice to take centre stage.
The themes of reminiscence, loss and mortality could make for sombre listening, but the music is anything but. Un Seul Geste has a catchy refrain that harks back to her 1960s heyday, while Trois Petits Tours has a jaunty, country twang. As she sings on the closing track La Large: “Everything will be all right, everything will be far away when I sail away.”