French singer, producer and actor Benjamin Biolay has been called the new Serge Gainsbourg but, as he tells Pierre Perrone, he is less an enfant terrible and more a romantic
Benjamin Biolay has been shrugging off comparisons with Serge Gainsbourg for more than a decade. “That’s an awful cliché. I’m the total opposite of Gainsbourg… I’m a romantic. I believe in love,” he says right off the bat.
Yet, the Gainsbourg comparison is convenient shorthand to introduce the Villefranche-sur-Saône-born, classically trained Biolay to an international audience. Like the late enfant terrible of French pop, he is not only a singer and songwriter with a spellbinding, half-spoken delivery, but he is also extremely adept at providing the perfect setting for female artists, having worked with chanson legends Juliette Gréco, Françoise Hardy and, as he puts it, ‘Franco-British monument’ Petula Clark. “I love writing for women. I love the timbre of their voices, the fact that they usually sing in a higher, more ethereal register. I find their voices suit the French language.”
Indeed, Vengeance, Biolay’s latest album, features a guest appearance by Vanessa Paradis on the languid Profite, but he rejects the idea that she is Jane Birkin to his Gainsbourg.
“She just stopped by the studio and loved the track and I suggested we record it together. Vanessa is a singer-songwriter in her own right. When I work on her album, she’s the boss, I’m just the producer. The songs I submit don’t get any preferential treatment,” stresses Biolay who has nevertheless co-written much of Paradis’s new album Love Songs. He has also worked with Carla Bruni – arranging the strings on her best-selling 2008 album Comme Si De Rien N’Était – and his ex-wife Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of the grande dame of French cinema Catherine Deneuve and the late Marcello Mastroianni. You can understand therefore why, for a while, Biolay cropped up in France’s celebrity magazines rather than on the covers of influential magazines Les Inrockuptibles and Télérama, as he did when Vengeance was released in France at the end of last year.
Following his divorce, and 2007’s much misunderstood Trash Yéyé album – though a favourite of Elbow frontman Guy Garvey – Biolay admits he experienced something of a lost weekend.
“I went out and drank a lot, I got up to mischief. I criticised other singers. I was out of contract so I made a lot of music without worrying about what the record company would think. Pure bliss,” he now says of the period leading up to La Superbe, his most fully realised album. A dazzling, epic, 22-track concept cycle, a daring move in the digital download age, and full of dramatic crescendos and refined string arrangements, the filmic La Superbe sounded like an Histoire de Melody Nelson for the new millennium – thankfully without Gainsbourg’s Lolita fixation – and proved a critical and commercial success. It also won Biolay two Victoires de la Musique – for Best Male Artist and Album of the Year – in 2010, to add to the first prestigious Newcomer of the Year Victoire he was awarded for his debut album, Rose Kennedy, in 2002.
He is too modest to make the claim himself, but Biolay is arguably the most naturally gifted musician working in France today. A chameleon-like artist, he has never made two identical albums, as Vengeance amply demonstrates, with contributions from ‘dandy soulmate’ Carl Barât, formerly of The Libertines, and rappers Orelsan and Oxmo Puccino.
“I wanted to make an upbeat, uptempo, positive album, a perfect antidote to the times we’re living in,” he says about his second recording to gain a UK release. “With a song like Profite, I’m telling myself and people of my generation to enjoy life, not to have any regrets. When I came up with Vengeance as a title, I was being silly. Revenge, after all the success I’d had? But it wasn’t a manifesto,” explains Biolay.
He has a knack for looking at love in a different, some would say typically Gallic, way. For instance, Aime Mon Amour, Vengeance’s lead-off track, is about “a love handover. One guy loses out to another but gracefully tells his rival a few secrets on how to love his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. As usual, it’s a mixture of souvenirs from my private life adorned with an imagined scenario. You often write your best material during a period of intense personal suffering,” he muses.
Biolay sings mostly in French, yet his popularity extends far beyond the Francophone countries, to Germany, Spain and Latin America, notably Argentina, Chile and Mexico.
“Paradoxically, I now get more airplay in Chile than in France, where I don’t fit into any radio format. And in 2010, I played a festival in Buenos Aires, to 40,000 people, co-headlining with Massive Attack. I felt like a star. Apparently, my dark looks help,” he quips, aware his saturnine looks make him ideal to portray Benicio del Toro’s younger, better-looking brother.
Coincidentally, Biolay is also an in-demand actor with a lengthy résumé, often involving French women directors including Katia Lewkowicz, Sylvie Verheyde and Agnès Jaoui, who has helmed his latest film, Au Bout du Conte (Under the Rainbow).
“It’s a modern fairy tale. I play a big bad wolf; a bad boy. True story. Cast against type!” says the polymath who is as comfortable in front of the camera as he is behind the mixing desk. He seems to be putting music first at the moment, with a European tour that will see him perform at London’s Union Chapel on 27 June.
“I’m a workaholic. I’m happy spinning all those plates. Whatever happens, I’ll keep acting, I’ll still write and produce. But singing is the most fragile part of my working life. If it all gets too much, I could stop.”
Vengeance by Benjamin Biolay is out now. For more information, visit www.benjaminbiolay.com