In between working on her first and second album, Carla Bruni has been extremely busy on the songwriting front, penning almost all the lyrics on Louis Bertignac's latest album as well as songs for Julien Clerc. She also guested on the fund-raising compilation Sol en Cirque and appeared on a Gainsbourg tribute album, and has recorded duos with Jean-Louis Murat and Aldo Romano. But now Carla is turning her attention back to her solo career once again with No Promises, a highly literate album featuring adaptations of poems by the likes of W.B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Parker, Christina Rossetti, W.H. Auden and Walter De La Mare.
RFI Musique: It comes as some surprise to find your new album recorded in English. After all, your debut album was categorised as French 'chanson'…
Carla Bruni: The thing is, if I write a song – and I'm talking about the lyrics here not the music – it will probably come out in French. So the French 'chanson' label makes sense to me because I do spontaneously write in French. However, although I've sung a lot of French songs by other people in the past, I don't really feel comfortable putting myself in the 'French chanson' category. Sometimes I get the impression my songs happen by chance, by some sort of miracle. When I get that sudden moment of exultation when a song comes to me, I'm able to think 'That's folk' or 'That's going to be a bit bluesy.' But the process of writing the music is much more vague… It's not the lyrics that give a song its texture.
I've been just as influenced by the French songwriting tradition as Anglo-Saxon pop. I've spent as much of my life listening to Brassens as the Beatles - if not more, in fact. In my teens, I was absolutely hypnotised, really under the influence of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I'd say when I sit down and write a song my influences are really mixed between French, English and Italian. The only place where I would definitely say I'm coming from is folk. I do a sort of 'white' blues, a style I can sing really simply.
Are the poets whose work you've adapted on your new album like old friends to you?
I've been reading poetry since way back, but not necessarily the work of these particular poets. I was familiar with Shakespeare and Shelley, but I didn't know much Yeats, apart from his most famous poem, of course… I find English and American poetry very hypnotic. Actually, I never set out with the intention of adapting poetry, but when I read the poems, something grabbed me. I knew I had to sing them!
One of the things that struck me listening to your album was that the language used by these English and American poets has aged better than that used by French poets of the same period…
I think that's because they wrote in a much simpler style. There are no really old-fashioned words here. And the poets on my album tackled very modern themes in their work, especially the women whose poetry can be really hardhitting at times.
And what about another album in French? Do you know when that might be released?
Actually, I've already started work on an album in French that I hope to get finished this year. I've been working on classical music a lot, which is something I did at the same time I was working on Quelqu’un m’a dit. I prefer to work on my songs on my own, but when I get a bit stuck what I do is sit down and listen to classical music and use fragments of melodies in that as a basis for inspiration. I can't read music so I never work from an actual score, but there are pieces by Bach, for instance, that I find really inspiring… And with a composer like Schubert sometimes eight bars are enough to give you two songs. His work is incredibly rich.
I already have seven songs based on classical melodies. And I've also tried to adapt a number of French poems such as La Possibilité d’une île, by Michel Houellebecq which appeared in his novel of the same name. Some of the stanzas are so romantic, so beautiful, you'd think it was Baudelaire. It's a very musical poem, not a declamatory style at all. I was lucky enough to play the song to Michel Houellebecq himself. Yeats and the other poets on my new album are all six feet under so I don't know whether they'd have liked what I've done with their poems or not. But when you can actually sit and sing the song to the poet in question he can give his opinion on what you've done.
And what did Houellebecq say?
He liked it! I have to say, it's great writing adaptations of poems for songs, but I do realise that it's already been too well done by the likes of Ferré, Ferrat and Gainsbourg in the past to ever have a chance of bettering it…
The songs you wrote for Julien Clerc's album last year were highly acclaimed…
I wrote those songs based on the music Julien gave me and that changes a lot of things. The music he'd written was really rich, really powerful, the songs were already very fleshed out – all they needed was to be 'dressed' and that takes a little bit longer. There were some pieces I worked on for up to two weeks before getting it right. But nothing beats that feeling of finally hitting the nail on the head and understanding just what he wanted to say!
Translation : Julie Street