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The Lure Of Independence: An Interview With Anne Pigalle
jonny mugwump , November 17th, 2011 10:39

Anne Pigalle has been a half-hidden presence in pop culture for over three decades, remaining staunchly independent since a spell on ZTT in the '80s. She speaks to Jonny Mugwump about her career so far and future projects

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I meet Anne Pigalle outside the Notre Dame De France church behind Leicester Square, where she shows me a fabulous mural by Jean Cocteau - neither of which I was aware about. She recommends that we conduct the interview at The Phoenix Artist Club, which turns out to be an elegantly dated and decadent-feeling basement bar in Soho, with more than a hint of Paris, that leaves me pleasantly disorientated. On our journey there we chat about Resonance FM, the arts radio station where I used to broadcast and where Anne has recently (and frequently) performed, and she remarks “I like them [Resonance], but they won’t play my cunt and dick songs”.

It's certainly the most impressive start to an interview I’ve ever had.

Anne Pigalle is a great lost voice who has been working at the peripheries of pop culture for over three decades now. She left Paris in her late teens, attracted by and then enthusiastically embroiled in London’s nascent punk scene. This eventually led to her being signed to the ZTT label who released (despite an unhappy relationship and compromised production) the monumental Everything Could Be So Perfect album in 1985, which was followed by the Trevor Horn-produced hit single He Stranger. A unique performer with a presence like Piaf or Dietrich, with the then-formidable weight of a unique label at the peak of its critical, commercial and conceptual success, it seemed that she would soon make the transition to pop stardom.

And then, seemingly, nothing…

At the time I assumed that Pigalle had become simply another victim of ZTT’s somewhat bombastic, cavalier behaviour, famously revealed over countless court cases by unhappy singers and musicians allegedly locked in to contractual and creative straitjackets. Many artists spent so long trying to escape that, by the time they did become free, the pop world had raced forward. Rendered unrecognisable by little white tablets and cheap home computers, it left many of these once hopeful bright signifiers of the future now sadly-dated, adrift and without a home.

Time marches on. ...Perfect came out of the racks for an occasional spin, still sounding quite strange and unique, and left me wondering as to the fate of its creator.

Fast track to 2010 and I’m scouring Time Out for something interesting to do. Three words leap off the page at me: Anne. Pigalle. Live. The gig that same night is spectacular and more than a little crazy. She takes to the stage in a maid’s outfit carrying a cane, and delivers a series of witty, obscene and surreal poetry with occasional accompaniment by electric piano, along with a few songs from her time at ZTT. This is high cabaret from a different time and place, the audience are clearly ecstatic and I leave happy from a) having a great night and b) knowing that Anne is still performing, still creating and is still very much an artist.

But then things get stranger still. Intrigued as to her whereabouts for all this time, I start to research. Sure enough there’s a website, and then all manner of craziness begins to unfold: references to Michael Nyman, Donald Cammell, paintings, photographs and yes… music! Three new releases which I immediately snap up: L'Ame Erotique and L'Amérotica I and II. The former is representative of her recent gig-poetry, vignettes and songs with occasional and stark acoustic instrumental accompaniment. L'Amérotica I and II are different propositions entirely, eight pieces of lo-fi electronic pop, rhythmically and texturally complex stuffed with hooks and melodies, completely now – entirely brilliant. What the fuck is going on? I need to fill in the gaps.

So we arrange to meet and this brings us to the Phoenix Artists Bar. And I don’t know where to start, so I start at the beginning.

What was your earliest and most significant musical experience?

Anne Pigalle: Hmm… Before punk? Well, I was asking someone about this the other day, and saying 'What was the first sound or image that turned you on?' And I guess for me, when I was really young I used to watch a lot of TV and didn’t get any pocket money, so if I wasn’t in the street then I was just sat at home. This is when I was very young, so I wouldn’t be out anyway, and I knew a lot about TV - which is ridiculous I know, but really that’s how it was. I learnt a lot about the roles of heroes in society, which is something that is still very important to me. But the first thing that turned me on was the music from The Third Man.

Oh, the zither?

AP: Yes, well, I I remember I was in the kitchen and then I heard this sound, so I rushed in and saw the face of Orson Welles. So really it was first the sound and the picture combined very much together. So Orson Welles really was the big hero before anyone else, although obviously he didn’t direct the film [laughs].

Well no he didn’t but to all intents and purposes it’s an incredibly Wellesian movie anyway, isn’t it? And I guess this makes a lot of sense in relation to your music and lyrics, which certainly feel cinematic in that they’re incredibly narrative-driven – you do tell stories.

AP: Yes, they’re very theatrical. And I think a lot of music and some of the French music I refer to in my own songs, it all comes from very folky music. So with The Third Man, the music is not belonging to a genre, and so it can work for everyone on a personal level. When you are younger, for some reason, something resonates and hits a chord in your psyche. When I was young I saw this James Bond film [there now follows a comical two minutes where we try and work out which film this is, and it turns out to be Moonraker] and then I saw Once Upon A Time in The West which was just so beautiful. It’s a very emotional film, very romantic, and James Bond, the sense of danger in the music is there. These were the first films I saw at the cinema.

Well that explains a lot, as all three films you’ve mentioned are unimaginable without their respective soundtracks. To the point where it seems wrong to even call them soundtracks, as they’re so embedded in the narrative and atmosphere of the fiction. What was your earliest involvement in music then?

AP: I sang Tartuffe from Molière, and funnily enough I was dressed as a man so I sang and acted that part. So I sang a lot, I was a singer and then punk happened. Then I didn’t want to be a singer and I used to play guitar in an all-girl band, but they weren’t really that serious about it, and I was the one always coming up with the ideas. So that stopped and after school I had to relearn how to sing, as I hadn’t done it for a while. And also at that time I had a boyfriend in London who was very involved in the punk scene. When I was 14 I had a very big Epiphone guitar, and for my 18th birthday he bought me another Epiphone guitar. He didn’t know anything about guitars and so Midge Ure told him what to get him.

Was nothing happening in Paris then?

AP: Like a lot of teenagers I felt very perturbed, and by picking up a guitar I felt like I could do something, I felt like I existed too. So I met a lot of the bands through my boyfriend and I decided to move to London after school. I had met a few people in the business in Paris, but this was very boring and they were taking girls to be very stupid, and I just didn’t fit there at all – I felt like an outsider to French society anyway, so I moved to England and the rest is history.

So let’s trace some quite brilliant projects you were involved with. You performed something by Michael Nyman and something produced by David Cunningham?

AP: I played the clubs for a year, and when I moved here I re-committed to singing. There was a French Punk Metal band [Urbaine] which was the first single to ever come out on Rough Trade, and I was round at their place and we wrote some songs together. I don’t know where the tapes are, but nothing really came of it anyway. I was much younger than a lot of these bands and couldn’t speak English very well, and it was hard to be taken seriously as I was young and none of these bands liked French music. But I really wanted to write songs. So I started playing the clubs for a year and Michael Nyman approached me as he was looking for someone who looked a bit Greek to sing this song. He wanted to release this later, but by this point I had signed to ZTT and they wouldn’t allow it - but I don’t know if they were even able to do that. Before I signed to ZTT I did a song on an EP with Adrian Sherwood, who had some downtime at The Townhouse. It was a cover of Love For Sale with Bruce Smith from Rip, Rig and Panic on bongos – that was a good cover actually, and came out on a very small label, Illuminated Records.

That’s quite an impressive cast already then.

AP: Yes, well when ZTT came with a big producer they wanted to present me as being without a past, and by that time I already had a big past. And you know, the punk movement was more important than Trevor Horn…

So what happened with ZTT then?

AP: A lot of us, we did sign these contract, but you know we did want to sign them. I had already been around the industry and nobody wanted to sign this French singer in England, my English really wasn’t that great. Most labels just thought it was suicidal. And so nobody wanted to go for it, and I was round at Mick Jones’ flat and I had these songs, and he suggested that I go and visit Paul Morley. And when I met him, he told me that they were already interested in me anyway. So I was very young and I thought, 'Well, I’m not going to get rich out of this anyway, but I can release a record'. So really it wasn’t that bad a situation at all.

I had to wait quite a long time to go in the studio, and then I had to wait for a long time before it came out. And then there were problems because they wanted to do a second album but with the same backing tracks, just remixed and that kind of thing. They told me that without them I wouldn’t have been Anne Pigalle! Well, the thing is if you do something for free then you should at least have fun, and for me it was a great experience and I wouldn’t denigrate that experience at all. But by this point of the second album, well, there’s only so much megalomania you can take. I was bored and it was time to move on.

There were issues with the production of the album though?

AP: Well you know, I took these very simple Piaf-like demos and I still perform those songs live in the way that I originally wanted to. But he said, you know, 'These won’t get played on the radio', and then it became these huge productions. I remember him coming into the studio and saying [adopts dramatic tone of voice] "I see a sea shape." I was thinking, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ Afterwards he told me that the demos were better than the finished product. But, like I said, still an amazing experience, but you know really I’m much more in the same area as someone like Tom Waits.

But this was a wholesale moving on right? From ZTT, from music and from England?

AP: I didn’t like the music at the time and I wasn’t a fan of House music – it just wasn’t doing it for me. So I’ve always had the visuals – this was always really important to me, cinema - and I started thinking about a film with songs, so I went to LA for 7 years.

Because of my experience with ZTT though, I didn’t want to do something for the sake of it. My new challenge was to do something that was really going to make me happy. When I played live I used to play every week and all kinds of directors came to my gigs, and when things were strange in London due to my being French, in Hollywood it was different – they have a tradition of torch singers, people like Dietrich. The thing is, Edith Piaf was very well known, and I hadn’t realised that, so there were less problems in some respects. But also, with this being Hollywood, none of the directors would take a risk, and my project was very specific. So then I met [film director] Donald Cammell and that was like a breath of fresh air.

How did that come about?

AP: I didn’t have to search to meet him, we met by accident after a friend brought him to see me play live. So I showed him the project and he loved it and we spent a great deal of time talking about it and working on it.

[Cammell & Roeg’s] Performance is pretty much one of my favourite films ever, and only recently has Cammell received the recognition that he deserves. You felt you were well-matched aesthetically?

AP: Well I don’t think many people saw that Cammell was very interested in the woman’s point of view. You know, I thought he was a very intelligent man, and I think we understood each other. We spent a lot of time together and he came to all my gigs.

And of course a victim of constant studio intervention, and unable to get so many potentially incredible projects off the page.

AP: Well yes, he did, but you see he didn’t want to compromise. He could have backed down, and yeah he had a lot of trouble. But I’ve met so many people who’ve cried about having this cut out and that cut out, but at the end of the day it’s the choice you make, and he knew what he wanted to do and was not prepared to sacrifice that. So they call them B-films but a film like Demon Seed is just absolutely extraordinary. And it's so before its time and about the state of the world - when, without naming names, somebody thinks it's hip to have a kid by the devil, Cammell has a film about psychotic technology.

Can you say anything about your project?

AP: Well, not much except that it’s about two self-destructive people, and it’s kind of semi-autobiographical, but in a sense of using myself as a character, so it’s not a wholly narcissistic thing. I want to use myself in my various projects in the same manner as Welles. I use myself in my own pictures because it’s cheaper and more practical, but also because I’ve had my picture taken so many times before and I‘ve not been happy with it or the way people have portrayed me. Not because it’s sexist or something like that, but really because most of the time you go for a session, the photographer doesn’t actually know you, and only I can really express myself properly. But it’s not really about me, it’s about other women - it’s about how I want to look as a woman.

So, with the film it’s the same principle - I’m using my life story as a transformation – it’s a love story really.

Well, love and transformation – what could be more Cammell?

This is the fascinating aspect of Pigalle and her very apparent links to 80s pop culture siphoned through figures like Bowie – the artist as a projection of narrative, the artists body as a cultural tableaux. Take a figure like Lady Gaga, whose visual representation I really quite enjoy, were it not for the fact that there is nothing else there. On a basic level the music sucks and the artifice reveals nothing – it’s a great freak show but nothing more. Pigalle’s humble nonchalance about her time at ZTT, which I still feel reeks of unfairness - if only she had been better looked after and listened to - reveals a personality driven by experience, one of these rare musical artists on the margins of success who finds those waters horrific, and at the expense of personal expression. She seems much more comfortable adrift from the trappings of industry reward, where everyone else is trying to set the parameters.

The rawness of punk which was so important to you, like so many others - I find this so fascinating, that the rawness and truth, for want of better words, led to the strongest period of characterisation and costume.

AP: Well, punk was a search and expression of truth after too long a period of glitz, but don’t forget that punk did have a uniform and did express itself through clothing and everything else. It was to get back to basics, and I’m trying to do the same – to try and get back to the basic feminine condition, but this is not about being a feminist or being a dolly bird, and trying to explore how I feel about being a woman.

And use it as a launch pad?

AP: Yes I’m trying to be honest and search and fight and express myself. It has been a fight though. It’s not easy. I could have been at the top of the charts and I had a lot of propositions [laughs] that you wouldn’t believe, but the choice that I made was to try and find some kind of spiritual happiness. Yeah, I kind of did these things the other way round. I was on a big label with a big producer but it wasn’t me and I learnt quickly, and I don’t want to make these mistakes again.

What about the new music then? How has this come about?

AP: When I was in LA I had a full set of songs - torch songs - and this will be the next album. The electronic stuff is what I did in England after I came back. I really wanted to release something, as not being able to get anything done was just taking so long. [L'Amérotica I and II] was with TDS, my boyfriend at the time, and the spoken word [L'Ame Erotique] I started to do at the same time as the photographs and painting, and it all felt right to go together, so I started to record it on the computer. Nothing was planned though – I just started to do it and I thought 'Well, what am I waiting for'. I don’t have a PR company or a label and it’s so easy these days, so I just thought I should just put it out.

But it’s starting to feel like the right time, people are coming forward to help, and age isn’t a problem to me, as what I’m trying to do is torch songs. This isn’t teenage pop stuff. I really need to complete this stuff though, as I can’t write anything else with me having so much unreleased. I’m not a control freak – it’s just that I know what I want to do. And people in the industry who are not creative, they want to control you and tell you what to do, but I think if you stay true to yourself then you will find some kind of happiness.

For more information about Anne Pigalle, visit her website

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Paul D Brazill
Jan 6, 2012 10:21pm

What a cracking interview!

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