Touching Base With France’s Former First Lady: Carla Bruni Interviewed

Jeremy Allen interviews Carla Bruni in Paris about her new album French Touch, but politics is strictly interdict. “I wish good luck to Mr and Mrs Trump, I wish good luck to Mr and Mrs Macron, and I don’t care, do you understand?”

I had the sense that Sarkozy was finished with politics, that after 2017 he’d moved on”
Michel Houellebecq, Submission (2015)

If you’ve noticed any strange goings on on Carla Bruni’s Wikipedia page of late (or her husband Nicolas Sarkozy’s for that matter) then you can blame this website. I’m sat with the singer, ex-model and France’s former first lady in a hotel room a stone’s throw away from the Place Vendôme on the day of the Summer Solstice. The Place Vendôme hosts a giant column with Napoleon on top, which was pulled down temporarily by the Paris Commune in 1871, and Bruni has some insurgency of her own to deal with from the internet’s greatest free encyclopedia.

“They make a lot of mistakes but I don’t know how to change them,” she complains. “Important mistakes – the dates of album releases, the sales of the albums, they get everything wrong! But I don’t know how to change it. Should I write them a letter?”

I tell her that anyone can edit Wikipedia.

How?” she cries.

“You can sign up and get an account,” I say. “It’s a public resource everyone can contribute to, which is why it can be unreliable…”

“But how can I contribute? There are little things and I wouldn’t like to appear so narcissistic, you know? But like my husband for instance, he’s quite right, because when someone has action they have action, but as artists we put an album out, then tour, then stop. Anyway, what were you going to say?”

One quickly gets the impression Bruni is excellent company to whomever she speaks – for instance she embraces her PR like they’re old friends, and is far more civil than most music interviewees.

“Tell him he’s naughty if he asks something he shouldn’t,” says the PR before leaving the room.

“He’s naughty,” Bruni says laughing. “They all are!”

We only have half an hour to get everything in, but we’ve alighted on the topic of languages early on, and Bruni has a lot to say on the subject. I’m wondering how I can move the questioning on without sounding impolite but she keeps chattering away. “My husband learned English five years ago, now he speaks fluent English. I mean he’s 62 – and people don’t usually start to learn a language at the age of 60,” she says as I try to interrupt. “Anyway, he loves it, so now we’re watching all the films with the subtitles in French, which are very well done. I can tell they’re well done, I can see it, you know? So he gets used to the English sound and he’s made great steps – he has amazing conversations with English people and Americans. He’s fluent, completely fluent.”

I tell her I’m still woeful at French and am beginning to wonder if I’m stupid.

“Not at all! You’re probably intellectual like my husband is, but you need to learn through the ear. I learned English listening to the Beatles before I knew what the words meant.” She begins to sing: “Clo’ your eye’ and I’ll kit you, doo-morrow I mit you…” Five years after I realised they were singing ‘close your eyes…’”

Vieux riche and the daughter of classical musicians, Bruni has what they sometimes call the common touch while also being able to entertain the Queen (they got on well apparently) and rotters like the Assads, who popped by the Elysée Palace for some lunch in 2010. Politics is off the menu today, which is a slight problem as I have notes full of the vexing stuff. We are here to talk about her new record French Touch, true, but how can one not resist asking a few questions of Forbes’ 35th Most Powerful Woman in the World 2010? How does she feel about Brigitte Macron? Or indeed Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular campaign to get the First Lady role recognised as an official title? What does she think about Brexit? Or Trump? This stuff is all strictly interdit, though that won’t stop me trying. She does however have things to say about her friend, the writer Michel Houellebecq, and his satirical and controversial metafiction, Submission, which imagines a Muslim-run French government in 2022.

As regards to the record, French Touch is a covers album, and as those kinds of records go it’s a triumph. Produced by David Foster, who’s won 16 grammys and tends to do high end and schmaltzy (Celine Dion, Mary J Blige’s Christmas album, Whitney, Madonna, Buble), it’s actually delightfully understated, and having chosen timeless and somewhat surprising classics from Depeche Mode, AC/DC and Lou Reed, nothing gets butchered thankfully. There’s even a wistful rendition of ‘Miss You’ co-written by her former paramour Mick Jagger. Foster suggested doing an album of English songs when he met up with Bruni in L.A. in 2013 following her then recent tour. The singer songwriter has never been able to write words in English, she claims, so he suggested an album of other people’s songs. “Don’t you have to be Barbra Streisand to do a covers album?” Bruni thought at the time. Bruni made some intimate acoustic demos, and then Foster flew in to Paris for 10 days of recording in January 2015, with eight days of sessions in L.A. that April to finish things off.

It’s the longest day and Paris is hot. A few days prior to our interview there was an attempted terrorist attack on a fleet of police cars on the Champs Elysees, making the avenue the scene of two terror attacks in three months.

Why did you choose to call the new album French Touch?

Carla Bruni: It wasn’t in reference to the electro movement, it was more to do with my accent. I was recording all these classic songs and thinking I don’t have an English or an American accent, but then I got a lady – a voice coach – and I said to her, ‘Do you think my accent is really unbearable?’ And she said, ‘No, it’s a little french touch. You shouldn’t force yourself, you shouldn’t change it, don’t try and be artificial, sing the way you sing and we’ll try to make it a little better.’ I tried to make it a little better but I speak English the way I do, and being nearly 50, it’s not so easy to change the accent.

Do you feel more French than Italian?

CB: I feel more Italian. I would say my roots are completely Italian and my leaves are French if I was a tree. My roots are very Italian but now of course my family is half French. I moved here when I was a seven-year-old and my grandmother was French, and she helped raise me a lot.

Didn’t you move to France because the Red Brigades in Italy tried to kidnap you?

CB: Not kidnap. In Italy it was called anni di piombo [the Years of Lead]. The Red Brigades were everywhere, but they weren’t only doing political, anarchist kidnapping. I don’t know if you remember, you’re too young maybe – you must have been a baby – but Aldo Moro was the president of the Christian Democracy and they kidnapped him and killed him [in 1978]. And they took many other people. They killed tonnes of policemen and they killed a lot of civilians. And the Mafia were kidnapping too. There were so many kidnappings – sometimes it was the Red Brigades, but often it was just people who wanted money. Many people from Torino, like our family, went abroad to other countries.

Let’s return to the record. On French Touch there’s a swing version of AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ with some interesting Marc Ribot-style guitar…

CB: I listened to ‘Highway To Hell’ a lot because my son is a metal fan. He’s 16 so he likes music to be loud. He said, ‘your music is nice mummy but it makes me fall asleep. Listen to real music!’ So I said to him, "Hey, I did a cover of ‘Highway To Hell’." He said "What?" So he listened to it and he said, "It sounds like jazz."

Some of the choices are interesting. You’ve done a version of Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’. Is there there some kind of subtext there?

CB: It can be interpreted as a statement for any girl who would sing it. Now we have gay marriage so any man can sing it to his man. So no. Actually, I’ve loved the song for a long time and I was singing it for a long time before I got married. But I love to stand by my man and I would like him to stand by me. I know it’s not a very feminist song but it’s just a cover. I didn’t choose it to send a special message, but if you ask me the question, I love to stand by my man, definitely, and I hope he’ll stand by me.

You told Vogue in 2012 that you’re not a feminist, you’re a bourgeois. What did you mean by that?

CB: No, I didn’t exactly say that. Of course I’m a feminist. I’m all for defending women’s rights. I was just saying that my generation came after a long wave of feminism which gave us freedom: with birth control, with salaries, equity and so on. So I just said I’m not that kind of feminist. Because also these feminists did the job before my generation. Feminism was very strong in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and now there’s still a need. But I was telling the guy I’m the bourgeoisie because I’m not militant, I never go and protest or anything. But I think feminism is really important in the world. I mean in the occidental world it’s really good, but not the whole world. There is a long road to go still for women. I appreciate feminism and I respect feminists.

It feels as though we’ve gone backwards recently though.

CB: Yeah, somehow. Maybe not in every country but in some parts of the world. Sort of a regression. Feminism is so important right now.

You chose ‘Miss You’ as the lead single. It’s a brave choice to lead off with a Rolling Stones song. It’ll get The Daily Mail excited.

CB: Well yeah, but it’s the Stones! The Daily Mail can get excited on their own, but the Stones are the Stones. We did 20 songs, some bluesy things, ‘You’ve Got The Silver’ as well, and we ended up keeping ‘Miss You’ because we found a dancey way to do it. To tell you the truth, it’s not related to my personal connection with the Stones at all. For years there’s been nothing [laughs]. But the reason why we chose it as a single was because it’s danceable. We sort of twisted most of the songs, and this one we twisted in a very Latin way. We were quite happy with the result to tell you the truth, which is why we kept it. There are so many fantastic songs we could have covered from the Stones. I’m a fan of the Stones and that’s it.

It’s got some nice Cuban percussion and some lovely Philly-style strings on that track.

CB: I think the production by David Foster is great. Those Stones songs were more his idea than mine.

Something came up in the briefing on my tablet the other day, and it was another story from The Daily Mail which I tend to ignore. But it claimed you were denying having had an affair with Donald Trump many years ago. What’s it like to have people write rubbish about you all the time?

CB: Well it’s the story of my life, people writing rubbish about me. It’s okay, I’m used to it. I just want to say, I’m not interest in politics. Politics is my husband, and since he’s not interested in politics anymore, then I’m not interested in politics. I wish good luck to Mr and Mrs Trump, I wish good luck to Mr and Mrs Macron, and I don’t care, do you understand? Not at all! Not an inch. And I don’t want to talk about it, because when I get asked these questions, I spend half an hour talking about music and then the only headlines are the ones about Trump and Emmanuel Macron. I don’t care, they can do what they want, good luck to everybody, bye bye! You know what I mean? That was only an old rumour and it has no truth in it at all, so if people want to talk about it they can talk about it.

I’m not after sensation…

CB: No, I know who you are. But other people. It’s finished for me.

So you wouldn’t want to share your thoughts on Brexit then?

CB: No. I couldn’t care less. I couldn’t think of anything I care about less in the world. Not Brexit, but just politics in general. I was available during the time my husband was President and I thought it was my duty to be polite and answer every question. That duty is finished.

But wait a minute. Had your husband got the Republican nomination instead of Francois Fillon then there’s every possibility you’d be sitting in the Elysees Palace right now. And then you wouldn’t have been sat here talking to me.

CB: Yeah, I think I would anyway. But it wouldn’t be as easy in that position, it’s true. But I already did it and I’m okay, I’m used to it. It’s much simpler this way, it’s much more comfortable. I would have done it anyway but maybe not touring as it’s a little difficult for security. When my husband was President I went to England and I did the Jools Holland show. The other musicians didn’t care, the journalists didn’t really care – unless they were very political – but people are just cool about it.

If you went and did a gig this evening would you need more security than normal?

CB: Less security than most superstars.

But probably more security than your average up-and-coming artist?

CB: [Thinks] Yeah. No. I dunno. Yeah probably. No, not really. I have one person for security and not all the time. I don’t feel in danger at all.

We’re all having to deal with that in a way after what happened at the Bataclan in 2015.

CB: Exactly! And it keeps happening every day. That car [on the Champs Elysees]… It’s so frightening and it’s so… crazy. This guy in a car went into a gendarme. He went into a police van and his car was full of explosives. So he was not just a loony, he was, again, one of them. It made me feel sick. It made me feel sick!

[At this point the PR appears from the other room and asks us if we can get back to talking about the album].

Can I ask you about Michel Houellebecq?

CB: Sure.

You worked with him didn’t you?

CB: I used one of his poems [‘La possibilité d’une île’] which I put music to. That’s how I got to meet him ten years ago. And then he came to the house and listened to every little process of the songwriting, and he actually chose his favourite melody. And then he was really cool about it – and so we became friends. He is someone I really like. He’s a really, really lovely person, so talented, intelligent, funny. A fantastic writer. The best… for me. We had dinner two months ago and he’s happy and in good shape. We had so much fun.

Did you like his latest book, Submission?

CB: Very much. Very much. What a visionary! Did you read it? You must read it this summer, you’ll love it. It’s so incredible they published that a year before everything happened [Soumission came out in France on January 7, 2015, the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks]. He has a vision and it’s incredible… incredible!

You’re almost the antithesis of the modern celebrity in that you’re famous for lots of things. Do you find people you meet have different perceptions of you depending on what they know you for?

CB: Especially in this country – in France they have this perception that’s probably reliant a little bit on my husband’s previous job. But in other countries it’s more confused. In Germany they love my music. In Italy they think I’m Italian and I betrayed them [laughs]. In America they don’t care: they take me for who I am. In most countries people are very kind.

I once interviewed the singer Lissy Trullie who happened to be an ex-model, and while she used to also work as a janitor in New York, nobody ever refers to her as janitor-turned-singer Lissy Trullie. There will always be those who sniff at a model who becomes a singer because they’re probably sexist idiots. And then you go and marry the President of France which must doubly confound them.

CB: I never think about what people are going think about me.

Do you ignore them?

CB: Yeah, ignore a little bit, but I don’t feel it too much. There are occasions to do things and I jump on those occasions.

Do you have to develop a thick skin?

CB: Not really, because comments about your image, they’re not really you. My life, if I look at it in a clear and lucid way, has always been very lucky and cool. And also when I think about it, I’ve had two children, and everybody is okay and healthy. That’s the only thing that would really make me suffer. I don’t suffer from what my image can bring. I also wanted people to know me, so I’m not going to complain now. I always wanted to be famous – as a kid it was my dream. I know I shouldn’t say that but it’s the truth. Now I’m not going to go, “Oh my God, what are people saying about me?” I had a choice to be a student and not become a model, and becoming a doctor was another one of my dreams. I had a choice between not becoming a singer or becoming a songwriter and writing behind the scenes; nobody would have seen me writing songs for other people. I had the choice of not marrying my man; we could have just been hidden lovers, but I couldn’t cope with it. I had these choices to do all these things, so I’m not going to cry over a life which has been really lucky.

You’ve led an incredible life really. Do you have any intention of writing it down?

CB: The problem is, I can only write in rhymes. When I write a letter it takes so long, so maybe I’ll need somebody to help me. I will try to write it myself but if I can’t do that I’ll get someone else in. I read Angelica Houston’s biography, she wrote it herself and it’s fantastic. Then people like Keith Richards got someone else and that was very good. You really felt like he was talking. I think I could write it but I don’t know. I hope I’m not gonna die within the next couple of years.

I expect you’ll be alright.

CB: I hope so! You never know.

What are you most proud of?

CB: Proud? I don’t know. Maybe the fact I’m adaptable.

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