Pop Satori: Rockfort Interviews Étienne Daho

With the French singer set for his first UK show in 16 years, he tells David McKenna about his latest record, Les chansons de l'innocence retrouvé

Photograph courtesy of Richard Dumas

Translated, Étienne Daho’s new album Les chansons de l’innocence retrouvé – ‘Songs Of Innocence Regained’ – has a similar title, plucked from the same source, as U2’s latest emission. (Daho is also the second French artist I’ve interviewed this year who has claimed to draw inspiration from William Blake.)

Over the phone, affable as I’d hoped, Daho says: "When I was a teenager I read a lot of Blake’s poetry and when I decided to write and record the album I came to live in London, I found a small furnished apartment, and when I arrived the book I found was Songs Of Innocence, and it was exactly the same edition that I had when I was a teenager. So it was a bit like a sign, and the title of the album is partially influenced by that."

But it’s hard to imagine Daho doing anything as crass as dumping the fruits of his labour onto your iPod without asking – even as the young dandy prince of French pop, he seemed to be the most discreetly charming dandy you could imagine. It’s hard to imagine even though, in more recent interviews, he has repudiated this perhaps slightly too inoffensive image of himself, one that can be dated back to his emergence on the French pop scene over 30 years ago.

Then, he appeared breezy, nonchalant, a dreamer and drifter, "hanging around with no purpose" as he puts it in the deliciously melancholic ‘Paris Le Flore’. It was a period when a number of French musicians emerging from punk (the French had been earlier adopters, at the same time or even earlier than Brits) started harking back to the relative ‘innocence’ and bubblegum freshness of 60s pop, including yé-yé, but in light of punk’s DIY lessons and the freedoms afforded by newly affordable synthesisers. In this respect, Jacno, who died in 2009, was a central figure through his own cold and bouncy, geometrically precise instrumental tracks like ‘Rectangle’, ‘Triangle’ and ‘Circle’, as half of duo Elli & Jacno, and producing the likes of Lio (‘Amoureux Solitaires’) and Daho’s first album, 1981’s Mythomane. Jacno himself had been part of The Stinky Toys, who played the first UK ‘punk festival’ at the 100 Club with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and Buzzcocks; Daho meanwhile, came from Rennes’ post-punk scene that birthed the Trans Musicales festival and groups like Marquis de Sade. He arrived in Paris, as he said himself in an interview with Les Inrockuptibles in 2000, as a "young, kind of trendy guy in love with Françoise Hardy and The Velvet Underground."

I wonder whether, aside from the Blake reference, whether the "innocence regained" also relates to the freshness and inspiration you have when starting out, without the weight of fame and public expectation? The song ‘Les Chansons de l’Innocence’, featuring Au Revoir Simone, appears to hark back to hits from the early days of ‘Dahomania’, which kicked off in earnest with 1986’s William Orbit-produced (long before Orbit became a go-to producer) Pop satori album.

"I hadn’t thought of that, there are a lot of things you’re not conscious of when you’re writing a song, when you’re writing lyrics, and you only grasp the meaning some time later. So at the present time, regaining innocence is for me about finding your true self, not the self that those around you project on to you. Being able to say: ‘I’m just this.’ I didn’t really think at all about going back to the beginning, mostly because I think I always approach the music in the same spirit, with the same freshness."

Daho has always seemed singularly determined to not be bound by expectations and, despite that echo of his youth that still lingers, he’s dodged so many other traps that could have ensnared him. He hasn’t been defined either by his early years growing up in Oran, Algeria, which was battle-torn by the time he left for Reims at the age of six. He has also never allowed himself to be pinned down on his sexuality: "Sexuality can evolve over the course of a life, it doesn’t only depend on you but on the people you meet" he told the French version of Closer magazine last year. He’s even given death the slip on more than one occasion. While he was still a child in Oran, someone tried to set fire to the home he shared with his mother and two sisters. Later, in the mid-90s, the word went around that he was dead, when in fact he’d just moved over here.

"Yes, when I lived in London!" he explains. "Between 1994 and ’96, there was a rumour that I had died of AIDS. It was for that reason that when I made the record with Saint Étienne we called it not ‘Resurrection’ but Reserection [laughs]." That collaboration spawned the hit ‘He’s On The Phone’, a partial rewrite of Daho’s own ‘Weekend à Rome’.

Then last year, he was genuinely ill. "It was peritonitis which led to septicemia, followed by appendicitis – yes, I nearly died there, but it wasn’t my time! [laughs]."

This time there was overwhelming sympathy and support from fans rather than dark mutterings about his demise. Two more or less pleasant aspects of a life lived in public.

"I don’t really consider that, to be honest. The relationship I have with some people goes back long enough that I’m practically part of their lives, so that when something happens like a health problem it brings about a very human response because suddenly something’s happened to me that could happen to them. I felt there was a real empathy rather than an unhealthy curiosity."

This isn’t overstatement or arrogance on Daho’s part, he genuinely is part of many people’s lives in France, and not just those of his contemporaries. For one, he’s become a figurehead for numerous younger French artists, in particular Lescop, but also Aline, La Femme, Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains, Yan Wagner – the last two guest on Les chansons de l’innocence retrouvé together with Savages’/Pop Noire’s Jehnny Beth and Johnny Hostile; there’s also Verity Susman of Electrelane and, oh yes, the now ubiquitous Nile Rodgers and even Debbie Harry, who drops by for a duet. A week of performances over the summer at Cité de la Musique in Paris featured a night called Tombés Pour La France where several of the above duetted with Daho, "a way of creating links between me and this newly flowering French scene," he says.

I also can’t help feeling that this closeness (or at least perceived closeness) is down to Daho’s voice itself – not a conventionally strong voice, but incredibly warm, direct, trustworthy even.

"I guess there’s an aspect of someone confiding in you there, probably, and that means that perhaps my songs can communicate some universal themes relating to hardship and the desire for lightness, a desire which is a response to being gloomy. So over time there is a relationship which has been created."

Lightness, and the desire for it, is a recurrent theme in Daho’s songs. For the time being, I’m of the opinion that it’s actually the common thread that runs through his entire discography. In purely musical terms, it’s in his ability to try various styles without it appearing like a heavy handed gesture. His 90s forays into trip-hop and drum & bass, while appearing to confuse a section of his French audience and though clearly very much of their time, actually sound far less forced than, say, Bowie’s.

"I had a desire to mix those rhythms with something very symphonic – I was working at the time with a great English arranger David Whitaker, who was fantastic and that album is really a mixture of… well, I was crazy about drum & bass, I thought it was a very exciting music when it arrived, I heard it a lot in clubs and I thought it was very exciting and I wanted to do something with it. I like mixing everything really and that’s what pop allows you to do, you can put lots of very different things together."

More broadly, though, I come back to songs like ‘Les Heures Hindous’ (a match for Prefab Sprout at their most gorgeously misty) and its lyric "Et j’ai l’idée d’m’élever dans l’espace… oublier ce putain d’ennui" – more or less "I have a notion that I’d like to rise into the air… forget this cursed boredom"; that album title Pop satori, ‘satori’ being awakening or enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, the recurring theme of restless travel… with Daho the quest is to attain, if not total transcendence, then at least – to slightly misuse Kundera’s famous phrase – a bearable lightness of being.

It’s a delicate balance – too light and you drift up into nothing, too heavy and you sink without a trace; either way round the only destination is the void. This is the proposition for pop/life: can you be profound and superficial, heavy and light.

‘En Surface’, written for Daho by Dominique A ("He wrote it, I changed very little, just a few turns of phrase to adapt it to me. It was a very beautiful present") goes all the way into the paradox, into a simultaneous presence in and absence from the world and one’s own life, and an experience of self that is positively abyssal. All this within under three minutes of circular new wave chug, a little like Roxy Music’s ‘Over You’. "So much time spent on the surface/ I wanted to be lighter than light/ this pleasure didn’t unburden me/ I thought I wasn’t thinking about it, but then again our thoughts escape us/ I slipped below the surface, no longer weighed down by lightness." It works better in French, I hope I’m doing it some kind of justice.

Daho’s take on it is that, "This song and the album has a double meaning, or it’s double-faceted, because on the one hand there is this desire for lightness and hedonism and on the other hand it has a very dark side, it looks at people whose journey through life is very difficult, the songs are portraits of people who are struggling. There are several figures that appear in the album, like that of Francis Bacon, who is a character who touches me a great deal, including in his relationship with his lover George Dyer, who committed suicide in Paris as it happens. (You may have noted that Bacon, or at least his work, appears in the video for ‘Les Heures Hindous’.) I had a kind of vision during the whole recording of the album of a certain London, the artistic milieu of the 60s, the Colony Room, Soho, I was very much possessed by all of that and inspired by it."

Another figure who has inspired Daho is poète maudite Jean Genet – subject of Sartre’s ‘Saint Genet’ and (kind of) Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’. One of Genet’s primary concerns was identity and selfhood, particularly in terms of the downtrodden and society’s outcasts: homosexuals, ‘minorities’, tramps, prostitutes, criminals. He was also keenly interested in the question of Algerian independence and the brutal treatment of Algerians in Paris. A live performance of ‘Sur Mon Cou’ – an extract from Genet’s poem ‘Le Condamné à Mort’ (‘A Man Sentenced to Death’) – appeared on a singles compilation in the 90s so the idea had obviously been brewing for a while before he finally saw it through on his last album, a full musical adaptation of Le Condamné à mort, with actress and singer Jeanne Moreau (if you’ve seen Jules et Jim or Lift To The Scaffold).

"Yes, I’d wanted to do it for a long time but I couldn’t find the right moment. It’s also quite difficult to tell a record label that you’re going to do Le Condamné à mort – they think it won’t be a success, that it’s not projecting the right image, talking about a poet who was sent to prison, who was homosexual, who had trenchant political ideas. So I’d been in a contract with Virgin since 1981, but then my contract ended and I didn’t resign it and I hadn’t yet signed with Polydor so I was between labels and I felt completely free and said to myself it was time to make the record. Also, I met Jeanne Moreau who convinced me to do it with her – and it was the right idea, really, because it was a very powerful collaboration, it was really a strong statement because it was really a gesture of freedom, of a free artist. What’s more, people really enjoyed it and it was successful, which I wasn’t really expecting."

Record labels, eh?

"Well it was risky. But risk doesn’t frighten me."

Daho is also back in the UK for one London date at Koko, next week on October 23, his first since 1998, and also against others’ better judgement, apparently. "I always wanted to come but I was always told it wasn’t possible. There wasn’t enough desire from people in the UK or from France but this time I really insisted because I know there are people here who know my music. But it’s very difficult to get French music across in the UK you know!"

Rockfort also recommends this month:

Mocke – L’Anguille

The instantly recognisable sound of Holden’s guitarist, given free reign over this decidedly unsketchy instrumental outing. It’s as languid and unsettling as Holden’s best except here you can spend more time calmly observing Mocke’s gorgeous, muted lines rise and spiral like fine plumes of cigarette smoke.

PLY – Suave Technique

Matthias Delplanque is a multi-disciplinary artist and multi-monikered musician – projects have included the electro-dub of Lena and the less easily categorisable The Missing Ensemble. PLY is his most recent noise/dub/electro-acoustic outing, in the company of Guillaume Ollendorff on vocals and electronics. This new EP is their most accessible and is accompanied by videos by Marc Nguyen Tan, aka Colder.

Étienne Daho plays Koko in London on October 23; for full details and tickets head here. For more from Rockfort, you can visit the official site here and follow them on Twitter. To get in touch, email info@rockfort.info

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