Interview with Francis Cabrel

April 3, 2014 | By Laurence Geannopulos
France Cabrel at Untitled in Chicago on March 26, 2014

Francis Cabrel charmed the Midwest Francophone community with his first concert in Chicago, and graciously agreed to an interview with us afterwards about the Windy City, its music, Bob Dylan, his new album and the new generation of French artists.

I enjoyed playing at Untitled for the same reasons that I enjoy listening to jazz and blues music by the Chicago Showcase and Buddy Guy. Contact with the public is much easier in a club. A theatre space is more ceremonial and formal. Music has a need for personal contact. I like Chicago. The city breathes music. Here, music plays its role in the landscape, it breathes alongside the streets, level with the sidewalk. In clubs, if a person knows how to play an instrument, they jump into the scene and play.

Everyone knows about my admiration for Bob Dylan. But I have the same admiration for Louis Armstrong. I read his autobiography, along with the books Alain Gerber wrote about him. His life fascinates me: coming from nothing, he invented a pivotal musical style. Armstrong himself lived in Chicago during the 1920's. It was very moving to play here. When I experience Chicago, I sense infamous blues and jazz men who gave their whole lives to their trumpets and saxophones. They taught us an important lesson. They devoted their whole lives to their art. With Dylan, it's the same thing. He writes, he plays, he is always on tour. His tour, Never Ending Tour, has continued for 20 years. At 70 years old, he plays 200 concerts a year. I've seen him 20 times in concert. The best show of all was at the Zenith in Paris. It was 10 or 12 years ago. The musician Jim Keltner, another one of my idols, was by his side on stage.

Of the 12 Dylan songs I've adapted to French, 10 have been recorded. I've loved them since day one. I wanted to place French words into his songs. I started by translating them literally. Then, I consulted my collection of songs I'd already translated. I wanted to translate them myself in order to express my true feelings. Afterwards, it was necessary to make them songs; they had to rhyme and swing even in French.

In the end, writing songs in French and in English is not the same thing. For me, everything began 25 to 30 years ago when I discovered Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. They are at the same level of music writing. Thanks to them, I understood that one could write in a totally different way about love, society, politics…or more so about politics through the lens of society. I like American realistic writing. I followed the rules of their writing. My repertoire is contingent upon them. I borrowed from Dylan.

There are many young, Francophone talents today. I like written things like the literary personality of songs, for example those of Thomas Fersen or Vincent Delerm. Thanks to my nine-year-old daughter, I discovered Stromaë. At first listen, I thought it was just dance music. But I quickly realized that the music makes you reflect as well. Papaoutai is an admirable and harrowing song. I always wanted to discuss this theme myself. But he knew how to summarize it in four lines. Stromaë transformed a pseudo-party into something very human.

I loved Chicago. I had never been here before now. I would like to come back

Chicago - March 27, 2014

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