On the cusp of releasing her new album, Carla Bruni tells us why modelling and becoming France’s first lady have always been mere sideshows to her music.
“No, not an inch!” chuckles Carla Bruni, when asked if she misses being France’s first lady. “I just want to hang out and be a musician and be cool.” For Carla Bruni, fate has long worked in mysterious ways. Considering the career she’s enjoyed, hanging on Nicolas Sarkozy’s arm must seem a minor inconvenience.
Imagine: you’ve dreamt of being a singer from childhood, but instead you unexpectedly become a catwalk sensation at the age of 19. You become a multi-millionairess a few years later; your face featured on 250 magazine covers. You never need to work again.
Stifled by what you see as the lack of creativity in the modelling business, you ditch your career. Finally, able to concentrate on childhood singing ambitions, you make your recording debut in 2002 with album Quelqu'un M'a Dit (Someone told me).
Despite starting off as a slow burner, the record eventually becomes a huge success - selling in excess of two million copies to date. But after three more albums, at which point your music career’s gathering momentum, the man in your life becomes the president of France.
Once again, your music has to go on hold. Now, of course, the cynic might suggest that none of this is exactly gruelling. Most of us would give our eye teeth to have enjoyed those kind of chances. But it’s easy to understand why, after her first lady role, Bruni is clearly delighted to have her new album, French Touch, about to hit the streets.
To think French female singers is inevitably to conjure visions of the elfin Francoise Hardy, or possibly Sylvie Vartan; Euro pop riddled with languorous ballads, cheesy choruses and maybe an accordion grinding in the mix.
Much to her credit, each of Bruni’s albums has been dramatically different; she’s continually eschewed any suggestion of following in the Hardy/Vartan tradition. For French Touch, she’s chosen to cover a quirky bunch of songs.
Unlikely bedfellows include Depeche Mode’s Enjoy The Silence, Miss You by the Rolling Stones and a strangely understated take of AC/DC’s Highway To Hell, all delivered in Bruni’s captivating sultry voice.
We speak to Bruni at her Paris home in the 16th Arrondissement. Europe is in the throes of a heat wave and she apologises for being late, but her home is without air conditioning and she needed to cool off. Her living room is crammed with recording equipment, a piano taking pride of place.
We are apprehensive: given the weighty trials and tribulations of the Sarkozy presidential era, Bruni could be forgiven for being wary of journalists. But she’s surprisingly unguarded in her conversation, self deprecating, and as I quickly discover, laughs a lot.
“No, I’m OK [with journalists]. I’m Italian, so I like to talk very much - promotion is not really a problem for me,” she reassures.
Born in 1967, Bruni is the scion of a wealthy Italian industrialist family, the Bruni Tedeschi’s, who moved to France when she was seven years old to avoid the attentions of the Italian Red Brigades. From an early age, music played a pivotal role in Bruni’s life. Her mother Marisa Borini was a classical pianist. Her father Alberto Bruni Tedeschi was an industrialist and classical composer.
In 2008, Bruni told Vanity Fair that her biological father is actually Italian-born Brazilian grocery magnate Maurizio Remmert, whom her mother had a six-year affair with after meeting at a concert in Turin, when Remmert was a 19-year-old classical guitarist. Being a house guest at the Bruni home must certainly have been interesting; family singalongs sometimes included Maria Callas and Herbert Von Karajan.
“Yes, I always heard music, it was just part of the family somehow, like another family member. They played music all the time,” she says. “It’s the same thing as when you live with people that smoke, then you also become a smoker.
“They tried to teach me piano and violin, both instruments I really love, but I didn’t want to learn how to read classical music. But from the beginning, music was always in my blood. My mother always said that she could be attracted to a man who wasn’t physically strong or good looking, but she could never love a man who a who didn’t love music - and I agree.”
When Bruni was 11-years-old, frustrated by her lack of interest in the classical muse, her parents bought her a guitar. “This was great, because I could finally play whatever I wanted, without having to read any notes. That’s when I really started to play music every day, just like my family.”
Carla’s early influences were an unlikely mix of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell. “I always loved women’s voices,” she says. “Of course I couldn’t see myself as ever projecting myself like Ella Fitzgerald, but even at that age I listened to all these people.”
Her brother also had an important influence. “I would rush into my his room and steal records,” she admits. “I was living in France then, so I would listen a lot to French acts, but also bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Clash - from my brother’s record collection.
“Then I started buying my own records, the first thing I bought was David Bowie’s Changes. I started putting all my pocket money into buying records. I’d have a listen and try to play the songs, copy the songs from all these people that I loved.
“I listened to Bob Dylan a lot, and Leonard Cohen; I guess my taste was made at that time, and all thanks to my brother’s collection, it gave me a strong direction. My models were always people who you could imagine just coming to your house and sitting down to play; musicians whose music was very simple.”
Exit stage left
Carla gave up modelling in 1997, but another five years would pass before the release of Quelqu'un M'a Dit. Why so long? “It took me 30 years to find the courage to sing,” she admits. “And I could only do it because I wrote my own songs; I knew that I wasn’t Aretha Franklin or Barbra Streisand.
“I loved my time modelling, and the fashion world is very creative, but not when you’re a model. For designers, for photographers, even if you’re a make-up artist or a stylist it can be quite creative. But when you’re a model, you’re just the cherry on the cake.
“Even though it’s important - you’re wearing the outfit and posing for the picture and going on the runway - the whole creative side of things is done by the designers and photographers; they are the ones in charge. I was very interested in the fashion world, but it’s all about walking and posing. It’s a funny job and I loved it, but even though it gave me a lot of work, it’s not as creative as writing songs of course.”
By the 1990s, Bruni was among the 20 highest-paid fashion models, earning US$7.5 million in her peak year. While modeling, Bruni dated Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger.
In Motherless Child: The Definitive Biography of Eric Clapton, Paul Scott writes that Clapton introduced Bruni to Jagger at a Rolling Stones gig at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1990.
Fearing Jagger would make a play for Bruni, Clapton pleaded: “Please, Mick, not this one. I think I’m in love.” His plea fell of deaf ears, however. Vanity projects have long been the curse of our celebrity lifestyle. But when Quelqu'un M'a Dit was released in 2002, the record quietly went on to be a huge success.
“The album’s still selling now worldwide,” Bruni is quick to point out. “It’s sold everywhere: in South America, North America. It’s sold a lot in Spain and Germany too. It was a miracle being that all the singing was in French, and the idea was so French!
“I wrote all the songs except La Noyee, a song by Serge Gainsbourg that I first heard on an old movie soundtrack, The Horsethief. The song was never really released, and I found it in this tribute book of his music, which also happened to have a CD. I loved it.’’
Does she feel that language has always been handicap for French musicians?
“Yes, and with Italy it’s the same thing. We have many fantastic composers, but they’re not so famous abroad, because they are so Italian. It’s difficult for people, and it’s not easy to catch the song if you don’t get the lyrics. It’s not ‘on the air’ music, the kind of stuff you hear on the radio, it’s more music that you have to sit down and listen to.”
Until the release of Quelqu'un M'a Dit, Bruni’s performances had been limited to a few small French gigs. But in 2002, Carla celebrated the album’s release by undertaking a 40-date tour.
“I performed in Paris for a few months as well, which was fun. But that was it, I didn’t tour for the next album, or for the third album because I was married to Nicholas [Sarkozy]; it was too complicated to think about touring while my man was still President. But as soon as he stopped [being President], in 2013 and 2014, I played a world tour - the U.S., Israel, Germany - the biggest tour I’d done.”
And it can’t have been easy. Bruni readily admits to suffering from stage fright.
“I still get it, but I feel better now - it must be age,” she exclaims. “Age leaves you less time, no time for fear! Actually, I kind of quite like it now; after a few seconds of the first song, the music just takes over. But I have a tendency to drink to overcome the fear - and that’s not a good thing. Now I take just one beer before I go on stage, to try and melt down the fear a little bit. The problem is that when you drink, you imagine that you are much better than you are. So now I drink as soon as I stop - I’m very reasonable,” she laughs.
Busking for Bruni?
For most musicians, the musical life starts with small gigs or a spot of busking; but, because of her fame as a model, Bruni never had that opportunity.
“Yes it’s true,” she admits. “And I know I’ve missed that whole thing of being a musician on tour and ‘hanging out’. But I started performing very late in my life. Then also I’m not a man, so I’m always looking forward to going home; touring is not something that comes naturally to me, I miss home and the whole idea of being away is just contradictory.’’
For French Touch, Bruni enlisted the services of producer David Foster; the pair met after a Los Angeles gig in 2013. It was Foster who suggested that she make an album of cover songs - and that she should sing in English.
“I never thought I’d do an album like this, because it’s a singer’s record really, not a songwriter album,” she says.
“It’s the first time that I’m only singing songs and not writing them. It feels very different, but it was such good fun. It’s a mix of both our ideas and the result of searching for material together. Some of the songs, like the Clash’s Jimmy Jazz, I’ve played since I was a teenager. Others we kind of twisted the original version,” she laughs.
“We recorded 20 songs and ended up keeping 11; the final choice was sort of spontaneous and clueless. The main link between all the songs, is that they go back a long way and are mostly songs I played for pleasure - just with my guitar at home when I was young.
“Some of the songs are very personal, but whatever a song is, I believe that when you interpret it on your own, it becomes something personal anyway. My guitar playing is very soft in a very acoustic way and so we kept that and tried to create the songs as if they were my own. In a way the album’s a dream come true; I imagined I became a singer only because I was writing my songs, and that was my excuse for becoming a singer.”
We were surprised to find Highway To Hell covered. “Yes, my son, who is 16, is a metal fan and he’s not very happy,” she laughs. “When I played the song, he looked at me and said ‘it sounds like jazz for older people’! I love the lyrics. There’s a good Italian proverb that says ‘good girls go to heaven - but bad girls go everywhere’. That’s what this song reminds me of; I want to go to heaven, though, if heaven’s real.”
French Touch is out now.