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Françoiz Breut
 by Martin Williams / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Françoiz Breut by Paul HeartfieldThe image of Françoiz Breut parading through Piccadilly Circus sporting an 'End Of The World Is Nigh' sandwich board may be an enticing one, but, despite the smoke of melancholic sentimentality that settles around her second album, she assures me that its title, 'Vingt a Trente Mille Jours' (Twenty or Thirty Thousand Days: a stab at approximating the average human lifespan) is not intended as some kind of doom-laden Jeremiad.

"I think it's positive," she says from a sofa in the foyer of the Festival Hall. "It's the time of life, it's very short so we have to take the best and go further and not think about the past. Perhaps you could interpret it as a negative thing because you imagine it's short and it's sad because we only have vingt a trente mille jours, but it's positive for me. When I sang on this record and work on this record I live a difficult period, it's a difficult period of my life, so I sang instinctively sad songs, and songs that evoke a break-up between a woman and a man, a sort of story."

Beyond such poignant subject matter there's an innately sorrowful quality to Françoiz's voice, a torch song tone that could instil Bob the Builder with a sense of stoic languor. Twin this with her penchant for the downcast arrangements of Tindersticks and the deserted horizons imagined by the likes of Tarnation and Calexico (whose Joey Burns appears on 'Vingt a Trente Mille Jours') and a climate of ennui is conjured that survives even the pop playfulness of a song like L'origin du monde, the lone up-tempo track on the album. Françoiz Breut makes music that could glibly be tagged as moody. And there would be truth in this tagging. Whatever stories she might seek to convey, her songs work on a level where mood is as important as meaning.

"Perhaps you can understand certain things," she offers, when I confess my typically British, stunted comprehension of French. "You are in a very special atmosphere, you can imagine things. It's like me when I am listening to English music, I can't understand certain words, or all of the story, and it's not a problem. We are listening to a lot of music from all over the world and there is something touching us even though. It's universal, music is universal, we imagine a sense, but it's not important if there is especially a story."

Supplemented by vibraphone, horns and brooding organ 'Vingt a Trente Mille Jours' expands on the brittle simplicity of François's 1998 eponymous debut, shading the spaces without imposing on the measured air of ennui. The most marked addition comes from the evocative orchestrations of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, as arranged by Yann Tierson, who heads the self-consciously Francophile bill this evening with a performance of his soundtrack to the film 'Amelie'.

With songwriting credits on the album divided between 11 different people (not counting the cover version of Peggy Lee's San Souci) it does seem that collaboration is the key to Françoiz's music. Has she tried taking the role of writer? "I try," she admits, "but it's very difficult to write in French. I think it's more easier in English. I've made just one song in English, seven years ago, it was on a little record, but it's the only one I wrote. I'm very happy with what the people propose to me, so I accept this position to be only an interpreter."

This status of interpreter, and the selfless, group dynamic that it effects, is in contrast to Françoiz's main other occupation-aside from motherhood-that of illustrator, at which she works entirely alone. To coincide with the album's initial release last year, she staged an exhibition that went some way towards uniting her two passions. "I decided to illustrate a few songs, seven songs off the second album and two songs of the first album. It's little books, very delicate, handmade, and there's a collage. But it was in a box, a hexagonal box, one book for each song. Somebody gives you a record player and you have to find the songs that correspond to the books and each book was in a little box, it was in the dark, no light, and when you open the box a little light comes on and you can take the book and read the lyrics and see the illustrations."

Does she ever yearn for a similar level of control over her music? "Yeah, but it's the same for the music - I'm here. At the beginning and at the end I'm here to see what's happening. I like this collaboration because everybody brings their touch. On this tour we have a little song, very simple, with only one guitar and it's becoming something very different. That's why I like this way of working, if we had just to reproduce something it would be not interesting. It would be always the same, fixed."

Françoiz's principal collaborator thus far has been her ex-partner Dominique A (himself something of a pop superstar in France). The couple met in 1992 and after several years of her singing backing vocal in Dominique's own band, their desire for closer collaboration propelled Françoiz towards centre stage. "It was very free," she says about the conception of her debut album, penned entirely by Dominique A with Françoiz in mind. "He knew me very well so it was easy. He was speaking during the writing to me about the ideas, so I could say at this moment, 'no I don't want to sing this'".

Although Dominique A retains several co-writing credits on the 'Vingt a Trente Mille Jours', his involvement is necessarily reduced this time around. Would she be happy to work with him in the future? "I don't know, I would like to because I'm a fan of what he's doing, but it's a part of my life, I've made two albums with him and I would like to change now, but I hope we will do again something together."

In the meantime Françoiz's new relationship has lead her to move to Brussels. "I hate Paris," she says when I ask her about this. "It's too stressful and the people are in their little worlds and working and there's a lot of distance, when you meet someone you have to make a rendezvous. I like a small town better, I like the spirit of a village."

As she freely admits, she arrived at music "progressively", a serendipitous confluence that contributes to her view of herself as not primarily as a musician. "It's not my first work. It's a hazard for me to do music. Perhaps it was a dream when I was young, but it wasn't my aim."

Which must make her present predicament-perched within the middlebrow concrete box of the Festival Hall, submitting to the requests of strangers to earnestly discuss her music "career"-even more odd.

"Yes, it's strange," she admits, "but I like it now, so I try to do the best and when I have concerts, or if I have a proposition I do it, but if it stopped I would do other things and it's not a problem. I think perhaps I will cry," she laughs. Then, as if considering her own vingt a trente mille jours, she adds, "it's not my first aim, there are a lot of things to do."

CWAS #10 - Spring 2002