Explorer of many musical universes, Bernard Lavilliers adds strings to his bow with an album he called “Métamorphose”, not wanting the symphonic term, which is too often misused. The opportunity to revisit 14 songs in majesty.
Bernard Lavilliers is slowly recovering from Covid. He takes cortisone and drinks sparkling water. He admits: working does him “the greatest good” and allows him to avoid worrying. If his deep voice is softer than usual, speaking visibly gives him wings. The conversation begins and could last for hours. We leave his home port, Paris, in the cozy office of his producer Fred Vinet, rue Saint-Maur, to quickly fly to Brazil – where he will return soon – and Jamaica, via New York… and Toulouse.
For your new album, you called on a symphony orchestra. This brings back the memory of your participation in July 14, 2013, in Toulouse, accompanied by the musicians of the Capitole…
I had put together the program at the request of the town hall. There was Yvan Cassar conducting the orchestra, Maurane, Zebda, the Femmouzes T, Art Mengo… A choir sang “Toulouse” by Nougaro. It was raining. I found it very interesting that I was left, so to speak, with the keys to my evening.
What was the atmosphere like on the Allées Jean-Jaurès?
There was a demonic world on these paths which are not so wide but very long. I was asked to finish at 11 p.m. to make way for the fireworks from the Media Library. It’s a very beautiful memory. Everything went wonderfully well; there was not the slightest fight.
Is this your only symphonic experience in Toulouse?
No, I came to the Halle aux grains (October 21, 2006, Editor’s note), with the Padeloup orchestra, for my Ferré tour. And another time to sing “Salsa” and “Is this how men live”.
Was it your passion for Léo Ferré that encouraged you to embark on the adventure?
Having seen it (in 1975) at the Palais des Congrès in Paris, with a symphony orchestra, of course had a great impact on me. He directed it himself. His first passion was to compose classical music but he was never considered by this community even though he was a first-rate musicologist. Getting started was yet another experience, which owes a lot to my long-standing taste for the classic.
At what age did you discover classical music?
My father listened to a lot of it. My mother and I were subscribers to the Record Guild. They adored the Russian composers of the 19th century, these great romantics. Tchaikovsky expresses something very powerful, very violent. It goes through such conflagration while offering a lot of nuances. Quite discreet instruments like the harp or the oboe thus emerge.
Who are your favorite composers?
I love Ravel: his “Concerto for the Left Hand”, his “Bolero” which climbs like a serpentine, his Spanish exoticism. One of my other favorite composers is Chopin: his melodies are incredible songs. Some did not hesitate to adapt them, and not only Gainsbourg. Bach is my base. With him, Renaissance music shifted into something else. He renovated the piano keyboard. I’m not a mystic but I love the church organ. It’s completely impressive with all those drawbars and pedals. The Hammond organ is a kind of copy. It weighs a ton but we’re going to lug one around the entire tour. And then there is Debussy who set Baudelaire to music. Music and poetry go very well together: they are two abstract arts that address sensations.
How do you record an album with a symphony orchestra?
In the studio, I have to be alone in a small box so that we can then mix my voice without an instrument. It’s quite disembodied, very delicate; you have to find some sort of balance. On stage, in the middle of the orchestra, it’s totally different: we have stage fright, it’s in our best interest to fail. It’s very impressive to find yourself at the heart of so many sound colors, from double basses to brass, to feel such breadth. Especially for someone like me who never learned music. Everything is very written, very rigorous. It’s a performance. But I have an innate sense: I’m never close!
“Métamorphose” is the polar opposite of your album “Acoustique”, released in 2014…
We had worked on the electric side, the pop sound. With a big orchestra, we couldn’t cover songs like “Idées noirs”. On the other hand, it works very well with songs from the 70s and 80s like “La grande tide”, “Attention fragile” or “On the road again”. We worked a lot on each title, well before recording. I absolutely wanted to avoid the pretentious, “evening dress” side that the term “symphonic” can have, so often used for mediocre projects. Even with strings, a bad song is still a bad song.
An emblematic song from your repertoire, “Betty” is today “transformed”…
I sang it a lot on stage in a guitar-vocal version. Sometimes I refused to do so, feeling that I was not “into it” enough. To do this, I have to remember the reasons why I wrote it, after receiving a letter from a friend who was serving a long sentence in prison. Like the lyrics, where there is not a word too many, the orchestra says everything about solitude, about the time that passes behind bars. But “Betty” is not tragic: it ends with “We will meet somewhere else, in full sun”.
Have you found this famous Betty?
I sang in Fleury-Mérogis shortly before his release from prison. She was a mechanic, she became one again. We exchanged news for a long time. She now lives abroad.
What types of arrangements have you requested from Cyrille Aufort and Xavier Tribolet? We sometimes think of atmospheres like John Barry or Lalo Schifrin…
This is not surprising because Cyrille Aufort is a film composer. And then, my songs look like films. For the general atmosphere, I absolutely wanted to avoid putty and instead go for lightness; multiply the colors of sound, from large cymbals to the most subtle of flutiaux; make the most of all the talents I had at hand. In this exercise, we can quickly descend into emphatic, something that Ferré has often been criticized for, who added choruses and things. It was undoubtedly Léo’s revenge against this classical world which rejected him.
You’ve always moved from one style to another. Why this gluttony?
This way I avoid purring and boredom. Why limit yourself to just one style? Bruce Springsteen, who I knew well from my Power Station days, often asked me: “But how do you manage to sell albums where you go from rock to salsa or bossa?” » We don’t often realize it but Brassens was the same. In his compositions there were classical arpeggios but also gypsy jazz à la Django. As for Léo Ferré, he practiced the rumba and created a completely pop song with “C’est extra”, which I love.
Alongside the album, you are publishing a book, “Ecrire sur situ”, a summary of your traveling passion…
I need to travel as much as I need to tour. When you no longer sing, you are an ex-singer because it’s the public that gives you trouble. Traveling gives me the keys to my writing. This book says that it would have been impossible for me to write many songs without having gone to Jamaica myself or to the New York of Ray Barretto and the salsa musicians. There was an atmosphere at the time with cams, trannys, violence. New York was really like “Taxi Driver,” kind of weird as soon as you went beyond Broadway. The Brazil that I discovered did not look like the film “Orfeo Negro”: there was more of everything, more virgin forest, more poverty, more violence, more fun too.
And lots of music, of course, at every stage…
I didn’t leave like the stoners in Bali or Kathmandu, I didn’t spend my time drinking rum under the palm trees. I worked. I walked a lot to get rid of all my problems – and I had some huge ones – to get the pace of cities and men. I met musicians. I recorded songs. I never took the risk of leaving with nothing.
Why are you returning to Brazil soon?
I will meet my many musician friends, all those who consider me an “ambassador” of a certain culture, of a certain era. There too, music has unfortunately become globalized with R’N’B and rap. We are far from Chico Buarque or more recently Seu Jorge, from the complexity of their repertoire. And even the first version – French – that I heard of “Desafindo”, very well adapted by the charming singer and excellent guitarist Sacha Distel.
Are you excited to go again?
Yes very. I didn’t want to go to Brazil under Bolsonaro’s quasi-military regime. The return of Lula changed the situation. This great negotiator introduced the whole world to a very different Brazil.
Gn Fr Enter