When Brigitte Fontaine arrived in Paris as a teenager in the late 1950s her aim was to find fame on the stage. She did, but not quite in the way she expected.
To sate her performing bug she began singing at Les Trois Baudets, the right bank theatre bar owned by talent agent and record producer Jacques Canetti, brother of the Noble winning Elisa. Canetti, who had helped the fledgling careers of Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Serge Gainsbourg and Juliette Gréco, clearly had an eye for talent. Fontaine soon earned a reputation as the new voice of chanson and by 1963 was appearing on the Gainsbourg endorsed showcase for new talent at the Théâtre de Capucines. This led to TV appearances and the following year she opened for chanson legends Barbara and Georges Brassens at the Bobino.
Albums soon followed. 13 chansons decadents et fantasmagoriques, notable for featuring her first collaboration with Gainsbourg’s early arranger Alain Gourager, she now dismisses as ‘shit,’ although contemporary listeners are likely to be more sympathetic. She was happier with 12 Chansons D’avant Le Déluge, a collaboration with Jacques Higlein featuring a series of wryly morbid songs written by herself, Gourager, Higelin and Boris Vian.
Higelin, whose own work was largely blacklisted by French radio because of his radical left wing politics, was to be a major influence on Fontaine’s work. It was he who introduced her to Pierre Barouh, a bosa nova expert who had recently formed his own record label Saravah. The majority of her early albums would be released on the label.
For her first Saravah album Brigitte Fontaine est…? Gourager introduced her to the then unknown self taught composer Jean-Claude Vannier. Vannier, whose unique blend of funk and lush orchestration would reach its apogee in the cult Gainsbourg album Melody Nelson, added almost perversely joyous arrangements to Fontaine’s world weary lyrics. ‘It rains, that’s all it can do,’ she sings on the album’s opening track Il Pleut, ‘I cry, that’s all I know how to do.’ Not yet 30 her fatalism can’t help but have a comic edge. She goes on to compare herself to a ‘drunk animal’ on Blanche Neige and ‘a slut Marie Curie’ on Comme Rimbaud.
The following year Higelin introduced her to Areksi Belkacem, a French musician of Algerian descent. Together with Belkacem and Higelin, Fontaine conceived Niok, an innovative spectacle of theatre and song for the Lucernaire Theatre. It was during the Lecernaire shows that Fontaine and Arekso met The Art Ensemble of Chicago who were performing at the American Centre nearby. Together they created a series of works in free verse and prose titled Comme à la radio which they performed together at the Théâtre aux Vieux Colombier and would later turn into an album. Hailed as a radical early synthesis of French chanson and world music it was a defiantly political album given the growing anti Algerian atmosphere of post 1968 Paris.
During the 1970s Fontaine became a major figure on the French underground music scene. Two of the six albums she produced in this period, L’incendie and Vous et Nous, have earned a cult following largely due to the enthusiastic comments of Sonic Youth in the Anglophone press. Merging pop, folk, electro and world music they remain largely unclassifiable.
For most of the 1980s Fontaine devoted herself to theatre and writing, performing her play Acte 2 in the French speaking world, interpreting Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes in Paris and publishing a novel, Poso Doble, and a series of short stories, Nouvelle de l’exil.
She returned to the French stage with a concert at The Bataclan in 1993. Now experimenting with more electronic sounds her album Genre Humain, featuring a new version of Comme à la radio, met with critical, if not commercial, success when it was released in 1995.
In the early 2000s she capitalised on her growing cult reputation to record with Sonic Youth, Archie Shepp and Noir Désir on the album Kékéland (2001) which, exceptionally for Fontaine, featured two songs recorded in English. The collaborations led to record sales of 130,000 and her first gold record.
Appropriately enough, given her early championing of Vannier, she was invited to take part in the performance of his seminal Melody Nelson at The Barbican along with Jarvis Cocker and Badly Drawn Boy in 2006. By all accounts she stole the show.
Throughout her eighth decade she has continued to record, collaborating with Grace Jones on two albums, and producing some deliciously subversive lyrics along the way. On the title track of her 2009 album Prohibition she bemoans the fact that everything fun now seems to be banned -smoking drinking, fucking after 60 -before declaring defiantly, ‘I’m old fuck you.’ The video shows her brazenly chain smoking, dancing in a bar and giving the finger to a world which would seek to make her invisible.
For her most recent album she reunites with Belkacem and Vannier for an album which encompasses everything from poetic piano cello duets to electronic and psychedelic meanderings. J’ai l’honneur d’être it is called. We are honoured to have her.