It lies just across the water. A mere 30 miles from the south coast. But our French neighbours have always had the upper hand in effortless “cool”. So why are their musicians descending on London?
Jean-Benoit Dunckel is one half of Air, one of France’s most successful musical exports of recent years. But his most recent venture is Tomorrow’s World, working with Briton Lou Hayter of New Young Pony Club.
“For me, in my unconscious, she represents the British elegance,” he says. “I feel more like the producer the man in the shadow – her voice is really beautiful. I’m not English, but I can see she has a really nice way of pronunciation.”
The musical partnership is “like Concorde”, says Dunckel: working between countries, moving back and forth.
He is not alone in seeing the attractions of the UK. There are more French people living in London than in some of France’s biggest cities, including Bordeaux and Nantes: between 300,000 and 400,000.
If the critics are to be believed, President Hollande’s tax rises are also contributing to the stream of business people and bankers headed this way.
And after the money, comes the music. This year the international French festival, appropriately named Ooh La La, is coming to the London for the first time. It started out in LA, before moving on to San Francisco, Montreal and New York, and has set up camp on 21, 22 and 24 October, at Village Underground, in Shoreditch – London’s indie playground.
Artists like Lescop and Dominique A, who are all well established in their homeland, are among the headliners, and the festival is also showcasing some of the best up and coming new acts, like Moodoid and Melissa Laveaux.
Most people in the crowd of the festival’s opening night are here to see ? FAUVE, the post rock collective that have shot to stardom in France, and across the French-speaking music scene.
Margot Mackay (pictured far right), 29, dragged her sister and some friends (all French nationals) along to get a taster of home: “My friend in Paris told me we had to come just this morning. ? FAUVE are really big right now.”
And it is the same for Vincent Auzel (pictured far left), 25 – another of those well-heeled French nationals with a good job in London, who appear to make up most of the crowd. “I really like the old big (electro-pop) bands in France. But the new type of music is really interesting,” he tells Channel 4 News. “? FAUVE are like electro-rock, with a good tempo. And the lyrics are in French. The music is interesting, but the lyrics are really good.”
For music, London is “something else”, he adds. “The gigs! One hour of concert, not very exppensive, in the middle of the week, or on a Sunday: it’s very interesting.”
French music has come a long way from its electro-pop roots, and for every Air, Daft Punk or Lescop, there is also artists as diverse as Au Revoir Simone or Gotan Project. But while the Ooh La La crowd are here for a taste of home, French lyrics are one of the biggest barriers for French artists trying to break out. The French bands who have won over audiences across the world – like Phoenix or more recently, Melody’s Echo Chamber – have been helped along by their English lyrics.
However, that is not always appreciated by French fans, says French Canadian Melissa Laveuaux, whose experimental indie, rhythmic songs have been a big hit in France this year. She told Channel 4 News a lot of her fans were “alarmed” that she wrote so much in English.
And they did not appreciate the all-English last album: “I lost some of the fan base that I had. They said ‘You should be singing in French.'” She adds: “French people are really focused on the quality and text of a song.” But she says that is beginning to change.
On the other side of the channel, she says that the British are not always so welcoming to their neighbours, despite the links between the two countries, and the number of French people living in the capital.
She told Channel 4 News that two punters at a gig she did in Soho last year started loudly “trashing” French women, because they were “too skinny”. Another Francophone gig in the run-up to the Olympics, organised by the Canadian consulate, was apparently written up in the Daily Mail as a demonstration of how the French wanted the London Olympics “in their language”. Ooh La La.
As for ? FAUVE, they have never played to a non-French audience. But playing at Ooh La La should not be too different, says bassist Stephane: “In France, they say London is the sixth French city in the world.
“So we’re expecting a mixed crowd, a few curious London listeners, and lots of French people, who have maybe heard of ? FAUVE and want to see what it’s like live.”