Childhood memories of Brittany led the French singer to follow her heart, all the way to the top
Nolwenn Leroy was a singer-songwriter rising in the charts in France. She’d had a couple of number one singles and her self-titled debut album had gone platinum. For her fourth album she decided to take a pretty big risk. She recorded an album with four songs in Breton, the ancient Celtic language she grew up hearing in her native Brittany, a region in the northwest of France. The rest of the tracks were a quirky mix of modernized Celtic tunes and modern songs with a Celtic influence such as The Pogues’ “Dirty Old Town.” Before she released Bretonne, people told her it would only find an audience in Brittany. Then it spent seven weeks at number one and sold more than a million copies.
Now she’s taking another big risk with a self-titled version of that album released January 8th in the United States, where she is virtually unknown. She’s doing it with the same heartfelt conviction that led hear to do it the first time and the feeling is infectious.
It was especially hard to resist at her recent American debut at Drom in New York City. Leroy’s classically trained voice is instantly transporting, but don’t think Celtic Woman. Particularly live, she’s a little more rock ‘n’ roll than that, with a gift for illuminating the Celtic roots in the music we listen to today. In our interview, she insisted that you don’t need to be Irish or Breton to love the rootsy influence on her sound. The French agree. Could Americans fall for her Celtic savoir faire next?
What’s it like to grow up in Brittany?
It might be hard for you guys to understand what Brittany really is. I sing in Breton on the album, Breton is a language. It’s a really important language in Brittany. It’s a very old language. It’s still spoken even though French is the official language. When you go to Brittany, it’s not like someone is going to talk to you in Breton. People speak it at home, with their family with their friends. There are some special schools, that’s why the language is still alive, where they actually teach it.
It’s a language that my parents wouldn’t speak but it’s important for me because it’s a language that I would grow up hearing when I was younger. I would listen to singers who sing in Breton, listen to Celtic music. It’s childhood memories, things I still had in my ears. It’s the kind of thing that influences you a lot, what you are going to do with your life and what kind of artist you are going to become, in my story.
And that’s what I wanted to do, to just pay tribute to this music and to those singers from my childhood and record this perfect soundtrack of what Brittany means to me. You know we call it Madeleine of Proust. Proust was a writer and it’s a saying. It’s the smells and the sounds that you still remember from your childhood. It’s the childhood memories that aren’t really precise, but when you hear something or you see something, time stops.
What song on the album brings back the most memories for you?
I love ”Mná na hÉireann,” Women of Ireland. I love the song. I love the version that The Chieftains recorded, an amazing Irish band. It’s a song that’s just really magic. And then you have songs from Alan Stivell, he was a Breton singer. He really changed everything in Celtic music. He was the first one who had the idea to go through the traditional repertoire, take all the traditional songs and put some modern instruments to them and give this modern vibe.
So, when I made this album I said I’ll record this music that I’ve always loved and make my own version of it, make it modern in a way and take it back to pop music also because to me it’s very much linked. I didn’t want it to be too traditional. I wanted to give it a new color.
Was it a bold move for you to put songs out in Breton?
Yes. It was really audacious in a way, because it wasn’t something that was expected.
Your previous albums in French were pretty successful.
Yes, but not that big. But my last album, with Adele, it was the biggest sale in France in 2012, which is amazing, because when I came with this project people said, yeah, it’s a cool story, it’s different from what we hear on the radio, but you know it’s only for a niche of people. It’s going to be big in Brittany.
But you don’t have to be from Brittany to like this music. It touches something deep inside in a sincere and spontaneous sort of way. Probably because, I was telling you about my memories earlier, there’s a lot of nostalgia on this album. This is something that’s really present on the album. You can feel it, these memories, this kind of tribute to the past, to these traditional songs, to the history of a land. I could feel that people … we live in a society where people want to get back to their roots. It makes them feel good. You know, when you are getting lost with your life, to go back to where you come from, that’s something we all feel in our life.
What are some of those songs about, those songs that are in Breton?
There one that’s called “Tri Martolod.” It’s a big hit. It’s a sailor song, basically. It’s about three sailors, tri martolod means three sailors. Then there is another one called “Karantez Vro.” This is a song, actually a poem, written by this wonderful woman in Brittany called Angela Duval. She did a lot for the Breton language. She wrote beautiful poems.
This poem was adapted, put into music, and it’s a song that talks about the love that she has for her land. She fell in love with this man but at some point she had to make a decision between following him, she would have to leave her land and go somewhere else with him, and she preferred to stay in Brittany. She sacrificed her love life to stay in Brittany because she loved it some much that she would never imagine living anywhere else. It’s a beautiful song.
Do you feel a personal connection to that song?
Yes, well, actually, I had to leave Brittany. I grew up there and then I had this moment in my life like a lot of children my age where my parents got divorced and we had to leave Brittany and it was a very hard time. That’s also probably what made me want to go back to those childhood memories, because at some point I had to move on. I think it was maybe some kind of therapy I would say. You know, turning 30. I had a hard time looking back at those years, because it was quite painful and the album was a great way for me to make peace with all these years and, finally, to remember all the great things and not the bad things. The great things are what actually influenced me, it’s music.
Releasing and album in Breton in France was a risk, but now you are taking another risk by releasing an album in the US. How do you feel about that risk?
You always take risk with you music. You always hope for the best but you never know. When you start doing something, you cannot expect a success or a failure. So, when people ask me in France, when you were recording the album did you know that it was going to be a success? You don’t make music for this. Of course, you want it to be loved by a large audience. But you can only hope for the best. I didn’t really care about the risk. The only thing that mattered was being true to myself, being sincere and spontaneous and giving something sincere to the audience. But now, I have to admit it was risky.
In the US though, it’s really different. I spent one year in America when I was younger, at 15. I was an exchange student in Ohio, so America has always been my second homeland in a way. That year I learned so much about other people, but myself as well and what I wanted to do with my life.
So, now, it means so much to me to come back to the US not as Nolwenn the exchange student but as a singer doing my job. My host family has been asking me for ten years, how come we can’t find your CD here and I’m like you see guys it’s not that easy for a European artist.
You have “Whiskey in the Jar” on there. What is your favorite version of that song?
Yes, mainly rock bands cover it. That’s why I wanted to have it on there. You don’t have many girls do it. It’s a really kind of manly song. That’s why I loved the idea of singing it. Thin Lizzy is probably the best that’s been recorded but my favorite version is the one that’s just at the pub on the corner, you know? You just go there and start dancing. It’s a wonderful pub song. It’s a drinking song, which is very important in Celtic music you know?
Is that a part of the culture in Brittany?
Yes, it is. We have what they call the Fest-Noz, these sort of night parties, where you have this band and they come and they start playing and people get in the dance. It’s almost like tribal. It’s amazing that the tradition is still alive. It’s something when you go and even if you’re not in the mood you get caught. It brings people together and that’s what I love about this music.
So, on this American version of the album, there’s a Pogues song on there. Are you a fan?
I am a fan. They were in Paris a month age for a show and they’re an amazing band. And you know, for me, I didn’t want it to be a first degree Celtic album because there are tons. I wanted it to be wider, larger. To me Kate Bush has been influenced a lot by Celtic music. You can tell in her music. When I listen to Florence Welch – I love Florence and the Machine – you can tell with the sound of the instruments they pick, the harp. Or bands like also Mumford and Sons.
If you are travelling through France and you enter Brittany, how would you know you are in Brittany without looking at the signs?
It’s the landscape, you are getting closer to the end of the land. You have a couple of departments, and the one where I was born is called Finistère, which translated means the end of the land. That’s where magic begins. There’s just something in the air. Brittany is full of legends and stories, you know, Merlin and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This legend, part of it takes place in Great Britain, but part of it takes place in Brittany. We have this amazing forest of Broceliande, where all of the legends take place. You enter Brittany when you start dreaming or seeing things that don’t exist. You have to let yourself go, you travel, but you travel in your mind too. That’s the mood I’m in when I go back to Brittany.