From Sibera to Scorsese, the French Chanteuse Zigs and Zags
Words by Siddhartha Mitter
“Je veux.” I want. In this song, which became a huge summer hit in France in 2010, Zaz shares a wishlist that’s anything but materialistic. All she wants is “some love, some joy, some good cheer/It’s not your money that will make me happy,” she sings in French, after turning down jewels, mansions and limousines. “What would I do with all that stuff?” she asks, sauntering in the video through a flea market. That image only underscores the cute-retro Parisian feel that can’t help but attach to the 31-year-old singer. It’s inevitable: Zaz covers Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg along with singing originals, and she even used to busk in the Metro and Montmartre, plus she’s kind of bubbly, so the whole gamine thing comes pretty much built in.
But there’s plenty more to Zaz, born Isabelle Geffroy, than that cliché’d image. She’s a thoughtful and energetic woman from a Paris scene where traditional chanson is just one in a brew of influences that includes African, Gypsy, electronica and jazz elements, among others, swirling around in the clubs and taverns of the Latin Quarter or the Halles district. In her own pathway to an entirely unexpected stardom she picked up a lot of those strands, layered them atop a provincial upbringing and came out with this sassy but lucid artistic persona, a little wide-eyed maybe, but far from naïve.
Recently Zaz came through New York City for a few shows, including one at the Globalfest international music showcase, attended by an industry crowd of concert promoters, managers, media and the like. The next day, in her hotel’s lobby lounge, Zaz chatted in French with MTV Iggy’s Siddhartha Mitter about her sudden burst to fame, her troubled early years, and making classic-sounding French songs in 2012.
At your show you were jumping around on stage, like you couldn’t stay still even when the music was quiet…
Oh yeah, that’s definitely me and my personality. Even more when I’m on stage. I’d probably gain by acting a little more stable, I’ve got a tendency to be scattered. I think as I get older it’ll get better. But yeah, especially when I’m nervous, that’s when I joke around and bounce around the most.
You were nervous? Really?
Yeah I was a little stressed, we weren’t in our usual configuration, it was just two guitars, a bass and me; we’d just come back from three weeks of vacation without playing, and on top of it here we are in New York, playing for an industry crowd. But it was cool, though. People knew the songs — that was fun.
Yeah, it’s this funny situation where you’ve become a superstar really fast in France and Europe, but here in the US people don’t really know you.
And I like that! It’s nice to not get recognized, it liberates me and does me good. Though the last time here I was walking around and these two girls came running after me; they were Turkish. I’m doing pretty well in Turkey. But it’s true, last New Years Eve we were up in the Pyrenees mountains with friends, we partied and drank and I went down into the village, and everyone recognized me. And I was a little tipsy — well, a lot tipsy — and I realized I can’t do this, I’m a public figure now. And sometimes I don’t want to be approached or asked questions as Zaz. I just want to be Isabelle.
Speaking of which, where did the name Zaz come from? It’s kind of retro in itself, you think of the zazous, who were these French hipsters of the 1940s, or the children’s book Zazie dans le métro…
Actually I just started calling myself Zaz when I went up to Paris in 2006 — I needed a name for my MySpace page, and I didn’t want to be Isabelle Geoffroy, even though I love my name. A pal called me Zaz once, and I thought it was pretty. And it’s the first and last letters of the alphabet, the alpha and the omega, the eight, the serpent that eats its own tail — I like the notion of cycles, that everything that begins will end and something new will start. We’ll all die one day; we don’t know when.
Were you surprised at the way “Je veux” caught on and became this big summer hit in France?
Well, there’s been a lot of surprising things in my life. But that song, it sticks in your head, and that’s the principle of a hit, really. The words are really simple and they speak to everyone. Even in other countries people are getting it translated and learning French though it! It’s easy to learn. I think “Je veux” really fits with the mood of our times, people are really fed up with appearances, there’s no soul left. You feel it all the way into politics…
At one point on stage you commented that the left and the right are “kif-kif,” or “same difference” as we’d say here…
Yeah, there’s no left and right anymore. Well sure, there are left ideas that are not right ideas, but what we’re seeing isn’t politics, it’s just everyone out to get their little piece of power. Everything is fake, falsified. I’m a humanist above all, I want us to respect life, humanity. And that we do things in that direction, toward a common goal.
There’s a lot of tradition beneath your music — especially that whole French chanson tradition.
Yeah, it’s funny, because French songs are sort of what I listened to the least growing up. I used to listen to what my sister listened to, or other people. It was Guns n’ Roses, and Metallica, and then some techno, and in my training I listened to jazz, flamenco, African music… But when I got to Paris I worked for a while in a cabaret, Aux Trois Mailletz, and I’d be up in the piano bar singing with just a pianist, five hours in a row. And when you play in these places where there are a lot of tourists, they want French songs. So I had to expand my repertoire.