Arts: Don't talk to me about the Sixties

Courted by Dylan and Dali, Francoise Hardy was the essence of Sixties chic until she retreated from fame. Now she is courted by Damon from Blur and, after eight years' silence, has a new album. Philip Sweeney meets a French national treasure

Sitting in her garden, minimally made-up and slender in jeans and a tailored jacket, Francoise Hardy looks less like a dignitary of French pop than a rather chic university lecturer, or possibly a society psychotherapist - or, indeed, an astrologer, which she has been for years (she has a daily radio programme on the subject). Behind us, through the plant-filled conservatory, Hardy's living-room would prove a tricky one for Lloyd Grossman peeping through the keyhole: black walls and leather furniture; evidence of serious interest in alcohol and tobacco (four decanters of cognac, hip flasks, pipe and ashtrays on the table); well-stocked bookshelves - Francoise Sagan, Isabel Allende, PD James, Raymond Queneau, Woody Allen, the philosopher Emmanuel Berl (on record as remarking philosophically that even an old dressing-gown on Hardy would look like Chanel); but no evidence of musical activity.

We're talking about the Sixties, when Hardy acquired the soubriquet L'endive du twist (the spindly French chicory, not the squat Sainsbury's salad variety) and was sought after by everyone from Bob Dylan, who allegedly insisted she visit him at the Olympia concert hall or he wouldn't play the second half, to Salvador Dali, with whom she ate ortolans for the first and only time.

Hardy would rather talk about her new record, and her songwriting, a body of work spanning three and a half decades and published by her own company Kundalini, but she's resigned to the Sixties. "Everybody wants to ask me about the Sixties - even my record company, when they do a biography, they speak of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who I had almost nothing to do with, or Courreges or Paco Rabanne, as if it's constantly necessary to bring more names to make me more interesting..." The latest addition is Damon Albarn of Blur, whose enthusiasm for Hardy - he persuaded her to sing on Blur's "To The End" - is part of the undertow of cult interest that has just led Virgin Records to prise her out of an eight-year recording silence.

Hardy is being rediscovered as a national treasure, an icon of the pop age. Personally, I'll always associate Francoise Hardy with a coffee bar in Torquay to which I escaped during a family holiday from time to time to indulge in furtive experiments with Players cigarettes and to fritter shillings on the juke-box, with its prominently displayed sleeve of the Hardy debut EP, Tous Les Garcons et Les Filles, then on its way to sales of two million copies. This was in 1962, when female pop stars still meant cocktail-gowned crooners like Connie Francis, Shirley Bassey or Brenda Lee, with a leavening of early Tamla, and the Hardy package devastated my Adrian Mole-like sensibilities. There was the song, with its clear plaintive melody and its sad romantic lyrics ("mais moi, je vais seule, par la rue la Montaigne..."); the voice, so simple, so intimate, so sophisticated somehow; and the image - Parisian, jolie-laide, with that long straight hair, that full mouth, those frank, soulful eyes. And this was three years before the advent of the mini skirt that Hardy adopted with such demure aplomb. She was never overtly sexy - a French friend recalls his parents, driven to apoplexy by Brigitte Bardot, whom they regarded as a national scandal, always liked Francoise Hardy for her apparent diffidence and modesty. This was not a pose, apparently. In 1968, Hardy abandoned live performance after six years, feeling that her voice and stage manner were not up to it, and she became notably reclusive, so worrying did she find the prospect of being stared at in cafes.

She was also bemused for years by the idea that she might be attractive, having been convinced from childhood that she was gawky and plain. "It's funny," she says. "Sometimes I look at old pictures and see I was quite good-looking, but all my life my grandmother told me I wasn't. She was the opposite of me - short legs and a big ass..." The American slang sounds incongruous in Hardy's punctilious mouth.

Hardy was born in 1944 to an absentee father from Normandy and a Parisian mother, who brought her up with difficulty on the proceeds of a job as an accounts clerk. Her childhood bracketed the post-war rise of Saint Germain des Pres, where the traditional music-hall chanson of Piaf, Trenet et al diversified into a plethora of jazz and chanson clubs and a new generation of stars appeared: Brassens, Brel, Montand, Ferre, Juliette Greco, the Muse of Saint Germain and lover of Miles Davis, Barbara, "la chanteuse de minuit", Serge Gainsbourg, the link between the Saint Germain set and the rock generation that succeeded it.

Hardy's early stamping-ground was not the Left Bank, but a quartier of the Ninth Arrondissement known as La Trinite, between the great department stores of the Boulevard Haussmann, the Trinite church and Pigalle, with its own claim to chanson fame. Around the corner from the Hardy flat, in the Rue Chaptal, was the parental apartment of Lucien Ginzburg, as Serge Gainsbourg was then known. Elsewhere in the quartier lived Jean- Philippe Smet (aka Johnny Halliday) and Claude Moine (Eddy Mitchell of the Chaussettes Noires), both of whom Hardy remembers leading neighbourhood bands of admiring proto-rockers. Another Trinite contemporary was Jacques Dutronc, an idiosyncratic and talented actor and singer whom Hardy subsequently married and whose taste for large cigars and fine alcohol presumably explains some of the contents of the black room.

Hardy's teenage experiments with song were encouraged by her family. Her father made a rare appearance to buy her a guitar when she passed her baccalaureate, and her mother put her forward for an audition with the record company Vogue, putting paid to a week's involvement in tertiary education at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques. Her early models were all Anglo-Saxon ("The Shadows' `Apache' bowled us all over") and she sang a Presley song, "I Gotta Know", for the audition. But if her arrangements, like all of the ye-ye generation's, borrowed heavily from American pop, Hardy's voice and style owed more to the Saint Germain chanson line; not so much that of the theatrical Juliette Greco, but an alternative strand of young singers with guitars, no make-up, understated little voices and poetic lyrics - now-forgotten artists like Anne Silvestre, Nicole Louvier and Marie-Jose Neuville, "la collegienne de la chanson". And while stars like Johnny Halliday rushed to embrace every new trend from America with slavish abandon, Hardy actually decreased her early dependency, dispensing with a little Buddy Holly-like hiccup mannerism she had acquired, shunning the path towards universal Whitney Houston-isation later trod by artists like Celine Dion.

As she matured, Hardy not only honed her own personal, mildly despairing song- writing, but chose with discrimination and alacrity some of the best works on offer from leading professionals.

Not surprisingly, she was sought out by Serge Gainsbourg, the most influential and creative French songwriter of the generation, whose taste in female voices was more or less defined by Hardy's (he wrote for her her great hit "Comment Te Dire Adieu"). "Serge adored Francoise. He never wanted to write for theatrical singers like Piaf," said Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg's long-time companion and muse, whose own voice Gainsbourg tutored minutely in the direction of Hardyesque simplicity, and who remembers that Tous les Garcons et les Filles was the first record she ever bought.

Typically, the idea that she might be influential gets short shrift from Hardy, and the mention of one Helene, a young TV singer whose transparent Hardy pastiche has become very popular lately, evokes only a flurry of picturesque epithets like benette, munuche, and gnongnon, all of which mean generally idiotic.

In spite of her arm's-length attitude to show business, Hardy has been a magnet for trend- setters. The sleeve of her 1968 Comment Te Dire Adieu album bears a striking charcoal portrait of Hardy by Jean-Paul Goude, who went on to art-direct Grace Jones, the French Revolution Bicentenary parade and a thousand expensive TV commercials. A couple of years ago, Malcolm McLaren (whom Hardy had never heard of) persuaded her to sing with Catherine Deneuve on a cliche-ridden musical tribute to Paris, which Hardy defends vigorously. "No, really, it's an excellent record, you should persist..."

What is fascinating about Hardy is clearly the entire package, like her fellow cult figure Gainsbourg. This includes her chic, her reclusiveness, her originality and her frankness (the occasional extreme political view which emerges as a result of the latter is in itself refreshing). It also includes her sadness and her vulnerability, which suffuse the heavy electric guitar mixes of the new album, but which Hardy says are largely restricted to her artistic life. "It's not so easy to write songs about happiness."

"The artists I prefer are those who have their own unmistakable universe," she says. "But it's so rare to achieve that. Most people don't really know me artistically. The proof is always having to talk about the Sixties and the Beatles." True up to a point. But there are a surprisingly large number of people out there who appear to like what they do know of la Hardy.

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