Carla Bruni: A model singer-songwriter

Carla Bruni may be the former face of Guess? jeans, but as she tells James McNair, her music is a much better fit
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The Independent Culture

As anyone who has sat through Naomi Campbell's take on T Rex's "Ride a White Swan" can attest, models dipping a toe in the waters of the music industry can find themselves out of their depth. It needn't always be the case: the Velvet Underground's German chanteuse, Nico, released a string of extraordinary records before heroin abuse took its toll. Now comes Carla Bruni. When the model-turned-singer released Quelqu'un m'a dit (Somebody Told Me), the music press in her adopted city of Paris were sniffy. The general public, however, found the spare, deliciously languorous chanson irresistible. Largely thanks to word of mouth, the album has since sold more than a million copies in France. The consensus now, moreover, is that this trilingual chanteuse is much more than a clothes-horse.

"I don't take my album's sales success as an indication of its quality," Bruni says, widening her bewitching blue eyes. "But it's coherent and it's me, and I could play the songs on the record in front of you right now. The supermodel image hasn't necessarily been a help, but I wouldn't sing these songs if I wasn't writing them myself. I'm not a sex object in them - I'm the subject."

Bruni and I are chatting in West London. At the height of her modelling career, this open and vivacious 36-year-old earned upwards of £7.5m a year, appearing on hundreds of magazine covers and spearheading the Guess? jeans campaign. "Now," she says, "I almost dress with my eyes closed. Wearing the best couture every day made me indifferent to it, and I never wear make-up or jewellery any more."

From the outset, Bruni was determined her album would be cheap to make and spontaneous-sounding. "I wanted it to retain all of its mistakes and all its humanity," she says. She recorded it in the kitchen of a friend, the former Téléphone guitarist Louis Bertignac. He helped her to cook up a piano- and strings-appointed album of great intimacy. Bruni's warm, nylon-string guitar is a constant on its folk, blues and light jazz songs, whose lyrics deal in playful irony, elegiac wistfulness and declarations of love and conquest. It is her voice, though, a rasping, closely mic-ed thing, which really sets the heather alight. Is its distinctive tone caused by smoking Gauloises?

"No, no!" she laughs. "At night, I might smoke one Marlboro, but that's it. This kind of low, husky voice is actually very common where I come from in Turin - all over Italy, in fact. My sister has it, and many of my girlfriends have it, too. I think it's genetic."

For all the tittle-tattle about Bruni's supermodel-turned-singer status, the quality of her music is, perhaps, unsurprising, given her family background. Her late Italian father was a classical composer with a love of 12-tone music, and her Franco-Italian mother was a concert pianist.

"Music was the most sentimental thing in their lives," Bruni says, "and, although I was rather indifferent to technique, I definitely absorbed their tremendous passion for it. My mother always said that she could love a man who wasn't handsome or physically strong, but that she couldn't love a man who didn't love music. I agree! We all have different tastes, but being completely dead to music - that's scary".

Bruni says that her parents were supportive of her modelling career, and that "so long as I didn't become a drug addict", they were happy. "They did try to get me to study music, but studies in general were not really for me", she laughs. Study she did, though, attending a Swiss finishing school, then reading architecture after her family had moved to Paris in the Seventies. When a modelling agency offered her "a passport to freedom", however, she had no qualms about swapping house plans for the catwalk.

A recurring theme in the songs of Quelqu'un m'a dit is a feminism-influenced volte-face, in which the traditional "woman as object or muse" position has been reversed is . Might that be in reaction to her own objectification as a model?

"Yes, you're absolutely right," she says. "But modelling is rather paradoxical in that sense, because it makes you a lot of money, and that gives you power. You know, there's a song in Mozart's Don Giovanni where a man is telling a woman of his conquests. It goes (she begins singing), 'In Italia, 604/ In Allemagne, 231', and on and on. It kind of influenced my song 'J'en Connais' (I Know a Few). My song is a list of men, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were my lovers. It's more a wink to all those who have made lists, and to the working woman who is free.

"I disagree with the idea that the woman shouldn't be the subject and the one who seduces. And I disagree when a woman is considered immoral just because she is liberated. Maybe fidelity is stronger in women, but I'm not sure even about that. They have different ways of being unfaithful, men and women. And they have different ways of being faithful."

Bruni tells me her father was 56 when she was born. My Freudian radar blips at this, connecting it with his daughter's penchant for much older, often famous, men. Bruni dated Donald Trump when he was in his fifties, and Eric Clapton when he was forty-something. At 22, she dated Mick Jagger, when he was 48 at the time.

What's interesting, though, is that Bruni has broken the mould with her current partner, the professor of philosophy, Raphael Enthoven. At 26, he is 10 years younger than Bruni. Has she had enough of wrinkly old rockers, then? "Desire is not very precise in my case," she laughs, "so I never choose. The one thing Raphael and all the men I've loved have in common is a strong feminine side. I find feminine men very virile and macho men very fragile. Machismo is a defence mechanism."

Bruni and Enthoven live in Paris's second-most-expensive quartier. Bruni no longer models, but she did recently approve Chanel's request to reuse one of her old photos.

She tells me her next record might be in English. She's been trying to adapt sonnets by Shelley and Shakespeare, but hasn't quite nailed them. "English has a lot of rhythm, a lot of 'bim-bom!' sounds, but for me it's not as musical as Italian, which is full of vowels. Take a word like 'tomato'. It's no fun to sing in English, but in Italian, it's pomodoro, which is delicious." At this she repeats the word, stretching her low, husky voice around it. I make a mental note to visit Turin.

'Quelqu'un m'a dit' is out on 3 May on V2