POP MUSIC / The sound of the Kaas register: Patricia Kaas is huge in France, but what's really impressive is she's a small hit here, there and everywhere. Philip Sweeney reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Make no mistake about it - the teenage waif Patricia Kaas has become a woman, and is now projecting femininity, charm and sensuality for all she's worth. She says as much in black and white on the PR blurb for her latest album, she's reaffirmed it under a hundred excited newspaper headlines - L'Ange Blond, Mademoiselle Romantique, Le Charme de Patricia - and she's not about to be deflected from making it quite clear to the British just because I ask the wrong question.

'Your new album is said to be 'true to your roots'. What are your musical roots?'

A brief pause, then: 'The new album speaks more about the woman than the artiste . . . I wanted an album which speaks about love, sensuality and relationships . . . I feel more confident in my body now . . .'

'Yes, but . . .'

''I'm very melancholic too, I love to remember my childhood, or when I met somebody . . .'

'You're melancholic?'

'Yes, melancholic. But not sad. I'm a happy girl . . .'

Kaas has plenty to be melancholically happy about. We are speaking on the evening of her final concert of a sell-out fortnight run at the Zenith, Paris's premiere rock auditorium, which has reaffirmed her as France's top female popular entertainer. Her fourth album, the grown-up, sensual, female, etc, Je Te Dis Vous has brought her combined record sales to over 4.5 million. Furthermore, with Canada, Belgium, Germany, Japan and Russia under her belt, the USA nicely softened up by two low-key tours, and Britain firmly targeted by Columbia / Sony, her record company, she regards herself as well positioned to beat competitors Vanessa Paradis and Liane Foly to the rarissime status of world-famous French pop star.

Kaas's career is built on a perception, both at home and abroad, that she is somehow more French, more authentic, than your average Gallic pop singer. This is due in part to her northern working-class cabaret background - she's seen as a people's artiste. In part it derives from her repertoire's peppering of classic chansons - Piaf's 'La Vie en rose', Dietrich's 'Lili Marlene' - a side she shrewdly emphasised in the USA in 1992, where she was sold as a 'torch singer'. She has steadily moved her visual presentation from the cute gamine of eight years ago towards a sophisticated, cocktail-dress look, not unlike Ute Lemper.

Kaas takes to the Zenith stage, svelte in burgundy velvet, fronting a very loud, very unoriginal, 80 per cent English rock band, which augurs badly on the Frenchness front. Or does it? Brel, Brassens and Piaf died many years ago, and even though Charles Trenet, Juliette Greco and Barbara are back in fashion and performing, rock has been part of the French musical soundscape for three decades. And so we have the cheesy pseudo-boogie of numbers like 'Mademoiselle Chante Le Blues', Kaas's first big hit, and the sub-Madonna prancing. More interesting are the studiedly 'French' numbers like 'Les Hommes Qui Passent' - a whore's lament by the same glib and ultra-successful songwriting team of Francois Bernheim and Didier Barbelivien responsible for 'Mademoiselle Chante' - and 'Fatiguee d'Attendre', a jewel of a moment when the rock musicians are replaced by a string quartet, and Kaas's pretty, slightly mannered voice can shine more subtly.

Boogie or ballad, the middle-class multi-age audience loves Kaas, holding up its briquets tentatively, singing along, emitting a huge cheer when Kaas descends briefly to the stalls to seize a bemused-looking young man and dance smoochily with him for a couple of choruses of 'Une Semaine a New York'. Kaas, it transpires, does her own staging - here emerging from a large fishnet in a black neglige, there mime-splashing in a blown-silk Fellini mock river - and certain numbers require a little decoding. What, for instance, to make of the director's chair with a large letter D forming a centrepiece for Je Te Dis Vous, the untranslatable play on the French use of tu and vous, one intimate and the other respectful? The D may be Alain Delon, whose impromptu appearance at one of her early concerts, and subsequent friendship, is the inspiration for the song.

But then the D could be for Depardieu. Her first single, 'Jalouse', was produced in 1985 by Gerard Depardieu, and co-written by his wife Elisabeth. Depardieu spotted Kaas in Paris at a gig arranged by her first manager, Bernard Schwartz, who had in turn spotted her at the end of a seven- year nightclub residency with an amateur group, Dub's Ladykillers, in Sarrebruck, Germany.

Kaas was born in 1966 just across the border in Lorraine, one of seven children. Her father was a French coalminer and amateur dancer, her mother a German mother enamoured of show business. 'She never forced me to sing, but it was her dream to have one child do an artistic job,' says Kaas. At 13, Kaas was doing covers of everything popular ('Sylvie Vartan, Claude Francois, Joni Mitchell, Liza Minelli, Eurovision songs . . .') at village balls and festivals ('The German beer tents were the best school - they were all drunk, you really learn how to handle an audience . . .'). Her residency at the Rumpelkammer (Fun Room) nightclub was her springboard to Paris.

The Depardieu-produced single flopped, but Kaas's voice was noticed by the influential lyricist Didier Barbelivien, who offered her his 'Mademoiselle Chante Le Blues'. The single was a runaway success, leading to headline-making concerts at all of the top venues, prizes and awards, four top-selling albums and a further 11 singles.

Kaas rapidly demonstrated a boundless ambition, a capacity for constant hard work, and a shrewd business sense. In 1988 she dropped Bernard Schwartz and signed to the management company Talent Sourcier, run by Cyrille Prieur, who had steered the pop group Niagara to success. Two years later, she dropped her original record company Polygram, and signed to CBS / Sony, whom she regarded as potentially more effective at launching her internationally. From these two changes flowed enough writs, frozen bank accounts, mutual accusations of sharp dealing and unfair or broken contracts to keep several large firms of showbiz lawyers melancholically happy for the best part of a year. Kaas now produces her records through her own company, Note de Blues, and all appears to be hunky-dory.

That's certainly the impression backstage at the Zenith after her concert. Waiters knock the head off a Methuselah of champagne and fountain the bubbly down a pyramid of coupes. A cake is cut and Kaas is presented with a platinum disc to celebrate 600,000 sales of Je Te Dis Vous. Henri de Bodinat, Head of Sony France, every inch the dapper marketing guru, looks quietly happy. Kaas goes off to take some champagne to the roadies; she is wearing patchwork and boots, her sensuality temporarily back on the leash.

Patricia Kaas's first UK album, 'Je Te Dis Vous', repackaged under the name of 'Tour de Charme', is released by Columbia this week.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments