Camille Dalmais: Voilà! France's new star

She's chic, she's lit, and she's a Paris match for Björk. John Lichfield encounters Camille Dalmais, the eccentric newcomer of French music
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Camille Dalmais comes across as a rather ordinary sort of modern, young, French woman. She has long, dark hair, black tracksuit bottoms, and oval, brown-rimmed, bookish glasses. She looks younger than her 27 years as she blows kisses at a puppy scampering around her agent's office.

Until three years ago, she was a student at the elite Parisian college of politics and sociology, Sciences Po. Now Camille may be destined to be the Next Big Thing in world pop. One British music critic has called her the greatest pop star the world has not yet heard of.

"Ordinary" does Camille an injustice. So does "pop star". And anyway, it is untrue that no one has heard of her. Her second album, Le Fil, has been a great success in France and recently won two "Victoire" prizes, at the leading French music awards. The album is selling so well as an import in Britain that it will be given its own UK release.

Camille wowed viewers of Later... with Jools Holland on BBC2 last month, scribbling on her face like a three-year-old in the middle of her agonisingly slow, soulful number, "Au Port". The same week she brought the house down at her first solo gig in Britain, at the Jazz Café in London. She starts her first US tour next week.

The photograph on Camille's latest album cover makes her look sultry and insolent and difficult. She has been compared to Björk and Joni Mitchell. Her stage-show is zany, provocative and very funny. The album is an unsettling "patchwork" (her word) of disparate styles and voices, from soul to African, to rap, to nursery rhyme, to chanson Française, to mumbling introspection. All are written by Dalmais and are threaded together ("le fil" means "the thread") by the low drone of a B-note which starts the album and continues for 35 minutes after the last track.

Ordinarily, French pop stars are not graduates of Sciences Po. The college is the alma mater of Jacques Chirac, Lionel Jospin and Ségolène Royal and a rung on the ladder of political and administrative success in France.

And, ordinarily, French pop musicians - with the exception of one or two rap bands, such as Saïan Supa Crew - are ignored or mocked by the Anglo Saxon world. Camille may be the first French female singer to make the breakthrough since Mireille Mathieu and Françoise Hardy in the 1960s (neither of whom was as original as Camille).

All the same, Camille is ordinary, in the best sense of "ordinary": unassuming but confident, straightforward, easy, and thoughtful as she sits perkily on a sofa at her Paris agent and music-publishers - a very female office with lots of sofas and cushions and the wandering puppy.

Is the jumble of styles on her album a way of searching for the right voice for Camille Dalmais, for what will work best for her? Or is the jumble, in itself, the finished style?

"I think it's me! It's me. I think human beings are about looking for different ways. That's how I would define being a human, and that's how I am. It's paradoxes... different energies. And you never really know where to settle, and you never really know who you are and what character you want to play... I like things that clash, that supposedly don't go together well, that don't fit. I like that, the patchwork. And I think it's very much how our society is, very much a patchwork."

She talks fluently in English: her mother is an English teacher in Paris. Her own early influences, from her music-loving parents, were mostly 1960s and 1970s American music such as Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and gospel. She made a conscious effort to discover the great classic performers of chanson Française - including Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel - when she was a teenager. She found them impressive but, she hints, too French. "When I was little, these monsters - I mean these guys like Brel or Piaf - I couldn't get it. It was too powerful." She pulls a scared face and makes a noise like an avalanche or an express train: Camille likes making faces and different kinds of noises, especially on stage.

"The films of them are always in black and white, so it adds to it. It adds to the drama. It's so monolithic. That kind of music is very... one-piece. And I think I am not one-piece. It doesn't really fit with the way I see myself and see the world." All the same, she says, she has come to appreciate many aspects of the French tradition. There are a couple of tracks on her second album, "Au Port" and "Quand Je Marche", which could have been sung by Brel or Piaf - although they would have been arranged utterly differently.

What she does share with those "monsters" - and a living monster such as the indestructible but non-exportable Johnny Hallyday - is a love of live performance. "I don't feel singing is scary. And I'm not scared by people. When I sing I talk to the people... and I feel a concert is like a renewal for everybody."

The wilder side of Camille explodes (in a professional sort of way) at her live concerts. She likes to pour drink over the audience. She steals the handbags of the women in the front rows and tips out their contents on stage. She gets the men to chant "we are women". "I like lots of jokes; I prepare my jokes," she says.

"I feel like, sometimes stage situations are underestimated, under-used, underdeveloped. People go to their show, and they do it, and then 'goodbye'. And I feel it's such an opportunity, You meet new people, in a new place. There are lots of things that can happen - you know, accidents - but in a good way. It's live. So let's make it live."

What is finally most impressive about Camille - leaving aside the practical jokes, the animal noises, and the jumble of styles - is that she sings beautifully - when she wants to.

"I'm working on my voice at the moment," she tells me, "and I'm working on a voice I can go back to that is fluid. But after that my point is to play with that voice. You know what I mean? Even vocally, my point is not to have this plain voice and fluid voice all the way through. I have to know how to do that, but my point is not that. It is about looking for different ways."

As to why other French contemporary performers have failed to make the jump to international recognition, Camille offers the thoughtful reflections of a sociology/politics graduate. Partly, she says, it is a question of the economic and cultural domination of music by the United States and Britain, Partly, it is the fact that many French performers copy Anglo Saxon styles and so they seem old-hat by the time they reach foreign audiences.

"When you imitate a style in another language it's never as good. Like if you do blues in French it won't ever sound as good as English blues because it comes from English-speaking people."

It is interesting, she says, that French rap has made the leap to international popularity. "I think French rap is very original. Because rap is based on language, they cannot just copy English -language rap. It's about their stories, their cités [housing estates], where they live, their native town, so they have something really anchored."

Here is a paradox, she says. Authenticity and originality demand roots but don't demand frontiers. Her hope for herself is to be successful in France but also abroad, not as a "French singer", but as someone defined by her lack of national definition. "I've never thought of being a 'French', a made-in-France artist. I really feel like belonging to a country is completely old-fashioned. I really don't identify with that. I think art is not about that. It's about talking about your roots, and references, and of course that's important, but it's about being universal really. It's about thinking about frontiers differently - geographical frontiers but also frontiers of your mind, of genres."

Camille has extraordinary self-assurance. She does admit, however, to being scared of one thing: success. She says success can be liberating in the sense that it can allow you to choose your own path, and choose the people you work with but it can also be a tyranny, a prison.

"I think you have to tame success," she says. "The problem with success is that, after a little time it asks you something. It's expecting something from you. You know this phenomenon. It expects something from you."

'Le Fil' is out on EMI on 12 June