Thursday, 11 March 2010

Who is Benjamin Biolay?

Amid the hoohaa over the state of French president Nicolas Sarkozy's marriage, the character of one major player seems to have been largely overlooked by the British media. Benjamin Biolay may sound like a purveyor of posh yoghurt (the French do love their culture) but he's an estimable musician whose work is worth more than a passing listen.

A graduate of Lyon's conservatoire, he immediately impressed with his 2001 debut, Rose Kennedy, a concept album based on the life of the Kennedy family matriarch. It's filled with plangent arrangements (he studied trombone), samples from Some Like It Hot and a lovely song about flying kites on the beach. He had already cemented his songwriting reputation by contributing to French crooner Henri Salvador's 2000 album Chambre avec vue (a best-seller recorded when Salvador was 82!).

Biolay's collaborator for those Salvador tracks was Keren Ann, and she and Biolay worked together on her excellent, synthy debut La Biographie de Luka Philipsen (2000). Keren Ann Zeidel is Dutch-Javanese-Israeli and has a flirty phone manner that once reduced me to a puddle during an interview (unfortunately the Time Out piece that followed about her and Biolay leading the French pop scene at the time isn't online).

She's also stunning, and Benjamin Biolay clearly has a way with beautiful women. He recorded a (musically) rather less successful album with his erstwhile wife, Chiara Mastroianni (the daughter of Marcello and Catherine Deneuve), Home, and has worked with his sister Coralie Clément on some very good pop albums indeed. There's no suggestion of incest in their relationship but, when every male musician in France has to endure comparisons with Serge Gainsbourg, Biolay hardly seems to be going out of his way to distance himself from le grand Serge's reputation.

Now, of course, Biolay has been linked with the taller half of the Sarkozy marriage, Carla Bruni. Nicolas is said to have flown to Thailand to retrieve his wife from the hands of France's new BB, but perhaps the couple were writing songs together on the beach. There does seem to be something of the leading man who always attracts his costar about Biolay.

His current album, La Superbe, is a typically ambitious double album based around a summer affair, lasting a month from the traditional 15 August holiday. The title track is a string-rich epic well worth checking out; elsewhere there are echoes of Manu Chao (Buenos Aires) and also a song told in Post-it notes left between the two lovers (Brandt rhapsodie), which is reminiscent of Biolay's excellent work on the soundtrack to the film Clara et Moi (2004).

While the UK media has noted that Biolay was a big winner at France's Victoires de la Musique awards, there's been scant interest in his work itself, perhaps because we wrongly tend to look down on French pop. There's no better time to discover Biolay's excellent oeuvre, though this may not have been the way he chose to break his name internationally.

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