The Secret Story of French Chansons

Every month on TV5MONDE USA, songwriter, composer, and pianist André Manoukian welcomes the leading names in French music to discuss their careers and greatest hits. From love songs and joyous ballads to vacation soundtracks and unexpected successes, the artists reveal the secrets behind their compositions. We sat down with him for a chat.
André Manoukian and singer Jane Birkin on the set of L’histoire secrète des chansons. © Morgane Production

France-Amérique: What is the concept of the show, L’histoire secrète des chansons?

André Manoukian: We take a close look at an often-overlooked challenge: composition. Many songs stay with us throughout our lives, but how are they made? We are used to talking about the lives of singers and the careers of bands, but not so much about their actual work. I wanted to know how artists create timeless songs that end up in the annual Top 100 lists or voted “France’s Most Popular Song” such as “Mistral Gagnant,” by Renaud. The French singer didn’t actually want to put it on his album because he found it too intimate. It was only after his wife threatened to leave him that he changed his mind! I therefore delight in receiving singers and songwriters and having them explain the process that goes into creating the songs that make up the timeless heritage of our emotional lives. Together, we explore the mystery behind crafting these tunes. You don’t need to be a great composer or to have studied music at the Conservatoire; the songs often appear when self-taught musicians pick up a guitar and try to play along with what they’ve written. Their lyrics are half poetry, half slogans; poems of day-to-day life that seize your ears when you are listening absent-mindedly to the radio in the car.

Why do you receive guests in a more intimate setting, far from the stage and the bright lights?

We sit around a piano, which reassures the guests. When people are interviewed by journalists, they forget their train of thought, or think “I hope people will understand me!” While sitting around an instrument, we talk as musicians. As a result, the artists stop watching what they say, relax, and open up. I am always very moved to see the people I admire, who have been part of my childhood and my youth, bare all with me. They reveal a side to themselves that they would never show to journalists. I play their songs on the piano, and they like the stripped-down way I portray their repertoire. Each show is a lover’s meeting founded on mutual admiration.

What makes a song a hit that will go down in musical history?

I learned a lot about this subject by reading sociologist Michel Maffesoli’s book, The Time of the Tribes. He says that a creator is someone who connects with the collective unconsciousness of a crowd of people, and is able to reflect a dream back at them. Suddenly, they recognize something that they are unable to define. A 1990 Sony advertisement sums it up nicely: “I dreamed it, Sony did it.” In his book, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali writes that musicians predict the society of the future. In his musical structure, Mozart foretold the comforts of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century. Stravinsky foreshadowed the chaos of the World Wars in the 20th century, and Bob Marley heralded the rebirth of Africa. Aside from the prophetic dimension, artists are able to reflect the spirit of the times. Naturally connected to their era, they capture this beat and immediately translate it into music. This is why most songs are written by people in their 20s; they are megaphones for the movements that escape them. And then, with age, we become less spontaneous.

What French music has resonated the most abroad?

Anglophones know the French chanson genre the best. Edith Piaf, in her time, had an exceptional voice that struck an emotional chord. However, a thriving world of java music, accordions, and the streets of Paris can also be heard in her songs. Play French rock music in the United States and everyone will laugh, much like if someone tried to sell American cheese in France. Nietzsche said that music was above all a rhythm, the pulse of the earth. Our French pulse is found in our exoticism: the Gipsy Kings, the Algerian raï genre, Ibrahim Maalouf playing Carnegie Hall, and the wealth of world music coming from the incredible, cosmopolitan capital that is Paris.

You also explore the artists’ lives as well as their songs. Which guest left the biggest impression on you?

Juliette Gréco! When she came to talk about her hit “La Javanaise,” she was at least 90 years old but was as enchanting as if she were 20. She sat in the psychoerotic curve of the piano, with the lights shining down on her, and stared at me. We were supposed to discuss Gainsbourg, but I decided to ask her to tell me about Sartre. The producer was complaining in my earpiece, so I took it out. Juliette Gréco then told me about the post-war period, when she was poor and alone in Paris, living in an artists’ hotel where a group of actors took pity on her and gave her their clothes. That’s why she started wearing pants and turned up the hems because they were too big for her. She then started going out with the existentialist philosopher Merleau-Ponty, and while they were at a dance, she met Sartre. Jealous at seeing his colleague and rival with a young woman who constantly turned heads – she totally stood from the beauty standards of the time – he flirted with her by saying: “Are you a singer?” And that’s how she started out in the music business!

The show L’histoire secrète des chansons is broadcast twice a month on TV5MONDE USA.