Hello all, I've had to have a little break from blogging, so since this is my first post of the year, I want to belatedly wish you all a Happy New Year. Unfortunately, the year had a very sad start with the loss of an artist I hold very dear, France Gall. I have some special France Gall-related things to post, coming up soon. For now, I just wanted to share a few words about what France Gall has meant to me – if I can even begin to capture such a thing.
When I first heard France Gall's sixties music, my mind was blown. It was everything I loved in pop music, turned up to eleven. A lot of people describe something similar on discovering her for the first time. Gall has clearly meant a lot to so many, her infectious joy reaching beyond any particular time or place. She got to make some of the best, original music in sixties French pop (unlike her contemporaries, she hardly did any cover songs), and there are indeed many to credit for the brilliance of her songs. But there is undeniably something so special and appealing about Gall that made those songs truly amazing.
I have always really adored the young Gall's voice, so natural and expressive and unique. I know some simply write her off as not being able to sing, and while I can appreciate that her singing style isn't for everyone, I don't think that's a totally fair charge. She has a really lovely vocal tone, her pitch for the most part is good, and her timing is impeccable, even on very challenging jazzy numbers. Her main 'flaws' are that she has a limited range, and hits some notes audibly flat. She has some unusual techniques that show the untrained nature of her voice, like singing in falsetto, or getting kind of shouty when belting is required. Yet these imperfections have always been part of her charm to me, and even part of what I find pleasing to listen to. There are many singers, especially in punk, indie and rock, who are far from technically perfect – sometimes even quite bad – who are still enjoyable to listen to, and it's often because of their flaws, not despite them. I just find this a different, but still valid, listening experience than that of hearing a meticulous vocal. What fascinated me on hearing the slightly off-kilter quality to Gall's vocals was that the French had room for this approach in pop music so early on, well before the rock world saw this as an artistic choice elsewhere.
It's interesting the French could recognise the appeal of vocal character over technical perfection, to the extent of making a pop superstar out of someone with a notably flawed voice. Character is what I look for in a vocal, whether technical skill is present or not, and hers was sweet, enthusiastic and wonderful at conveying emotion. There's a quote I wish I could find where Gall talked about a compliment she was thrilled to receive, where someone compared her to Édith Piaf. The comparison was not about ability – Gall was well aware she wasn't even close to Piaf's vocal mastery – but the gist was that she similarly sang with every fibre in her being. She had a small voice but sang with all her heart.
I think France Gall was the route deeper into 1960s French pop for quite a few people, moreso than even Serge Gainsbourg or Françoise Hardy, and that certainly was the case for me. Her music showed me what a wonderfully odd and gorgeous world sixties French pop could be, through those beautiful arrangements and melodies, quirky lyrics, and her unusual voice. Though she kicked off a rewarding foray for me into the many delights of the scene, nothing, of course, has ever topped her and she has remained, and always will remain, my absolute favourite.
French pop in this era was a well-oiled machine and, moreso than its counterparts elsewhere, there was a strong a visual component tied to the music. There are those gorgeous EP and album covers, as well as countless magazine photo shoots that showed off Gall's warm personality, cute style and stunning looks. Gall was a great beauty her whole life, but never had the ego that often accompanies that. What I found even more exciting than finding all those lovely pictures was discovering her videos. When I started collecting her television appearances and scopitones, it added a whole new dimension to my fandom. As deeply as I already loved her music, seeing her sing her songs enhanced them and gave me even more of a sense of who she was. There's a genuine sweetness and joy that comes across, and she seems natural, warm and unaffected. I find watching her performances gives me a feeling like little else, like some sort of relaxing shot of sunshine.
By all accounts, Gall was as lovely a person as she seemed. Jane Birkin, for example, shared a touching anecdote about how Gall showed up to offer support and help when Birkin's daughter, Kate Barry, died a few years ago. I tend to focus on her sixties career because that's the music I love so very much, so my main image of her is as a teenager and young woman, but of course, she had a long and successful career, and grew into more than just the sweet ingenue of the yé-yé years. She suffered a lot of hardships, like the loss of her beloved husband and musical partner Michel Berger, and later their daughter Pauline, who suffered from cystic fibrosis. She was also a breast cancer survivor. What an incredibly strong person she must have been to not only endure all this, but remain the kind and selfless woman Birkin recently recalled.
I admire who she went on to become as a woman, even if my interest in her music is mostly limited to those early years. Her later music is not bad by any means, it just is very much of its era, and the prevailing trends of seventies and eighties adult-oriented pop are not so much to my taste. But I've always felt happy for her that she found deep contentment singing Berger's songs, and that she felt way more connected to the words he wrote for her than to those of the songs she had sung as a girl. I respect that she continued her career on her own terms, and thrived doing so.
Still, there's something so iconic about the young France Gall of the 1960s, such a fun, gentle and lovable presence, unguarded and radiating a natural sweetness and enthusiasm. Though I feel immeasurably sad at her passing, it's this image that will stay with me and continue to warm my heart.
Thank you, France Gall. Thank you for being you and brightening the world. Thank you for the beautiful music. It means more to me than I can ever express.
I have a series of tribute posts planned, and I shall get them up after I catch up on a few other posts that have been delayed. Meanwhile, you can have a look at the 'France Gall' tag to see older posts dating back to 2005, which include magazine scans, videos and some favourite songs.