Muse to the Parisian literary scene of the ’50s, godmother of songwriter-led ’60s French pop, and a self-reinventing torch singer from the ’70s until now, Juliette Gréco is one of the great French recording artists of the 20th century.
Juliette Gréco’s new album, Ça se traverse et c’est beau, celebrates the bridges of Paris in the company of a stunning guest list including Marc Lavoine, Melody Gardot, Philippe Sollers and Amélie Nothomb. The result is a profound and striking concept-album.
There must be a traditional side to Juliette Gréco after all, since her new album bears the prestigious Deutsche Grammophone label, reserved for “great music” by its mother company Universal. Yet Ça se traverse et c’est beau could hardly be described…
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…as a conventional offering. The credits alone bear the marks of some daring, eclectic choices: Marc Lavoine, Philippe Sollers, Amélie Nothomb, François Morel, Melody Gardot, Féfé, Marie Nimier, Jean-Claude Carrière, Christian Escoudé, Gil Goldstein, Gérard Duguet-Grasser, Alexandra Roos and, for a song available only on the album’s digital version, Abd Al Malik. Not just figures from jazz and chanson, but well-known writers and unclassifiable personalities, some of them Gréco cronies, others newcomers to her world, and as always, Gérard Jouannest.
“What a mad beast!” says Gréco with her gleeful child’s laugh. With the help of her accomplices, she’s created a complex, limpid disc that subverts all the usual concept-album rules. She had been asked to do a record on Paris, so she sang about its bridges. “Bridges bring together, bridges separate,” she explains. “We say ‘bridge a gap’ and ‘burn your bridges’. A Parisian bridge is not stone above water, it’s human.”
When you’ve lived in Paris as long as Gréco has, you’re bound to have thousands of bridge images in your mind’s eye. The writer Philippe Sollers has written a very simple, intense meditation in Le Pont Royal, the bridge Gréco lived closest to for years – at 33 rue de Verneuil, to be precise, just along from where Serge Gainsbourg moved a few years later.
Gréco’s image is so deeply engrained in the Parisian legend that Amélie Nothomb couldn’t escape it when she wrote her lyrics: she says that one bridge is missing from the Seine, and that it should be called Le Pont Juliette. “I didn’t know what she was going to write,” says the singer. “I was very surprised when she sent me the lyrics: it’s a love song. But I can’t sing a love song for myself.” So, set to a tune by her husband, Gérard Jouannest (Jacques Brel’s immense pianist) another voice features on the album to interpret this spoken song, in the shape of actor Guillaume Gallienne.
She also admits to having had reserves about Petit Pont, a confession by François Morel on one of the capital’s least-known bridges, despite its central location at the foot of Notre-Dame. The writer mentions the bridge’s pride at the thought of being sung about by Gréco. She preferred not to have to sing her own name.
For once, though, she does sing her own words. Since starting her career back in 1949, Juliette Gréco has only written half a dozen songs. Here, she draws the album to a close with Le Miroir noir, in which she contemplates, “My Seine, theatre of my loves,” and worries about “These dubious muddy waters flowing to what, to where?” “I’m more frightened than ever by what happens, and the world we’re leaving for our children. Paris doesn’t always resemble the town I once knew and loved so much.” Her song is a poignant reminder of the free and innocent loves that ran along the quays and the bridges, but the image of time reflected by the Seine is a painful one.
None of which diminishes the album’s dazzling duets. Marc Lavoine has given her two songs that he joins her in singing: C’est la la la and Seule avec toi – about lovers, radiant sadness and dreams for two. Clearly, the partnership was a success: “Marc has a gift for living. He’s handsome but healthy and wholesome. He’s good-looking but doesn’t seem to be aware of it.”
Her partnership with Féfé also left a strong mark. “I wasn’t expecting him to come up with this song at all, it’s the kind of song I might have sung back in the days of Jacques Prévert, or Francis Lemarque. I was surprised that such a young man from another place would talk about Paris like that.” The ex-member of the Saïan Supa Crew has written a number in a jazzy vein, Paris se lève, in which they sing together about Pigalle girls’ cash and bad language on the street. But it’s with another young artist that she takes a step back to the glorious days of Parisian chanson, singing Sous les ponts de Paris with Melody Gardot – “She was uncannily at ease on the song, even though she had trouble with all the misery described in some passages.”
And that’s what’s unusual about the tone of the album, which takes in spring and death, and goes from burgeoning love to suicides in freezing water. “The subjects are so varied because bridges are poetry, they’re life. It’s my story and it’s many stories.”