Since most of my American readers plan to spend Sunday binging on chips, dips, wings and beer while watching a steady stream of overpriced commercials interrupted only by Rihanna’s halftime resurrection and occasional cutaways to an American football match, I figured this was a good time to review an album much beloved in France, Wallonia and La Suisse Romande but virtually ignored by music aficionados elsewhere.
Allow me to introduce you to Christophe Maé and Mon Paradis via Celeste at the French Music Blog, a source of information on contemporary French music that encourages you to “Frenchify Your Music”:
Singer-songwriter Christophe Maé performs acoustic Pop infused with Folk, Reggae, Blues and Soul. His music has an upbeat acoustic vibe, similar to Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, or John Mayer. He’s one of the biggest Pop stars in France today.
The singer, born Christophe Martichon, hails from Carpentras, a town in the Provence region of southeast France. A self-taught musician, Mae is heavily influenced by Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Tracy Chapman, Otis Redding, Ben Harper and Jack Johnson, and one can hear threads of them woven throughout his music.
. . . his first big break came in 2005 when he was cast in the French stage musical Le Roi Soleil (the Sun King). Mae stole the show in the role of “Monsieur”, King Louis’ brother. A smash hit, the play enjoyed sold-out runs and tours across Europe. It was one of the most successful musicals in France’s history . . .
After charming audiences on stage, Christophe Maé released his debut album, Mon Paradis. It was France’s third best selling album of 2007. It went diamond (more than platinum), selling over 1.5 million copies in France, and it won him the Victoire de la Musique (French Grammy) for Best New Artist. The album spawned the number one hit “On S’attache,” the top 20 single “Ça Fait Mal” (known colloquially as “Papa”), “C’est Ma Terre”, and my favorite, “Belle Demoiselle.”
To complete the snapshot, I’ll add a few biographical notes from an uncredited bio on the Wayback Machine, verified with other sources and translated from the original French:
His father, a musician and jazz lover, passed on his taste for music to him very early on. From the age of six, he studied the violin, the drums and devoted himself to singing. A former athlete who excelled in both tennis and skiing, Christophe was stopped in his tracks by chronic polyarthritis which immobilized him at the age of 16. He took advantage of this forced immobilization to learn the acoustic guitar and the harmonica . . .
Last but not least, I’ll make one “correction” to Celeste’s overview. Technically speaking, Mon Paradis was not Maé’s debut album but most people consider it as such because the real first album (Sa Danse Donne) came out before his sudden rise to stardom and drew no attention whatsoever.
I first learned about Christophe Maé when my mother returned from her annual visit to the family in France in 2006. She arrived in Paris to spend a week with her sister and was delighted to find out that her sibling managed to score a couple of tickets for Le Roi Soleil, the hottest thing to hit Paris until climate change. Maman raved about the musical and about Maé in particular, lauding his comedic talents and exceptional voice.
I nodded and smiled, secretly thankful that I didn’t make the trip and thereby avoided the horror of sitting through a musical. I don’t have an official diagnosis, but I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to musicals. My vision of hell is an eternal soundtrack of Rodgers and Hammerstein playing in a lava-surrounded prison cell where Stephen Sondheim lyrics are seared into the walls, with Carol Channing, Ethel Merman and the entire cast of Hamilton as my cellmates.
A year or so later, soon after relocating to Seattle, I decided to spend an afternoon acclimatizing myself to Emerald City culture by (what else?) hanging out in a coffee house. I’d been there for about an hour and was about to step out for a cigarette when a cheerful acoustic guitar riff drifted out of the shop’s sound system, followed by a voice so unusually appealing that I immediately plopped back into my chair to listen. At first I couldn’t tell whether the voice was male or female, and it wasn’t until the singer had delivered a couple of lines that I realized the lyrics were in French. I sat there, butt glued to my seat, ears glued to the enchanting music, oblivious to the chatter and clatter around me. When the song reached the end, I marched up to the counter and asked the rather attractive, pierced and tattooed woman with purple highlights who stood guard at the register, “Excuse me, what was the song that just finished playing?” She didn’t know, but one of the baristas overheard the conversation and said, “It’s by this French guy, Christopher May (sic). I don’t know the title.”
I stood there for a while rummaging through my brain . . . “Christopher May, Christopher May, where have I heard that name before?” Suddenly the lights went on in my cerebrum and I cried out, “Oh, fuck! I bet that’s the guy in the musical!” Ignoring the raised eyebrows of the staff, I reached into my coat pocket for my flip phone and called my mother. “Maman, ce Christophe Maé dont tu m’as parlé— je viens d’entendre une de ses chansons au café (pause). Ah! Quoi? Mon Paradis? Non, je vais essayer de le trouver ici. Merci. Merci, maman. Au revoir.”
After driving to half a dozen record stores all over Seattle I finally found the album. I played it in its entirety when I got home and every day for a month or so. In retrospect, I attribute my initial obsession with Mon Paradis to two factors: one, Mon Paradis is an excellent piece of work; and two, I was thrilled to hear French pop music that wasn’t absolute crapola.
French pop music doesn’t travel well beyond its borders, and for good reason: for the most part, it sucks. I’m hardly alone in that opinion, as demonstrated in the article “Is French pop music really that bad?” on Best France Forever:
France has a great reputation for many things (revolutions, stifling bureaucracy, topless sunbathing) but pop music is not among those. Despite being the country that produced the genius of Daft Punk, the breathtaking soundscapes of Air, and barking sixties sex dwarf Serge Gainsbourg, little French music is heard outside Francophone countries.
So where does this negativity surrounding French pop come from? In my experience, a lot of it comes from French people themselves, who are highly critical of the musical output of their own country. Then there’s the fact that French radios are legally obliged to play 40% French music. Which is a bit like your mum forcing you to eat your vegetables before you get any ice cream.
The author goes on to review several contemporary French pop songs and the only song that earns his love is from an album I reviewed (and adored) a few years back: Chaleur Humaine by Christine and the Queens. Other than the work of Christine and Christophe Maé, the only other album from a French pop artist that I like is Camille’s Le Fil (which I’ll get to someday).
I think the difference is in the semantics. The three albums I mentioned are very popular but they aren’t very poppy. All have greater richness and inventiveness than the typical pop album. While it doesn’t happen all that often, there have been occasions when music that offers something beyond the tried-and-true captures the public’s fancy—Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the Jazz Age, Sinatra in the 50s and several artists in the period from the mid-60s through the 70s all managed to produce genuine works of art that found favor with the public.
Mon Paradis is one of those blessed exceptions.
“On S’Attache”: This was the coffee house song that stopped me dead in my tracks fifteen or so years ago. When I described that experience to my American friends who were unfamiliar with Christophe Maé and then played the song for them, the response was usually something along the lines of “I wasn’t expecting that.” When I asked what they were expecting, they explained that my intense emotional reaction prepared them for something “bigger” and “more dramatic.”
Well, excuse the fuck out of me for appreciating subtlety in music. Let me quote from the modern version of Ecclesiastes that I just made up:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time for punk, and a time for reggae; a time to rock, a time to cool down
A time for slow, a time for fast; a time to chill, and a time to dance
A time to cast away the Stones, a time to embrace understated music
Contrary to the belief of many Texans, bigger does not always equate to better, whether you’re talking about music or dicks.
The arrangement for “On S’Attache” is airy and light, like the first spring breeze that brings a smile to your face after a harsh winter. The guitar duet performed by Bruno Dandrimont and Jean-Marc Benaïs (Maé joins in on rhythm guitar later) rises over the steady beat of Michael Désir’s drums and Laurent Vernerey’s bass, combining syncopated rhythms with lovely arpeggios. Johan Berg Dalgaard’s synthesized string-like keyboard offering enriches the sound without going overboard and the light handclaps in the chorus reinforce the gentle sway. The bridge adds a bit of a kick, but after a brief moment of stop time, we return to the overriding reggae-tinged sway that cues a slow build to the finish.
The “oomph” in the song comes primarily from Maé’s vocal, where he demonstrates his marvelous range, complete command of dynamics and superb acting skills. He’s a perfect fit for the role of a guy who resists attachments of all sorts—relationships, fixed careers, and above all, attachments to societal expectations of “normal” behavior. The key to interpreting the meaning of “On S’Attache” can be found in another section of the bio quoted above: “Christophe is a bohemian child. He never ever recognized any laws.” When using the word “laws,” the unnamed author of the piece isn’t referring to legislation, but the unwritten expectations of a society or culture. Note also that the title uses the highly flexible French pronoun “on,” which can mean “we” or “everyone” depending on the context. The song isn’t about the struggles of one bohemian musician but the struggles we all face when trying to find our place in society.
Christophe opens the song by describing himself as a social misfit. He admits he has no sense of style (almost a sin in parts of France) and that the “uniform suit” is not for him (“Mais c’est pas pour moi le costard uniforme”). He also confesses that he’s no one’s idea of the perfect son-in-law, and though he’s not opposed to love, he’s decidedly wary about surrendering to the poisonous arrow of attachment that creates the delusion of togetherness while emprisoning both parties:
Qu’on s’attache et qu’on s’empoisonne
Avec une flèche qui nous illusionne, faut pas
Qu’on s’attache et qu’on s’emprisonne
Mais rien n’empêche que l’on s’abandonne, non
The song is full of humor, often self-deprecatory. In the second verse, he rejects the James Bond model of masculinity along with the “need” to be surrounded by beautiful blondes and the long-standing right of men to pollinate like butterflies:
Je suis pas James Bond
Entouré de belles blondes (non, non, non)
J’envie même pas les hommes qui papillonnent
In the more assertive bridge, Maé describes the existential pain involved in attempting to cope with conformity pressures: “Le quotidien ça me tue, ça me tient, ca me fait mal” (“Everyday life is killing me, holding me, hurting me”). After comparing the experience of attachment to wrapping oneself in threads that restrict self-realization, he finally cries out, “Mais t’es qui?/T’es pas normal” (But who are you?/You are not normal), which I hear as both rejection (of society) and acceptance (of his real self)
Americans will appreciate the mentions of Uncle Tom and Grandpa Walton in the fade, examples of men Maé has no wish to emulate. He also uses the fade to remind his listeners that he’s just a man (“Après tout je ne suis qu’un homme”) who simply wants to love without feeling trapped.
Maé collaborated with Bruno Dandrimont on the composition and with noted lyricist Lionel Florence on the lyrics. As will be apparent as we go through the album, Mon Paradis is marked by the spirit of genuine collaboration.
“Mon Paradis”: Just to make sure that listeners fully understood that “On S’Attache” was not anti-love, the title track, a joint effort of Maé and Michel Domisseck, is a sprightly celebration of lifelong bliss, a relationship-as-refuge song similar in theme to Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl.” The imagery of “we are as one” is reinforced in the opening line “Bien dans ma peau tu es celle que je suis” (“Comfortable in my skin you are who I am”) and the later description of his partner as “my alter-ego.”
What knocks me out in this track is Maé’s background vocal, a spirited mix of response and scat delivered with all the passion of the true lover (a stylistic choice repeated in “Belle Demoiselle”). My favorite line in the song is “J’aime pas pour de faux mais seulement pour la vie” which roughly translates to “I love not for show but only for life.” The paradise he envisions is a virtual cocoon that protects the couple’s precious love from the noise of the outside world. When my partner and I were starting to get serious, I played “Mon Paradis” for her to clarify exactly what I was looking for in a relationship—a world of our own, filled with love and complete integration of spirit.
And dripping with sex!
“Belle Demoiselle”: Celeste’s favorite song is one of my favorites as well, an acoustic guitar-driven rhythmic delight that serves as a paean to the beautiful women who catch your eye as they stroll down the street, ephemeral beings who “S’envole, comme une hirondelle” (“Fly away like a swallow”).
That line sounds so much better in French.
Christophe and co-writer Domisseck also capture a fundamental truth about beautiful women—most men find them extremely intimidating. The “fly away like a swallow” line is preceded by a fit of self-doubt: “Yeah, yeah, si jamais je m’approche d’elle/ Aucun doute elle/S’envole, comme une hirondelle” (“Yeah, yeah, if I ever get near her, no doubt she’ll fly away like a swallow”).
Guys! Take a tip from ol’ Willie Shakespeare: “Our doubts are traitors/and make us lose the good we oft might win/by fearing to attempt.” If you walk up to a woman and say, “Excuse me, but I find you exceptionally beautiful” and she responds with “Sorry, but I don’t think you’re the least bit attractive” or “Get out of my face, loser,” that woman is an arrogant, conceited bitch who doesn’t deserve you (or anyone else for that matter). Walk away and thank your lucky stars that you’ll never have to deal with that rude piece of shit again.
One thing I love about many of Christophe’s music videos is that they eschew the too-common tendency to create abstract visuals that have no connection whatsoever to the song they’re trying to promote. Christophe’s videos take full advantage of his thespian skills, so I will now step out of the picture and allow the video to tell the story of “Belle Demoiselle” while filling your ears with delightful music.
“Parce Qu’On Sait Jamais”: The title translates to “Because You Never Know,” specifically referring to those who are “Ready for any deal when you have to die” and “start to believe everything” even though they haven’t seen the inside of a church for decades:
Parce qu’on sait jamais (Because you never know)
On regarde vers le haut (We look toward the sky)
S’il y a un aprè (In case there is an after [life])
Au moins sauvé sa peau (At least to save his skin)
The song is not anti-religion but anti-hypocrisy: “On est capable du pire des mea culpa/De toutes les mauvaises foies” (“We are capable of the worst mea culpa/Of all bad faiths”). The lightness of the music reflects the absurdity of late conversions rather than condemnation.
The underlying truth is that no one knows what happens after we croak off; those who believe in an afterlife rely on faith, not fact. The faithful could be right; then again, they could be wrong. As different faiths paint different pictures of the afterlife, it’s hard to keep up with it all.
If there is a Judgment Day, I hope that whoever hands out the sentence didn’t read my paragraph on musicals.
“Ça Fait Mal”: Often referred to as “Papa,” this one is a genuine heartbreaker. Here’s the backstory, translated: “After a show, Christophe Maé chatted with a little girl. Her father had left and she was very sad. He left her his phone number, then wrote this song.”
Opening with a mournful harmonica, Christophe sings the song from the perspective of the little girl. The opening verse finds the girl reliving pleasant memories of her parents dancing with the grace of ballet dancers. The memories fade quickly, replaced by anger triggered by abandonment and deep pain—not so much her own pain, but the pain of watching her mother suffer:
Tu as pris la route sans dire adieu (You hit the road without saying goodbye) .
Tu as laissé son corps, je t’en veux (You left her body, I want to hold it.)
Ça fait mal de vivre sans toi (It hurts to live without you)
Elle a mal et tu ne t’imagines même pas (She’s in pain and you can’t even imagine)
Comme ça fait mal de rire sans toi (How it hurts [her] to laugh without you)
Elle a mal et tu ne reviendras pas (She is hurting and you won’t come back)
Few singers could pull off such a song without crossing the line into the maudlin, but Christophe’s empathy for the girl is painfully obvious. Once again, the video tells the story with greater impact than anything I could write:
“L’Art Et La Manière”: Literal translations of this song into English make it seem rather boring and not a little bit trite, so to really appreciate it, you have to understand the reference to a famous French singer-songwriter contained in a teeny-weeny line: “À la Gainsbourg.”
Serge Gainsbourg was the French Pop poet laureate during the genre’s peak years in the 60s, but what is most relevant to our understanding of “L’Art Et La Manière” is that he was quite the provocateur whose songs created controversy and a love-hate relationship with the French public. In the opening verse, we find Maé struggling with “saying the unsaid” but landing firmly on the side of discretion:
Dire tout haut (Say out loud)
C’que tout l’monde pense tout bas (What everyone is privately thinking)
Je sais pas c’que je préfère, (I don’t know which I prefer)
Même si le ridicule ne tue pas (But even if ridicule doesn’t kill)
Parfois vaut mieux se taire (Sometimes it’s better to shut up)
Later he argues that “attitude is not an end in itself” and that “a touch of savoir-vivre wouldn’t cost that much.” Christophe Maé may lack style, but he is a true gentleman.
He also makes some very good points . . . I just wish I could figure out how to apply them to my life. My mother constantly reminds me that I need to learn when to shut the fuck up but I have a hard time restraining myself from telling assholes exactly what I think of them.
Hmm. I see that Ash Wednesday is coming up. Maybe I’ll become a temporary Catholic and give up the pleasure of calling an asshole an asshole for Lent.
“C’Est Ma Terre”: “C’est Ma Terre” is a collaborative composition involving Maé, Lionel Florence and Jean-François Oricelli, the latter a renowned musician and composer. The sounds of Jamaica and Africa pervade this song, with hand drums and a chorus of background singers echoing the stylings found in some of Angelique Kidjó’s music.
The joyful music contains a serious message, forming a plea to look beyond our differences and find ways to live in harmony—particularly when it comes to those “strangers” we know as immigrants. The song has an unusual structure in that the verses contain the argument for mutual understanding while the chorus presents the opposite stance—stubborn rejection of “smile on your brother”:
C’est ma terre où je m’assois (It is my land where I sit)
Ma rivière, l’eau que je bois (My river, the water that I drink)
Qu’on n’y touche pas (Don’t you dare touch it)
C’est mes frères autour de moi (It is my brothers around me)
Mes repères et ma seule voix (My landmarks and my only voice)
Qu’on n’y touche pas (Don’t you dare touch it)
So much for the Marine Le Pen admirers. Let’s move on to what I believe some Americans would identify as “Wokeism”:
On alimente nos peurs qu’en détournant nos regards (We feed our fears by diverting our gaze)
De nos belles valeurs qui ne seraient pourtant qu’un devoir (From our beautiful values which would (should) only be a duty)
Et si on apprenait à se prendre la main (And what if we learned to take each other by the hand)
À se voir autrement que des inconnus qui ne font rien, des histoires (And see each other not as strangers who do nothing—([as told in] stories)
Y a-t-il un cœur qui s’élève pour que tout le monde soit d’accord? (Is there a heart though which everyone could agree?)
Un cœur qui prenne la relève (a heart that takes over)
Quelqu’un qui vienne en renfort (someone who reinforces us)
I’ve been waiting a long time for that heart to come and unite us, but I think it’s going to take more than a miracle worker to untangle the web of hatred that pervades modern life. Sigh.
“Maman”: Maé co-wrote this passionate ode to his mother with some assistance from Oricelli, but the intense and genuine feelings he brings to his vocal go far beyond the compositional details. At times the song feels so personal that I almost feel like an intruder, but the truth is I feel the same way about my mother but lack Maé’s talent for capturing emotions in words.
So, excuse me for borrowing from Maé and sending a message to my mother:
Je t’aime simplement
J’ai pas su trouver les mots
Pour te parler, je sais
Mais je pense être assez grand
Alors aujourd’hui j’essaie
Tu l’as bien compris je crois
Je t’aime en effet
Tu l’as bien compris je crois
Je t’aime pour de vrai
No translation . . . it’s a private message.
“Ma Vie Est Une Larme”: This is the single miss on the album, and thanks to my recent engagement with The National, I think I know why. Here’s the couplet that helped clear the cobwebs:
L’horreur c’est que l’amour te prend tout (The horror is that love takes everything from you)
Mais tout ce qui ne te tue pas te rend fort et fou (But anything that doesn’t kill you makes you strong and crazy)
That’s pretty close to Matt Berninger’s “Terrible Love” where he sings of the terrifying, awe-inspiring aspects of love: fear of loss, fear of losing yourself, the all-encompassing feelings for another. The difference between the two songs lies in the musical accompaniment. The music to “Terrible Love” is dark and distorted with a “steel wool” guitar effect—a sonic expression of “terrible love.” The music to “Ma Vie Est Une Larme” is positively bouncy, which gives the impression that those feelings of horror Maé describes are not to be taken seriously.
Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.
“Va Voir Ailleurs”: The acoustic guitar interplay between Dandrimont and Mae on this song is delightful, featuring quick fretwork that forms a swooning effect close to an arpeggiated slide guitar. Combined with bassist Laurent Vernerey’s riddim contributions and Michael Désir’s steady drums, “Va Voir Ailleurs” is probably the tightest and most enjoyable reggae piece on the album.
The title translates to “look elsewhere” and reflects the advice Maé gives to a partner who doesn’t seem to be thrilled with what he has to offer. It’s a classic case of initial attraction followed by the discovery that the two parties simply don’t click—and you know things are really bad when the sex drive fizzles out:
Mes nuits étaient blanches à tes côtés (My nights were sleepless by your side)
Pendant que toi profondément tu dormais (While you slept deeply)
Privé de sexe et d’affection (Deprived of sex and affection)
Je sens monter en moi la pression (I feel the pressure rising inside me) . . .
Uh oh is right! Still, Maé handles the breakup fairly well, suggesting she should look elsewhere for a soul mate. Though the intended night of passion proved to be a bust, I still feel this is one of the strongest tracks on the album and I’m a bit puzzled that it hasn’t received due attention.
“Mon Père Spirituel”: The spiritual father in this case is not the super-being watching our silly species from the safe vantage point of heaven but Bob Marley, a major influence on Maé’s sound and style. You can certainly hear it in the reggae-influenced arrangements on this album, but as noted in the title, Maé felt a powerful spiritual connection to Marley that included and went beyond the music. “Je pense qu’il était immortel” (I think he was immortal), Maé asserts, but is only able to express the nature of the spiritual connection in short, clipped phrases:
Trop belles (Too beautiful)
Ces idées (Those ideas)
Qu’il a voulu exprimer (That he wanted to express)
Trop courtes (Too short)
Ces années (Those years)
Mais tellement d’héritiers (But so many heirs)
Ironically, the music is probably the least reggae-tinged song on the album, with the drums taking the two-four offbeats instead of guitars and little emphasis on the third beat.
“Spleen”: Yes, the title is in English and if you don’t understand how that particular word earned the honor as the only fragment of English on the entire album, shame on you for not keeping up with your Baudelaire! The French poet of Les Fleurs du Mal fame confiscated the word from the English because he liked its connection to Hippocrates’ theory that our moods are products of bodily humours. In that long-discredited theory that was all the rage during the Rennaisance, the spleen emitted “black bile” (yuck) that triggered what they referred to as “melancholy.”
In our more scientific era, we call it depression, clinical or otherwise.
It’s not unusual for artistic types to experience depression, and I admire Christophe for sharing his bouts with the “Enemie du soir” (Enemy of the evening). What’s most important is that he reaches out to his partner for help:
Toi l’âme sœur (You, my soulmate)
Douceur, rose de ma vie (Sweetness, rose of my life)
Fleur du bonheur (Flower of happiness)
Viens me dire les mots (Come tell me the words)
Qui sauront panser mes douleurs (That will know how to heal my pain)
Unlike many album closers, “Spleen” is anti-dramatic. The arrangement is on the intimate side, limited to acoustic guitars, bass, percussion and celeste-like keyboard. Maé’s vocal conveys both fragility and hope, most noticeable in the fade where he sings both lead and high harmony.
In the years that followed Mon Paradis, Christophe Maé explored a range of styles beyond the “acoustic Pop infused with Folk, Reggae, Blues and Soul” of Mon Paradis, venturing into jazz, Zydeco and borderline rock. His stylistic explorations haven’t damaged his popularity in the least: five of the six albums he released after Mon Paradis reached #1 on the French charts; the other made it to #2.
I had the opportunity to see Maé live last year when his tour brought him to nearby Monaco, but at the time the mask requirement was still in place and I felt it would interfere with my enjoyment of the concert. Thankfully, he’s coming to Nice later this year and you can bet your britches that I’ll be there with the whole family.
I wish you all a pleasant Sunday . . . wake me up when the Super Bowl is over.