One thing Françoise Hardy and I have in common is that we both gave Paris a wide berth in May ’68. In my case it was a question of force majeure: with my girlfriend, I was on my way from London to Istanbul on the Direct Orient Express (third class, £40 return each, three and a half days there and three and a half back, £5 supplement for a couchette on the homeward journey), and the general strike in France meant a detour via Brussels. For Hardy, it was a matter of choice: she and her new boyfriend, the singer Jacques Dutronc, were advised by their publicist to get out of town to avoid the évenements.
“We didn’t need to be told twice,” she wrote 10 years ago in Le désespoir des singes et autres bagatelles, her fine and extremely candid autobiography. “We left for Corsica, where we spent several idyllic weeks — the first and the last of our long and strange relationship.”
Neither of them would have found a natural home on the barricades. “My political awareness was nulle, and it was the same for Jacques.” What she did know was that she disliked violence, which she believed would solve nothing. “Contrary to things I’ve heard Daniel Cohn-Bendit say,” she continues, “May ’68 didn’t transform society; it was because society had already been transformed that May ’68 could take place.” That’s quite an interesting argument.
Fifty years later, at the age of 74, she has a new album out. It’s one she never expected to make, her recent years having been occupied by treatment for lymphoma, from which she recovered after being given a new kind of chemotherapy. Created in collaboration with Erick Benzi, who produced and played many of the instruments, Personne d’autre fits very nicely into the sequence of Hardy albums of the last three decades: Décalages (1988), Le Danger (1996), Clair-obscur (2000), Tant de belles choses (2004), Parenthèses (2006), La pluie sans parapluie (2010) and L’Amour fou (2013).
There may be others that I don’t know, just as I didn’t know a much earlier album, La question (1971), until I was steered in its direction by Sean O’Hagan’s excellent interview with Hardy in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, in which it was described as her own favourite. I sent off for it straight away, and once I heard it I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been in my life for the past 47 years.
Her principal collaborator on this one was a Brazilian guitarist, songwriter, arranger and producer known as Tuca, born Valeniza Zagni da Silva. Together she and Hardy achieve a blend of the elegance of chanson and the lightness of bossa nova, using the latter’s familiar gut-string acoustic guitar but not the rhythms. There are strings everywhere, romantic but not cloying, and the occasional support of a double bass. Only in the latter stages of the album do an electric guitar, a piano, a swirl of organ and a brass section make brief and discreet appearances.
La question is a concept album in the sense that it constructs a wistful mood which endures and evolves without strain throughout its dozen songs and 32 minutes. In 1971 Hardy herself was still sounding like a girl rather than the woman she is on Personne d’autre, but this is nevertheless a grown-up record. To achieve such weightless poise takes time, talent and touch. And for me, at least, better late than never.
* Personne d’autre and La question are both on Parlophone. “Viens”, a track from the latter, is featured on Paris in the Spring, a new anthology of French pop from the late ’60s and early ’70s compiled by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs for Ace Records. An English translation of Hardy’s autobiography is due at the end of the month, titled The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, published by Feral House. I haven’t seen it, so the translations included here are mine.