Monday, 22 December 2008

December in New York

I hear people speaking French next to me. The airport speakers are playing Christmas songs. I marvel at how arrangers can still find something original to do with these exhausted songs. I passed earlier on a group of tourists all of them wearing a Santa hat with blinking stars on it. I wonder what the atmosphere will be in Paris. I wish I were cunning enough to be away from all this jingle jungle as I have been last year.
I was in Saigon. My cousin had prepared a Christmas meal Vietnamese style, which means that there was absolutely nothing Christmasy about the food. The evening ended at a trendy lounge bar near the opera house, in the company of a couple of friends and some uproarious high class hookers who had had their whole face and boobs redone and who were telling hilarious stories about some of their clients.

There‘s this slight sense of frustration when I think about this week in New York. I imagined a perfect week with a couple nights out at the theatre, nice dinners and drinks with friends, afternoons spent  walking on the streets and taking pictures, maybe a few exhibitions. Kristin Scott-Thomas was said to be fantastic in The Seagull and I could not wait to see that, David Bowie was having an exhibition at the MoMA. I imagined some wild nights at the club, fantasized about hot encounters with handsome strangers. All I managed was The Day the Earth stood still, a dull and uninvolving remake of the Robert Wise classic. How Keanu Reeves chose to play in this film is a mystery. How I ended watching this film instead of Slumdog Millionaire or Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche is another mystery…
It’s quite strange to see how more and more remote Reeves looks on screen as the years pass by; the same quality I find in Gene Tierney, as if some deep wounds are swallowing him inward. It was already quite obvious in A Scanner Darkly, now it’s even alarming.
That film  wouldn‘t be a good candidate to save the week. I did steal a couple of hours here and there from my friends. All of them were busy or did not even get back to me. The friend who hosted me was nice but high maintenance. When I expected a quiet person with a good sense of self confidence, I met a delicate spirit much too eager to please and constantly asking for attention. It’s strange trap to be invited to stay at someone’s place and have to walk on eggs all the time even if everyone tells me to make myself at home. There was a big dichotomy between the words and what I actually felt. Add the Christmas frenzy and this week in New York was more like a strange nightmare. But the sight of the impressive architecture was enough to make me happy.  I was stunned to see all the changes since my last time here! They must have some warlocks working for them.

The other highlight was to see Kristina and Beppe again. Kristina is going through a tough and confusing time at the moment. She has left her long time companion Philippe - I shall miss the giant he was and the bon vivant who would come to Paris with his excellent wines... Work but nothing that exciting. How come such a beautiful dancer doesn't find a Pygmalion to create works worthy of her??? She has to teach monkeys and grab whatever she can. Ah, la vie d'artiste!
Her new beau is a Greek hunk who seems as confused as she is.
In spite of all that, we all remained confident about the future. We are doing what we love. We are travelling around the world and manage to see each other wherever it is. Isn’t it a wonderful life? The difficulties we encounter we meet amount to nothing much when we see what we have achieved.
And the new year will be even better, and certainly filled with many surprises.
Where will I be? Whom will I meet? Whom will I love? What will the next projects be? To what destinations will I travel? And will I finally settle somewhere out of France as I feel I must do?
I don’t know and I’m happy not to.  Hurrah!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

And it feels like home...

To be in New York is such a joyful experience that no word can describe. It may be cold, snowy, windy or rainy, I just don’t seem to notice. I am simply filled with excitement and happiness. No other city does this to me. Or maybe should I say that each city does something different to me.

I thought this trip would be a wild and sexy one, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. I hardly go out if it is not for a meal with friends. A frantic and tentative stumble that was stopped midway. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


Toronto now. Lara lives in a former working class area turned hip. Like in all of the big cities, these areas were looked down until artists, musicians and fashion designers would start to flock there because the affordable living inexpensive housing. Galleries, designer’s shops, trendy cafés and restaurants would open every week. A Golden Age would then begin for five or six years until the interest of the mainstream invasion takes place, unavoidably boosts up prices and ironically compel these artists to leave for another part of town - a cheaper part of town.

My first good film in months: Milk. A wonderful performance by Sean Penn. He is the best American actor.

Whilst waiting for the laundry to be done, I wandered in Lara’s neighbourhood and discovered many interesting galleries. One was displaying picture by former 60’s model Pattie Boyd. Photographs of her then spouse George Harrisson, Eric Clapton and other fellow musicians from that era. The best shots though came from her travels in Asia.
I was glancing through the window pane and about to leave when the owner of the gallery, a friendly man in his forties, who looked like he had just been sent back from Woodstock called me and invited me to have a closer look inside. 
Since the photographs were of musicians, the conversation was about music. And when he learned I was one myself, he promptly offered his help.
‘As a point of fact, I’m looking for a lyricist’ I told him.
In no time, he came up with names, took my phone number and e-mail address and promised to get back to me.
Even if nothing happens, I was delighted by his kind and convivial attitude.

I'm so happy to stay with Lara. I couldn't possibly not visit her, when I was so near by. I had missed her presence immensely since she was more or less compelled to leave France and return to Toronto.
A difficult decision. We even thought of getting married so to get her the papers. But y intuition told me that she had to face that side of her life: family, a decidedly overwhelming mother, her career. France didn't bring her what she had hoped for, even if she loved the life there.
Now it seems her life has started to take off. She's working again in theatre,she's writing again, some interesting offers are coming to her, and most importantly, she has faced her parents and settled for what she is. 
And - something not totally negligeable, she has found love...

Monday, 8 December 2008

Pages turned

I met Karen ten years ago. She had then just started a relationship that marked the end of long years of struggle. The man was more than wealthy and encouraged her to pursue her dearest dream: to get back to her singing.  Karen came from a fairly well off family from Chicago. I saw at her Parisian flat two gorgeous black and white photographs of her parents. The mother had all the elegance and beauty of a screen goddess from the thirties. She is shot in her profile, in a long evening gown, and had nothing to envy Carole Lombard or the divine Garbo. However, there was some remoteness in this perfect appearance that struck me. Karen said that she had to be perfect because she could not be herself. Something was breaking inside but she would not show it. Her husband had married this beautiful woman and wanted to keep her as such; so when she gave birth to three children, her new role as a mother drove him away from her. She eventually died of solitude, leaving Karen and her two brothers by themselves, for their father never really paid much attention to them. He was of Swedish descent, from a small village of only one hundred and fifty inhabitants. The family was very poor and as a young boy, he dedicated all his strength and energy to work and study at the same time. I guess he had to grow up too soon and reached this paradoxical situation when he was able to afford a comfortable life to himself and his family and yet never be unable to allow himself to fully it. The photograph shows a handsome blond young man, neatly combed, dressed in a grey suit. There is a quiet confidence in his stare. Success is in his eyes.  But I could feel solitude as well.
Karen flew away from this life as soon as she could. What was in store for her was life as a desperate housewife. The tragic example of her mother was something she wanted to avoid for herself. She came to Paris to study the language.  She wanted to sing.  She enrolled at the Ecole Normale de Musique as a soprano, got excellent notice for her singing, won a prize. She was also designing jewels. At last she was living this romantic life she had been dreaming about.  A stunning beauty herself, she was quickly discovered by fashion houses and started to model for the likes of Givenchy or Dior.
She fell in love. The family would not hear of it, threatened to disown her. The young man was a burning meteor and it all ended tragically.
I can only guess that that was the turning point for her. She may have lost her voice by then. Maybe she was haunted by the memory of her mother and was realizing now how much she was losing as she got closer to her true self. When I met her, she was pushed by her partner to get back to her old dream. That also meant that she had to relive the trauma and try to walk past it. I saw it all, and can but bow down to her courage and the faith she kept for herself. Watching her also gave me lots of strength.
At first Karen only wanted to build up a repertoire of old standards by Cole Porter or Gerswhin and sing in some classy venues.  She found me through her dentist. He knew lots of artists and musicians. One of them was a friend and the connection was done. He was given three names. « What could a Vietnamese guy know about Cole Porter and Gershwin », she asked herself. What she didn’t know was that I had been exposed to this music since my childhood. My mother had lived in London for ten years and she would often play records by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra or let me watch all these glorious Hollywood musicals. These tunes were more familiar to me than any Jacques Brel or Juliette Gréco songs. But how could she have guessed anyway? She called me one day enquiring about my experience.  She spoke with a heavy American accent. But that hardly gave me a hint of who was to appear at the Café de Flore where we were supposed to meet up on our first appointment. Her first appearance was simply stunning. Everyone looked dull next to her. She was glamorous, a film star without the films. The French have this innate elegance, they are stylish and dress tastefully. Karen is a head turner wherever she goes. It’s not only because of her beauty. She’s certainly one of the kindest person I know. Someone once said, rather cynically that she was too positive and he couldn’t bear that. 
I worked as her vocal coach for a few years, tried to help build a repertoire. She moved from jazz standards to Tom Waits, before starting writing her own songs. When she showed me her first texts, I immediately a great talent. As a singer, she struggled a lot. Each time she had to sing, her psychological blockage would put her in a state of near paralysis. Many other vocal coaches followed, although her problems had nothing to do with technique. But she kept on going and braved her deepest fears, gave concerts, studied with more than one vocal coach.  However I encouraged her to hone her talents as  songwriter, in spite of her resistances. She didn’t mind expressing her creativity through writing, but she wanted to find acknowledgement as a singer. That dilemma was more hers than mine to solve. I only kept on supporting this new side of her creativity and wrote a handful of songs for her.
She came to Chicago a couple of times to work with a friend of hers, Keithan, whose claim to fame was to have featured in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and sung backing vocals on Madonna’s True Blue album - albeit on one song only, White Heat. These credentials didn’t help when it came to direct Karen and arrange the songs. The result sounded like uninspiring demos taken from the vault of some obscure recording studios of the 80’s. There was nothing left from what I had written. All the melodic lines had been changed to suit Karen’s voice, Keithan said. Even from that perspective, it was downright embarrassing.
Maybe I was being unmindful when I accepted the job. I knew I could improve the songs musically, but was less certain regarding her vocal prowess.
A challenge is always good to take. The first days were spent in refashioning the existing songs.  To my greatest surprise, I unearthed very good musical stems out of this mess. Once again, the motto ‘Less is More’ shone brightly above our heads. The songs badly needed some heavy tweaking.
For the new songs, I made a point I writing very simple melodies that would suit Karen’s limited range. At the end of our two weeks of labour, headache, fun, exhaustion and full enjoyment, Karen was coming home with eight songs, including four brand new ones. Her confidence was boosted, she had reached a new level. Not yet Maria Callas, but a positive improvement indeed. Among the songs, a little gem called Pages. It was no longer about Karen trying to prove anything. It was simply a beautiful and moving song.