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.

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