Purple Magazine
— Paris Issue #31

la femme/marlon magnée

marlon magnée

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by CESAR LOVE ALEXANDRE

la femme is reviving french “variété,”
singing in french, embracing the melodrama of love,
and finding unprecedented success outside france

OLIVIER ZAHM — The funniest definition I’ve found of your music came from a guy who called it “surf/Gainsbourg.” How do you see it?
MARLON MAGNÉE — That’s funny and flattering, too. There’s a bit of an electro side to it, as well, so maybe we’d need to add another adjective. In any case, the Gainsbourg and surf aspects are certainly there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where does the surf come from? Your childhood in Biarritz?
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes and no. In truth, nobody in Biarritz listens to surf music, not even the surfers. The myth is dead. Surf music is something I actually discovered in Paris, especially through a group called Les Cavaliers. And also through the soundtrack to The Wanderers, a great rock and roll movie, and other movie soundtracks.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But does surf music even exist anymore? Because when you think of surf music, you think of the ’60s.
MARLON MAGNÉE — There are a few trad groups with the vintage 1962 guitars and the Fender amps and the typical reverb. They keep everything just the way it was. They’re purists who make music the way they did in the ’60s. The Wanderers and The Wongs and Les Cavaliers, for example.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where does surf music come from? The Beach Boys?
MARLON MAGNÉE — The Beach Boys are a somewhat pop offshoot of surf music because I think surf music is for the most part instrumental. I think it’s got some country-western and some Oriental influence, and then there’s the reverb, which sends you right to California.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s something that’s always present in your music: the sunniness.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes. Reverb. It’s cinematic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s a psychedelic aspect to it.
MARLON MAGNÉE — We take all our biggest influences and mix them up. There are songs that’ll sound more like surf, more like electro, more like psychedelic music, but what ties them together in the end is the sound of La Femme. That’s how you recognize them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s also a strong French identity that you’ve always wanted to keep in there.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes. That was important in the beginning. For one thing, we were listening mostly to French music, especially to a lot of rather obscure ’60s songs. For example, Stella, who put out a really pretty song called “Pourquoi Pas Moi?” [“Why Not Me?”]. Then there’s Delphine, and Zouzou, a great figure of ’60s Parisian nightlife.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s right, and she was a model.
MARLON MAGNÉE — She put out a yé-yé [1960s French pop] album back then, and there was this beautiful tune on it: “Il Est Parti Comme Il Était Venu” [“He Left the Way He Came”], a super sad breakup song. Later, during the New Wave and the Cold Wave, we were still listening mostly to French stuff. When we discovered Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes and BIPPP compilations from the Born Bad label, that stuff influenced us a lot. Born Bad is a great French label with a real indie visual aesthetic. They only put out really bizarre French stuff from the ’80s that had been kept in drawers somewhere. Then there was the “Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes” exhibition in 2008, on which occasion they put out some great stuff. That’s how I discovered groups like Deux and Marie et les Garçons.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s an underground to French pop music that isn’t generally known. People know the big stuff, like Jacno, Taxi Girl, Étienne Daho.
MARLON MAGNÉE — It’s like with yé-yé. All people know about is Sylvie Vartan and Johnny [Hallyday]. But there were plenty of other singers who were great.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And who didn’t necessarily have big hits.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Right. They didn’t sell at the time. But there were people with great potential. And it’s cool because now we can rediscover them on YouTube and the Internet.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the big names are Jacno and Taxi Girl?
MARLON MAGNÉE — For me, Étienne Daho is the name everyone remembers. There’s him and Indochine, who are still making music. Then you’ve got groups like Deux and X Ray Pop. They’re way underground, super dark wave, and they’ve stood the test of time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — All of it in French.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes, in French. In 2010, when we first went to Los Angeles to film, we realized that people at these DJ parties were listening to a lot of the yé-yé and deep-cut French compilations that I told you about. We ran into a lot of people who were real fans of that kind of music.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In fact, you didn’t want to do what Daft Punk and many other French groups do and sing in English.
MARLON MAGNÉE — No, because at the time we were listening to French music and couldn’t speak English. In 2009-2010, all the groups were singing in English, and we didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing. So, we sang in French.

OLIVIER ZAHM — With the trade-off that foreigners wouldn’t understand you.
MARLON MAGNÉE — That’s what people said at the start, but it turns out there’s plenty of foreigners who prefer us to sing in French. Now that everyone sings in French, I feel like singing in English. But then, we love all languages. We’ve got Basque songs, Turkish songs, Spanish songs, Russian songs all in the works. We had Arabic on the last album.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because France is a crossroads of influence in Europe. There’s Italy, too.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes. The Italian compilations from the ’60s, the yé-yé singers — they were great, too. Patty Pravo, “La Bambola,” for example, which is beautiful but also full of unknown stuff.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Over the years, you’ve managed to develop a real audience in the United States.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes. For one thing, we go there. We do what’s necessary. We didn’t wait for a producer to come seek us out. We paid for own first tour with restaurant jobs. We told ourselves, “All right, we’re going to give it a try.” There aren’t really any groups in the United States doing this kind of new wave/’60s sound. Over there, it’s mostly psychedelic, things that are a bit more pop, like Pitchfork. I think what we were doing seemed a bit exotic to them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s also a French ambience to it, a sensibility.
MARLON MAGNÉE — There’s a kind of French class that they like. A romanticism. People love our French accent. They see France as this great country. Of course, they also think we’re snobs.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Then there’s Clémence Quélennec’s voice.
MARLON MAGNÉE — For the album, though, we used different female voices. La Femme is not one woman. It’s an ensemble. It’s like women singing in the heavens. It’s a feeling. We’ve never found the one voice. We like having lots of different voices on each song.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have different guest singers?
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yeah, but there’s a common thread. We like straight vocals, with no effects. We use very pure ’60s voices, with nothing but reverb. The girl has to sing without an accent, but there has to be a sort of fragility to the voice. That’s why we often get singers who know how to sing but aren’t pros. That way, they don’t have any tics. Once they get tics, they get a thing going. Suddenly, they’ve got pipes, a vocal style, and that doesn’t lend itself very well to our music.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’re appearing on TV, on Star Academy. It’s incredible how these young singers, who’re maybe 16 or 17, are so professional already, and yet they lack quality.
MARLON MAGNÉE — But even on shows like that, you find talent. One time, we brought on a chick we’d discovered on the set of Nouvelle Star. She was a traditional Corsican singer who sang super high, like a bird. We said: “Holy shit, listen to her! That voice!” So, we had her sing on one of the songs on the last album.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And Grace [Hartzel] sings, too?
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes. We’d done a song called “Always in the Sun.” And she sang one of the songs I did for Celine. She’s the one who did the vocals.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When you say, “Le Femme defies definition because La Femme is mysterious,” are you thumbing your nose?
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yeah, absolutely. There are plenty of reasons, in truth, but that helps cut the discussion short, stop the debate.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially since there are more guys than girls in your group.
MARLON MAGNÉE — That’s true, but we’ve had so many female singers collaborate on our albums that there’d actually be many more women if they all joined us onstage.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s what I like about your group. You feel that it’s open. You don’t feel that it’s limited to four, five, or six people. You feel that it evolves, that it’s more of a band of friends. It reminds me of Mano Negra and groups like that.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes, that’s part of it, with lots of people who come and go.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the core of La Femme is you and Sacha [Got], but there’s an open side, a collective side. And your energy in concert is very similar: the performance side, your link with the audience, is important to you.
MARLON MAGNÉE — At our concerts, we want our audience to dream. When we played the Zénith, we insisted that there be American-style decor and entertainment. For Les Victoires de la Musique, we performed with guys dressed up for a 1920s cocktail, and the music started up, and we started to play. We like doing stuff like that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a particular look.
MARLON MAGNÉE — We each have our own thing. It’s true that I like a certain coherence, as long as everyone’s different.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s all very improvised, very personal.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes, it’s personal. I don’t know if you know Aymeric Bergada du Cadet. He’s an art director, stylist, and performer. He’s been there from the start. He handles all our costumes, all the stylistic stuff, and now we make the videos together. He’s more or less responsible for Clémence’s image onstage. The Hollywood side of things is important to us. I was lucky enough to meet him in Paris. He’s got a wacko group of performers.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, La Femme has no fear of fashion.
MARLON MAGNÉE — We like to bring together gifted people, people with talent. We like to do things together. But La Femme can at times be a little afraid of fashion. Me, I’m okay with it, but other members of the band are not necessarily comfortable with that stuff. We’ve done it two or three times, but we don’t want to do any more shoots with credits at the bottom. We’ve done things for fashion, sold singles, like with Celine. Now, we’re in a different economy, a different time, where you need brands to make a living and get your projects off the ground. Private concerts pay well. With gigs like that, you can finance your videos and your tours.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In France, the music world is always paying a certain amount of attention to fashion. You think of Jacno, Serge Gainsbourg, Marquis de Sade, Taxi Girls, and their style — those guys worked hard on their look.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes, but it wasn’t always the case. I think there was an image crisis in the 2000s. Back then, groups would show up in street clothes. In group photos, everybody’d be looking off in a different direction, to make an artsy photo, and they’d film their videos on rooftops, and nothing would happen. In 2010, when we started, we wanted to show up with a curated look, like Les Rita Mitsouko, with an art director, a world, and real videos.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, because you make lots of videos.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes. I don’t know if you’ve managed to watch Sphynx. Grace is in it. Sometimes we have a budget, and sometimes we make do with what we’ve got, as we did with Où Va le Monde?  [Where Is the World Going?]. That video worked. Sometimes simple stuff works, as well. Sometimes you work really hard on something that goes nowhere, and sometimes an idea that doesn’t cost a cent works better.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s good to keep things eclectic, and you’re very eclectic.
MARLON MAGNÉE — We don’t want to be stuck in a category. I think that with art and creation, you shouldn’t be shutting doors. You should do what you can with the constraints of the moment.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not amazed at your own success. You’ve been working hard for 10 years, and La Femme is getting more and more successful, but now you practically represent French music today.
MARLON MAGNÉE — We’re just getting settled into the landscape, but we’ve still got plenty of work ahead of us. I’m truly glad, in any case. I remember being in high school and dreaming about putting together a group and saying to myself: “What the hell am I going to do later on? Do I want to become a musician?” I’m really proud to have achieved a big part of our dreams. But things can go far, and they have to go further.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The fuel or the energy behind your success is that it’s connected with the history of French chanson.
MARLON MAGNÉE — That’s true. It’s not the case with all our songs, but for me some of them are French chanson. “Le Vide Est Ton Nouveau Prénom” [“Void Is Your New First Name”] is a lovely song, and it’s chanson.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve no fear of that, either.
MARLON MAGNÉE — No. We don’t give a damn. You just have to be proud of your own music. That’s it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And not be chasing America…
MARLON MAGNÉE — No. Those who do that aren’t the best, and it shows. But America’s still cool. It’s in the business of selling dreams. I feel good when I go to LA, and I feel like I’m in my element in New York, but I’m very much attached to France. When I travel, I realize that we’re lucky to be in France, to have our educational system, our health care system, the aid for artists, the special tax status for people in show business, the grants, the subsidies.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In the end, Paris is making a comeback, wouldn’t you say?
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yeah, I really think so. There are super underground parties, super cool stuff. I think Paris has made a comeback in the 2010s.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Or maybe it’s just getting back to where it was?
MARLON MAGNÉE — Cities become cradles of culture at certain times. For classical music, it was Vienna. Later, there was jazz in New Orleans, etc. It’s cyclical. It comes, it goes. It changes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And your next project?
MARLON MAGNÉE — Right now, we’re working on a record. We want to put out lots of themed EPs [extended play records]. We’re just wrapping up some new songs. It takes time. Things are still a little unclear. We’re trying to get them all done.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re all off working on your own?
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes, and we meet up from time to time. Two of us, Sacha and I, are writing the songs. When we meet up, we discuss things together. Sam Lefèvre, our bassist, is also a sound engineer and our instrument repairman, the one who invents stuff and tweaks sounds.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right, because you’re an electronica group, but instruments and live performance are very important.
MARLON MAGNÉE — On albums, we do everything to a click, with synthesizers, but live there’s no prerecorded track. Nowadays, almost all groups use a computer. They press play, and there are samples to back them up and make things sound fat. Whereas we do everything the old-fashioned way, and we play the synthesizers by hand.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, no two concerts sound the same.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes and no, because when you do 200 concerts a year, you can end up performing the song like a machine. That drives Sacha bonkers. He doesn’t find it very artistically noble to play the same song every night. He’d rather play new songs. That’s why he wanted to thin out the touring schedule a bit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To get back to yé-yé, what do you think of that period? It was a major period in France, but people still tend to dismiss it.
MARLON MAGNÉE — It’s always been considered pastiche, a vulgar copy of American music. The French heard it and said: “Yé! Way cool!” And they tried to reproduce it. It’s true that when I was in high school, I listened to a lot of yé-yé. The music is really beautiful. There’s some really touching stuff, but a lot of the lyrics were super lame. Even my mother used to say so.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s just that when we go see one of your concerts, we never know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s not improvised, but there’s a sense of freedom.
MARLON MAGNÉE — For me, what counts is to be proud of what you do. It’s a craft. You do it for a long time, with love, and your product feeds in to the march of time. If in 20 years, I listen back to my songs and find them just as wicked as before, then I’ve won.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And Christophe?
MARLON MAGNÉE — I love Christophe, but I was never a big fan of his music.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Sure, but there’s nonetheless something that ties you together. There’s this immense tenderness, and at the same time there’s a quest for a kind of synthetic dream and experimentation in the overall feel because you’re a fairly feel-oriented group.
MARLON MAGNÉE — We set an ambience, establish a feel. We do intros. We set the mood.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And sometimes you’ll put in something very violent, to clash with the lyrics.
MARLON MAGNÉE — Yes. There are lots of contrasts. When we talk about a light subject, we like to have music that’s a little terrifying, and when we have overly nice music, we like to flip things and have somewhat nasty lyrics for contrast.

END

[Table of contents]

Paris Issue #31

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