Welcome to our latest author Q&A, where we chat to the writers behind new and upcoming 33 1/3 books! Today David Looseley talks to us about his addition to the 33 1/3 Europe series: Édith Piaf’s Récital 1961. He tells us more about the “woman powerfully in control of her career”, and what it was like to dissect every song from ‘Mon Vieux Lucien’ to the iconic ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
I look at Edith Piaf’s live album, Récital 1961, which records her historic comeback performance on 29 December 1960 at the Paris Olympia, after a year of near-fatal illness when everyone thought she’d never perform again, including her.
What drew you to Édith Piaf?
Well, it’s hard to give a single answer, as there’s been a strong element of chance in my encounters with Piaf. I’d known of her since my teens when I started learning French. I was kind of intrigued by her and liked some of her songs, but my teenage tastes went much more in the direction of pop and rock in those days. Years later, when I’d become a professor of contemporary French culture, a colleague asked if I’d do a brief stint for first-year undergrads on French popular music and I remembered Piaf. Soon after that, I took up a short visiting-researcher offer at NYU and so, putting two and two together, I decided to look into Edith’s first shows in New York in 1947, where she struggled at first to make an impact.
That led, quite unexpectedly, to an entire book: Edith Piaf: A Cultural History (2015). That’s when I finally got down to taking her seriously, as a singer and as a constructed cultural artefact who embodies so many contemporary concerns: love of course, social class, gender and sexuality, faith, and more broadly the place and evolution of popular music in France, Europe and the world at a time when musical norms were being challenged by the advent of rock’n’roll. So when Fabian Holt asked me to contribute to his new 33 1/3 Europe series, it was really a done deal.
If you were introducing someone to Édith Piaf for the first time, what would you recommend they listen to?
I guess I’d recommend two ways of approaching Piaf. Naturally, I’d say start with Récital 1961! But not just because of my book. It’s such a powerfully autobiographical album and so pivotal in her life and work. Alongside the classic ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, it showcases some lesser known gems like ‘Mon vieux Lucien’, ‘La Ville inconnue’, and the tormented ‘La Belle Histoire d’amour’.
But, after that, I’d encourage them get to know her very early stuff from the 1930s, such as ‘L’Étranger’ (1934),’ Mon légionnaire’ (1936), and the train song ‘Paris-Méditerranée’ (1938). If their French is up to it (there’s quite a lot of street talk here), they’d find rich local colour, period atmosphere and even social commentary of a kind. And if their French isn’t quite up to it, there’s always the anthology of lyrics I refer to in the book.
What was it like writing the book?
The thorniest issue probably was working out how to conceptualise the movement from an ephemeral, unique, live performance (where at one point she even forgot the words) to a permanent, infinitely revisitable record. That was a really fascinating question, which I try to make a little sense of in Chapter 3.
I also really enjoyed getting to work on dissecting each song. I often find myself lying awake at 3am listening to songs on my headset (not just Piaf’s by any means) and, rather than letting them rock me to sleep, taking them apart on repeat. With the 33 1/3 format, I was able for once to put my obsessive nocturnal X-ray machine to better use.
Did you learn anything new about the album that you didn’t know going into the project?
Oh yes. In my 2015 cultural history of Piaf, I didn’t bring out the full significance of the comeback concert of December 1960. But precisely because it had been consigned to an album—and again with that same X-ray vision—I was able to detect narrative shapes and internal dialogues between the songs which I’d not spotted before. That’s why I end up suggesting that the edited version of the concert that makes it on to the record is a prototype concept album, before that term became common.
Are there any interesting stories that didn’t make it into the final book?
I do allude to this briefly in the book, but I love the stories told by eye-witnesses at her studio recording sessions, where she quite clearly ruled the roost. Occasionally a nervous producer or sound engineer would say ‘hey, I’ve had an idea!’, to which she would coolly reply ‘no you haven’t’. It was for Edith alone to have the ideas. This teaches an important lesson about her. While her in-song persona was sometimes (though not as often as we might think) the tragic heroine, victim of heartless men or cruel destiny, in life she was anything but. Although life did deal her some savage blows, professionally she was that rare thing at the time: a woman powerfully in control of her career in a world of men.
If you got the chance to write a 33 1/3 on one other album – what are you picking?
Coming from a background in French cultural studies, I guess I ought to go for a francophone artist, so I’d probably pick an early album by the acclaimed singer-songwriter Renaud. But if I were ever to cut loose and go back to English-speaking territory, I might still stick with the singer-songwriter genre, because the lyric is really where my heart lies. So maybe Joni Mitchell’s Clouds, Billy Bragg’s William Bloke, or (OK, not primarily a singer-songwriter), Judy Collins’s Fifth Album. All quite old now, I know, but then so am I…
David L. Looseley is Emeritus Professor of Contemporary French Culture at the University of Leeds. He writes on the popular music, culture and cultural policy of France, including Édith Piaf: A Cultural History (2015), joint winner of the Franco-British Society Literary Prize, and Popular Music in Contemporary France: Authenticity, Politics, Debate (2003). He was contributing editor (with Diana Holmes) of Imagining the Popular in Contemporary French Culture (2013). He is Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.
Édith Piaf’s Récital 1961 is available in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).