Tour de Françoise: A writer catches up with 1960s icon Françoise Hardy Mick Jagger declared Françoise Hardy his ‘ideal woman’, while Bob Dylan dedicated a poem to her. Nearly five decades after falling for the French singer as a lovestruck teenager, John Andrew finds her as enigmatic as ever…
Françoise's belle époque: an iconic portrait of the chanteuse in 1965
With her slightly androgynous girl-next-door looks and sexy French voice, she was the fantasy of many a British schoolboy in the 1960s – myself included. How could I resist Françoise Hardy when I first heard the sultry strains of ‘Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles’ drifting out of a Parisian record store on a school trip to France in 1964? The song tells the story of a teenage girl who wanders the streets alone while around her couples walk hand-in-hand in love. For a lovelorn English schoolboy like me, the lyrics really struck home.
‘Oui mais moi, je vais seule par les rues, l’âme en peine/Oui mais moi, je vais seule, car personne ne m’aime…’ ( ‘Yes but me, I go alone down the streets, my soul in sorrow/Yes, me, I go alone because nobody loves me…’).
The song, issued originally as a B-side, was a huge hit in France and would soon climb the British charts too. I was well and truly hooked and rushed to buy her album. I’ve followed her career ever since, though not as fanatically as some fans, who have collected every record she’s ever made, including the German, Spanish and Portuguese versions.
Now, five decades later, long married and the father of two grown-up daughters, here I am waiting nervously at EMI’s Paris HQ to fulfil a long-time ambition to meet this girl of my dreams. I know from recent album covers that the Françoise Hardy of my youth has changed. Wearing a figure-hugging grey cashmere top and slim black trousers, she greets me – her trademark long dark hair and heavy fringe now a chic white crop. She is still strikingly beautiful, with high cheekbones and dark, slightly wary eyes. Age has treated her 67 years kindly.
She has requested an interpreter for our interview, although I’m not sure why as her English is near perfect. I suspect that the translator is there more as a security blanket, to protect against misunderstandings or language gaffes. Françoise has always been known for her reticence and alludes to it early on in our conversation.
She grew up in postwar Paris an anxious child with a complex family situation. Her parents were separated (‘it was a kind of shame,’ she tells me). Her mother worked long hours to put food on the table and her father rarely visited –although he insisted that her mother pay for Françoise to attend convent school. Her grandmother constantly undermined the way she looked. ‘She had told me throughout my childhood that I was ugly and that I was the worst creature on earth. I was concerned I would never meet anybody and that I would become a nun,’ she remembers.
From left: Francoise at London's Hippodrome theatre in 1968; with Salvador Dalí in 1968
From left: with Jean-Marie Périer, 1963, and Bob Dylan, 1966
Today, she jokes that her famous nerves were due to the fact that she was born during an air-raid warning. She was delivered in the same Parisian clinic where, a few months earlier, a certain Jean-Philippe Smet (better known as the rock star Johnny Hallyday) took his first breath. Both would become French icons of the 1960s, but of very different kinds. She was the cool, shy girl next door; he was the raunchy rocker, the Gallic Elvis Presley.
Ironically, it was a gift from her wayward father that helped catapult her from obscurity to European pop sensation. On one of his few appearances at the family home, he brought her a guitar as a present for passing her baccalaureate. Françoise quickly discovered that just by learning three or four chords she could create the kind of tunes she’d been hearing on Radio Luxembourg from the likes of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Paul Anka. Soon, she was composing her own songs at the rate of one a day. Aged 17, she answered a newspaper ad looking for young singers. It led to a successful audition for the Vogue record label in 1961 and her first release, ‘Oh, oh Chéri’, the following year. But it was the flip side, ‘Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles’, which became a Europe-wide hit over the ensuing months, selling around two million copies – more than the legendary Edith Piaf achieved in 18 years. It was also one of the few French-language songs ever to make the UK singles charts, albeit at a lowly 36. Françoise, however, has always had a love-hate relationship with the song she’s best known for. ‘I’m grateful for it, but also a little fed up. It’s my most famous song, and I’ve never had such a big success since, but it’s not my best song – far from it.’With characteristic modesty, she attributes its success to the live performance she gave on a French TV special: reporting the result of a presidential referendum. The programme drew a huge audience.There were other qualities, though, that made Françoise different from the rest of the so-called ‘yé-yé’ girls of French pop – the sexy young singers whose bouncy songs were influenced by American rock ’n’ roll. Not only did Françoise write most of her own songs, but she had a more natural, folksy look than her glamorous blonde contemporaries, such as France Gall, Sylvie Vartan (who later married Hallyday) and Brigitte Bardot.In 1962, the successful showbiz photographer Jean-Marie Périer came knocking on Françoise’s door to take some shots. The two soon became lovers. But Françoise was uncomfortable with her growing fame. ‘I didn’t like what happens when all of a sudden you become very famous and you have to be photographed – I’ve always hated it. I had to leave Paris all the time and be away from my boyfriend and I was very unhappy. It was work. Things I had to do. A chore.’ Over the next four years, Jean-Marie became an emotional rock for the ex-convent girl ingénue grappling with the pressures of stardom, helping her to develop a more sophisticated style.
Françoise’s fans (from left) included Mick Jagger (1965) and husband Jacques Dutronc (1967)
By 1964, already with several successful albums under her belt in France, she headed across the Channel to work with producer Charles Blackwell, who helped to craft hits for Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. This led to her biggest English hit, the self-penned ‘All Over the World’, which stayed in the UK charts for 15 weeks in 1965 and became a regular choice on the BBC Light Programme’s Two-Way Family Favourites.Her
regular visits to London came at the height of the swinging 60s and she rubbed shoulders with some of its biggest stars, including the Beatles, the Animals and the Rolling Stones. ‘From the moment I went to England, I had more confidence,’ she says. ‘In France, the image I had was of a shy girl – a poor lonely girl and not too good-looking. When I went to England I had another image. I felt the journalists were much more interested in my looks than in my songs.’ When invited to dinner by Paul McCartney and George Harrison, she found
herself particularly drawn towards George, whose quieter, more reflective personality chimed with her own. But of all the stars she met in London, it was Mick Jagger who made the biggest impression.‘I was like a shy fan, you know. I met him on the street and he smiled at me and I thought I would never recover. He was like an angel – a dark angel,’ she remembers. ‘He doesn’t know this, but he was the first one who gave me a little more confidence in myself because in an interview for a French magazine for young girls he said that I was his ideal
woman.’ The two were photographed together and went out for dinner. But as they were both in relationships at the time,nothing happened. ‘I think I was too clean for Mick Jagger,’ she told a newspaper in 2005. ‘I didn’t know anything about drugs, for example, and wouldn’t have been tempted by them.’By the mid-60s, Françoise had become more than just a successful singer. She was also a style icon in the UK and France, having been taken up by the fashion houses Yves St Laurent and Paco Rabanne and gracing the covers of magazines such as Elle and Paris Match. Even though they dressed her in silver ski suits, minis and papyrus-coloured Egyptian dresses, her trademark long dark hair and low fringe stayed the same.
Françoise with YOU writer John Andrew
Soon, her fame had spread to the big screen with minor film roles in What’s New Pussycat? (1965) alongside
Peter Sellers and Grand Prix (1966) with James Garner and Yves Montand. While she was filming the latter in Monaco, she heard that Bob Dylan was giving a concert in Paris and asked if she could take a break from shooting to see him perform. She loved Dylan’s songs and he admired her too, dedicating a poem to her on one of his early albums. But she wasn’t aware of quite how far his admiration went until the evening of the
concert. She remembers that he was in bad shape, singing and playing out of tune. The interval went on interminably and the crowd began to whistle. ‘Then suddenly, someone came to me and said that Dylan would not return to the stage unless I went to his dressing room to say hello. So I did. It was awkward,’ she
reminisces. ‘I didn’t speak English very well and he couldn’t speak much French. I was shocked by how he looked. He looked very sick. I have a tendency to see things in black, so I said to myself, “He’s not going to
live very long!”’The two met again later that night when Dylan invited a number of French musicians to his hotel. He took Françoise to his room where he treated her to a personal performance of two classic songs yet to be released: ‘Just Like a Woman’ and ‘I Want You’.
By this time, Françoise’s personal life was taking a new turn. Her four-year relationship with Jean-Marie had run its course, and the new man in her life was singer Jacques Dutronc (later to become a successful film actor). They’d met years before at Vogue Records, where Jacques was artistic director. He’d also written several of her early hit songs. In 1973 they had their only child, Thomas, and finally married in 1981.
Despite once vowing that she would stop singing before she reached the age of 50, Françoise has continued to make albums, many to critical acclaim. They have a depth and sophistication very different from her early hits, but still with the melancholic streak that has run through much of her music.
Over the years a number of famous musicians have beaten a path to her door, including Blur’s Damon Albarn who featured her on a 1995 version of ‘To the End’ from the band’s album Parklife. There have been some unlikely collaborations too, including one with rock bad boy Iggy Pop, who sings with her on a rendition of the old standard ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’, and with the late Malcolm McLaren, which was less successful: ‘He was very
cavalier and treated people like objects,’ she recalls.
Apart from music, Françoise’s other big passion is astrology and in the 1970s she began a serious study of the subject, becoming an expert on astrological birth charts. She has written two books and has hosted radio shows on the subject.Though still happily married, Françoise and Jacques choose to live apart for much of the time – she in her Paris apartment and he in their home in Corsica, where they spend much of the summer together. Their son Thomas, now in his late 30s, is also a successful musician. These days her fanbase is composed of all ages and nationalities too; her Facebook page shows 41,000 fans. Call her an icon, however, and she winces. ‘The word “icon” – that’s sometimes used about me. I don’t recognise it. It’s as if you’re talking
about someone else.’
As she heads towards her 70s, Françoise shows no signs of giving up recording. She’s recently signed a deal with EMI to make two new albums, the first of which is scheduled for release next year.Before we say our au revoirs Françoise reveals one of her favourite passions, one which reinforces the view that she’s still the same fundamentally shy girl whose vulnerability drew me in back in the 60s. ‘I feel happy and secure when I’m on my bed with a good book…I forget everything which is terrible in our world.’
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