Even over the phone, Carla Bruni is wonderful. She says she’s doing well, though it’s a very rainy day in London. She speaks in a way that puts you at ease, like a lazy morning. There might be some cloud cover, but you feel a good walk in you yet. For now, you’re still taking in your breakfast with a guitar in reach; it’s the kind of morning well-suited to her music.
On Tuesday, February 13, Bruni brings her music to the Birchmere. She says she’s made a special mix for her American tour, combining French songs and tunes off her latest record French Touch, a collection of covers of American and English music.
From The Clash’s “Jimmy Jazz” to my personal favorite, her cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” (note: I attached both Nelson and Patsy Cline’s versions because both are great), French Touch is a diverse assortment of songs. But what holds them together on the record is what Bruni calls the “French Touch.”
“I like very, very simple production,” Bruni says. “My favorite thing is to really have the simplest [production], to have the songs work [with] just the lyrics and the melody. What I like is when a song can stand without heavy production. That’s the way we try to do this album, and even though most of these songs are very famous, we tried to do them as personal songwriting – as if I wrote them myself.”
The simplicity of French Touch, as well as her other records, hearkens back to the ease of earlier French pop artists like Georges Brassens. The title “French Touch” is also partly ironic, Bruni tells me.
Bruni says the idea for the record came to her one day when she was hanging out at her studio with a few friends, including producer David Foster, known for his work with musicians ranging from Madonna to Andrea Bocelli.
“I played for [Foster] maybe all afternoon. We just hang out and play. He played on the piano and I played on the guitar, and he kept saying, ‘Oh this I love, oh this no, oh this I love,’ because there are some songs that are so famous that you can’t really change them at all, and there’s no point to covering them. Like ‘Moon River’ – it’s impossible to change it. You can’t change the tempo, you can’t change the tune, you don’t want to change it. It’s sort of a perfect song.”
The songs that ended up on the record are ones Bruni says she’s been singing and playing since she was a teenager. She laughs as she speaks about her early enthusiasm for groups like The Clash or The Rolling Stones.
“Discovering most of these songs as a teenager, I was very excited about everything,” she says. “I was incredibly excited about discovering a new band or new songs from a band. I remember my brother sort of teasing me saying, ‘You know, these songs have been listened to for years and you’re discovering them now, [but] the world’s been listening for like 20 years. I can’t believe you’re discovering the Stones; everybody knows about the Stones, so stop bothering me as if it was a new band.”
Toward the end of our conversation, Bruni tells me, “You know, I wish I could dance onstage, all dressed in glitter. But I’m going to go onstage and sing my songs, and hope people like it. I’m always very much admiring the incredible people – those singers who throw themselves into the crowds. But me, it takes all my energy just to go onstage and sing.”
Not that I knew what to expect in making a phone call to Carla Bruni – international model and music star, and wife to former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy – but I didn’t expect someone so gracious and down to earth.
Catch Bruni at the Birchmere next Tuesday, February 13 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $59.50. Listen to Bruni on Spotify and YouTube – including her take on Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” featuring Nelson himself – and learn more about her here.
The Birchmere: 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com