As has been customary for some time now, we’re dedicating music specials to both genres and types of singers. This time, it’s the turn of French singers, also for francophone singers, looking at some of the most relevant names from the past and the present, with a specific section to talk about French female singer-songwriters from yesterday and today.
Because, even though we might believe that French music doesn’t usually play a significant role in the musical culture of English-speaking countries, the truth is that from the 1930s to the 1970s, it was quite common to come across a French voice on the charts or on the radio. Many names might come to mind, such as Edith Piaf (who, as such, was not the main author of her songs, although she collaborated with young and prominent singer-songwriters of the French scene at the time).
In any case, we shouldn’t underestimate the role of the performer, nor that of the French singer-songwriters. The former can turn an acceptable work into something unforgettable thanks to their personality, their voice, their background. However, as we will see throughout this article, the French singers we will talk about today were able to transcend beyond their compositional or literary abilities. Beyond their unique faces, sometimes scarce voices, thanks to strong personalities. Let’s get started.
French Male Singers from 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
Most likely, one of the most important voices within French chanson. Georges Brassens was a precursor to what we understand today as a singer-songwriter, both for the melodies and sound of his songs, as well as for the way he sang them and the intelligent lyrics they contained. In Spanish, he has been translated and paid homage to by people like Javier Krahe or Paco Ibáñez, among others.
Among his best songs, emblematic and because we love them, we find La Mauvaise Réputation, Le Parapluie, Les Sabots D’Hélène, or Chanson Pour L’Auvergnat, all big hits of the 50s.
Another name impossible to forget when reviewing French singer-songwriters is Aznavour, famous worldwide. Although he was not always the total author of his songs, he was the author of the majority of them. Examples of his greatness are, to name just a few, Emmenez-Moi, Hier Encore, Que C’Est Triste Venise, La Mamma, or La Bohème. While not necessarily based on his own experiences, these songs do relate to a reality close to his own, growing up in a family with limited resources, dedicated to music and art from a young age, writing many of his lyrics with a thesaurus at hand.
If something is becoming clear, especially for a connoisseur of French song, it’s that we’re not offering anything new. That’s what happens when talking about great French singers of the past. In this case, one of the most controversial in his time, Serge Gainsbourg, who remained in the spotlight from the 1950s until his death.
His discography touches as many genres as were emerging at the time. He started with jazz and classic chanson, as shown by titles like La Chanson De Prévert, Le Poinconneur Des Lilas, or Couleur Café. However, over the years, he gradually changed his style to offer something unique at the time: his desire to provoke. Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus is the example most will have in mind, but in France, there are others even more resonant. The first, Lemon Incest, sung alongside his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg (then a child), you can already imagine what it was about; the second, Aux Armes Et Caetera, a song with reggae touches recorded in Jamaica, which sang the French anthem without omitting racist, violent, and other offensive parts. His repertoire, both his own and what he created for others, is endless.
Although perhaps not as famous as the mentioned French singers before him in our collective memory, the truth is that Johnny Hallyday was bid farewell in France on the day of his death as a true legend, much more important to his faithful and countless followers than others were.
Although he may seem less recognizable to you, many of his songs were translated and covered in Spanish by famous artists. The case of Julio Iglesias with his Me Olvidé de Vivir (J’Ai Oublié De Vivre). He’s the French Elvis Presley, the ultimate rock image since the 1950s, maintaining his iconic hair until the end of his days. Other recommended songs from his repertoire: Je Te Promets, L’Envie, Le Penitencier (French version of The House Of The Rising Sun), or Gabrielle.
We conclude the first section of famous French singer-songwriters with perhaps the least known, Renaud, especially since his music, emerging in the 1970s, no longer reached as frequently beyond his borders (and those of other French-speaking countries). However, he remains one of the most recognized in his own country. An icon of French folk rock, defined as a poet of urban Paris, illuminating the darkness of the streets of the City of Light with lyrics loaded with politics, undoubtedly influenced by the May 68 protests, of which he was a participant in his youth.
Recommended songs: Mistral Gagnant, Morgane De Toi, Manu, or Hexagone. The influence of names like Bob Dylan is undeniable, but imagine mixing it with Brassens and see what comes out.
Popular French Male Singers Today
As for the names of contemporary French singers or singer-songwriters, the situation doesn’t change too much compared to the names we’ve seen so far. This is mainly due to the revival that emerged in the early 2000s with the Nouvelle Chanson française, something we already talked about when reviewing current French music. In broad strokes, we can summarize it as a movement that arose with little connection between the artists who initiated it, beyond their similarities to the singers they resembled, which in turn served to repeat certain constants. On one hand, there’s the artist critical of society, and on the other, there’s the one, like Gainsbourg, who excelled at composing for great female voices of French song.
However, as we didn’t want to focus solely on a movement born 20 years ago, even though they continue to be the main representatives of French music today, we have also left space for three French-born singer-songwriters who started their careers in the late 2010s and early 2020s.
We’ve talked about Saez quite a bit already. A lengthy career, including several triple albums that mix rock with protest songs and EPs exploring more electronic realms, has resulted in a devoted following. For many, he’s seen as a sad figure, and for others, he’s a poet of a kind that no longer exists. Here on this blog, we happen to be fans, so recommending just a few songs is a challenge, especially knowing we’re leaving out many others.
Among those we do mention and recommend are not only those that have earned him the reputation of being sad, but also rock songs like Jeune Et Con or J’Accuse (akin to Émile Zola’s famous statement). In the realm of sadness, there’s Putain, Vous M’Aurez Plus, Les Enfants Paradis, or À Nos Amours, from his triple album Messina.
The name Benjamin Biolay is likely to ring a bell for enthusiasts of contemporary French music. This singer-songwriter, whose voice is reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg, along with the quality of his compositions, has stood out beyond his borders thanks to songs like Dans La Merco Benz, Ton Héritage, Comment Est Ta Peine?, or Little Darlin’.
In addition, he also has successes composed for great female voices, as well as collaborations that go beyond providing choruses. On the other hand, his private life bears certain resemblances to his artistic persona, as he, like the former, drew media attention due to affairs with Brigitte Bardot and other artists. Biolay was married to Chiara Mastroianni, for whom he composed and with whom he recorded several songs and an album.
Eddy de Pretto
We talked about Eddy de Pretto a few years ago. Back then, we made a jest about his haircut and color combinations. Musically, he’s one of the most interesting French singer-songwriters of the moment, not only due to the potential he extracts from his voice when singing, but also for the melodies and backing behind all his songs.
Among the most recommendable tracks, you’ll find Fête De Trop, Kid, Bateaux-Mouches, Désolé Caroline, or Random.
But now it’s time to talk about the present, what’s really current in 2021. Hervé Le Sourd, a French singer, composer, musician, and producer who released the album HYPER in 2020, from which the album HYPER – PROLONGATIONS emerged, containing 5 more songs than his first LP (a total of 16 tracks). Among them, Monde Meilleur, Si Bien Du Mal, or Addenda.
Hervé started his career as part of the Franco-British duo Postaal in 2015. His first album was released in 2018, and he toured with the aforementioned Eddy de Pretto. It was during this tour that the French singer decided to launch his solo career. It was also then that, in collaboration with singer Yodelice, Hervé co-wrote three songs (Pardonne-moi, I am only man, and A child of the century) for Johnny Hallyday’s posthumous album My country Is love (thus bridging the old with the new).
We don’t know if he’ll become as beloved as the mentioned French rock king, but in February 2021, he received a Victoire de la musique award in the Male Revelation category, so he seems to be off to a good start.
The last French-born singer we’ll talk about is Lonepsi, the rapper we recommended after the release of several EPs in recent years. He’s one of the latest examples of French song. His songs, such as La Fille Du Bus, Je Ne Sais Pas Danser, La Signification Du Verbe Oublier, or Le Loup Des Steppes, often accompanied only by a piano and devoid of the typical rap bass, showcase a talent with an intriguing present and a promising future.
French Female Singers and Songwriters of All Time
We conclude our review of great chanson figures with French female singer-songwriters from yesterday and today, starting with an endlessly imitated classic. The girl who was never a Ye-Yé girl in the Ye-Yé era, Françoise Hardy. Her appearance offered an alternative to the most popular genre of the time, a mixture of pop and rock with cheerful melodies. In her case, however, much of her repertoire is a melancholic pop-folk reflection of doubts, questions, and anguishes arising from romantic relationships and general nostalgia.
Notable from her discography are songs like Le Temps De l’Amour, Comment Te Dire Adieu, Tous Les Garçons Et Les Filles, or her version of Suzanne (by Leonard Cohen) in French.
For those who aren’t familiar (yet), Hoshi (not to be confused with the K Pop artist) is a French singer-songwriter born in 1996, who already has two albums to her name by 2021 (Il suffit d’y croire and Sommeil levant). Among her most successful songs are Ta Marinière, Amour Censure, or the most recent single she’s released, Et Même Après Je T’Aimerai.
Known for her participation in the television show Nouvelle Star 2013 (similar to Spain’s Operación Triunfo), in mid-2014, singer-songwriter Yseult presented her first single, La Vague, confirming her style—a blend of electro-pop synthesizers and melancholic lyrics, creating a light and carefree mix that didn’t gain much traction. This failure led to depression, which in turn led her to break her contract with the record label Polydor and launch her own independent label.
During this shift, her music increasingly embodied her personality. So much so that in 2020, she recorded a series of songs for the YouTube channel COLORS, which propelled her songs much farther than many might have thought after leaving a television program.
Yes, the one who brought us Makeba. But she’s not just the author of that song that’s been used in advertisements for various brands over the past years. Jain is also responsible for Come. It’s a pity—especially for lovers of French music—that after the success of her first album (largely due to the aforementioned song), she decided to release her second album in English.
Now, we truly close the list with arguably the most significant French female singer-songwriter of the last two decades in terms of fame and success. ZAZ has best managed to blend classic French pop (variété française) with genres like folk and soul, without betraying either. This has led to her being compared to many other artists of the past and being imitated in the years following her initial success, Je Veux, whose rhythm is very representative of French chanson over the past 80 years.
In addition to this track, also highly recommended are Les Passants, On Ira, Qué Vendrá, or her version of La Vie En Rose, a song that couldn’t be absent from the repertoire and discography of a French singer who has achieved as much as the greatest, mentioned right at the beginning of this article, which we now close.
(Madrid, 1987) Novelist by vocation, SEO specialist by profession. Music lover, cinephile and reading lover, but in “amateur” mode.