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Camille Bertault: Unity in Diversity

Ludovico Granvassu By

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When I am on stage I feel that I'm expressing something that I cannot express in any other way. I think that's the reason I am doing this job. Singing allows me to say things that I'm not capable of saying in another way.
On her striking new album, Pas de géant ["Giant Steps" in French -Ed.], Camille Bertault confirms all the qualities that her debut release, En Vie, had showcased three years ago. For her sophomore release, the French singer doubles down with an eclectic repertoire, a stellar line-up and the production and arrangements written by Michael Leonhart with the sophistication of a haute couture tailor. For her debut on the Okeh/Sony label, the winner of the "best new talent" 2017 French jazz polls hops with levity and nonchalance from witty and catchy originals to the music of John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Wayne Shorter. In the process she also pays original tributes to classical composers like Maurice Ravel or Nikolai Kapustin, and does not neglect her French roots through renditions of chansonniers like George Brassens, Serge Gainsbourg or Brigitte Fontaine. Despite such diversity, Pas de géant is an album of great consistency as these eclectic sources of inspiration are filtered through the prism of Camille Bertault's strong artistic personality.

Perhaps, the Paris-based singer's most disarming quality lies in the fact that she does not get bogged down by her obvious virtuosism. At an age when a gifted musician might be prone to showing-off, she uses her musical skills to deliver humorous and insightful takes on life. That usually is the trait of artists that don't need to take themselves too seriously because their art is the natural extension of who they are and have nothing to prove.

At this point it is clear that Camille Bertault is a force of nature the music world has to reckon with.

To listen to the music of Camille Bertault as well as to excerpts of this interview, play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz (starting at 49:06).

All About Jazz: With a pianist as a father and having started music education at an early age, when did jazz enter into your life?

Camille Bertault: I started studying music when I was four years old. It was thanks to my father, who is a jazz pianist. Jazz music was around for my whole childhood. When I was eight I started studying at the conservatory, focusing on classical piano and harmony. I continued until I was 20, when I quit musit to study theater, also at the conservatory, but ultimately I returned to jazz. Sometimes you don't choose a career but a career chooses you. And I'm very happy about all that has happened so far, because singing is the thing I do best.

AAJ: Conservatory studies are all about very strict discipline, but it seems that you like to break rules and create your own path. How was it being in a conservatory for you? Did you develop your free approach to jazz in reaction to the formalism of conservatory?

CB: In every situation you can find both positive and negative things. Indeed, studying at the conservatory was too strict for me. It required too much solitary work. It definitely taught me discipline and to work on my music every day, which is very important, but studying the piano for hours by myself didn't fit my personailty. So that's why I ended up trying many other things, like theater and dance. Essentially, I looked for the right creative outlet for a very long time. And finally, I realized that jazz and singing were my cup of tea. Sometimes it's hard to say whether it's external discipline that gets you to places, or whether you have a disciplined nature that allows you to undertake certain projects. Whatever the answer is, I can definitely say that theater played a key role for me. I've always had a love for words, but theater taught me how to be on stage, express myself before an audience, and even how to break a few rules here and there...

AAJ: Is jazz, and especially the free spirit of jazz, something that can really be taught in a conservatory?

CB: That's definitely easier with jazz than with classical music. I certainly found freedom in my jazz classes and that's because in those classes I was surrounded by people. I think you can find freedom more easily when you're playing with people. If you are just studying on your own, working working working in your room, it may be more complicated to find your freedom.

AAJ: You're the living example of how the sudden viral success of an internet video can facilitate a successful carrer, if there's talent to match the sudden popularity that Facebook can bestow. How did things unfold when you posted your rendition of "Giant Steps" online?

CB: A couple of years ago, I posted on Facebook a video of myself singing John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" just to show it to my friends. I didn't have any plans of self-promotion. In three days it had accumulated tons of plays, shares and likes. And this is how I got discovered by Francois Zalacain, the producer of the Sunnyside Records label in New York. A couple of weeks before posting that video I had recorded my first album, En Vie, which Sunnyside then decided to publish. It all started fortuitously that way. From that point onwards, so many things have happened. I've met so many musicians and wonderful people...

AAJ: En Vie is a striking debut album, but quite different from both your internet videos and from Pas de géant. It feels like you were looking for your original voice and the album provided you with a transformational opportunity. How did you approach that recording session?

CB: I was just finishing the conservatory and I felt very shy, musically. But I also felt the need to try and discover whether I was capable of recording a real project and what I was able to do in a recording studio. I did it because one needs to start somewhere, and see where things go from there. The album featured my compositions and lyrics. To some degree, En Vie already shows my personality, my taste for words, and my tendency to break some rules in jazz. But in retrospect, it also shows a rather shy and self-conscious version of myself. In that respect it's very different from the new album, Pas de géant for which I was comfortable to explore more stuff than before.

AAJ: Pas de géant, marks your debut for a major label, Okeh Records/Sony Music, but it sounds like your freedom has remained unchanged.

CB: Six months before the recording started, I was already working on this album together with arranger Michael Leonhart. I was introduced to him by Francois Zalacain. Michael speaks French very well, so it was very easy for me to explain what each song meant to me. We spoke a lot about every detail, and about the instrumentation and line-up. Dan Tepfer, with whom I've worked a lot before, is also on the album. And so are Jeff Ballard, Joe Sanders, Christophe Mink, Stephane Guillaume, Daniel Mille, Mathias Mahler, Francois Salque...

AAJ: How did it feel to have a 10-day recording session?

CB: It was a luxury. It allowed me to be at my most spontaneous as I did not feel under a time pressure. I didn't have to hurry, I could change my mind on things, come back and rework some ideas... Unfortunately, having such a long recording session is too rare in jazz, where you're lucky if you have three days in the recording studio, so I'm very grateful to my label for this opporunity.

AAJ: During your live performances you come acros as a very spontaneous performer. Recording sessions, can be the exact contrary of spontaneity, especially if they are 10-day long. How do you find the recording studio experience?

CB: When you're on stage you are like a scuplted stone, but when you are in the studio recording, you still have to be sculpted. Both scenarios are interesting and stimulating for different reasons. The finished stone can be interesting for its details. But working on sculpting the stone is also fascinating. Artists need both the spontaneity of a stage performance and the complexity of refining music in a recording session. For me, the combinaton of the two is unique because its result is like a mirror of myself.

AAJ: The album reflects your wide range of interests, from jazz masters like Coltrane, Evans or Shorter, to Ravel and Bach or Kapustin, French chanson of Brassens et Brigitte Fontaine etc... How do you prepare the repertoire for an album so eclectic and achieve a stilystic unity?

CB: It was simple: I just put in the album only music that I am passionate about. Before going to the recording studio I was not deliberately thinking that I should make an album with lots of different music. I didn't have to. I just did it because I wanted this album to reflect myself and my interests. I spend lots of time with the music of Bach or Ravel, but I spend lots of time also with Serge Gainsbourg or Brigitte Fontaine, and with the albums of the jazz masters. So it was not difficult because it was just a mirror of what I love

AAJ: As Duke Ellington put it, there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music...

CB: That's true, but also not that simple. We should not forget that "good" and "bad" are very subjective concepts. So in the end the only thing that matters is the capacity to genereta emotions. John Coltrane once said "I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I'm doing... as long as there's some feeling of communication, it isn't necessary that it be understood." So music is about generating emontions. Whether you like that emotion or not, is not the point. What matters is that you're communicating something.

AAJ: If your ultimate goal is to generate emotions with your music, how do you go about it when you write the music and lyrics of a song?

CB: When you're dealing with emotions, there are no rules, and that is what makes them so interesting. I am sure that in every song there is something that will generate emotions at least in some people. Personally, I am very moved by artists that on stage give something that they are not capable of giving off stage, outside the performance. That makes their performance really unique, because that artist needs that song to be able to express something that otherwise would not come out. That makes me feel that the composition was not played by accident, but there was a deep reason behind it.

AAJ: Do you feel that way because you have that same need to access certain parts of yourself through the songs you sing?

CB: Absolutely. When I am on stage I feel that I'm expressing something that I cannot express in any other way. I think that's the reason I am doing this job. Singing allows me to say things that I'm not capable of saying in another way.

AAJ: So singing is like therapy for you?

CB: I am not sure. Singing cannot be the solution to everything. But it does help me a lot in expressing myself.

AAJ: The lyrics you write for your songs are not just an embellishment to the music. They're deep and they're witty. What is the process of writing lyrics for music that already exists, especially if it is very well known, like in the case of "Giant Steps," and how does that differ from when you write both music and lyrics?

CB: For me, there are no rules. I might be in the metro and words pop into my head. It may be just the beginning of a sentence, but sometimes that could be enough to start a process that turns into an entire song. Sometimes I might be writing the song before the music, sometimes it may be the other way around. Some other times, like for "Giant Steps," I might be writing lyrics for music that already exists, even though I made some slight adjustments to the original melody.

AAJ: Let's talk about your future projects...

CB: Actually, I forbid myself from thinking about future albums. I've just released Pas de géant so I don't want to think about anything else for now. But then of course every now and then some ideas pop up. For the moment, I am going to tour for a few months and will focus on that. To really get into a new project I fully have to immerse myself in it. And I like to have the pressure of an upcoming deadline. I don't know where I will be, metaphorically, in one or two years...

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