Isabelle Boulay: “I wanted to sing Bashung but without penetrating its mystery”

the essential
Isabelle Boulay surprises everyone with a tribute album to Alain Bashung. The challenge was immense, the Quebec singer takes it up with brilliance. She will be in concert in Toulouse in March…2024.

Scheduled at the Barrière casino-theater on March 1, Isabelle Boulay’s concert had to be postponed to next year, like a few others on her tour. “Logistical reasons” are invoked… which bear a name that we did not expect to find there: Alain Bashung. In recent weeks, the Quebec singer has indeed devoted them fully to the finishing and the release of her album “Les Chevals du Plaisir”, bringing together some masterpieces by the artist who died in 2009, from “Je t’ missed” to “My small business” via “The bride of the reeds” and “Angora”. The tone is country-folk, with a particular taste for the ballad, on American arrangements which would undoubtedly have satisfied Bashung. Holy nice surprise!

The announcement of your Bashung project created astonishment…

They didn’t expect me there, of course. However, Alain Bashung is the artist that I have listened to the most in my intimacy. I had already tried to cover “La nuit je mens” on disc about twenty years ago but I had never arrived at a version that satisfied me.

What is your first memory of Alain Bashung?

I didn’t really get hooked at the time “Oh! Gaby”, “Jewel, jewel”. I started falling in love with his songs with the clip for “Osez Joséphine”. It is absolutely successful, splendid, crazy too. And really strong to illustrate the power of women. From there, when an album was released, I was the first in front of the store door and I bought all the versions!

Did you sing it on stage?

I had the audacity and great pleasure to do so with “Osez Joséphine”. I like to sing others in public, whether it’s French people like Reggiani, Ferré, Renaud, Cabrel, Biolay or Quebec poets like Claude Léveillée or Gilbert Langevin.

What is the art of recovery?

Caricatures or exercises in style should be avoided. You have to make the song believable, believe in it deeply, understand it and make it a personal proposition. We pass the cover through our own internal filter and project it like a film. Or a dream.

Like Nougaro, Bashung seems extremely difficult to sing. What to do with his diction, his very particular way of putting strange words?

This album is the biggest challenge I had to face as a performer. Bashung, I just ran into him once backstage at a TV show. Our jackets brushed against each other… and nothing more happened. I was so intimidated, I set it so high. In addition, his songs tell a lot of things at the same time. And musically, it’s very sharp. When they saw the scores, the American copyists told us: “It’s not possible, not logical, such compositions”. That’s why the album is called “Wild Horses”: it took a lot of breath to get on them.

Let’s get back to the words, particularly those of Jean Fauque, author of the main Bashung classics after Boris Bergman…

Los Angeles musicians have often asked me, “What is it about?” I was unable to answer them! I studied literature: it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything about a text, especially when you’re dealing with an artist who invented his own language and made authors work in this direction. At Reggiani, the songs are very clear; there is no room for imagination. At Bashung, this space left to dreams, to phantasmagoria is immense. And what he says is at the same time very carnal. In this register, I had a lot of trouble getting into “Madame Rêve”. In fact, whatever the piece, I had the impression of being dizzy upside down, of being confronted with an Everest.

Why is this album coming today?

I never planned it, despite my passion for Bashung. Let’s talk more about coincidences, about very, very strong things that happened to me and which were like so many signs. There is a metaphysical side to all this: in fact, I think Alain really wanted me to take it back. He came to get me… although I had never been able to talk to him! He felt that I didn’t want to pierce the mystery, to lift the veil, that I wanted it to remain an enigma.

Album “The horses of pleasure: Boulay sings Bashung” (Chic Musique/Columbia/Sony Music). Isabelle Boulay in concert in March 2024 at the Barrière casino, Toulouse.