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Elinor Blake wants to meet at the library. She's a frequent visitor there. Not necessarily for the books, though she's an avid reader; it's the music. Rows of used CDs await. Fine recordings of the European masters -- Debussy, Chopin, and the like. So here she stands, out on Santa Monica's Main Street, among the homeless and tourist traffic.
It's another European sound that she's come to discuss, though, one made by a generation still young enough to be embarrassed by it. But rather than share their shame, Blake has embraced their music: a mostly forgotten strain of French pop known as ye-ye, which could best be described as a strange mixture of watered-down vocal jazz, watered-down American pop (early '60s vintage), and watered-down sexuality. At its best -- as purveyed by such French stars as France Gall and, early in her career, Françoise Hardy -- it is innocent, slightly twisted, and frequently great. (At its worst it is simply wrong.) And Blake has spent the past few years honing her updated version of the sound under the nom de disc April March, a name clearly suited to such sounds.
The hushed atmosphere of the library sends the chanteuse to a coffeehouse-bookstore down the street, where she is soon sipping from a large cup of black coffee, serenaded by the crisp pop of the Cardigans. Both Blake and the Cardigans share an interest in looking backward for inspiration, drawing on the same playful musical era, the same corner of once-ignored '60s European pop. But the similarities are only on the surface. The Cardigans reach for a far more contemporary vibe than the free-flowing drift of April March and her handful of Francophone idols. Underground rockers from Steve Wynn to Mick Harvey have long expressed their affinity for Serge Gainsbourg -- who, whatever his connection to ye-ye, completely dispensed with its innocence -- but Blake takes such obsessions to a new extreme.
"It has to do with time cycles and fashion," she says. "Everything gets rehashed and rehashed. Where were we going to go next? Especially after that whole -- God forbid -- easy-listening lounge thing. It was kind of hideous. But it's logical that people would go from there into soundtracks and European stuff. It seems the primary attraction of the whole lounge thing was the aesthetic and the fashion. And the best, most intoxicating aesthetic is that French stuff."
It's a habit now shared by the Dust Brothers, the production duo behind a host of aggressively contemporary pop from the Beastie Boys to Hanson. The producers are not only making Blake's new album Chrominance Decoder the first release on their new Ideal Records label, but they have also remixed a few of her songs into shards of something approaching contemporary electro-pop. (The remix of the dreamy, beat-heavy "Nothing New" has already found its way onto radio playlists.) The remaining 18 tracks on Chrominance offer similarly rich (albeit slightly more stylized) pop rewards -- odd melodies, airy vocals, brisk production -- that avoid the kind of willful eclecticism that makes many a postmodern L.A. popster so trying. In short, it is as winsome as its obvious models.
Music has always been Blake's passion, but she's considered it her career only since signing a recording contract with Ideal. Until now she's been essentially a celebrated hobbyist, a hidden treasure.
For most of the '90s, she paid the rent as an animator. Her obsession with animation began when she was a TV kid in New York City, hypnotized by the rich, multilayered animation of the Fleischer brothers' Popeye cartoons. After high school she did an internship at Archie Comics in Manhattan and later began painting backgrounds for cartoons. She first moved west in 1988 to spend a year studying animation at Cal Arts. By then she was already leading the Pussywillows, a ramshackle band that recorded music and played something like half a gig. No matter, her other career was taking off: She landed a job as an animator on the hyperscatological Ren & Stimpy Show, where she found long hours, hard work, and encouragement for music.
At Ren & Stimpy headquarters, several artists also played instruments, and it was cartoon creator John Kricfalusi (himself a talented guitarist) who first suggested the "April March" pseudonym. "I always had more passion for the music. It comes out of me more directly," Blake says. "And part of the skill of a good animator is you have to mimic everybody's style, so unless you're animating your own character, you're being an actor, you're taking somebody else's character and following it." She laughs. "Also it's a lot easier."
Blake's first three bands (the Pussywillows, the Shitbirds, and the Haves) all played energetic, amateurish garage-pop (as if there were any other kind). But her interest in French music was always simmering alongside such au courant projects. It began just after high school, when she heard an old French pop album that a friend's father had brought back from a European business trip. The friend's father had used the record mainly as jokey background music for birthday parties. But Blake and her friend heard something more than novelty, and the former, at least, had found her obsession.