Vive le Pop!
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.
This wasn't French rock 'n' roll, exactly, which always seemed to lose something important in the translation. Ye-ye was its own form, with singers performing with a strange, exotic passion; it had the pop immediacy of Phil Spector's hit-parade days, but it lacked the copycat rock moves that usually made such stuff so transparent. (See Johnny Hallyday.) Blake needed to hear more but could find little beyond records by Françoise Hardy -- gifted, yes, but more common and accessible than the more unusual and interesting singers -- in local shops. It wasn't until she made a visit to Montreal that she was able to begin a meaningful collection of ye-ye, including an obscure song called "Caribou," which was a huge hit in Canada but unknown even in France. Blake's own recording of the song was released as the first April March single in 1992, beginning a seven-year run of releases of which the main link was Blake's continued fascination with French culture.
"They seem earthier than Americans," says Blake, now 33 years old. "They are so at ease with their sexuality, with death, with all these taboos that we have. It seems like a healthier way to live. The whole stigma in our society about death, nobody talks about it, and it obviously causes all kinds of fear. In Europe it's part of the daily routine." Even the naked pop emotionalism of such potential American counterparts as Lesley Gore falls short by comparison. Like everybody who listens to French music with even a bit of interest, Blake has long been drawn to the sly, cerebral nonsense and racy winking of Gainsbourg, but she goes way deeper than that: One of her best covers is a plaintive acoustic version of "Cet Air La," a song originally recorded by archetypal ye-ye girl Gall, whose voice and sound, even today, conjure up junior high and lollipops. "I didn't try to mimic it, but I learned things from it," Blake says of the ye-ye sound. "The style of a lot of the singers is a lot more immediate; they don't use vibrato, it's very plain and immediate. It's very intimate and has more personality to me. There's a lot of pathos in French music, and that's what I tried to get. Nobody was interested in this music, but I just forged ahead."
She released a string of records and EPs, including the self-explanatory Gainsbourgsion and a couple of collaborations with the genre-hoppers of Los Cincos. Eventually people started to pay attention, including some of Blake's musical heroes. Since her April March persona was born, Blake has performed or recorded with Jonathan Richman, Ronnie Spector, and Brian Wilson, the last of whom has even joined her for occasional vocal harmonies.
"He's funny," she says. "He was coming up with all these parts. It's beautiful. One song we were working on together, he said it could be number one in Motor Trend magazine. He comes up with these weird, cool things."
For Chrominance Decoder Blake traveled to Paris to work with producer Bertrand Burgalat, who was astonished a few years ago to discover that an American singer had not only discovered a genre of music that even some French found embarrassing but was basing a personal sound and career on it. Here was a singer who'd covered the obscure "Caribou" when he had never even heard it. Together they collaborated on most of the album's songs (only "Martine" was not written by one or the other of them) and reinterpreted the ye-ye sound with synths, mixed with real strings and drums and basses and guitars; the result is March's most consistent and engaging record to date.
The album opens with the delicate, jaunty piano melody of "Garden of April" -- a song that eventually eases into a rich ye-ye arrangement that mixes woodwinds and harmonica. Much of what follows may prove to be an acquired taste to American ears more accustomed to pop built on well-trod R&B templates; the French pop tradition owes more to jazz and classical forms, though much of Blake's music is reminiscent of the wilder, late '60s twists from her onetime collaborator Brian Wilson. The song "Superbagneres" is a fine example of pop that sounds utterly foreign, its melodies strangely adrift, its beats ebbing and flowing beneath Blake's undulating French vocals. More direct is the playful march of "Mon Petit Ami" and the cruel sass of "No Parachute" ("She's gonna drop you/It'll be cute"), which blend strings, horns, harpsichord, and old-school synth sounds. It's a singular mixture and one that fit easily alongside the breezy retro-futurism of Air when the two acts toured together last fall. But even with growing attention from pop-music cultists and peers for her work, Blake isn't exactly expecting mass excitement over a brand of music most Americans don't even realize exists.
"When I hear some of these things, I'm just, like, wow," she says. "I think other people are also starting to go wow about it. Meanwhile I just kind of go on pleasing myself. It's too hard to do anything with an audience in mind. I don't see how that can get you anywhere. How can you guess what people want? I know what I want.
Get the Music Newsletter
Find out about upcoming concerts and special offers happening in the South Florida music scene.