Last time Nouvelle Vague put out an album, it seemed as if the world was en route to a much more hopeful place. Their breezy, sensuous bossa nova arrangements the perfect soundtrack for a planet overflowing with good vibes and love.
Six years later, it’s as if we’ve entered a twilight zone, the band’s home country has been the target of horrifying terrorist attacks, a growth in social unrest and Islamophobia, and the rest of the world has followed. Therefore their newly released I Could Be Happy seems almost more urgent than ever. The title song, a cover of Altered Images’ 1981 hit, lists a number of things the singer could do to achieve bliss, an example many of us wish we could follow right about now.
But as with all of the band’s albums, there is a haunting melancholy that elevates their work from “easy listening” into sublime pop. Their curatorial skills, for instance, have never been more on point—when you find yourself grinning to an unexpectedly sly version of The Cure’s “All Cats Are Grey” it’s impossible not to smile—and their choice of female vocalists is exquisite.
The album isn’t only notorious for being their first new release in half a decade, but also because it includes four original songs written by founders Olivier Libaux and Marc Collin. The new album isn’t the only thing in store for fans of the band, and music lovers looking for a respite, they are also working on a documentary and a tour that might once again take them to the US. PopMatters spoke to Libaux about this and more.
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When I first started listening to Nouvelle Vague I realized I couldn’t stop listening to your records once they were over. The album would arrive to its end and I would play it all over again. In terms of structure have you come up with a formula, so to speak, to achieve this effect?
It’s a good question and I’m not sure I have a correct answer. The magic of Nouvelle Vague might be the vocalists, there are some voices you want to listen to again and again, so we pay attention to the female vocalists we feature. The other thing are the covers we are picking, which contain these kinds of melodies that catch you and don’t let you go.
Listening to the last song in I Could Be Happy reminded me of the experience of listening to your first album ...
That’s great news for me!
We live in a culture of singles and downloading one song from the album. Do you want to bring back the idea of “the album”?
Oh yes, perhaps because I’m 52 I’m very attached to that. Singles were guilty pleasures, but I grew up with albums—The Rolling Stones for example. I grew up with this culture and I’m very attached to the idea of releasing albums, creating this 40-minute thing that tells you a story and that you want to get to the end so you can listen to it all over again.
I think this love of albums comes across in how you don’t always pick the most famous songs to cover. Are you interested in rescuing songs that maybe people weren’t paying that much attention to?
Thank you for asking this, I am very attached to the story of some bands, I’ve been living with music forever, when I was 13 the Punk/New Wave movement started, in the story of pop music there is something very unfair which is some bands become very successful, but on the side of the road there are very good bands that didn’t become famous. We have favorite songs by bands that are not mainstream and we want to focus on them, make them sexy maybe with our covers, and drive people to these bands and songs.
Some people discover punk through your covers, while others might be exposed to bossa nova for the first time after they listen to your albums. Have you found any overlap between these fans?
It’s difficult to say, there are a number of fans who don’t pay much attention to our purpose, and we hear they prefer our versions. The main thing is that we open the chance for some people to discover the New Wave era. Maybe you discovered some The Cure albums you didn’t know, but some people just listen to Nouvelle Vague and voila.
Can you talk about the original songs you included in this album?
I wrote the two songs in French, “Maladroit” and “La Pluie Et Le Beau Temps”, and Marc wrote “Algo Familiar” and “Loneliness”. It’s the first time we dare to include original compositions, before that we thought this was a very particular covers project. We’ve explored so much of the New Wave era that now we’re confident to include a great Cocteau Twins song, with the one we wrote. It’s a challenge of course, because it meant we needed to write very good songs.
Before I realized the songs were original compositions I was trying to crack my head wondering what bands these were by…
That also happened to one of our vocalists, Liset [Alea], who is a beautiful singer, she fell in love with “Maladroit” and she told me “Who wrote this song, it’s beautiful?” I said “I wrote it.” She looked at me and said “Oh man.”
Composing your songs did you go through a process of imagining the songs as punk songs which you then turned into bossa nova?
I didn’t think about anything like this, I just wanted to write the best song I could write. The bossa feeling is what you can find on all our albums.
Are you excited about the idea of punk bands covering your songs then?
Nothing could please me more than imagining a punk band covering our songs! To be covered is a great pleasure, that’s why we love to do covers. We do a real effort to come out with a good cover and that the original artist will be happy.
Can you talk about the documentary you’re about to release?
I don’t know when it will be available, but the film was made by Marc and he made such a good work with this. It’s about the real evolution of the band, of course we talk in it, but most of it are bits of movies, up to this weird period in 2012 when our minds were out and we couldn’t do more work. It’s 12 years of history, and I was very emotional when I watched it.
Were you inspired by any specific auteurs to make the film with Marc?
Marc and I are as passionate about music as we are about movies, when we first met we talked about music half the time and movies the rest of the time. We loved Mario Bava, but as I grow older I believe Stanley Kubrick is my absolute favorite. He has nothing to do with the documentary but he remains the most impressive filmmaker, I grew up going to his movies. We could actually talk about pictures forever though ... [laughs]
Many people assume that if you like punk you won’t listen to bossa. How did you end up becoming infatuated with both?
People who start in punk want to grow with music, be eclectic and discover new genres. If you’re a musician there are so many composers out there to discover. As I grew up with punk and New Wave, I was equally inspired by bossa nova because I believe the music that gets in your ears and heart as a teenager is the music that stays in your mind forever. Growing up you need music to nourish and fill you.
You took a very long break, are you worried about audience expectations because of this?
I feel super happy to play the new songs, we’ve refreshed our live show, we hope we’ll be in the USA in March. The thing is we never took a break, we always played, up to this year we’ve been playing in Asia and Europe. We haven’t played in the US and the UK for a long time, but the world is so big. We needed to put out a new album to refresh the show, ten days ago we played in Turkey and people didn’t know about the new album, so they came, we delivered the new show and they were smiling and enjoying the new songs as if they already knew them. The new album is more technical, it’s full of arpeggios and things not so simple to play—it’s exciting for me.
You’ve become famous for mentoring this army of incredible female singers, many of them who go on to solo projects, did you envision yourself as a nurturer of new talents too?
We don’t work with big stars, we like the singers who are on the side. It’s true, we have an army of singers and it’s always about meetings, we meet them as people and they are not only singers who are merely good performers, they also are artists who make their own music. If we are mentors we let them work on their own projects too, I’ve always heard from our singers that Nouvelle Vague is a perfect landscape for them to express themselves.
Are there any bands you guys haven’t covered that you’re dying to get to?
When I was a teenager my favorite band was The Stranglers, they are still one of my favorites, we only covered them once as a bonus track in our third album. It’s strange because they’re my favorites and they haven’t been properly covered. I should’ve started with The Stranglers!
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