A Controlled Lunacy: Brigitte Fontaine’s Manic French Pop

French pop's most peculiar figure has been baffling and delighting audiences for decades with her challenging blend of global music styles.

Brigitte Fontaine shouldn’t have had a place in pop music history, if everything was based purely on convention alone. She didn’t really look the part, rebuffing the coy, feminine mystique that surrounded her other contemporaries in the French music market for a tomboyish, sometimes asexual look. She most certainly didn’t sound the part; her music a strange, garish hue on the canvas of delicate ’60s French pop. And her aura beamed in from another planet, some outlandish world where horror, humour, rhythm, desire, beauty and love collided in a fatal fusion of sound and fury.

Indeed, she was at once an oddity and a welcome presence that could only belong to the French. If you listen to her works, you may be struck by the tonal registers of her elastic voice. Sometimes her vocals stretch endlessly in a marathon of heat and breath, rushing forward toward a vanishing point of artistic desire and invention. Other times, her voice shatters with the force of smashed glass; a song of pure melody quickly becomes a halting rhythm of harmonious assault. Whatever drumbeat Fontaine marches to, whatever tune is buzzing in her head, we are privy to it, in all of its messy, undulating and sensuous glory. We get to hear it all. And it isn’t always easy listening.

Born in 1939, Fontaine began her music explorations first in the theatre; she had started to learn the ropes of her vocal dynamics and onstage interaction, a working base which would provide the artist with training ground for her complex future work. Here, at such esteemed venues like the Bobino (one of France’s long-running and most popular music halls), Fontaine would begin to develop her understanding of artistic-transmission, an exchange of enigma which had the singer trading her strange bemusings for the audience’s bewilderment.

Her collaboration with the much more straightforward Jacques Higelin (a protest pop-singer with much renown in France) resulted in a stage play at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the appropriately-titled Maman j’ai peur (Mother, I’m Scared). The play was popular enough, but when Fontaine struck out on her own as a music artist in her own right, the rewards were endlessly reaped – even if her undertaking of reframing French pop wasn’t always completely understood by the general public.

Around the mid-’60s, Fontaine would release what were her most conventional albums; her debut consisted of mostly typical “yé-yé” girl pop, the kind that was normally penned by the prolific Serge Gainsbourg and usually sung by Françoise Hardy, France Gall or Sylvie Vartan. It was a pleasant enough debut, which pretty much featured arrangements that typified the yé-yé movement and was formatted for radio.

On her 1968 follow-up, Brigitte Fontaine Est…Folle (Brigitte Fontaine Is…Mad), things got a little weirder. Still employing the familiar structure of pop music (recognizable rhythms, hummable tunes), Fontaine graffitied over the gloss with an approach and style that was incredibly alien. The structures may have been firm and intact, but she coloured out of the lines. Sometimes the arrangements were skewed in such a way so they could stretch with her keening vocals, swaying to and fro with a gentle wayward force. Brigitte Fontaine Est…Folle was incredibly lush, an unfolding blanket of sensual pleasures. Comme à la radio (Like the Radio), however, was jarring, abstract and hopelessly confusing – and it cemented the artist as one of France’s most thrilling, daring and experimental provocateurs. French pop would never be the same.

Recorded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Areski Belkacem (a Berber musician from Algeria whom Fontaine would continue to work with in the years to come), Comme à la radio, released in 1971, was the pronouncement of a woman who was fed up with the ways in which radio formatted both music and women. Comme à la radio played around with convention, rhythm and melody, indeed, but Fontaine herself was most certainly not playing around. She intended for a difficult and challenging listening. And that is what we got.

Comme à la radio featured a new strain of influence that came courtesy of Belkacem: polyrhythmic drumming and percussion, which gave the album an almost tribal, ethnic pulse. The album was infused with the sounds of African drums, refracted through the angular jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Often, the rhythms and melodies were at odds with one another; an upright bass drawing circles with a fluid tune of warmth before having to play catch-up with the rash of drumbeats that were pounded on the skins of djembes.

In the midst of it all, Fontaine – the mystic concierge of homebased musicians from around the globe – kept the underpinnings secured with her poetry: fractured and lucid ramblings containing the heart of her personal, human story. On the judgement of Comme à la radio alone, Fontaine may have been the first woman to introduce a world-music consciousness to France and, perhaps, the rest of Europe, as well.

The singer would continue her afro-pop musings on her follow-up to Comme à la radio, her self-titled release Brigitte Fontaine, once again working with Belkacem who provided the exotic instrumentation. Brigitte Fontaine (1972), pushed in either direction, caught between the popular, traditional chanson of her home country and the earthy rhythms of Africa and beyond. More art-pop than global-pop, Fontaine’s self-titled release preferred a softer, domestic homebody romance than the adventurous travels of Comme à la radio.

Throughout the ’70s, the artist would continue a successful streak of material that further explored the more bizarre dynamics of pop music, pulling from jazz and world music equally to create a sonic universe that was as fascinating and exhilarating as it was disturbing. Fontaine’s collaboration with Belkacem during the ’70s culminated in her most critically lauded release, Vous et Nous (1977), a double-album that explored electronic textures, employing synthesizers and processed drums for a sound that was definitive of the burgeoning new wave scene that would eventually follow punk. In essence, Fontaine arrived at a place before there was even a place to arrive at.

A long stretch of absence followed Vous et Nous, and the singer was not heard from by the French public for almost 13 years. In reality, Fontaine returned to theatre, published a novel and continued working on music privately until 1990, with the release of French Corazon. The album had been composed years prior but had only found distribution later and, this time, the artist was completely reinvented for the new decade. French Corazon would see the artist toying with more conventional pop-rock rhythms, trading in the exotic instruments of her ’70s albums for blazing guitars and standard rock n’ roll drums.

Still, her abstract designs on pop had not been completely eradicated from her musical blueprints. The album featured one of her oddest compositions to date, “Le Nougat”, a stark, continental groove full of Arabic percussion, Latin sway and a sensuously cool air swept in from Corsica Island. The song’s lyric described an even stranger story: A woman finds an elephant in her shower one morning and the kindly beast demands she give him a candy nougat. Other tracks on French Corazon honoured the traditional songs of the artist’s homeland, like the moody and somber piece “Leila”, in which the singer was accompanied with only an accordion, an instrument synonymous with French chanson.

Later works, like the 1995 release Genre Humain, introduced samples and hip-hop loops into her multifarious work. She was aiming for a commercial pop market, but was bringing along a bag of tricks that the jaded market was not entirely expecting. Her image and sound was still one that startled and overwhelmed the senses, much in the same way that Björk’s music had done at the time.

Genre Humain’s title-track was the first single and the accompanying video displayed Fontaine’s theatrics in startling, bizarre fashion. Shaven-headed and costumed in a black rubber dress, the singer swans around maniacally in an underground tunnel where she encounters a giant, mysterious sculpture. For the most part, audiences stuck with their tried-and-true pop formulas of the day, perhaps overlooking Genre Humain a little. But those who were listening intently knew Fontaine had a clear vision of vast musical horizons that only she could see.

Subsequent albums would follow, further exploring the many offshoots of electronic music, including jungle and trip-hop, in addition to her previous dalliances with afro-beat and jazz. All along, bands like Stereolab were taking note. Stereolab had already written an homage to the Frenchwoman’s artistic sensibilities and she collaborated with Sonic Youth for her album Kekeland (2001). Still a marginal figure in commercial pop terms, Fontaine exuded magnificent force as an influential artist with strong appeal to many artists outside of France.

Today, Brigitte Fontaine continues to write and record her fantastic-realities of pop music. Whether using African drums, a jazz riff or culling beats from the noodlings of an MPC drum machine sampler, her work continues to provoke, inspire and challenge. Now, at the age of 74, the septuagenarian remains on the pulse of invention, far ahead of her time than any artist has a right to be.

In hindsight, one can see how Fontaine served as a reference point for equally inspiring performers like Kate Bush, Björk and Meredith Monk. It was never the notoriety, the look or even her enigmatic aura that kept her afloat all these years. It was the presence of mind and determination to continuously create something new, to challenge listeners in curious, thought-provoking ways. And to ultimately dispel the illusion of pop music with yet another illusion: her own version of our collective realities. In Fontaine, we see, feel and hear the sound of lunacy harnessed.