Wind first came in bearing word of Mélanie Laurent‘s singing this spring during SXSW. Quite honestly the possibility of musical talent was far from mind given the Parisienne’s highly successful film career, which took off with Je vais bien, ne t’en fait pas and soared around the world with Inglourious Basterds. The only whisperings I had heard were that her voice was incredible, but her piano playing was the hidden gem. The truth be told whether success or fleeting artistic project when the album is released. Yet the company she was about to share is actually impressive when you delve into it. Zooey Deschanel with She & Him. Jenny Lewis with Rilo Kiley (which handily surpassed her child acting career). Even a veteran of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, Juliette Lewis. Singing okay, though piano prowess? That must be heard.
En t’attendant (Waiting for You) was released in May, although had I not had the conversation it would have slipped under my radar even with the-y’know-French studies and all. It’s a low key way which, assuming it was intentional, identifies with an artist’s personality and not someone exploring those avenues for purely profitable purposes. Humility. But still where did this come from? Facebook mentioned in French she’s had these creative impulses since being 14, “It goes back to the first camping trips in the wild in Brittany, when we’d take up songs by the campfire.” Ten years passed and in 2009, she began working on the album in Woodstock, New York. She met Damien Rice, who visited her the same day he was contacted, and quickly composed one song together. “I found that he had a sensibility, something that touched me more than others,” she mentioned in a video just below. The two saw eye-to-eye, shifting the album to his studios in Ireland before it then moved to Los Angeles where she then worked with Joel Shearer.
The album is bookended by two gentle piano solos by Mélanie, “Début” and “Fin”. They ease the listener in and out much like the credits of a film. “Début” is a surprising beginning, opting to highlight her ivory prowess over jumping immediately into singing. The surprise draws you into “En t’attendant”, a soft rock build with one guitar becoming two as a tentative voice seeks out its confidence. Lyrically it is a song about waiting and those petty things we do to occupy our time before someone else comes into our lives (“tu passerais dans le mien”). It’s a daring crescendo to start with, even without Mélanie exuding a snarling scream towards the end which disorientates a little. Although without that song and “Insomnie”, the rest of En t’attendant might seem slow to those more highly critical. “Circus” revisits those downtime moments, though through music quintessentially drawing to mind the carousels around the squares in Paris livened in the daytime, then abandoned during winter thanks to the pump organ, trombone and even Mélanie playing the glockenspiel. It’s about poignant reminiscing over the past, revisiting and realizing nothing stays the same. That longing intensifies, shifting from a “savoring” to “devouring”. Unlike “En t’attendant”, the music is traditional and conservative keeping the music she colors within its borders. It’s an excellent example of her songwriting, as well as Joel Shearer’s arrangements.
With what’s out there for her, given her talent and renown, the album occasionally sounds like a search for balance between orchestral and intimate. Let’s take the next two tracks, “Kiss” and “Je connais”, to show this. The toy piano and celesta all add an intimacy to “Kiss”, yet it rises to chorused vocals, then stringed chorus vocals. It gives a very ambitious sound that edges closer to the Los Angeles studio rather than Mélanie’s house-the places where the song was pieced together. “Je connais” removes the string arrangements and chorused singing, and works better with less. The lazy acoustic finger plucks and tender peppering of piano reinforce Mélanie’s singing far better than a full orchestra pit. The struggle between these two contrasts emerges and nearly bursts into “Je connais”, yet thankfully is pulled back before another addition would have overwhelmed the track. Removing one more instrument would reassure the listener, and further support the idea that sometimes simplicity is better.
That Damien Rice received the message and immediately rendered himself to Woodstock was an excellent decision. His touches are subtle, as on the symphonically beautiful backing vocals on “Il fait gris” and the whispered nothings filling the space of “Uncomfortable”. The duet of the latter is interesting as the two build the tension quite well. Damien’s vocal range complements Mélanie’s in a way you’d expect to experience on stage when the principles are reunited, then torn asunder from each other. The U2-esque “woo-woos” though are too distracting. The best example of the strength of their collaboration is the duet “Everything You’re Not Supposed to Be.” Lyrically addictive (“I know I was everything you’re not supposed to be to someone that you love”), it shows Mélanie’s ability to sing in English. She has a musical ear with the language, accompanying Rice superbly in the chorus.
As a debut album from an actress, it’s easy to pass on the album assuming talent can’t translate across art. Mélanie Laurent contradicts this with a convincing En t’attendant. If she picked up and added more of her own piano playing, as with “Début” and “Fin”, which she wrote in Ireland upon retaking piano, it would be even better. Take that confidence on the piano bench and run with it more, and it’d be quite the album that avoids the orchestrated vs. intimate waverings one can hear. Bravo, pour le premier album.
“When I act, I can have emotions, but they’re not the emotions of who I am. I play the emotions that someone gives us to perform. I depend on someone else’s emotions. When I direct, I don’t have the time to have those emotions because I have 80 people to manage. In that creative space, it’s very different than that of an actress. … I get the impression that music creates a link-the bridge between the two. Meaning that is one’s own music. Thus there’s the simple emotion to do something very personal in taking the time to give this moment. Because it’s a fleeting moment, because it’s a moment with musicians. It’s not something that one necessarily carries by themselves. I believe it connects everyone a little bit.” – Mélanie, towards the end of the above video.