Having called Bristol her home for the last few years, French-born singer and songwriter Cécile has joined the rich musical scene of the city while fully embracing its creative spirit and diverse culture. We caught up with Cécile at her home, and after a warm and welcoming “Bonjour”, she showed us her CD collection and told us about her journey into music and her collaboration with fellow musician Jack Cookson, followed by a most inspiring performance of one of her new and unrecorded songs.
Taking us for a stroll around her neighbourhood, Cécile told us about her life in the city, her travel plans, her campervan conversion project and her upcoming musical exploits. What we love about Cécile’s music is how she is able to do so much with just her guitar and her mesmerising voice, giving life to songs that speak to the soul in poetic, raw and revelatory ways.
For those who do not know you, who is Cécile?
I’m a singer-songwriter; Bristol’s been my home for nearly four years. I was born in Eastern France where I grew up in a small city amongst green hills, lakes and lots of cows. In this part of the country we are used to hot, suffocating summers and freezing, snowy winters. I studied English at university which led me to the UK where I've now been living, on and off, for ten years.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I have many childhood memories that I cherish, several of which revolve around the annual family Summer holidays: long drives South in an old red Volkswagen Golf, R.E.M playing on the stereo as my brother and I watched the world pass by the window, getting to the coast and seeing the ocean for the first time (I was raised in the mountains so was 5 or 6 before I first laid eyes on an sea). Also, the ever-present smell of patchouli on my mother’s neck; picking wild strawberries and cherries in the woods as a child; climbing trees and spending hours up there... I still do that!
How did you get into music? Who or what nurtured your passion for music?
I don’t think there’s a clear moment in time when I got into music. It’s always been part of my life one way or another. From a very young age I would be singing and humming aloud most days. I remember being in the stairway of the housing estate building we lived in and experimenting with my voice because there was such an amazing cathedral-like reverb there; I think that moment was probably the first time I heard my singing voice that clearly.
My dad has always been into music and singing, he would sing me and my brother Leonard Cohen’s songs to put us to sleep – lullabies with powerful imagery that have stayed with me, like in the song “Suzanne”. From time to time my sister would accompany him with the guitar and sing along, she really is a great singer! When I was around 12 she showed me how to play the A minor chord on the guitar. I got my own guitar a couple of years later and started learning. I’m a self-taught musician with no academic training and am learning everyday as I go, hoping I’ll become a decent guitarist some day!
How did your French heritage and upbringing influence your musical self?
As a kid I grew up listening to my dad singing songs of Graeme Allwright and Leonard Cohen, but he was also very much into The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. In a sense I got a bit of a British musical heritage from him. I also remember an old cassette tape of French Yé-Yé (pop music genre from the 60s).
I guess I consciously connected with my French heritage later on in life when I rediscovered songs that I often heard while still a child, but with a more mature understanding of the lyrics: artists like George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara or Jean Ferrat. Their music is one aspect of my cultural heritage I am trying to take inspiration from with my own songwriting, though I find it far more challenging to write lyrics in my native tongue – the bar is set very high by these legends!
Travelling and meeting people from different backgrounds is another aspect of the cultural heritage that’s been building around me; it helps me broaden my musical collection from traditional English folk to Turkish pop, or French artists whose music resonates with Maghreb culture.
When it comes to songwriting, what inspires your lyrics?
I sometimes wish I was able to sit at a table and plan dedicated times to work on a song, but this isn’t how I work. In my case, songs happen almost by accident. I’ve heard many musicians describe it like so: it is a lot like the song is there, somewhere up in the air waiting for you to catch it, and you just need to find the right moment for this to happen. It might sound like a bunch of crap but it is so true for most of the songs I’ve written. In that sense songwriting is a spontaneous process. My own experience of life, or a person, or a story I hear, or a strong emotion can be the starting point of a song. What surrounds me is what inspires me.
How would you say that the folk genre is currently received by modern listeners?
I am no expert in music history but it is quite clear that the folk genre has evolved a lot since it was born as “the music of the people, about the people, for the people”. It has broadened so much and fused with so many other genres throughout the 20th Century and up to now that the music from Woody Guthrie and music labelled as “folk” in 2017 may seem totally different. I think they do have common ground in that they deliver honest lyrics through raw and straightforward instrumentation; nowadays people often picture folk artists as solo singers playing acoustic guitar but we can find folk elements in many varied genres of music and fusions of genres. All in all though, I think this is how modern listeners receive the folk genre: raw and honest music that speaks to the soul.
Your debut EP, Ten Past Twelve, is a reflection on time and memories. How did you come up with the name for your album?
I came up with the title quite naturally when I was in a period of introspection trying to make sense of elements from my past to be able to live more peacefully in the present. The title is about being stuck in time for a while, it’s about our relation to time and what we make of it or do with it. This is as close as you’ll get to knowing the exact meaning of Ten Past Twelve… as I would rather keep a bit of mystery there...
Ten Past Twelve is also a collaboration with fellow musician Jack Cookson. How did this come about and what did you enjoy the most throughout the production process?
Jack and I met on stage early in 2015. It was one of those magical encounters where you get an instant connection through music. He was playing straight after my set and we both enjoyed each other’s performances. That was a few weeks before the release of his debut album (for his music, have a listen at jackcookson.co.uk). At the time I didn’t have any recordings of my music and he offered to help me record a demo. Fairly quickly what started as a demo turned into the recording of my first EP. I am grateful to have met Jack along the way because he has brought so much in a short period of time: his creativity, talent and expertise in arranging, recording, producing and mixing.
The production process was very new to me but it happened spontaneously, which is how I wanted my first recording to sound like – not overproduced, but intimate. For Ten Past Twelve we recorded all the tracks and instruments with one single mic, and most of it at my house and at Jack’s; I like to think that it sounds homely.
What do you think goes through someone’s mind when listening to your music?
I love hearing feedback after a gig and people’s interpretation of a song, or what they felt when they listened to a particular one. The idea that one of my songs could make someone laugh or cry, or for the interpretation of a song’s lyrics to be so wildly varied between two listeners stood side by side at the same gig is one of the things I love about music… you can never second guess how someone will receive it. And even in my case, the meanings of my own songs evolve so much through time! My understanding of them keeps changing from what it was originally written about months or years ago. A song isn’t static or definite.
People tend to tell me that they find my music one or more of soothing, relaxing, intense or melancholic. One of my favourite compliments described listening to me as being akin to being sung a lullaby.
Tell us about your most memorable busking experience in Bristol.
I have so many stories from my time busking in Bristol, good and bad! Meeting so many talented musicians, making people smile, getting a bucket of fresh cherries on my birthday, jamming with other buskers, but if I had to choose one, that would be one from 2014...
Back then my usual spot was by Pero’s bridge on the harbourside where I would go and play an hour set every day (weather permitting). I was halfway through my set when a passer-by stopped and listened very attentively, with his eyes closed – I’m pretty sure I was playing a cover of ‘Leaving On A Jetplane’. He waited ‘til the end of the song and had a chat with me, gave me some feedback, offered me to play some of my original songs on Womad Festival Radio in the summer and gave me his contact details. Back then I didn’t have any recordings and hadn’t written a song in a year, but I bluffed and replied that I was working on some new material so would get in touch with him. That day I realised that I wanted to do more than playing covers in the street and this encounter pushed me to start working on new material. One year later, I was gigging regularly in Bristol and releasing my debut EP! I sent that passer-by a copy with a note explaining how this might have never happened had he not stopped to listen and chat that day. And he surprised me by turning up to the EP launch!
Who do you dream to collaborate with?
Backing vocals for, or a duo with, Johnny Flynn? I wouldn’t say no.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a piece of paper on which there’s a list of unrecorded songs I’ve written during the past two years. The plan is to either turn that piece of paper into my next EP, or use it to start a fire in the garden this winter, ha!
More seriously, I am hoping to start recording some of these songs before the end of the year; I want to get into mixing myself and experimenting with production – this is my latest challenge. I’ve had a bit of a tough first half of the year and haven’t been able to focus on recording as much as I would have liked to, but lately I’ve been revisiting and rediscovering these unrecorded songs and am excited to go forward with them during the coming colder, darker months of 2017/2018.
The other thing I’m working on at the moment is converting a van into a camper! Even though it’s taking a lot of time and energy, it is such an exciting project to take on. I’ve been learning so much – from telling a wood drill bit from a high speed one, to fixing leaks or insulating walls. The next step is to fit a window in the roof!
What are you listening to these days?
I’ve been enjoying the latest Laura Marling’s Semper Femina a lot; any Laura Marling on a rainy evening with a glass of Pinot Grigio is a delight. I’ve discovered L.A Salami recently – great stuff. And the old classics: I cannot not mention Bob Dylan whose music is always nearby. I’ve also been listening to a considerable amount of Paul Simon over the Summer, while Spring’s playlist had a lot of Bill Callahan/Smog.
Bristol and the South West have so many talented musicians: I’m a big fan of Jim Evans; Lewis Creaven is the no. 1 for putting a big smile on my face; and Circe’s Diner deliver gentle sweetness and absolutely gorgeous harmonies. I saw Jacob & Drinkwater at Wimborne Folk Festival this year and was absolutely blown away by their performance. Finally, Will Varley’s “As The Crow Flies” is in my top ten and has a very special place in my life.
What are some of your favourite music festivals?
I’m not a fan of big festivals because I’ve always tried to avoid big crowds. I’ve played or attended some lovely, small, regional festivals in the South West and in France that I’m far happier and comfortable at. Some names? Rencontres et Racines, or Cornwall Folk Festival for example.
What does the perfect Sunday morning look like for you?
My perfect Bristol Sunday morning would involve a decent lie-in before opening my windows and taking in the smell of the garden, then a continental breakfast with the Cerys Matthews radio show playing in the background on my stereo. Knowing that I haven’t got much planned for the afternoon is also a must-have feeling to carry through the morning.
But, if out of town for the weekend, my perfect Sunday morning would see me waking up in the back of my van and opening the doors onto a sea view – preferably in Gower, Wales – followed by a cup of tea, some bread and honey, and then it’s time for an adventurous stroll along the coast, into the hills, or through a forest… preferably bare-footed.
What is your favourite dish?
This is a cruel question because I can’t possibly pick just one. I love simple, tasty food – there is nothing better than fresh seasonal produce (I am dreaming of fresh vegetables from my Nan’s garden). But yeah, I guess the first dish that does come to mind is… frogs’ legs, how French is that! I also absolutely love asparagus, Moroccan Couscous Royal, all the cheeses you could possibly think of (the stronger the better), lemon curd and flapjacks of course.
Who do you admire and why?
Kate Tempest is an artist I admire – she manages to paint the world and the human condition with such beautiful poetry and imagery and yet punctuates it with light-hearted elements that make her work so powerful; she is an important voice for our generation. If you haven’t read any of her poetry, I would strongly recommend Hold Your Own. Generally speaking, I’m in admiration with spoken words artists and poets; I’m fascinated whenever I watch a performance at how from words alone they are able to pass on so many emotions and meanings, make you shiver, laugh or cry within the space of a few minutes.
What are some of your favourite places in Bristol to hang out and why?
Harbourside: being in close proximity to the water and my favourite busking spot, I enjoy the diversity of people at this meeting point between the two halves of Bristol; between those who live South or North of the river.
Leigh Woods: For the trees, solitude, tranquillity and tree-climbing.
Gloucester Road: For the charity shops, the delis, the local independent shops and cafés – my favourite being Café Ronak.
Brandon Hill: I love this for the view, the squirrels and the walk uphill to get there!
For music venues I like the Greenbank’s upstairs room for an intimate gig, or the Arts House cellar for unplugged sessions, plus Gallimaufry for the origami sky above the stage, and Louisiana for the sound quality and history.
If your life so far would be a song, what would you name it?
What other disciplines are you interested in or involved with?
I am absolutely no good at drawing, and yet last year I started doing some sketches of everyday objects and landscapes. Most of them I keep for myself because they aren’t very good! But I enjoy the process of drawing and find it so calming, it helps empty my head of unwanted noise; I guess it is a form of meditation for me.
Other than drawing, I am learning a lot about DIY with my van conversion project; I love the idea of being able to build your own home and the process of making things yourself from start to finish.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Be kind to yourself.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future? How do you see yourself evolving as a musician?
I want to be able to allow more creative time in my life. A current dream is that I would love to get away for a month or so in 2018 to do a sort of retreat – in the countryside somewhere isolated, with my guitars, a pen and notebook for companions. Apart from the obvious fireplace, this dream place would have a basic recording studio for me to play with, and occasional talented musicians popping by!
Like most musicians, I go through some sort of “existential crisis” about my music more often than not, asking myself the exact same question: “how do I see myself evolving as a musician?” I’m not sure I have an answer for that, but one thing I would like my future self to try is play with a band to get a new experience of live music and collaboration.
Can you recommend us:
A song: “Chanson Pour L’Auvergnat”, by George Brassens.
A book: M Train, by Patti Smith.
A film: Into the Wild, by Sean Penn.