Mélanie Pain was working for a Paris design agency when the stars realigned and she ended up swapping careers in 2004, a favour for a friend happening to alert producer Marc Collin. And you could say the rest is histoire.
Originally from Aix-en-Provence, a political sciences student before moving to the French capital, Mélanie soon quit her job at a design agency following growing involvement with Marc’s fledgling Nouvelle Vague project alongside Olivier Libaux, an eponymous album that year proving to just be the start.
On that first LP, Mélanie and seven other female singers – the most famous already-signed Camille Dalmais (best known just by her first name) – reinterpreted 13 punk/new wave classics and rarities in a dreamy 1950s’ and 1960s‘ bossa nova style, entrancing vocals complemented by lush arrangements and plenty of ambient touches.
Ultimately, the underground success of that record led to many more, including three solo outings for Mélanie, 2009’s My Name followed by 2012’s Bye Bye Manchester, and 2016’s Parachute. But it was always more au revoir than bye bye, and she’s back in Manchester this weekend, celebrating that first Nouvelle Vague album’s 15th anniversary.
That band name works on so many levels. Transliterate, I think the term is, something of a nod to the French new wave cinema movement of the ‘60s, the new wave music movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s (providing many of the songs covered), and bossa nova itself – Portuguese for new wave (a musical style frequently used in the arrangements).
What’s more, Nouvelle Vague have arguably deconstructed the notion of cover bands, Marc and Olivier soon touring with Mélanie and Camille, creating a live blueprint, the girls accompanied by acoustic guitar, keyboards, a little electronica and atmospheric moments, a triumphant world tour following.
Now, with five studio albums and extensive global tours under the belt, they’re enjoying a celebratory international unplugged tour, in keeping with the 2004 incarnation, Mélanie this time joined out front by Elodie Frégé and Phoebe Killdeer.
Furthermore, 2019 also sees the release of a Nouvelle Vague By Nouvelle Vague documentary, recounting the story so far, directed by Marc Collin, retracing the project from its genesis to the production of each album, meetings with the main singers, and the multiple tours, featuring archived concerts, TV shows, personal photos and interviews.
There are also two new albums, the first, the February-released Rarities a 24-track digital-only collection of bonus tracks and B-sides previously just on special editions, compilations, 45s and other physical media over the course of the band’s 15 years, long out of print. And then there’s the 12-track, limited 12”, Curiosities – out this week – including various re-recorded songs from the catalogue, all previously-unreleased.
When I called Mélanie, the world’s media was camped not far from her doorstep, after the devastating Cathédrale Notre-Dame fire.
“Everybody’s really heartbroken. It’s sad, something very unusual, with everyone a bit depressed about it. Lots of people said they could see a lot of smoke from where they live. An extreme event.”
“We just did the final rehearsal yesterday, and we start on Friday at Printemps de Bourges, a big festival in France, then go to the UK for 10 days … which is cool.”
With the UK leg starting in Dreamland, I see.
“Yeah, we’re very excited about that.”
That was the Dreamland park in Margate, Kent, I should add, whereas the Manchester finale, my excuse for calling, is at the Gorilla. Will that be her first return since working there on her second solo album?
“No, I’ve been back working with (Mancunian psychedelic pop outfit) the Whyte Horses a few times, doing gigs and record with them. I don’t know the Gorilla, but people tell me it’s great. Manchester is always changing, with new bars, new venues …”
Going back to the start of the Nouvelle Vague journey, remind us how you got to know Marc and Olivier.
“It all really happened as a little accident. I was dating a musician who was looking for a singer for his project. He asked me to record a demo. I wasn’t singing at all at that time. I was maybe 20. He said, ‘Could you sing it, so I have something to send to singers?’ I recorded that and he sent it to producers and people he knew, among them Marc Collin, who said, ‘I like the voice of this girl singing. Can you give me a phone number?’
“He called me and I said, ‘I am not a singer’, he said, ‘Perfect!’ and it all happened super-quick after that. I went to his studio, we did two tracks, first take – the two songs I did for Nouvelle Vague, ‘This is Not a Love Song’ and ‘Teenage Kicks’.”
I was revisiting that very album on my holiday last week, and it certainly stands the test of time.
“Ah good. There’s something really magical about that first album. He did that with me and all the other singers. It was very spontaneous, and you can hear that. It’s very fresh. I’m enjoying listening to the first album again. It makes me happy.”
It was a springboard for you all really, not least Camille, who has enjoyed the largest outside success.
“Yes, but she was already signed with a big label before. She already had a solo album, while everyone else was a Marc Collin finding. During that period she was on tour with us while working on her solo album that really exploded her. And she’s amazing.”
Are you in touch with many of those who passed through the band since that debut album?
“Yeah, we all follow each other, meeting here and there in Paris for our own solo stuff or gatherings – singers’ reunions!’
“It was the other way around. Marc and Olivier were big fans of new wave, gathering a list of favourite songs.”
Like a menu?
“Exactly. I came to the studio and they said, ‘We’d like you to sing these tracks … I’d never heard them before. After the first recording, I was like, ‘Shit, I should listen now’. With my generation, I was more into Sonic Youth and Nirvana … more ‘90s.”
Incidentally, Olivier Libaux takes that story back further, explaining, “Marc Collin and I were both musicians and producers in the French music industry when, in 2002, he called me with this very strange idea of covering ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ in a bossa nova version. I thought this idea was absolutely crazy but very exciting. We decided to get into the studio and try it out as soon as possible.”
While Mélanie sang on two songs, Camille performed four on that debut, the LP proving something of a slow-burning commercial success, spending 39 weeks in the French top-200, within two years having sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide.
The second LP, 2006’s Bande A Part, charted in several European countries, Mélanie providing lead vocals on five songs, including Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ and – following co-singer Eloisia’s first album take on Joy Division’s ‘Love will Tear Us Apart’ – New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’, and Echo & The Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’.
After the unanticipated worldwide success of the eponymous debut, concerts in 20-plus countries and so on, the band toyed a little with the concept, the initial focus on setting songs in the Caribbean between the ’40s and ’70s, explaining, “Just as on the first album I’d imagined a young Brazilian girl singing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on a Rio beach in the ‘60s, this time I envisaged a young Jamaican with his acoustic guitar singing (Blondie’s) ‘Heart Of Glass’ in his Kingston township suburb. I also had another particular scene in my mind: a young blind girl singing (Visage’s) ‘Fade To Grey’ in the corridors of the Parisian Metro, alone with her accordion, ignored by everyone.
“Those ideas were the genesis for an LP moving between Jamaica, the cradle of mento music (which became ska/rocksteady then reggae), to the calypso isle of Trinidad via Cuban salsa, Haitian voodoo, and eventually back to the Brazilian coast, its arrangements and orchestrations colourful – with percussion and acoustic guitar topped off with sensual voices, accordions, steel drums and more.”
That evolving journey continued, and in 2009 Mélanie duetted with Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore on ‘Master and Servant’, and Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch on ‘All My Colours’, while Marina Celeste performed ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ with Fun Boy 3 and Specials singer Terry Hall, and Nadeah Miranda joined Magazine’s Barry Adamson on ‘Parade’.
The next year there was a 15-track Best of and also Couleurs sur Paris, an album of French-language remakes, Mélanie with a splendid take on Marie France’s late-’70s homegrown punk single Déréglée, that album also including contributions from the likes of singer/actress Vanessa Paradis and a return for Camille.
Hiatus followed, Collin explaining, “I was bored of myself doing covers. With the first and second albums, all the media said, ‘This is a great idea, a great rendition’ – and after the third album it was suddenly, ‘OK, it’s always the same thing, the same concept, we don’t want to talk about it.”
But in 2016 there was the I Could Be Happy album, its title track a cover of Altered Images’ 1981 hit, Mélanie with a cover of The Cure’s ‘All Cats Are Grey’ (from Faith, also 1981), and singing Olivier’s ‘Maladroit’ and Liset Alea’s ‘Loneliness’.
And now here we are in 2019, the Rarities album’s many highlights including Mélanie’s spins on New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ (a duet with Elodie) and ‘Confusion’, plus OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’. Ever contemplated how this Aix-en-Provence girl who didn’t set out to be a singer ended up co-fronting a happening group from Paris, singing so many great songs associated with Liverpool and Manchester, the latter a city she’d end up spending plenty of time in?
“Yeah! I got from my sister a love of The Smiths and was such a big fan of Morrissey. So my connection really started when I was 12 or 13. Always in my band every cool band was from Manchester! Ha! Then I got all the confirmation later from Nouvelle Vague!
“First time we played there with the band was 2005, I reckon, and we went to all the places where The Smiths’ covers were shot, That was pretty cool, and I think Marc and Olivier have something special as well with other UK bands from the ’80s.”
Incidentally, Rarities also includes Mélanie’s live cover of The Smiths’ ‘Sweet and Tender Hooligan’. But how did Marc and Olivier first explain the idea of Nouvelle Vague? It’s a simple yet effective concept, working so well. I’m trying to think if anyone had come up with a comparable idea before.
“Well, the difference with Nouvelle Vague is that they really focus on new wave, this big homage, this crazy idea, with Marc like, ‘What if all these tracks were bossa nova standards covered by English bands?’ He had this kind of crazy twist.
“He felt, ‘Maybe we should try and make people believe that in fact they were from Brazil and done in that bossa nova style, a girl singing with a guitar. Because those songs are so strong, the words are great, and sometimes the melodies and beauty of the songs were kind of hidden.”
That’s true, one prime example Camille’s first album take on XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, the first Nouvelle Vague track I heard, putting a whole different complexion on what was already a great song. And that’s the case with so many more of their covers.
“Well, I hope so. We met a few times with Winston Tong of Tuxedomoon (regarding Camille’s cover of ‘In a Manner of Speaking’ and he loved our version. He said, ‘You’ve given new life to my song!’ I guess some of the original composers or bands didn’t like our versions, but … y’know …”
Ever hear back from John Lydon about your take on PiL’s ‘This is Not a Love Song’?
“You’ll have to ask Marc. At the beginning they had lots of feedback. But I sang with Martin Gore (duetting on Depeche Mode’s ‘Master and Servant’ for 2009’s 3), so know he liked our version (of first album Depeche Mode cover ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’), and Ian McCulloch (duetting on All My Colours’ for 3, following her second album cover of ‘The Killing Moon’). He came to sing with us in Paris.”
Fast forward 15 years, with five studio albums and several world tours behind them, and now this international unplugged tour, back to their roots really.
“Yeah, exactly. It’s strange, because everyone is asking, ‘You’re singing the same songs after 15 years, touring with them, are you bored?’ But I’m never bored. I’m amazed.
“I finished rehearsing last night, and we were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so good. We went through all these different live shows, with bigger production, drums and percussion, lots of rocky stuff, but now we’re back to a candle on stage, just a guitar and two voices.
“Marc is doing a lot of work on all the ambient sounds and textures, the really interesting thing in the production of the albums. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m quite confident people will like to go back to the first songs.”
And as well as two new Nouvelle Vague albums, there’s a documentary. Have you seen the final cut yet?
“Yeah. It’s really funny. I’ve lived through it all for 15 years but it’s so funny to see it all as a story, with the evolution. we’ve been through a lot. It’s very interesting. I’m very proud and overwhelmed by this 15-year thing.”
So what started on a bit of a whim became so much more. Is that right you worked for web and design agencies before all this?
“Yeah, it all fell on me at some point and there were so many gigs with Nouvelle Vague that I decided to quit my job and just go with the music. Then people sent me some beautiful songs for a solo project, then I started writing, and now I’m composing for films. So it all started with an accident, and my life completely changed.”
Nouvelle Vague’s 2019 UK tour, after opening dates at Margate Dreamland, Cambridge Junction, two nights at Islington Assembly Hall and one at Glasgow St. Luke’s, this weekend it’s Edinburgh Liquid Rooms (Friday, April 26th), Gateshead Sage 2 (Saturday, April 27th), and Manchester Gorilla (Sunday, April 28th). For ticket details, more about the band and the latest releases, head to their website and follow them via Facebook and Instagram. And for more about Mélanie, you can follow her via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and her own website.