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A certain je ne sais quoi: Françoise Hardy, 17 January 1944 – 11 June 2024

“In France, a lot of the women have that certain French thing. It’s that je ne sais quoi. They put themselves together in such an elegant way. It’s a mysterious thing. We can’t quite explain it. But tell me, what do you think is style?” — Annie Lennox, 2020

A Parisian par excellence, Françoise Hardy was style. And class. And beauty. As Annie Lennox noted, most French femmes have this indefinable insouciance — a deportment chic that English speaking women kind of struggle with. And Hardy, who has died aged 80, epitomised that Gallic elegance and smoulder simultaneously, with a sweetly deadpan voice that wafted like Gitanes smoke in your eyes. 

As the female half of Eurythmics, the equally melancholic La Lennoxa performed a coruscating cover of Hardy’s fluffy first single, Tous les garçons et les filles (en Anglais: All The Boys And Girls) in the 1980s, first on stage in the Sweet Dreams era and then on record as a B-side to 1985’s It’s Alright (Baby’s Coming Back). 

A co-write with Roger Samyn, the 18 year-old’s debut 45 was a huge hit in French speaking countries, spearheading the new yé-yé wave and selling more records in 18 months than Édith Piaf did in 18 years. In 1969, it even inspired the name of the Japanese fashion house Comme des Garçons.

From Eurovision to La question (our very first 33 at 45 album feature, no less, in the very first month of this blog’s existence) Hardy would go on to pen the bulk of her own material, quite unusual in the early 1960s, especially for women in the pre Beatles soundscape.

An anxious personality from an early age, Françoise Hardy’s bittersweet words enhanced her tone, and she used song-writing as a form of therapy, composing a series of unremittingly sad chanson while yearning for a simple domestic life.

Though she wasn’t averse to peppering her oeuvre with the occasional cover when the lyrics felt particularly resonant, recording material by masters like Ray Davies, Serge Gainsbourg and Antônio Carlos Jobim; while her breathy take on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne may be the most poignant of the many recordings of Cohen classics, his included.

With her svelte figure, sky-high cheekbones and boyish brown hair, this androgynous yet effortlessly feminine feline attracted myriad admirers and suitors, particularly male performers from the English speaking world. Mick Jagger described her as his ideal woman (though she suspected she “was too clean” for him, given his drug use and bisexuality).

Talking of swingers, David Bowie took to TV to admit he’d been captivated, and “very passionately in love” with Hardy from a distance; while the former Robert Zimmerman was so struck by her artistry he addressed her in a poem on the back of his fourth LP Another Side Of Bob Dylan (on their first meeting he also serenaded her unsubtly — and unsuccessfully — with I Want You). 

When Dylan performed in Paris for the first time, at the Olympia in 1966, Hardy was sitting in the front row. As she told it, he refused to go back onstage after the intermission unless she visited him in the dressing room. “It was surreal, but I went,” she recalled in a 2005 interview with Britain’s the Independent. “He looked very thin and sickly, which may explain why the concert was so bad.”

Hardy recorded in English, German, and Italian, and in later years enjoyed working with Blur (a Franglais rework of the already Brel-like To The End), Iggy Pop (“a real gentleman”), and her native chum Étienne Daho. Though a team-up with the artful dodger Malcolm McLaren was less harmonious, complaining that “he uses people like objects.”

But her magic was most pronounced in her mother tongue. In 1989, Jimmy Somerville’s first post-Communards solo single was a slightly housey recycling of her 1968 hit Comment te dire adieu, while less successful was Find Me A Boy, Saint Etienne’s Home Counties adaption of that first 45, “Tous”, as a decade later.

Although she branched out into acting, authoring and astrology, it is as an emblematic singer songwriter Françoise Hardy will be best remembered. She issued 28 studio albums in total, with her final work, Personne d’autre, released in 2018. And as was evident on dozens of recordings, she still managed to make existentialism sound impossibly elegant.

She remained a defiantly uncategorisable figure to the end, and after a long battle with laryngeal cancer, the news of Françoise Hardy’s death was confirmed by her son Thomas Dutronc on his Instagram account. Last word to the passenger, Iggy Pop then:

“No one can sing like Françoise. Her emotional and musical accuracy combined with her sense of reserve and mystique make an indelible and very French impact on the listener. There’s no one else as good around.”

Très exquisite. 

Steve Pafford

33 at 45: Françoise Hardy asks what is La Question? is here

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