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

Disenchanted with pop stardom and with her relationship with Thomas Dutronc entering stormy waters, France‘s first female of melancholy Françoise Hardy remained restless, seeking something new to fire her imagination. The result was the sparse beauty of La Question in 1971. Ça y est.

Like a Gallic Gabriel (as in Peter), Françoise Hardy set out determined never to give her albums titles; this one’s colloquially called La Question because it happened to be the title of the album’s biggest hit. What’s remarkable is that this was her sixteenth album if you count the “foreign language” albums where she sang in Italian, German and English. The music of the pre-La Question era was decidedly French pop, though in the albums that immediately preceded it, she had begun to extend her repertoire to include more accomplished songwriters like Canadian doomster Leonard Cohen. Even more remarkable is that all the previous albums were developed in the studio, leaving no time for Françoise to work with the composer and explore different interpretive paths.

All that changed when a friend and colleague insisted she come with her to a restaurant to hear a Brazilian singer and guitarist named Tuca. Françoise Hardy fell in love with the music and connected very well with Tuca, leading to an agreement to collaborate on Françoise’s next album. Tuca wound up composing the music for all but one of the songs, and more importantly, insisted that Françoise rehearse with her every day for a month before they entered the studio. While the combination of the sensuous sounds and rhythms of Brazil and Françoise Hardy’s breathy vocals is as close as you can get to collaborative perfection, what makes La Question rise above all her previous efforts is the intention she and Tuca brought into the studio. The music moves away from the often rote nature of pop to richer melodies and unexpected variations in rhythm. Although occasionally the strings get a bit too loud and a bit too syrupy, the sounds of Hardy’s voice and Tuca’s guitar are etched in your memory.

“Viens” is the title of the opening number, a multi-faceted erotic masterpiece. The lyrics, penned by Pascal Bilat aka André Machet, are a first-person plea for passionate love. What makes them special is that the narrator is hardly naïve; this is a person who has suffered greatly in various affairs and caused as much suffering in return:

viens, mon coeur a toujours tout donné/je me suis bien souvent brulée/mais je n’ai pas peur de souffrir (come/my heart has always given its all/I’ve been burned many times/but I’m not afraid of suffering [again])
viens, s’il m’arrive de mentir/c’est que dans mes souvenirs/sommeille un oiseau blessé (come/if it so happens that I tell a lie/it’s because in my memories/a wounded bird lies dormant)
viens, moi qui déjà ai tout détruit/blessé tant de gens dans ma vie/je ne crains plus la vérité(come/I’ve already wrecked everything/wounded so many people in my life/[that] I no longer fear the truth)

In other words, only when you’ve stripped the bullshit away, can you begin to get close—really close—to another. The intensity of the string arrangement reflects both the inner tension and desire, the bass echoes the throbbing beat of a heart in heat, but what really makes this song is Françoise Hardy’s wordless vocalizations. Her nasal moans—the nnhh’s—are the perfect expression of sweet frissons, the delightful tiny orgasms that serve as warmups to the larger explosions, the ones that feel “comme un bombe exploser.”

“La Question,” with lyrics written by Françoise herself, shifts from the erotic to the practical, exploring the curious distance that develops between two people despite one’s best efforts. Most noticeable on this track is how much more flexibility Françoise brings to her phrasing than in her pop songs, elongating and spacing syllables behind and ahead of the beat to intensify meanings or simply because the sound is so pleasing. Tuca’s offbeat guitar is crucial here, syncopated to the natural flow of emotion instead of paying strict attention to the bars or the time signature. The lyrics are excellent, reflecting the separation between the couple by consistently avoiding the “nous” form of “we” for the impersonal “on,” and clearly defining each party’s innate and abstract isolation:

ton silence trouble mon silence (your silence troubles my silence)
de ta distance à la mienne (from your distance to mine)

The final couplet, “tu es ma question sans réponse/mon cri muet et mon silence” (you are my unanswered question/my silent cry and my silence) emphasizes the narrator’s existential isolation, and by extension, human isolation.

“La Question” is a brilliant piece of poetry set to music, and clearly demonstrates the unique value of the Hardy-Tuca pairing.

“Même sous la pluie” (“Even under the rain”) was a song that Françoise wanted desperately to record, but Tuca had promised it to another singer. Somehow they worked out a compromise, so we have this lovely duet where Tuca’s guitar plays the base rhythm while Françoise supplies the syncopated emphasis. In contrast to most of the songs on La Question, Françoise sings this with more obvious emotion, with lines that approach full voicing. The lyrics by Franck Gérald are fairly standard love song lyrics except for the couplet, “Même si mon corps est mouillé, mon amour/Il peut encore te brûler, mon amour” (“Even if my body is wet/I can still burn you, my love”), where Françoise reaches her highest level of intensity.

We can forget about the lyrics in the song “Chanson d’O,” as Françoise chose to abandon them for what can only be described as “ecstatic vocalizations.” There are lyrics to the song, and if there is a connection between those lyrics and Histoire D’O, (Story of O), it is tenuous and highly idealized: no whips, no crops, no welts, no bruises, nothing remotely resembling O’s experience in the château or her delightfully brutal relations with Sir Stephen. It could be argued that Françoise’s vocalizations reflect the state of ecstasy experienced by O after a transformative beating, but I think that is wishful thinking.

One French commentator noted that she loves to play this song while doing yoga, a very interesting comment indeed. Although you can achieve higher consciousness through either yoga or BDSM, the mood you hear in Françoise’s voice probably depends entirely on your mood at the time. The rhythm of this song tends to follow the vocalizations rather than a time signature, and the frequent, extended pauses preceding exhalations gives the piece a sense of drama that mirrors the ebbs and flows of sex (unless you’re just a boring, repetitive plunker). I find “Chanson d’O” a beautiful and daring piece of music, but it doesn’t move me to reach between my legs for a quick release like Eddie Cochran does.

“Le Martien” has a shockingly silly premise: a strange man from Mars descends from the skies to ask for the hand of a lonely lady living a dull life. However, to a child—which is when I first heard the song—the story is inspired and magical. Listening to it now, I still find the song quite beautiful, and I love the way these musicians managed to create an otherworldly background through breaths and traditional instruments without the aid of synthesizers. It’s called human imagination, people! Remember that?

Françoise sings this song with a combination of wonder and yearning that is convincingly sincere. Returning to earth, the song “Mer” features lyrics by Françoise Hardy, and although she is a superb interpretiste, I do detect a more natural flow in her voice when she is singing her own words. The final lines in the song are achingly beautiful, in any language:

je voudrais doucement me coucher
dans la mer
magique, originelle
dans son rhythme essentiel
je voudrais que la mer
me reprenne pour renaître
ailleurs que dans ma tête
ailleurs que sur la terre
où sans mon amour
je ne peux rien faire

Translation: “I would love to fall asleep in the sea—magical, original, in its essential rhythm. I would love the sea to take me back to be reborn—elsewhere than inside my head, somewhere other than the earth, where without my love I can do nothing.” Françoise Hardy is an intensely introverted and spiritual woman (a recognized expert in the field of astrology), and I believe those lyrics express her essence as well as anything she ever wrote.

Side two opens with “Oui, je dis adieu,” a song where the meaning can be captured in one word Françoise Hardy uses in her lyrics: saudades. A literal translation is elusive, but the feeling expressed is uncommonly French: a feeling of nostalgic melancholy for times past. You can hear that sentiment very clearly in Edith Piaf’s songs recorded during the war years; here Françoise applies it to a dead relationship that she refers to as “cette perte de mon temps” (this waste of my time). The arrangement is a bit more intense than I think appropriate for the lyrics, and my favorite part is actually right after the intro when all you hear is Françoise’s voice, quiet but with firm intention, delivering the bad news: “Oui, je dis adieu.” When the strings don’t overpower her, Tuca’s rhythmic attack is terribly exciting.

“Doigts” is probably the most directly sensual song on La Question, as the lyrics describe the art of communication through touch. The ambiguity of the French verb apprendre is key here, for it can mean both to teach and to learn. In the song, the lover both learns and teaches through touch, and encourages the partner to give the same in return. The song is perfectly lovely through the single verse, but when Françoise switches to a series of erotic, nasal moans of pleasure while supported by a harmonizing violin, the result is one of the most ecstatic musical passages you will ever hear. This is the beauty of human love captured in the beauty of music, a sensual, spiritual experience.

The intense melancholy of “La Maison” comes next, a song with multiple meanings. In part, it is the “you can never go home anymore” message, as the old neighborhood never looks as it did when you were a child. The more interesting meaning is the metaphorical: the house as the representation of self. In that sense, the brief closing line “bien mort” is as much a letting go as it is a representation of the grief you feel for the person you once were. Whichever interpretation you choose, this is a rich and beautiful song where Françoise’s choice to combine spoken word and song intensifies the listener’s interest.

Tuca’s finger-picking and the always captivating sound of whistling open “Si Mi Caballero,” pronounced with the hard Portuguese “L” instead of the Spanish “Y” sound. Françoise’s lovely wordless harmonies in the intro are exquisite, as is her sweet and breathy performance on the verses. What I notice more than anything else on this piece is the interplay between piano and guitar, which is beautifully arranged and loaded with fascinating chord combinations and exciting rhythmic shifts. Over the intensity provided by pianist and guitarist, Françoise sings this piece with an unwavering romanticism that calls up images of a beautiful but lonely woman looking to the distant fields from her wrought iron balcony. It’s followed by the stereo guitars of “Bati Mon Nid,” a lively Brazilian jazz piece featuring a female-male vocal duet, an energetic double bass line and wonderful syncopation. La Question closes with “Rêve,” an acoustic pop number that seems somewhat out-of-place on the album . . . more early Hardy rather than the woman revitalized by her discovery of Tuca.

Still, Françoise Hardy never produced a stinker, and this combination of wordless vocal and spoken word is still pleasing to the ear.

La Question transformed French perceptions of Françoise Hardy; the sweet girl next door had become a woman—vibrant, alive and wise beyond her years. Influential in music and fashion, Mick Jagger’s description of her as his “ideal woman” was shared by millions all over the world. Like Deneuve, Françoise Hardy has that indefinable quality we call “class” that expresses what we feel in the presence of a woman who owns herself, body and soul. With La Question, Françoise Hardy took a risk she did not have to take: she could have easily continued recording nice pop tunes until she reached her sworn retirement age of fifty. Fortunately for us, the connection she made with Tuca triggered the dormant potential inside, and together they created a timeless work of art—erotic, sensual and intensely beautiful.

Cathy Deneuve

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