The last time you were in the UK was 10 years ago at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with the Piano Bar Live tour – why such a long break?
Yes, we haven’t played there since then – we didn’t have the right promoter. Now I’m coming to London with my show Kaas chant Piaf, and the world premiere will take place at London’s Royal Albert Hall – to tell the truth, I’m so nervous, I think I might die! First, I’m presenting the show in several big cities – London, Paris, Berlin, and then the tour will start in January – we’re planning to visit about 130 cities.
That means on average you’ll be giving a concert every three days right through next year? How do you cope with such a workload?
Last year we performed in 143 cities: I may give five concerts one week, and then sometimes get three or four weeks off. How do I find the strength to do it? I do sport, and dance – I get myself ready for it!
I could see the stage of this show even before I started thinking about the album: I wanted this show to be different – to capture the vibe on the streets in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, make it theatrical. I haven’t chosen the costumes yet – at the moment my idea is to have just two or three, and one really gorgeous outfit – in light colours rather than Piaf’s signature black. It was interesting to choose the songs for the album – the ones people love, the ones that people hardly know but that have wonderful lyrics. The show must be theatrical, just the same as Piaf’s life was. I very much wanted to work with a composer from the movie industry. The subtlety, sadness that the composer Abel Korzeniowski got across in the soundtrack to the movie A Single Man was exactly what I needed.
What was most challenging part about working on the album?
First of all, choosing the songs. Second, choosing the way to sing them. On one hand, I needed to honour Piaf and what she wanted to say, but, on the other, respect the new arrangements made by Abel Korzeniowski. I needed to change the timbre of my voice, so the songs sounded better with an orchestra. To sing Piaf is one thing, to interpret her songs – quite another. You need to have experience of life, of sadness and courage. Even in her powerful, dramatic songs, you could always hear a positive note – as though she always knew that even when times were tough, life would still go on. And there would be light at the end of the tunnel. And the show is dedicated not only to Piaf but to the people who were with her. To her friend Jean Cocteau, to her beloved Marcel Cerdan who died so tragically.
The British press describe your voice as smokey and vampy.
Really? Smokey – yes, it’s quite deep, but vampy... Sometimes it’s been said there’s a fatalism to it, like there was in Marlene Dietrich’s. Why not.
Do you think people will expect you to sing your own songs as an encore?
Probably, and it will be difficult to say no, but the show is a homage to Piaf. I’m not Piaf, but I will be singing her songs, albeit in my own way. Maybe not in London, though – people don’t know me all that well here – but in other cities there will be requests for my hits. I don’t think I should sing my own songs on this tour.
Maybe it’s an age thing, I felt I needed a breath of fresh air. I’m a private person. I needed to understand myself – writing the book was like going into therapy. For example, the success of my early career was overshadowed by the death of my parents, and my brother. The journalist spent 50 hours interviewing me for the book, but then she made it very dramatic, and I ended up working on it for 200 hours. The book enabled me to close a chapter, and start a new life. Once I’d completed it, I realised I was a great artist, a good woman, and there was no need for me to prove anything to anyone anymore – I just had to enjoy life. Before, I had thought I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t become someone else, but I’ve opened up and enjoy my career much more now.
You come from a modest family – have financial success and fame changed you?
I had a pronounced accent when I first arrived in Paris, (Patricia was born in an area of France close to the German border. – Ed.), and I was very withdrawn, whereas people thought I was being secretive. My life is different now that I don’t have to worry about how to pay the rent on my flat at the end of the month – it’s a luxury. People might think that money and fame mean you’ve no problems, but I can feel lonely in my home, like everybody else, and sometimes the responsibilities are so big, I just don’t feel up to them. It took quite a while for my family to accept my success –I tried to hide it for a long time and not let on that I could afford a big flat and so on. My father was a miner, we didn’t have much, but he was very proud of what he did and never changed his job. He was too proud to ask me for anything, and the rest of my family are the same – in the region I’m from, people find it hard to express their emotions freely. My relatives got a complex about me speaking English and travelling the world, and I had to built bridges between us. After my parents died, I tried to get our family get-togethers going again. I invited them all to a restaurant but some of them reckoned that was really easy for me to do. So then I took the whole family off to Corsica and they all enjoyed it, and I also go round to my brothers’ homes to wish all their families a happy Christmas. When one of my brothers told me he loved me, I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. It really came from his heart. I’ve managed to make them see things differently.
Do you see your sister often?
She has three children, and she used to be busy all the time, just like our mother who had seven children (I was the youngest). Her children are all adults now, and I’d like to spend more time with her. Just to go and have a coffee and a chat.
Have you any idea why people in Russia like you so much?
You’ve got similar traditions. When I heard Vertinsky, I thought he sounded just like he was singing a French romance. I went to Moscow in 1989, a time of big political changes. Russians are fond of French culture in general and, maybe, people liked the fact that I was not from a well-off family and had to fight to get where I am now. I hope the Piaf songs will attract younger audiences.
It’s 10 years now since your first movie experience. In 2001, you took the lead in the Claude Lelouch movie And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen, opposite Jeremy Irons. This year you had a compelling part in the TV-movie Assassinée. (Patricia plays Katie, a woman beset by tragedy – her daughter is murdered at her 20th birthday party. – Ed.)
Being in the movie And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen wasn’t hard – my character’s a piano bar singer, and the part was right up my street. The producer of Assassinée, Jean-Pierre Alessandri saw me when I was speaking on TV about my book, and offered me the part. It took me two months to make up my mind, mainly because the part was very dramatic, with a lot of crying and yelling – things I don’t do in real life, I leave my emotions on stage. Crying in front of the camera, without the protection of the stage, was like being naked. In order to make myself cry, just a month before we started shooting, I moved in to a hotel to be in unfamiliar surroundings, and listened non-stop to the Schindler’s List soundtrack with its hauntingly sad violin melody, over and over again, until it got me crying. Listening to that melody on set also helped me cry. That experience helped me learn more about myself and accept the fact that I, too, am quite fragile. The movie is incredibly sad, and it’s hard to comprehend how you can get through such a tragedy. And though this was not a narrative of my life, I drew on my own experiences to try and convey how isolated my character was in her grief. The movie was shown on French television and watched by more than two million viewers, almost as many as were watching the episode of the popular House series that was on at the same time. I hope the movie will be translated into Russian soon. I would be interested in doing more movie work in the future, but I would not call myself an actress. It’s impossible to do two such different things well at the same time. I am devoting myself 100% to what I am doing now, and, of course, I am a singer, and for me this takes precedence over everything else.
Have you received offers to play in other movies?
The director Thierry Binisti told me he wanted to do another movie with me and promised it won’t be such a sad part. I’d like to do a Hitchcock-style movie – something scary.