Jacques Higelin

Born : 18/10/1940 in Brou-sur-Chantereine (France)
Country : France
Language : French
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : Chanson

Jacques Higelin's career is both atypical and exemplary. In a profession now largely exercised in the recording studio, he is one of the last to have built his success on live performance. Even though his songs were hardly played by the media, often for political reasons (in the Seventies), Higelin's nightly triumphs in small venues, when put end to end, began to add up to a huge following. The recording successes came later, allowing Higelin to keep the music business in lucid perspective and the freedom to keep on experimenting without risking - the record producer's nightmare! - blurring his image.

Jacques Higelin's career is both atypical and exemplary. In a profession now largely exercised in the recording studio, he is one of the last to have built his success on live performance. Even though his songs were hardly played by the media, often for political reasons (in the Seventies), Higelin's nightly triumphs in small venues, when put end to end, began to add up to a huge following. The recording successes came later, allowing Higelin to keep the music business in lucid perspective and the freedom to keep on experimenting without risking - the record producer's nightmare! - blurring his image.

Jacques Joseph Victor Higelin was born in Brou-sur-Chantereine, a village to the East of Paris, on October 18th 1940. His childhood was marked by the war and the bombings. Born into a working class household, Jacques grew up to the sound of the piano, His father, a railway worker, spent much of his leisure time playing music. As a child he enjoyed singing and learned the great popular songs of the period, by everyone from Maurice Chevalier to Charles Trenet, musical influences which were to persist throughout his musical career. After the war, apart from popular music, Jacques' discovery of jazz was a revelation. Encouraged by his father, the young boy began little by little to sing in cinemas during the intervals. At the same time, he began to get noticed in débutant's singing competitions on the radio.

More attracted to the world of show business than to his studies, Jacques left school at 14. He began by working for a stunt man for a while. The contracts, small at first gradually got bigger, until he found himself in a musical, "Nouvelle Orléans", alongside Sidney Bechet. He played numerous bit parts in films and met Henri Crolla, a guitarist of italian descent who composed for Yves Montand and Edith Piaf. Crolla taught him guitar and, at the same time, he took piano and clarinet lessons.

At the beginning of the Sixties, he enrolled at the René Simon drama school. A brilliant pupil, he won the François Perier award. During this time, music sank into the background.

In 1961, Jacques Higelin, left to do his military service. During the two years, he spent six months in Algeria, where he met the Algerian musician, Areski Belkacem, with whom he became close friends. In Algeria, he continued to sing at parties and officers' dances.

Café-theatre

On his return, Higelin went back to working in the cinema ("Bébert et l'omnibus" by Yves Robert) and the theatre. He began to widen his repertoire from classical drama (Musset) to more experimental productions. In doing so, he met the troupe of Marc'O and became friends with actors like Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kalfon. He also began doing café-theatre, a more informal and more innovative genre that often nurtured young talent. Half musical cabaret half comedy, cafe-theatre allowed Higelin to express himself fully on stage.

He accompanied Georges Moustaki and sang Boris Vian at the Trois Baudets. Then, at the end of 64, at the Vieille Grille, he took part in the extraordinary "Mélancaustique" and "Maman j'ai peur" shows with actor Rufus and, above all, with the whimsical and unpredictable Brigitte Fontaine. Both as crazy as each other, they became friends and began a fertile artistic collaboration.

In 1965, the audacious artistic director and producer, Jacques Canetti, spotted the duo and gave them the opportunity to make two albums, one straight after the other : "Douze Chansons d'avant le deluge" and then "Quinze chansons d'avant le deluge", both collections of revisited Boris Vian songs. Without giving up the theatre or the cinema, Higelin turned more and more towards his singing. A rebellious idealist, he launched into more political songs with Catherine Ribeiro and François Béranger. The student uprising and the general strike in May, 1968 gave him a new-found freedom with which to renew his inspiration. He refused to do interviews with the official media and became the idol of the students. Ever ready to rebel against institutions and the system, he established his image as a liberty-loving personality.

At that time, Higelin met up again with Areski. His friend became Brigitte Fontaine's partner and the three of them joined the Saravah label, still in its early days. A kind of musical laboratory and creative haven for artists of all kinds and origins, Saravah was started by Pierre Barouh, a composer of the world-famous theme song of Claude Lelouch's film "Un homme et une Femme". Recorded in 1969, with Areski, Higelin's first album on the Saravah label was the first time he gave free reign to his composing talents.

Happening

In the late Sixties there were numerous creative initiatives. At the Vieux Colombier theatre, Higelin often took part in "happening" concerts. He also improvised with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and with the Wild Angels and the Pretty Things, and acted in the play "Niok" with Areski and Fontaine at the Petit Théâtre du Lucernaire.

Extremely active in the artistic underground in Paris at that time, Higelin threw himself passionately into a variety of performing arts. A consummate improviser and a poet of extraordinary imagination, Higelin also channelled his enormous creative energy into social and political militancy. In May 1971, he sung a version of the Internationale at the celebration of the centenary of the Commune, the violent Nineteen century working class revolt in Paris. The public was beginning to discover the full scope of Higelin's talent and above all, the fascinating craziness that overcomes him on stage. The stage is his life, his universe. The concerts organised by Saravah at this time sometimes took unexpected turns, and Higelin established a unique bond with his following. His concerts at the Ranelagh theatre, which, sometimes finished in the street outside, were the beginning of a long love affair between the artist and his audience.

1971 was also the year Higelin brought out his first solo album, "Jacques "Crabouif" Higelin". Entirely written and composed by Higelin, the release confirmed the quality of his music and his poetical and deeply moving lyrics ("Je suis mort qui dit mieux").

But after these crazy years, Higelin decided to leave Paris. From 71 to 73 he travelled and lived in communities in the Alps and the Luberon area in the South of France, but nevertheless continued to give concerts in small provincial towns villages. In 1972, he also played alongside Marthe Keller in Gérard Pirès's film, "Elle court elle court la banlieue".

In 1973, he played second bill to the reggae group Sly and Robbie at l'Olympia, appearing dressed entirely in white, alone with his accordion, like a kind of lunar Pierrot. But a few month later, he was to change direction radically, both musically and in his style.

Rock musician

The minstrel metamorphosed himself into a rock musician. Without losing his poetry and lyricism, he expressed himself differently. A new, more aggressive Higelin, harbinger of the punk movement that was about to explode. The year was 1974 and Higelin 34, was no longer a country hippie but a provocative and sombre urban rock singer. The shadow of David Bowie wasn't far away in the make up and ambiguity of Higelin's stage persona, but Higelin was creatively forceful enough to develop an entirely original type of image for himself in musical melting pot of the Seventies.

The explosion came with the release of the "BBH 75" on December 5th 1974. Record buyers were surprised and utterly seduced by his dark, biting brand of rock. With Simon Boissezon on guitar and as composer and Charles Benarroch on drums, he recorded the album in a week. "Chaud chaud bizness show" was a manifesto of his outspoken views on the music business and "Est-ce que ma guitare est un fusil" ? was an acidic, indignant political interrogation.

The same year, his second son Ken, was born. His eldest son, eight years old, who was already discovering his father's flamboyant imagination, went on to create his own extraordinary musical world under the pseudonym of Arthur H.

On January 14th 1976, "Irradié" came out. A more tender brand of rock than the previous release, the album was recorded in the Château d'Hérouville, to the South of Paris. Higelin, his partner, Kuelan, and his son lived on there afterwards, in the sheep barn of the chateau, feeling the need to extricate themselves from the Paris scene for while, where drugs were beginning to dominate the rock music milieu. He formed a new group, the Super Goujats, whose 21 year-old guitarist, Louis Bertignac, went on to found the group Telephone.

Tenderness

With the following album, his profound need for an optimist vision of existence came to the fore. "Alertez les bébés" was a happy record, recorded in happy circumstances during the heat wave of the 1976 summer. Higelin surrounded himself with new musicians, with Jacky Thomas on bass, Michel Santangeli on drums ad Pierre Chérèze on guitar. They were to carry on working together for ten years. Ranging from hope to blues, the ten tracks on this record reflect both the freshness and violence in Higelin, symbolised by the complementary tracks "Aujourd'hui la crise" and "Demain (ça sera vachement mieux)". Released in November, "Alertez les bébés" won the Academie Charles Cros award and won for Higelin both public and critical recognition.

On the road to success now, Higelin was at last recognised as a fully fledged recording artist. A lyric writer, a composer, he could at last devote himself entirely to his own compositions. But above all, he became an impressive and highly physical performing artist. He used his concerts to re-inforce his already strong rapport with his audience, for ever calling out to them haranging them, involving them. And it worked. Audiences adored being warmly welcomed by such a generous host. The decors, original and highly imaginative, are often sumptuous. The singer-actor loved to dress up in drag, to make himself up. No two of his concerts are alike. On tour or at festivals, Jacques Higelin, set the theatres and big tops of France alight.

In April 1977, Jacques Higelin took part in the first Printemps de Bourges festival, created to counteract the quasi-censorship of a certain new brand of French music, more rock, more independent, more alternative, of which Higelin was part.

From 15 to 30 September, the artist and his band recorded "No man's land" at the Château d'Hérouville. Profoundly poetical, the disc also revealed a certain sentimental morosity "Pars" , recorded in the middle of the night by candlelight, was Higelin's first really big hit. As well as singing he played the bass and accordion as well as the mellotron. This instrument, which imitates the cello, was specially created for David Bowie.

1979: "Champagne pour tout le monde" and "Caviar pour les autres"

On December 10th 1979, Higelin brought out one of his major works of his career, "Champagne pour tout le monde" and "Caviar pour les autres", two albums released simultaneously and which invaded the media that winter. Higelin began recording them in New Orleans. A fan of swing, jazz and boogie, Louisiana was a musical paradise for him. Inspite of this, he didn't manage to record exactly what he wanted. Back in France, he called up his old friend, the recording engineer, Laurent Thibault. The duo injected a joyous disorder into the material. The atmosphere of both albums is highly theatrical, like the new diabolical stage persona Higelin was forging at that time. The sales of both discs represent a summit in the singer's career. One after the other "Tête en l'air", "Hold tight", and above all "Champagne", were top of the charts. Everywhere he performed, audiences applauded the theatrical lyricism - which his critics felt was pretentious.

In December 79, he gave an unforgettable concert at the Pavillon Baltard in the Paris suburbs. A year later, he played to full houses at the Mogador theatre and recorded an album. Released in May 81, it was a triple golden disc. Even if Jacques Higelin was sometimes guilty of over-extravagant creative whims, his need for forever new musical experiences remained intact.

To celebrate François Mitterrand's election victory in May 1981, Higelin gave a concert with the band, Téléphone, in the middle of Paris, in Place de la République. In 1982, the hectic rhythm of tours and shows continued. His new show, "Jacques Joseph Victor dort", half theatre half concert, played for eight weeks at the Cirque d'Hiver. There followed a long and triumphant tour in the provinces, with a memorable show in Paris on June 21st during the Fête de la Musique. Thousands of people followed him, perched on top of a lorry, through the streets of the capital. During the summer of 82, Jacques Higelin and his seven musicians played to 10.000 fans packed into the Roman theatre in Orange.

 

Deceptively lazy, Higelin has in fact never stopped producing new work. In his "Higelin 82" album, released in September that year, he signed some sublimely written ballads. In "La ballade de chez Tao" he sings about his adopted home, Corsica. But it is above all in "La putain vierge" or "Beauté crachée" that his poetic talents are the mostly forcefully expressed. He hired a new bassist for the album, Eric Serra, the composer-to-be of the film scores of Luc Besson's films, particularly "Le Grand Bleu".

 

Wedding nights

In 1983 Higelin played for four months at the Casino de Paris, from September onwards. Nightly, in front of dumbstruck but enchanted houses, he remarried his partner, Kuelan. The show, although extraordinary was audience-friendly, as usual. A series of projects followed the next year. He recorded Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" with the Israeli National Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta. At the Palais de Trocadero in Paris, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, he put on a new show, "Corde raide et piano volant", a mixture of jazz and circus during which a tightrope walker traversed the esplanade. He also performed with jazzman Luther Allison in Paris and with Quebec singer Diane Dufresne in Montreal, in a show just as mad and poetic as his productions. He finished the year on a quieter note, touring Africa, from Zaire to Senegal. He met a host of musicians there, and shared the bill with local stars such as Stanislas Tohon in Bénin.

On October 21st 1985 the album came out, including chart topping tracks like "Jack in the box" and "La Croisade des enfants".

Produced by the Quebecker Michel Pagliaro, the disc reflected Higelin's anxiety about contempory times and the often unpleasant lot of contemporaries. He recorded the album in France and Analusia with musician as varied as Eric Serra on bass, Didier Malherbe (ex-Gong) on saxophone, Jean-Louis Mahjun on violin and Mahut on percussion. With the same group, he played the 16.000 seat Bercy stadium in Paris with, as guest artists, two African singers as yet little known in Europe, the Senegalese Youssou N'Dour and the Guinean Mory Kanté. But, for the first time, Higelin went a bit too far. The set, depicting the square in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, was megalomaniac. The show was a critical and commercial flop.

Badly battered by the Bercy debacle, Higelin left on a tour of modest provincial venues to refind his roots and rebuild a fresh rapport with his fans. He appeared in films, wrote and composed alone at home, and overhauled his working methods.

In 1987, he published "Lettres d'amour d'un soldat de vingt ans", his love letters while he was doing his military service twenty-five years earlier.

At peace with himself, serene anew, Jacques Higelin brought out the "Tombé du ciel" album in December 1988. Written by entirely by Higelin, the disc was produced by Jacno. It was a huge hit, particularly the track, "Tombé du ciel", but Higelin's favourite remains "Le Parc Montsouris", a song about the park in Southern Paris next to which he lives. In November began a series of shows at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Northern Paris. The sets and the lighting were over sophisticated and detracted somewhat from Higelin's spontaneity. Nevertheless, it was a big success.

After forty-five nights at the Villette, left on a long tour, finishing at the Printemps de Bourges festival in April 89. In almost six months, he had played to 700.000 people, a number all the more impressive considering Higelin insisted more then ever on playing small venues. During this tour, teamed up with life-long friend Brigitte Fontaine. The duo gave several memorable concerts, both artists performing with the same enthusiasm as at their début.

On December 31st 1989, Higelin organised a new year's eve party at the Zenith auditorium in Paris. From 21h30 until dawn, he led his audience through a wild night in the company of a host of friends : Paul Personne, Raoul Petite, Didier Lockwood, Eric Serra and members of the Arcaos circus.

Struggles

The success of "Tombé du ciel", which quickly reached platinum sales (350.000) preceded the release of a compilation "Au coeur d'Higelin". Higelin had estazblished himself as one of the masters of French music. His success and notoriety came in useful in his militant activities he actively supported, particularly Droit au Logement, a charity that found homes for people in need. Ever ready to demonstrate for the needy and causes he deemed important, he supported the student demonstrations in 1986.

At fifty, Jacques Higelin's became father of a third child . His daughter Izia was born on September 24th 1990, and the extremely sober album he released a year later bears strong marks of this. The lyrics are about life's essential moments, birth, love, death, whilst the music, with session guests including Youssou N'Dour and percussionist Dudu N'diaye Rose, was a new Afro-dominated fusion which they performed live at the Grand Rex for three weeks from January 17th 1992, backed by Belgo-Zairian vocal group Zap Mama, before leaving on a French and then international tour.

In 1993, Higelin played in a TV film, "Un homme à la mer", directed by Jacques Doillon, with whom he shot "L'An 01" in 1973.

But above all in 93, he worked on the "Aux Héros de la voltige" album which came out in 1994. The singer's eleventh album, it marked a return to heavy metal funk rock, but which allowed full expression for the tenderness of his feelings and the gravity of his anxieties. From October 25th to November 20th, he performed at the Cirque d'Hiver, a venue with a sublime circus decor which the Higelin tribe had played twelve years earlier. Boosted by the success of the autumn show, he returned to the Cirque d'Hiver in March and April 95. Then, at the Printemps de Bourges festival, he sponsored the Decouvertes, offering the first sets of his shows to a host of young artists. Apart than Bourges, Jacques Higelin was also one of the pillars of the Francofolies festival in la Rochelle, which he attends each year in July. Even when not performing at the Festival, he is often seen in jam sessions there.

Higelin devoted the whole of 1996 to his solo tour and then went on to sign a recording deal with Warner's new label Tôt ou Tard.

A highly creative, whimsical and endearing artist, Higelin has written some of the most illuminating and moving songs in French music. Whether performing live on stage or demonstration in the street for needy people, his sincerity is incontestable. On October 8th 1997, he invited many of his friends to give a concert in aid of "Les Sans Papiers", immigrants without immigration papers. Compered by Claudy Siar of Radio France Internationale, the soirée featured musicians a whole variety of musicians, ranging from Brigitte Fontaine, to Areski, to Dudu N'diaye Rose and the Algerian Rai star Cheb Mami.

1997: "Paradis Païen"

In 1997 Higelin returned to the studio to begin work on his 22nd (!) album, entitled "Paradis Païen" (Pagan Paradise). Higelin wrote all the tracks on his new album himself, apart from the song "Rififi", which was co-written by the singer's old friends Areski Belkacem and Brigitte Fontaine. Areski, and his son Ali, were also responsible for the production work on "Paradis Païen". Higelin's new album was released on September 22nd 1998 to general critical acclaim, and "Une Tranche de vie", the first single release, also went down well with fans.

In October of this year Higelin turned his attention to his live career once again, kicking off an extensive tour with a series of concerts at the Casino de Paris (October 6th - 18th). This time round, Higelin went for a pared-down intimate-style of show, performing practically solo on stage and playing a whole range of acoustic instruments (from accordion and guitar to the piano). The audience certainly appreciated this new approach, and Fugain held his fans enthralled for nearly three hours.

In December 98, Higelin returned to the live scene, performing in concert at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. Fans were treated to a real musical extravaganza as Higelin was joined on stage by a host of famous guest stars including Sally Nyolo, Brigitte Fontaine and his wife Aziza.

Higelin hit the road again in the autumn of '99, rounding his new tour off with a special one-off concert at the Olympia on 15 December. The popular French star went on to bring the house down when he performed in Lyon on New Year's Eve.

America & Indian Ocean

Without taking a break at the beginning of 2000, Higelin started out on tour to faraway destinations. From the 12th of April to the 7th of May, "Jack au banjo" and Mahut gave a series of concerts throughout the US. "Jack" had a great time in America and so did his audience. Americans awarded him with an enthusiastic welcome even though they could not help being surprised by this unconventional character, who bears so little resemblance to the usual French chanson stars such as Aznavour or Julien Clerc. "Jack au banjo" was also very well spoken of in such prestigious newspapers as the New York Times or the Washington Post.

Back to France where he had just enough time for a few gigs, Higelin and his crew took off again to East Africa (Djibouti and Kenya) and, then in June, to the Indian Ocean. Very successful with the French expats, the tour also enabled the French singer to meet up with local musicians and sometimes to invite them for a jam session. On the evening of the Fete de la Musique (June, 21st) in Madagascar, he opened his stage to many Madagascan artists.

Back to France, Higelin hit the road once more, and at the end of October he was in Beirut. Early in November, he released a live album recorded with his three accomplices, Mahut, Frederic Deville and Gerard Tempia Bonda, with whom he had been touring the whole year long.

Higelin continued his extensive tour of France throughout the early part of 2001, then in May the singer headed off across the Indian Ocean once again to perform a series of concerts in Oceania. Higelin went on to perform two dates in a small bar in downtown Sydney (Australia), following this with three dates at the Tjibaou Centre in Noumea (17 - 20 May).

Maintaining his commitment to his fund-raising work, Higelin took part in a concert in the Roman amphitheatre in Vienne (a town in central France) in the summer of 2001, donating profits from ticket sales to an association looking after refugees. Then in August the singer headed down to the Uzeste Festival in the south-west of France, bringing the house down when he performed in concert with his son Arthur H.

Higelin spent most of the early part of 2002 writing songs for an album he had already started work on the previous year. Spring also found him hitting the road again for a mini concert tour.

In October 2002 he performed at the Festival du Vent in Calvi and in May 2003 on the Republique Square in Paris, protesting against the double penalty.

Trenet

He accumulated enough material for a new album but decided instead to try something different and explore the repertoire of Charles Trenet. Jacques Higelin had always been a major fan of the late, great performer and he now staged a show called "Higelin enchante Trenet" in which he sung around 20 of Trenet's classics, working with his long-time collaborator, the percussionist Didier Mahut. The show kicked off in July 2004 at the Francofolies festival at La Rochelle. Higelin then took the show on the road across France. In November, he accompanied the young French singer Jeanne Cherhal for a few songs at the Cigale in Paris; he had already recorded a duet with her entitled "Je voudrais dormir" (I want to sleep).

From 23 March 2005 to 3 April 2005, the singer performed his show for two weeks running at the Trianon in Paris, while at the same time he released his box set "Entre deux gares", retracing 33 years of success and an overall career of almost 40 years.

A live album, "Higelin enchante Trenet", was released in September 2005. This Trenet tribute was recorded live at Le Trianon, a Paris venue Higelin returned to for five further dates in October. After this, Higelin embarked upon an extensive tour of France, remaining on the road until January 2006.

2006: "Amor doloroso"

Eight years after his last studio album, "Paradis païen", Higelin finally turned his attention to composing once again. Much to the delight of fans, a new Higelin album, "Amor doloroso", hit record stores in November 2006. The Trenet experience had given Higelin a certain distance from his own work and encouraged him to sort through dozens of songs he had written over the years.

Eleven songs were finally selected to appear on his new album, which revolved around the central theme of love. "Amor doloroso" was produced by Rodolphe Burger (former lead singer of the group Kat Onoma) who invited Higelin and his musicians – including his loyal collaborator Dominique Mahut – to record at his farm in Sainte-Marie aux Mines, in the Alsace region. This bucolic universe appeared to revitalise Higelin, injecting new energy and inspiration into his work.

From January the following year, the artist was back on the road on a long tour that went through to 2008 and included a performance at the Bataclan in Paris from 6 to 10 March 2007. A few months later, a live recording of  “Higelin en plein Bataclan” came out with a DVD.

In September 2009, he took part in a theatrical event in Paris called “Rencontres seul en scène” (solo encounters on stage), where he read “Novecento: pianiste” by Alessandro Baricco.

2010: "Coup de foudre"

In February 2010, he was back with “Coup de foudre”, another album recorded in Rodolphe Burger’s Alsace studio. Burger produced the CD with his faithful accomplice Dominique Mahut. The main themes were love, death and life, but Jacques also tackled jazz and social issues with his familiar lively mischievousness. His finely crafted, poetic lyrics seemed unmarked by the passage of time. The opus featured a cover version of “Aujourd’hui la crise”, a song written back in 1976 but suddenly relevant all over again.

Of the seven musicians who participated in recording the album, five found themselves performing live with Jacques Higelin on a tour that quickly followed the release of “Coup de foudre” and included a stint at the Cigale in Paris from 9 to 14 March. Fairly rock in style, the concerts were played in big venues and small, as well as during festivals including the Montreal and La Rochelle Francos. The timeless tunes were played before audiences spanning several generations, to the great delight of the singer, proving just how modern he still is.

July 2010

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