Frànçois and The Atlas Mountains, over hills and vales
New album, Piano Ombre
Following exile in the UK and several trips to Africa, Frànçois and The Atlas Mountains are back with a new album. The only Gallic group to feature on the British label Domino (Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys) has released Piano Ombre, serving up soft pop with an electro edge and a touch of Africa, mixed by Ash Workman of Metronomy fame.
During their last tour, one track was played constantly in the bus that took Frànçois and the Atlas Mountains down the road to success: La Musica en vérité, a Beninese hit recorded before they were born by the late Gnonnas Pedro (voice of Africando), and the inspiration behind their single, La Vérité. Frànçois explained, "Music is my whole life, I find inspiration everywhere. I spend all my time on it. I want to show that music is what makes the world go round.”
The La vérité video clip may take us back through time to a hip party in Cotonou with musicians wearing smart sailor suits, but the uncompromising love expressed by the music melds with modern-day life. It’s this “magic music” that heals when “love lets you down” that Frànçois Mary champions on his latest album, Piano Ombre, released on the English label Domino, an indie temple of pop (Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys) that doesn’t list any other French groups.
"Get lost in sound"
"I like sincere songs that get to you in a simple way, without theories or concepts; a long way from the pop world that I sometimes mix with, which is so obsessed with image,” explained the musician and painter Frànçois. “It doesn’t matter about the place, genre or fashion, it’s the experience that counts: to get lost in sound.” Like the trances at the first rave parties, where Frànçois used to plunge into electronic music on abandoned beaches and wild forests, with nature at the back of the sound track.
And so before the French-English words, catchy tunes and electronic textures, it was trees, water, wind and organic sensations that inspired the gentle voice of Frànçois Mary, captain of the Atlas Mountains. “Piano Ombre is the last piece of a trilogy influenced by south western landscapes, pine trees and majestic beaches. For me, nature isn’t hostile, it’s a refuge,” went on the blue-eyed young man who admits that the city kiss has its attraction. “I like the urban buzz and the serenity of nature, a bit like in Dakar. I enjoyed the chaos and floating in the calm river: it’s the same drunkenness.”
After the aquatic pop of Plaine Inondable and E Volo Love, his new collection answers the call of the forest. It gives off the scent of fertile soil during forest walks on an imaginary atlas in which France, England, Morocco and Benin share borders.
It may be because his mother, who grew up in Cameroon, took him to see Manu Dibango when he was 10 that Frànçois knows how to weave little scraps of Africa into his poetic patchwork of pop, despite not really knowing the continent. He spent a few months in Senegal and Morocco on his own before recording E Volo Love. To write Piano Ombre, he took his Atlas Mountains on a tour of Ethiopia, where Frànçois finally met his idol, the Ethiopian harpist Alèmu Aga, whose mystic elocution inspired his phrasing.
The band then set off for Benin and Burkina Faso, where they recorded four songs with guests playing the ngoni and balafon, due to appear on a future EP. Did the tour bring the risk of confronting African dreams with reality? “The reality is always different, but we aren’t imprisoned by our dreams,” qualified the brilliant Frànçois. “Africa picks away at your pride and we were intimidated at meeting the champions of rhythm. It’s true we were disappointed in Cotonou because there are few clubs and more big bands, which we love! In Addis Abeba, Ethio-jazz trios only play in a posh hotel. In Burkina, we were surprised by the little bars where music plays on all night!”
Yet on Piano Ombre the African sounds are less obvious. “Perhaps because we were able to go there and play concerts with the group,” suggested Frànçois, who doesn’t rule out an English influence. In 2003, he set off for Bristol to escape the boredom of his hometown, Saintes.
Under the grey British skies, Frànçois combined some lively pop partnerships with odd jobs to pay the rent, before moving to Bordeaux. “England has left me with the contemplative, melancholic side of soft pop, gentle guitar work and murmured music,” summed up the singer.
It was also in the UK that he met Etienne Daho, who lives in London. Frànçois featured on Daho’s latest album and has done a cover of Le Grand Sommeil. He will be accompanying him at a special concert in July at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Another trip into unchartered territory, on a different current.