Anne Pigalle

The History: Daughter of the post-punk era, Anne Pigalle spent her teenage years in and about Paris, singing proto-feminist punk songs in all-girl bands, and meeting figures such as Glen Matlock and Richard Jobson (of the Skids along the way). Then in an almost Orwellian tradition, in the early 80’s Anne moved from Paris to London, and was spotted by Trevor Horn’s then-hyped art-pop label ZTT (the name derived from an Italian futurist manifesto) and released the album ‘Everything Could Be So Perfect’. It combined her rich French vocal style, redolent of Edith Piaf or Jeanne Moreau, but with a glossy, imaginative pop sheen and a dark disco allure. She appeared in magazines like The Face and Smash Hits, but in the ra-ra skirted pop-musical landscape of 80’s pop, the album was perhaps too exotic and unusual to divert mainstream attention to the degree that her labelmates Frankie, Propaganda or The Art of Noise did. But listening with hindsight, cinematic and drenched in sophisticated melancholy, ‘Everything Could Be So perfect’ is, without doubt, a unique and flawed classic album.

Fast forward almost twenty years to a winter evening performance at The Red Room, Piccadilly. I wanted to find out how Anne had got from there to here. If you live in London, seeing Anne perform is something you should do with the utmost urgency. She naturally possesses la voix. She adds verve, passion, imagination and wit to an often rather sterile live circuit. In a way she’s come full circle, but unlike 80’s pop ‘royalty’ she’s not a museum piece for out-of-touch mums and dads, bashing out ‘songs we know’ with increasing lethargy. The experience is more akin to discovering a lost jewel in amongst the pop garbage.

I watch as she takes to the stage in a Piccadilly nightspot. She has a black flower pinned to her headdress. She wears long gloves. She performs. Possessing not an ounce of nerves she glides across the stage with a willful defiance singing about a ‘Black Dahlia’. It occurs to me this could be a metaphor for something obstinately growing through the cracks of the pavement. She covers Ian Dury’s ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” in equally licentious fashion. In between her own songs, such as the fantastic ‘If Desire Is A Sin’, she recants erotic poetry with some very colourful language. But it’s not lurid at all, in fact it’s quite hysterical. Then she and her band drag out a very amusing cover of the song ‘I Want Your Money’, most famously performed by 80’s faux-novelty group Flying Lizard.

Now I’m sitting opposite her in a quiet north London pub, Anne’s actual explanations are lot more interesting…..

So, ‘Black Dahlia’ – just a wild guess but is it a kind of hymn to taking a stand of defiant beauty?

“The song ‘Black Dahlia’ is about a woman who moved to LA in the 1940’s to become an actress. Despite her stunning beauty, she didn’t have a properly developed vagina. She fell into a dark world of vice, and one day her body was found mutilated. She’d been the victim of a sexcrime. Her vagina had actually been cut out. James Ellroy wrote about her originally. I see her as some sort of victim of nature and of the male patriarchal society.”

Before your full band show, I saw you sing two acapella songs at a celebration of Rimbaud poetry at the 291 Gallery. Might this be a lot scarier to do than a normal live performance, with other musicians to bolster your confidence? The acoustics and hushed reverence of that church atmosphere might make any performer feel very exposed?

“I used to get really nervous performing, but that was a long time ago. It’s almost second nature now…”

Pigalle, the word, can mean prostitute. It can also mean sunshine. It is, of course, also a very celebrated district of Paris.

“I like it for all these associations. Pigalles was also a character in a film noir comic strip by Will Hersner called ‘The Spirit’…”

Anne explains her music is also a way for her express the pleasure and pain of love through a medium. Performance wise though, Anne is more PJ Harvey than Brigitte Bardot…if we are to insist on musical genealogy Anne is the missing link between Siouxsie Sioux and French torch-singer/arthouse actress Jeanne Moreau. In her act she namechecks Edith Piaf and Jacques Dutronc, but it is a semi-ironic reference, at once paying homage to, and poking fun at stereotypical notions of French chanson.

Anne is used to the extortionate nature of the music business, but the sparkling allure of performance outweighs it. ZTT gave her hardly any royalties for her 1985 album. She speaks understandably disparagingly of Jill Sinclair, Horn’s wife and partner, who has made a fortune from the talented artists ZTT signed. Holly Johnson successfully sued ZTT, but most of the original ZTT artists have ended up in ugly legal wrangles with the label. A pity, as between them, ZTT and their roster offered an unpredictable and often dazzling vison of what pop music could sound like. It seems totally absurd, but Anne hasn’t let it stop her having quite an adventure these past 20 years…

“ZTT wanted to do a second album with me. There was talk of me working with Peter Hammill (a Brian Eno associate). They wanted Anton Corbijn to do the photography etc. etc. I felt dissatisfied. My contract was a bad one. I didn’t feel controlled by ZTT, I just felt things were not advancing and the contract was too bad to allow me to do what i wanted… Other ZTT acts such as Instinct didn’t even get to have their albums released. I found seeing the recent Trevor Horn tribute concert rather depressing. After 1988 I left ZTT and moved to America. I had such an interesting time. I got to perform with Leonard Cohen’s backing band. Very much more relaxed. America gave me so much more confidence in my own ability as a performer. My ex-writing partner at ZTT, Nick Plytas, is now working with Nick Cave.”

You still regularly go back to Paris. Do you feel more unique in London, away from all the musical heritage that chanson has in Paris, and from other French performers?

“I’m no longer that nostalgic for Paris. To tell the truth, I’m just as much a one-off in Paris as London. I’m not a fan of much new French music – it’s very bland compared to what I do.”

This isn’t said with arrogance. Anne’s performance is far too visceral to be drowned out by dinner party chat or the clinking of cocktail glasses. On stage, she commands attention. I wonder if Anne has much to say about Air or Daft Punk (I doubt it) but decide that’s a very 1998 thing to ask. So, do you know of Miss Kittin? She comes from Grenoble actually. I see parallels between your work, especially in a song such as ‘Souvenir d’un Paris’ and the femme fatale approach of the recent wave of darker electronic/vocal dance acts.

“I don’t know who she is at all…the last artist who really impressed me was Tricky. I like French acts such as Diam’s or Taxi Girl.”

You recently appeared in a publicity photo with Dickon Edwards (of Orlando/Fosca repute) and a lobster called Susan, as I recall? Like a very unusual Edwardian couple on the steps of a seaside hotel. Just taking the lobster for a walk, were you?

“That was for the ‘Handbook of Decadence’ edited by Rowan Perling, published by Dedalus. Was that the name of the lobster? I didn’t know that…! It’s funny, I only take five minutes to decide what to wear usually…”

You also do photography. I see you’re selling polaroids for upwards of fifty pounds on your website. Erm, any takers yet?

“You’d be surprised what people are willing to pay (she winks). I regularly play at exhibitions…so the erotic images are just an extension to my performances. Also, they are limited editions of one! Like me, they are unique.”

You don’t feel exposed dong this kind of thing?

“No, definitely not. It’s my choice.”

You’ve travelled extensively since the 80’s. It’s like your voice has given you an unlimited passport to see the bizarre and the hidden side of the entertainment world…What’s the strangest place you’ve sang in?

“Well, let’s see. A castle transformed into a disco the countryside outside Vienna. We had to walk through a forest to get there. It was owned by a Count. Everyone there wore fancy dress, which was, er, khaki shirts and shorts. Then, in Los Angeles I was booked to play a French restaurant. It was actually in a shopping mall…all the diners were over seventy. In Japan, they have an exact recreation of the Cafe de Paris, complete with kitsch padded stairs. I sang there once…the Japanese love chanson. Juliette Greco was big over there too…”

There’s so much more I could write about, but you’d be better advised to see for yourself. Anne Pigalle has graduated to somewhere quite special. She sang some twenty years ago during her first London soujourn, in mock homage to Big Ben, “Pigalle la grande se dresse devant toi…“. She is still here to tell the tale.

Joe Gibbs| Autumn 2005