Pierre de Gaillande was born in Paris, France, spent his formative years in California, and has been living in New York City since 1994.
Currently, Pierre writes songs for and plays guitar in New York bands Bad Reputation, The Snow, and The Steam, plays bass in the post-punk power trio Morning Glories, and composes ...
World Music/Traditional | World Music/Contemporary | Jazz
Debauched Damsels and Dirty Old Men: Pierre de Gaillande Revisits the Remarkable Poetry and Music of French Folk Hero Georges Brassens on Bad Reputation Volume 2
A heaven-bound accordionist. A cuckolded lightning rod salesman. A medieval seductress bathing in the moonlight. The poet himself, offering vivid instructions of his deathbed wishes. These are just some of the characters, originally conceived by French folk-pop legend George Brassens, who've made their way into the Anglophone world via Pierre de Gaillande on Bad Reputation 2 (release; October 22, 2013).
Continuing the work that he started with the first volume of this project, de Gaillande dug deeper into the massive repertoire of the songwriting genius, taking Brassens' timeless songs, so beloved among French audiences, and translating them into English, all while maintaining meter and rhyme, not to mention the complex idiomatic layers of poetry hidden in the lyrics.
Brassens' lyrics -- desperately honest, darkly humorous, perennially poignant -- are considered masterpieces by the French. "His lyrics are taught in French schools as poetry," explains de Gaillande. "The French look at him as having done the most beautiful things you can do with the French language. He's like Shakespeare, in that he actually moved the French language forward."
And yet Brassens is still so largely unknown among English-speaking audiences. Says de Gaillande: "There's a black hole outside of French culture where Brassens should be. There's this secret, awesome gift that's just sitting there that nobody knows about." This mission presented itself several years ago when de Gaillande's father offered up his own translation of Brassens' "Le Mecreant." Trying his own hand at translations became something of an addiction for the younger de Gaillande, who says that as a son of a French father and an American mother, "Translation comes pretty naturally to me. I've been translating in my head every day of my life."
It's not only the poetry, though. Brassens was a masterful tunesmith whose songs are impossibly catchy, as well as a bit of a rebel. In the 1960s, when rock music was taking over the airwaves, Brassens doubled down on his own light, guitar-based folk and his crushingly true-to-life lyrics. Though the aesthetics are different, de Gaillande suggests that Brassens was something of a proto-punk. "Not musically, but his whole attitude. To play folk music in the way that he did at that time -- refusing to embellish his poet-singer form with any modern production techniques -- was, in and of itself, completely subversive."
As a former punk rocker himself (who also does soundtrack composition for film and television), de Gaillande feels a unique connection with Brassens -- an understanding of both the fringe of contemporary music and a familiarity with a level of mainstream success.
Bad Reputation 2 features a crack shot lineup of musicians, which notably includes Joel Favreau, a guitarist who played with Brassens himself in the 1970s, as well as Yves de Gaillande, Pierre's uncle and a well-known guitar player in France.
The album also marks the final recording project of virtuosic French accordionist Jean Jacques Franchin, who passed away a few months after the album was recorded and to whom the album is dedicated.
The opening track, "Dear Old Leon," is a quiet wink to Franchin. The song tells of an accordion player who dies and goes to heaven -- the first time the poor guy ever got any respect. "It's quite a shame, but those who play accordion never end up in the crypt of the Pantheon," sings de Gaillande, who explains that Brassens never actually used accordions in his music and likely wrote the song as a bit of a nod to the players of an instrument that he may never have really liked.
Franchin himself appeared on "Lament of the Ladies of Leisure," a song which tells of the troubles of streetwalkers. "To spend the day walking the streets can really be hell on the gams, goddamn…"
De Gaillande found himself translating Brassens’ own reinterpretation of an ancient poem with "In The Clear Water of the Fountain," a quietly erotic, medieval-sounding ballad. De Gaillande wasn't surprised at Brassens' attraction to this old rhyme, says he: "It's sweet and a little bit creepy, just like a lot of Brassens' stuff."
Brassens was famous for tackling love stories from odd angles, and that's the case with "The Storm" and "With All Due Respect." "The Storm" finds a protagonist who offers shelter to a woman during a storm while her husband is off at work, selling lightning rods. "With All Due Respect" finds the narrator telling his listener, "Speak to me of love and I'd put my fist in your face… if my respect were not so great." "A typical skewed look at love," laughs de Gaillande.
"The War of 14-18" is a sardonic anti-war ballad, just one of many which Brassens wrote. The song asks, facetiously, which war was the best war, and the answer is, of course, the War of 14-18 (referring to the first World War). De Gaillande explains the reasoning, "If you want your wars brutal and disgusting, that's the one for you!"
"The Old Man" and "Codicil" both offer gently funny looks at the end of life. "The Old Man" finds a beloved old chap on his deathbed, requesting booze, women, and music (or, as de Gaillande puts it, " sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll!") and instead getting holy water, nuns, and hymns. It's a jab at organized religion as well as an honest look at what matters in life. "Codicil," which is known in French as "Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sète," is the longest song Brassens ever wrote, and one that's very personal -- he requests that when he die, he be buried on a beautiful beach in his hometown, with his grave pranced upon by beautiful, scantily-clad women and bathed daily in sunlight.
Translating this attitude, this edginess, this verve is perhaps the most difficult part of the project, even more so than the complexities of translating the words themselves while maintaining meter. Brassens was a man ahead of his time, but also, to some degree, a product of his time. "Trying to navigate this weird, archaic, slightly sexist stuff that he writes is really hard," says de Gaillande, "but he's so charming and funny that he always pulls it off, so it's just a matter of maintaining that in translation." No small feat, but one that de Gaillande has ably accomplished.