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Interview with Patricia Kaas

With more than 15 million records sold worldwide and hundreds of concerts performed throughout Europe and Asia, Patricia Kaas is undeniably one of France’s most popular singers of the past 20 years.

Her repertoire of jazz, blues and cabaret songs, combined with her sultry voice and distinct style, has made her a favorite among gay and lesbian listeners around the world.

But Kaas has never had a major hit in the United States.

"French style is always in fashion. However, French music is a different matter," Kaas said, while on tour in Germany. "The language has been a major barrier for many Americans to appreciate my music."

To share some of France’s timeless melodies with a wider audience, Kaas recently released her first English-language album, titled "Piano Bar." The record features the husky-voiced singer covering traditional French love songs originally recorded by Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand and others.

"Piano Bar" is the soundtrack to the movie "And Now … Ladies and Gentlemen," which premieres in the United States on May 9. The film stars Jeremy Irons, and in her big-screen debut, Kaas portrays a French jazz singer.

"I used to have a very sophisticated image. I was not really a diva, but I was marketed as a French Marlene Dietrich — very feminine and sexual, but powerful and in control at the same time," she explains. "I enjoyed being that, and I believe that a lot of people in the gay community were attracted to that."

But Kaas has always stayed true to her French roots, recording songs that are inspired by France’s great tradition of songwriting. Besides the language barrier, she acknowledges that her commitment to cabaret songs might also have been a hurdle in achieving more visibility in the states.

"Typical French melodies are very traditional and part of our cultural heritage," she says, "which might be hard to transfer and to understand by Americans outside of its original context."

Nevertheless, Kaas does not believe the songs on "Piano Bar" have lost their original romantic touch with the English translation.

"The English lyrics offer a unique dimension," she says. "They are more sensitive and erotic, perhaps. The original French lyrics are more dramatic."

Kaas says singing these songs in English also gives them a real "jazzy, loungey feel," which she likes.

Since she first landed on the music scene in 1987, Kaas has had a large, international gay following.

"I am so excited about having so many gay fans. You have to understand that they are not easy to please," she says, smiling. "Their taste is very special and sophisticated. The fact that they have supported me for so long tells me I have been able to put out music that continues to gain their respect."

Kaas still vividly remembers a performance she did in the United States in the mid 1990s at a lesbian club in Boston.

"There was a playful riot going on with some of the girls making fun of my male roadies," she says. "Lesbians are so much fun, and over the years many have become my friends."

Today, Kaas is aware of the U.S. backlash against France because of its opposition to a war with Iraq. But she says she is an artist representing herself and not her country.

"I understand that some Americans might be apprehensive toward the French at this time," she explains. "To be honest, I try to stay out of politics. Art is universal, and I have fans everywhere."

February 27, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Floetry in Motion

When Floetry recorded its debut album "Floetic," its members had no idea the project would garner so much critical acclaim.

"We were just doing our thing," says Floetry's emcee-songwriter Natalie Stewart. "It only took us three weeks to record the album, and see what's happening now."

Stewart spoke with Arjan only minutes after she and singer-songwriter Marsha Ambrosius found out that the group received two Soul Train Music Award nominations. The duo also was nominated this year for an Image Award and three Grammy Awards — not bad for a first venture.

The British hipsters lead an exciting new generation of hip hop and R&B artists who are redefining the genre. Floetry is adding its own flavor to a new generation of soul with an organic mix of old-school soul, punchy rap and spirited lyrics.

Ambrosius and Stewart rose to some success in the mid-'90s as a songwriting duo, composing music for Jill Scott and Michael Jackson. The song "Butterflies" on Jackson's "Invincible" is an example.

The gals moved from hometown London to Philadelphia in 2000 and got involved in grassroots music making, jamming away on open mic nights and eventually getting a recording contract with DreamWorks Records.

Ambrosius' compelling vocals combined with Stewart's spoken-word, slam poetry are refreshingly upbeat and consistently centered on love and personal respect. Up-tempo hip-hop beats such as "Floetic" and "Big Ben" are followed by female-affirming and often love-struck tunes, including the tamely erotic "Say Yes" and the jazzy "Getting Late."

While preapring for a performance on "The Tonight Show," Ambrosius and Stewart speak extensively about the fusion of soul and spoken word that is Floetry.

"In our music, we really want to convey empowerment, truth and realism," Ambrosius says. "People can achieve miracles if they stay true to themselves, believe in their abilities and take responsibility for themselves."

According to Stewart, this message can even be elevated to a higher level of music and spirituality.

"In everything that I create, I try to promote love. I am fighting a spiritual war as opposed to a material war," she says. "The thing that really makes a democracy is not so much a left wing versus a right wing, but more the coexistence of art and politics. Art can be a very strong opposing voice. … art is something people embrace, because they see themselves reflected in it."

As an artist, Stewart does not feel constrained by increasing commercial pressure and political correctness in America, she says.

"Art is subliminal," Stewart muses. "As a real musician, you know how to channel truth, art and excitement. In that way, you can always beat any constraints."

The hip-hop scene is often criticized among gays for its machismo and conservative slant.

"We don't affiliate ourselves with any of that," Stewart says.

The band welcomes gay fans, but cautions against singling them out as different from any other hip-hop aficionados.

"We have a lot of fans, and I am sure we have gays fans," Stewart says. "But if I look in the audience I can't tell.

"We feel connected to every human being, gay or straight. We love all tribes. There are so many subcultures and groups; I have no time for separation and segregation."

February 17, 2003 in Music Reviews | Permalink | Comments (6)

A Musical Souvenir

After the success of "Moulin Rouge," Hollywood was itching to bring more music to the big screen. "Chicago," one of Broadway's biggest hits, written and composed by John Kander and Fred Ebb, was artfully turned into a live-action musical by director/choreographer Rob Marshall and includes a star-studded cast with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere.

The soundtrack, which features 18 songs of high-voltage pizzazz, takes listeners right back to the original movie experience. A well-crafted score never replaces the full theater experience, but can offer both movie fans and music lovers something worthwhile that stands on its own.

"Chicago - The Soundtrack" includes some of the flick's grand tunes, such as the sexy "All That Jazz," the brassy "Razzle Dazzle" and the sassy "Cell Block Tango," performed by the film's real surprise, Queen Latifah.

The film was honored at the Golden Globes ceremony in January with a best picture award in the musical/comedy category, and best actress and actor (Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere).

Set in America's roaring 1920s, the musical tells the story of Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) and Roxie Hart (Zellweger). Both enjoy fame after they commit murder and purposely become the center of a media frenzy.

Flamboyant attorney Bill Flynn (Gere) defends the temptresses in his own quest for attention and celebrity. Velma and Roxie's vanity quickly turns against them after they vanish from the headlines and become yesterday's news.

The soundtrack's original musical tunes vividly portray the infectious exuberance of the 1920s with up-tempo sax-infused jazz tunes and sleek and sexy vocal arrangements. This music is made for toe-tapping.

Most of the tracks on the album are taken straight from the original Broadway production. There are additional songs by Queen Latifah, pop singer Anastacia and composer Danny Elfman ("Good Will Hunting," "Spiderman"). He contributes two songs, "After Midnight" and "Roxie's Suite."

Zeta-Jones, who started her career as a singer in London's West End, shines on Kander and Ebb's timeless masterpiece, "All That Jazz," with her very capable vocal power.

"Isn't it grand, isn't it swell," insists Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart on the tender "Nowadays." The sweet songbird solo becomes a true highlight when it evolves into a sparkling revue duet with Zeta-Jones.

Zellweger is high on cuteness but low on vocal strength. In songs such as "Roxie" and "I Move On," the actress is often overpowered by the orchestral bombast. Equally unconvincing as a singer is Gere, who often mumbles his way through songs.

Queen Latifah adds a 21st century twist to the soundtrack with a flavorful hip-hop version of "Cell Block Tango" that also includes Macy Gray and rapper Lil' Kim. Anastacia's "Love Is A Crime" is an unsatisfactory track that seems pointless, showcasing the singer's big voice while holding onto a lifeless musical arrangement.

Slightly obscured by all the star quality on this record are the excellent performances by Christine Baranski and John C. Reilly. Baranski plays gossip reporter Mary Sunshine and is more than assuring on "We Both Reached for the Gun." As the excessively loyal husband of Roxie Hart, actor Reilly shows heart on the emotion-filled "Mister Cellophane."

Even though a soundtrack can never be a substitute for a movie, the original score to "Chicago" stands on its own just fine. But unless the listener is a fan of post-war era jazz or a hardcore Gere groupie, this is mostly just a pleasant souvenir for movie audiences.

February 16, 2003 in Music Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

Oakenfold Skips a Beat

Paul Oakenfold is the world's leading club DJ, sweeping audiences from London's trendy gay clubs to Ibiza's hot spots. His fine sense for pop chart potential has made him one of the most requested remix producers. The spinmeister most recently turned Madonna's melodramatic "What It Feels Like For A Girl" into a whirling, sonic club anthem with its climactic rises and edgy dance groove.

After creating music under various names, including his spellbinding remix classic "Tranceport" in 1998, Oakenfold finally felt comfortable enough to put out his own record (or perhaps he was simply feeling peer pressure after Moby turned his DJ fame into pop artist stardom). The result is "Bunkka," an album with original songs that represent the Brit's musical taste and vision.

Released on Madonna's Maverick label, "Bunkka" is a bizarre blend of trance, rap, and contemporary pop that painfully reminds people that Oakenfold might have been better off sticking at the producer's sound controls.

London-born Oakenfold started mixing when he was 16 years old and he had his first experimental gigs at Covent Garden's popular basement bars in the late '70s. Soon after that, he moved to New York where he familiarized himself with the emerging disco scene, which developed his passion for soulful house music.

Oakenfold is known mostly for his adoption of the Balearic DJ genre, which combines house, soul, Italian disco and alternative music. He imported this sun-ripened style from Ibiza, entertaining crowds at his weekly spins at Heaven, Specrum and other London clubs in the late '80s.

"Bunkka" is quite a departure from his previous remix albums since its features the artist's own creations. By his own admission, Oakenfold is no singer.

To create this record, he gathered a genre-jumping mix of vocalists ranging from Jane's Addiction's Perry Ferrell and Shifty Shellshock of Los Angeles rock-rap band Crazy Town to rapper Ice Cube, Tricky and Canada's teen hipster Nelly Furtado. The record also gives way to three young and upcoming vocalists, Carla Werner, Tiff Lacey and Emiliana Torrini.

The album starts out with "Ready Steady Go," a high-velocity breakbeat tune with plenty of brass to last. "Southern Sun" with Carla Werner's vocals is a synth-draped pop song, drenched in Oakenfold's signature trance vibes. "Hypnotized" and "Motion" feature a fusion of triphop textures with haunting female vocals. It's a formula that used to be a hip trip, but its abundance has made it trivial and tedious.

Oakenfold further drifts off his steady course by including hardcore rap and hip-hop elements on the loud "Get Em Up" (featuring gangsta rapper Ice Cube) and the album's finale "The Harder They Come." The latter is a failing duet between Nelly Furtado and Tricky, which drowns in a dissonant, overwhelming sample-based production.

The rhymes of rap-rocker Shifty Shellshock on the fun-filled "Starry Eyed Surprise" are a welcome exception with its laid-back, hip hop beats.

Aside from one or two potential hits, most songs on "Bunkka" are buried under Oakenfold's intense studio wizardry. The multiple layers of overproduced sampling, wild breakbeat jolting, and mishmash of intense raps and uninspiring female chants do not live up to the hype that was created in anticipation of this record. Oakenfold never used to skip a beat, but he might have missed a few on this album.

February 10, 2003 in Music Reviews | Permalink | Comments (1)