Stepping into a song: “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour”

When you sing, you’re telling a story. Like any good actor, you need to believe the words as they come out of your mouth; to choose them. No matter who wrote them.

Watch Françoise Hardy switch from ‘young female guest’ on Sacha Distel‘s TV show to ‘woman in love’.  We believe her as she starts to sing. Why? Because she believes herself. You can see her refocus and prepare in the video. Watch her pupils get bigger, then smaller, around 14 seconds in, as she prepares to sing Frank Gérald‘s words:

Le Premier Bonheur du Jour is a beautifully crafted song. You don’t need to speak French to understand it. Indeed, plenty of the words were chosen with a worldwide 1960s English speaking audience in mind, chosen to sound similar to their English counterparts: ruban/ribbon, caresse/caress, silence/silence, figuer/fig tree. Most of the lyrics are words you learn in French class as a child: premier/first, soleil/sun, oiseau/bird, voiture/car, jour/day, plage/beach etc, etc. There’s a joy to ‘knowing’ the words to a foreign song. And a grown-up joy to hear them being used in a love song.

There are enough unknowns to intrigue. Le dernier bonheur du jour/
C’est la lampe qui s’éteint 
is far too ‘adult’ an idea to have come up in any school French class.

Photographer: Viacheslav Peretiatko

Which isn’t to say that the song was written for English speaking listeners alone. Simple, well-chosen everyday words add to the mellow atmosphere of the song for French listeners, of course. Just as Adele uses everyday English words for Someone Like You:

Songs come to life in the mouth of the singer. Words are its blood. The words can be simple or unexpected. Your audience will even believe nonsense words, if you believe them as you sing them:

Human language is sound in the service of communication. Your job, as a singer, is to breathe life into sound. Just as the best violinists, like Joanna Słowińska coax a world of human life and emotion out of sheep gut:

Le Premier Bonheur du Jour leads you through a day infused with love, from the first happiness of waking up together to the moment the light is turned out at night. There’s a certainty in Françoise Hardy’s voice every time she sings c’est, and its shadow et. That certainty feels comforting. The repetition sounds a little like a lullaby.

The song moves into memory and into yearning but the c’est/et repetition keeps it moving forwards through one day. A single day which seems to represent many days.

Françoise Hardy‘s voice gives the song a mesmerising quality. Her belief in herself makes us believe, for the duration of the song, that this is the story of her day. There’s a magic to seeing the moment a singer ‘steps into role’, as in the video of Françoise Hardy and Sacha Distel. Normally, when you see a singer, they are already ‘inside’ their stage persona, especially in live studio videos, regular YouTube videos or once they’ve stepped on stage.

Françoise Hardy is still singing and still putting her heart into her words:

As she says here in 2018

“Without the melody, there can be no words, but I also need this sonority, this poetic sound that the words make when they combine with the melody. This has always been my obsession. I know that I am very limited vocally, but I also know why I am still here – it is purely because I am so selective when finding the melodies.”

Why put a French song in a blog about singing in English? Because the emotion in the vowel sounds of Le Premier Bonheur du Jour are an international lesson in songwriting and in singing. The sounds are well chosen and Françoise Hardy puts her heart and soul into them.

It’s a rare opportunity to see the moment when a singer ‘becomes’ their song and  fascinating to see Françoise Hardy’s pupils growing bigger and then smaller as she imagines herself into Le Premier Bonheur du Jour. If you’re a singer who sings cover songs, I’d be interested to know how you prepare yourself to sing another person’s words, to cover a song? Can you feel yourself stepping into it?

© Sing Better English, 2016


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