Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“Any stance that goes against the grain will be seen as provocative. I can only write and perform what I feel…”
In my late teens, though more fixated on electronic acts like Depeche Mode or the Human league, I had a sort of obsession with an artist whose career seemed at the time an exquisitely incongruous one. As the only French singer ever signed to a UK label, Anne Pigalle was already unique, but it was her languorous tone, marrying romance and debauchery to a nocturnal soundtrack of jazz-tinged chansons, which made her even more special. Pigalle was a Piaf for the New Wave, and at the height of the 80s, posters announcing her first album covered Soho.
Anne had moved here from Paris, borrowing her name along the way from the French capital’s Pigalle district. It was an area famed for its nightlife, sex shops and prostitutes – much like Soho in its heyday. And Soho was therefore always destined to become Anne Pigalle’s spiritual home. “The first two places I landed in when I first came to London were the famous Sex Pistols squat in Stoke Newington and my boyfriend’s office on Berwick Street, which was an ex-brothel. Yes, everything seemed exciting and fast, but fast in a good way: fast with real life, important life. We used to go and see the porn films in Soho and laugh at the dirty old men. We felt very naughty.”
It’s a naughtiness she’s never really lost. Straightforward, sometimes difficult in a charmingly Gallic way, but always passionate, Anne’s aim seems less to provoke than just to be unapologetically herself. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given her roots in the Punk scene. “I was involved with Punk in my teenage years in Paris and then in London. Punk was very much New York-Paris-London, starting with the whole New York Dolls thing and the great influence of the Situationists and May 68 on Malcolm McLaren.”
After Punk died, Anne collaborated with luminaries such as Adrian Sherwood and Michael Nyman, but her focus was on her own career. “I wrote my songs, put my new ideas and concept together, played a few clubs in London while looking for a label. This was the beginning of things.” In the summer of 1985, she signed a record deal, and joined the roster of one the era’s most unusual labels, ZTT, whose stable included the perfect pop confections of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Propaganda alongside the more experimental likes of Andrew Poppy and Art of Noise. And Anne Pigalle was just as bewildering an offering. While Frankie singlehandedly ruled pop, defying Radio One’s banning of Relax to dominate the charts for months, Pigalle brought a more subdued French allure and introspection to the proceedings.
But though her album, Everything Could Be So Perfect, remains one of my favourites, for Anne it was a difficult birth. “The whole ZTT period feels like a messy time, ending in a divorce. I always felt artistically suffocated in that environment. I had ideas that were not understood.” Anne may have been misunderstood, but one can’t fault Paul Morley and Trevor Horn’s (co-founders of ZTT) good taste and clin d’eoil as they no doubt relished the audacity of launching a French chanteuse into a UK chart dominated by electronic and dance music. “I wanted to mix both cultures to create something new… that’s why I decided, after leaving ZTT, to produce my albums in the end, and the result is so much more successful.”
In 2011 Anne Pigalle released L’Âmérotica, enjoying the creative freedom and the chance to really put into music her current state of mind. “This album was very experimental and linked to my visual work. I had great success with painting and photography, especially the 2006 show of Polaroid self-portraits called Âmérotica, which inspired many young ‘popsicles’. This developed into the 2013 Art CD Madame Sex, on which I used guitar and toys and the occasional piano.” This last offering is very DIY, with each cover individually hand painted, an album a friend producer in NYC refers to as “Anne Pigalle à la maison (at home).”
“My influences are always real life in terms of lyrics, so you have some romance there, some surrealism and some sex. In terms of music, it was important that it should be spontaneous.” Anne Pigalle’s recent shows in Soho deliver on that promise of surrealism and spontaneity. A live gig in the hallowed halls of the National Portrait Gallery saw her mix Baudelaire, Bowie and sexually suggestive poetry while at the Lights of Soho in Brewer Street, she opened her own birthday celebrations in typical Pigalle style with a rather morbid rendering of My Death by Brel, via Bowie. That famous Gallic charm was still alive.
“I don’t go out of my way to be provocative. Any stance that goes against the grain will be seen as provocative. I can only write and perform what I feel – it is never an exercise in style. Honesty is what shocks people most.” Famed for her trend-setting Nuits du Mercredi at the Cafe de Paris in the 80s, Anne Pigalle also recently launched a Soho concept night: La Nuit Amérotique. “I guess I was telling people to wake up, be less hedonistic, to unite under the banner of art music and freedom. It featured guests that had lived or worked in Soho. Of course it was also a comment about what I see around me, beautiful buildings full of history being destroyed.”
But this history under threat goes much further back than the neon lights and sex clubs Soho is now known for. “In the 17th century, Soho was called the French quarter. The spirit of freedom and Bohemia had filtered across from France. 40,000 French Huguenots came to Soho and Spitalfields, bringing with all types of knowledge, from silversmithing to medicine to the silk industry, as with the Courtauld family. Many people spoke French in Soho and used French currency. I read somewhere that England has never really acknowledged this debt – but, hey! I’m waiting for the Huguenot ghosts to have their say!”