Songs from past and present, near and far
Singer Jessica Fichot evokes Paris and old Shanghai at the Collage
by Bondo Wyszpolski
For lovers of musicians with singular grace and style, it is impossible to miss Jessica Fichot, whose first two albums are in the tradition of French song and whose third is a hymn to Shanghai jazz of the 1940s. This youthful-sounding artist and her quartet, with guest Annie Zhou at guzheng, perform Saturday, April 9 at The Collage.
“I grew up in France, in the suburbs of Paris, near Versailles, she says.
Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that,” replies Fichot. “I think it comes down to the fact that I just loved to sing and my parents never discouraged me. That’s probably why I never changed my mind; and then it’s probably largely a illusion, where you imagine it’s going to be some glamorous life. She laughs. “Now, I know it’s not always glamorous, but I can take it with humor.”
After high school in France, Fichot returned to the United States (she was born in upstate New York to a French father and a Chinese mother) and soon earned a songwriting degree from the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Soon after, she moved to Los Angeles with the intention of pursuing a career in music. In France, she only wanted to write songs in English, but once settled in Los Angeles, she rediscovered the French songs of her youth. Her first two albums (“Le Chemin” in 2007 and “Le Secret” in 2012) are composed of songs, mostly original, inspired by the tunes she heard growing up at the gates of a multicultural European capital.
Previously, Fichot had written children’s songs for educational programs, but about 12 years ago she formed a band and started writing, recording and performing with them. She has since toured the United States as well as overseas, although there was a two-year hiatus: “My musical work didn’t stop during COVID, though: it made me gave the chance to work on solo material, perform virtual concerts (from my home or streaming from different locations), as well as create little music videos for some of my songs. which I had composed the music, Growbot, was also released.
“When I play, it’s usually with a quartet. It’s me on vocals and accordion and a toy piano. His main band includes a clarinetist, bassist and classical guitarist.
Although she masters both the piano and the accordion, “I am not a virtuoso of any instrument”. But does she compose her own music on one or both of these instruments? Surprisingly enough, the answer is no.
It’s all in the voice
“I feel like if I was writing on the piano or the accordion, I would be limited by my skills on the instrument itself. So for me, the best ideas I have musically, especially for the melodies or lyrics, come when I don’t use any instrument.
“My most powerful instrument is the voice, and writing songs is not quite like composing instrumental music. For me, songs are the songs that are sung. They have to be written by voice.
This is a statement that makes a lot of sense. Fichot has a warm and inviting voice, a little ethereal as opposed to earthy, and with a charming flirtation rather than being ardently sultry. On some tracks (“The Secret” on the album of the same name, for example), I remember Mary Hopkins and her late 1960s hit, “Those Were The Days.”
Although Fichot sings in five languages, she mostly seems respectful of her Franco-Chinese heritage. We see a few nods to his lineage on “The Way” and “The Secret”, the latter with a Mandarin Chinese cover of Cher’s “Bang Bang” (1966), written by Sonny Bono, Cher’s then husband. But there’s also the third album, ‘Dear Shanghai’ (2014), which is a delightfully packaged recording in every sense of the word, in which Fichot evokes and illuminates a distant, distant time. She combines tunes written in the 1940s with her own compositions that emulate the sound of that era.
“The Shanghai style of music in the 1940s actually had its beginnings in the 1920s,” says Fichot, “and coincided with the introduction of the gramophone record in China.” The result is a mixture of European jazz (I’m thinking of Stéphane Grappelli) and Chinese singing. One imagines the height of this music extending from the 1920s to the mid-1930s before being impacted by the Japanese invasion, resurging in the late 1940s but only to be suppressed again under Mao Zedong.
I guess “Dear Shanghai” might be a tough sell since it’s period music in a language that most Americans don’t speak or understand. But you know what? I don’t think it matters, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.
“When I recorded the album,” says Fichot, “the goal was to do something a little different.” What she means is that she did not seek to faithfully copy the originals, but to allow modern elements into the production. I won’t say it’s “Americanized”, but it’s nice to hear (if you don’t mind the vocals being in a higher range at times). “What is most unusual, specifies Fichot, is that it is sung in Chinese. But in terms of instrumentation, it’s very similar to the music of the 20s and 30s in France. You have the clarinet, you have the guitar, the double bass, the drums, the piano. I think it’s quite accessible.
Me too, and that’s because I hear a more intimate version of Cirque du Soleil’s mix of world music, smaller, of course, and able to fit inside a dark cabaret, whether in Europe or Asia. I can imagine a small scene in front of maybe a dozen circular tables, one or two fashionably dressed couples at each table sipping drinks, chatting amicably, without being scolded if they decide to light up a cigarette.
And if you and I were sitting at one of these tables, what would we drink?
“To accompany my music? says Fichot. “Probably, in most cases, it would be a plain whiskey cocktail, like an Old Fashioned. I’m not a big fan of red wine,” she adds, “but I imagine some people might like it. enjoy.
I think about it and announce that I will order a Whiskey Sour.
“Whiskey Sour. Perfect,” she replies.
Jessica Fichot’s concert at the Collage won’t quite replicate that sort of intimate scenario, and there probably won’t be any bartenders or cigarette girls, but it should feel warmer and more personal than performing at the Marsee. Auditorium, the great hall of El Camino College. where she was supposed to play and which was canceled at the last moment in March 2020. Many of us were looking forward to this event. In the meantime, what can we expect from his show in San Pedro?
And when the lights go out…
Selections from all three albums, more recent songs and some covers. A fourth disc is finished, but not yet available (she didn’t want to release it during the pandemic). That’s not to say Fichot let herself go, as she’s also composed music for video games and movies. “The hardest part is writing songs for me, for my band, because nobody gave me a deadline.”
The group will also play some tunes that Fichot did not write.
“In a performance of two hours or two sets, there can be 60% original and 40% covers. If I play a 45 minute set, it will probably be mostly my own songs. I understand that for people coming to a concert in a language they don’t necessarily speak, two or three hours of original music they don’t know can be a little tricky. So I’m going to play songs that people will probably know.
Despite a fondness for several numbers from his three albums, such as the catchy “Dans le Métro” on “Le Secret” and “Manli” on “Dear Shanghai”, during our conversation, I inadvertently downplayed the commercial potential of the music.
“Well, you never know,” replies Fichot.
I’ll go back a bit, rephrasing what I just said: you’re not necessarily trying to have a hit song where you’re chasing a certain formula.
” I think it’s right. But there are some things that are possible even in my modest music. There are still a lot of cool things that could happen.
No one should argue with this. Fichot has already made quite a following, especially in cities like San Francisco, Ashland and even Tucson, where she performs frequently. If she makes further inroads into the South Bay, she may be able to add another name or two to the cities where her music is consistently well received.
As for what she would like to accomplish in the next few years, Fichot replies that it is to continue as she has done, except to do even better. “Being ambitious means you’re never quite satisfied with what you have.”
That said, she adds, “In a way, I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. Really, writing good songs and getting them heard is my main goal.
jessica fichot and his quartet (clarinettist/tenor saxophonist Chloe Feoranzodouble bass player Jonathan Ahrensguitarist Vincent Islasand special guest Annie Zhu on guzheng (Chinese zither) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 9 at Collage: A Place for Art and Culture, 731 S. Pacific Ave, San Pedro. Tickets, $25 (+ fees) live; $15 live stream (+ fees). https://www.eventbrite.com/e/jessica-fichot-quartet-with-guest-annie-zhou-tickets-296099661057