The singer and performer says everything can be playful, and France doesn't do a good enough job of showcasing some of its best artists.
Camille Dalmais proves a French original
Camille Dalmais just can't keep still. One minute she is scrunched into a ball on an armchair, the next she springs to her bare feet, spontaneously breaking into song and laughter every few minutes. A sparky livewire, she cheerfully refuses to adopt the standard Serious Artist pose favoured by many musicians.
"Every situation can be playful," beams the 33-year-old singer-songwriter. "An interview can be playful, being onstage can be playful, cooking can be playful. And I like to be playful."
For nearly a decade, Dalmais has been one of French pop's rarest exports. Recording and performing under her first name only, this slender Parisian brunette has amassed a modest cult following abroad. Back home in France, meanwhile, she is almost a household name, selling close to a million albums and featuring on the Ratatouille soundtrack.
On her three previous albums, Dalmais cooked up an eccentric musical patchwork of grunts, belches, hoots, drones and belly-slapping human percussion. Critical comparisons with Björk became common to the point of cliché. But her fourth album, the artfully titled Ilo Veyou, contains a more traditional-leaning blend of orchestral chamber-pop chansons and fragile avant-folk lullabies. Although it is arguably her most formally conventional work to date, it retains the singer's signature spirit of quirky experimentation.
"Pop music has to be experimental, otherwise there is no use for it," Dalmais insists. "The work of an artist is to make something popular that is not popular. You want to be heard, but at the same time you want to take risks."
The day we meet at a friend's house in leafy north London, not far from the fabled Abbey Road studios, Dalmais is nursing her young son, who was born last November. Several album tracks were inspired by pregnancy and motherhood.
"I was expecting a baby when I finished writing and recording the album," Dalmais nods, "but I have been inspired by other experiences, too."
The lyrics on Ilo Veyou alternate between French and English. Dalmais is fluent in both but claims her record label becomes anxious when she strays from her mother tongue, given the level of cultural protectionism in France, where 50/50 radio quotas help sustain a healthy domestic music industry. Still, despite being raised on Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf, the singer has mixed feelings about French music. One of the tracks on Ilo Veyou is a parody of these dusty old songs, simply called La France, sung in an exaggerated, Piaf-style vibrato.
"Every country has a speciality and France's speciality is making photocopies," the singer explains. "Cultural copies of things, and bureaucracy, that's what I'm referring to. It's just an absurd image and it's not very glamorous. There are lots of avant-garde artists in France, interesting things going on, but the way we promote it abroad is very conservative."
Raised in Paris by academic parents, Dalmais is a graduate of the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, the alma mater of numerous political bigwigs, including former presidents Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand.
Music and performance loom large in the Dalmais family. Her sister is a successful theatre producer, her brother a pianist and singer, her father a poet and songwriter. Dalmais is also an occasional dramatic actress, and is due to act in an Ibsen play in Paris in January. However, her own concerts lean more towards stunt-filled performance-art cabaret, and she risks being taken less seriously by critics as a consequence.
"I think they already take me too seriously, even with the jokes," Dalmais shrugs. "But I have a quota of jokes - a maximum of 20 per show. Otherwise I would become a comedian, which I don't want to happen. I need to stay glamorous! No, I think the stage is about everything. I don't feel I am on stage only to make music. And music can be funny too. Every situation can be playful."
Camille's album Ilo Veyou is released tomorrow.