By Mark Guarino
In a political climate when even a greasy sliver of potato is under attack, Patricia Kaas might have misjudged her cue.
She is the most popular singer in France today and is touring the U.S. to support her first album sung partially in English. Having sold 14 million albums in Europe, she is opening the door to the lucrative American market.
Don’t count on her music being piped into the cafeteria of the U.S. House of Representatives, which recently christened its French fries “Freedom” fries. French toast wasn’t spared either. It’s part of the latest fad, embraced by shock jocks and late night comedians, to ridicule the French for not agreeing to the Bush administration’s call to war in Iraq.
Kaas, who makes her Chicago debut Friday, is unperturbed. She insists the show will go on.
“I’m not there saying, ‘hey, look, I’m French’,” she said. “It’s the same if, because I’m a woman, someone says ‘take your clothes off.’ It’s the same to me. You always have people who are a bit strange.”
The border crossing to a new market is paved with risks. In 1996, Kaas started working on an English-speaking debut but abandoned it because her English wasn’t perfect. Six years later she is releasing “Piano Bar” (Sony International), a companion album to the film “And Now…Ladies and Gentleman” in which she plays a starring role opposite Jeremy Irons. Although her long discography covers blues and pop, she is singing quiet cabaret versions of traditional French songs. It’s what Americans typically expect from French singers in the tradition of crossover stars Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier. But the setting is also practical.
“Because the songs are slow, I can take the time to pronunciate every word,” she said.
French dance music exports like Air, Cassius, Daft Punk and MC Solaar have had an easier time finding a global audience, mostly because, without a language barrier, dance music is universal.
Kaas is considered more of a national treasure. The French public watched her grow up. Her first hit, “Mademoiselle chant le Blues” debuted in 1987 when she was 21 and had already been singing since she was eleven. Having grown up in the Lorraine region of the country, Kaas was discovered singing in German cabarets. She was brought to Paris and signed to Polydor. Actor Gerard Depardieu financed her first single.
She was swept into stardom from the start. Her debut album ended up selling over a million copies and she toured all across Europe and Russia and in 1993, arrived in the U.S. where her tour included stops on the “Tonight Show” and “Good Morning America.” She hasn’t returned to the States until this year.
Despite her deep, husky voice, Kaas had a childlike demeanor onstage and was perceived more as a child prodigy. In 1997, she went through a makeover and came out the other side a sleek chanteuse and quickly became a representative of French glamour. She said it was necessary to not remain so attached to the memory of her mother, who had died when Kaas was twenty. Every decision she made, Kaas said, was based on would her mother approve.
“I lived in the shadow of my mom for five or six years and this period was difficult,” she said. “When I look back now, it wasn’t really me. I always made decisions for someone else. People I met before said they were always afraid to speak with me, they said I was like this girl. Now, the same people say the wall is not there and I’m more myself.”
Although having recorded pop and blues, she continues to sing chansons, secular French traditionals with roots in the Middle Ages. Her audience, which by now includes a large gay contingent, has come to expect the diversity. Her next album might be R&B in the style of Alicia Keys or Macy Gray, but even that poses a challenge because it’s difficult to find songs that naturally translate to French.
Despite her household name status in Europe, Kaas, who is 36, is prepared to face anonymity here for the time being. “I’m kind of realistic,” she said. “I like the challenge of being somewhere where no one knows you. I am kind of curious.”