08 Jan Local singer-songwriter Mathieu Boogaerts releases first single ‘Am I Crazy’
For nearly five years now, a famous French singer songwriter has been living in the hinterland between Clapham and Brixton, unbeknownst to most of his neighbours. This acclaimed chansonnier has performed from time to time in UK venues smaller than he’s used to back home, but otherwise, he’s largely gone unnoticed going about his everyday business…
Mathieu Boogaerts – for it is he – is a name you’ll want to know if you don’t know it already. Hailing from the uncelebrated Parisian suburb of Fontenay-sous-Bois, Boogaerts moved into central Paris when he was 20, and over the following 30 years, he’s had spells living in Nairobi, Brussels and now London. It’ll come as little surprise then that this is music of an international flavour, curious and driven by impulse, inclusive and yearning for connection, and as innately beholden to Black music, Brazilian music or James Brown’s music as it is to la chanson.
The culmination of this extended stay in the UK is an eighth studio album, which sees Boogaerts stepping outside of his comfort zone for his most extraordinary offering yet. For the first time in his career, Boogaerts (en anglais) will – as the name suggests – be sung entirely in English. For an artist celebrated for his beaux mots, who arrived in the mid-90s with the nouvelle chanson scene in full swing alongside renowned singers like Dominique A, Benjamin Biolay and Emilie Simon, eschewing French for English might look like a foolhardy endeavour. And yet Boogaerts (en anglais) is the personification of charm itself; a beautiful, heartening, funny, sad and very human collection of songs. ‘Your Smile’ and ‘Guy of Steel’, for instance, are both melodically catchy poesies stripped back to imbue a delectable intimacy. Boogaerts celebrates our quirks and our frailties and encourages us to be quietly courageous.
Like many fine songwriters, the Frenchman often imposes limitations on himself when crafting songs. This time those limitations have rather imposed themselves on him. In his own inimitable way, it is a restriction that he has positively embraced in order to express his emotions freely. “The song has to come from the inside,” he explains. “I didn’t want to use a dictionary because then I would be using words I’m unfamiliar with. If I was a painter, I would say French has so many colours and so many possibilities with so many vowel sounds. This record is written with a naive English because my English is not so good, but for me it was also a challenge. The words seem shorter, there isn’t the same palette of sounds, and there are a lot of English words that don’t sound good in my mouth, like the word ‘really’, which I can’t say properly… so that meant I had about one hundred fewer words to work with.”
Despite these linguistic limitations, Boogaert remained true to his understanding of English. Was he concerned though as a chansonnier that he might be defying the French tradition and breaching the unwritten cultural code that chanson must be performed in French? “I don’t care about tradition,” he says, dismissively. “I feel very free. For sure I’m not, because unconsciously there are a lot of borders I don’t cross; my songs last for two to three minutes, there’s a verse and a chorus and a bridge… I’m not doing anything avant garde, but when I write a song, and when I record it, I really feel free to do what I want.”
And free Boogaerts is, melding his hypnotic, elementary songs to gentle backing tracks that could have been recorded at twilight so as not to disturb the neighbours. The ballad of unrequited love, ‘Annie’, begins with a drum pattern that has a nocturnal intimacy to it, a sine qua non that compliments his delicate vocal style. “It’s not because of the neighbours. My vocal is very intimate and I can’t sing loudly,” says Mathieu, before correcting himself: “I mean, if I tried to scream I could scream as loud as you! It’s not a technical problem, it’s just the way I sing. It’s more of a Chet Baker energy… it’s kind of… pudique.” (Pudique is not a word that translates easily from French, but it essentially means modest).
If his style is not a reaction to the neighbours, the heart of this album was a need to communicate with les voisins anglais. Mathieu had never anticipated not writing in French before, but the loneliness that comes with an inability to communicate with the people around you fully, inspired him to write songs in order to express himself. It was following his first UK date at Cafe OTO in Dalston that Boogaerts was approached by the filmmaker Arthur Le Fol, a Frenchman who had felt an affinity with his compatriot as he watched him stood on stage trying to reach out in a second language. The pair documented the singer’s engagements in London, from supporting Francis Cabrel at the Royal Albert Hall to playing a short gig in the living room of his actual neighbour with just a boombox and an acoustic guitar. It’s a charming, amusing and sometimes moving little film that embodies the alienation of a European citizen living in London.
Which brings us to the European Union… Is there an infinitesimal trace of Brexit malaise in his song ‘Am I Crazy?’, which was released on January 1st 2021, just as the UK transitioned out of the EU? “Not that I know of,” says Mathieu, although he’s willing to admit that his songs can be influenced subconsciously. “I don’t think I will ever write a political song. The purpose of my songs in French or English is always to express feelings: jealousy, regret, desire, happiness, curiosity… but I would never say ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad'”. Political or not, Boogaerts (en anglais) is a musical entente cordiale in troubling times, an elegantly wistful collection that reflects the human spirit, no matter where a person might be from. And like some of the French language songwriting greats before him; Gainsbourg, Brel, Brassens – Boogaerts assumes a single appellation this time, a tacit acknowledgement that he’s joining the pantheon on merit. As always, he’s done it on his own terms.