From the very moment a French musician mutters an English word, they’re immediately thrust into a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, they’re subjected to a patriotic revolt at the hands of the French public. On the other, rather more positively, they become instantly accessible to the rest of the Western world. Since Phoenix burst through the wall with It’s Never Been Like That in 2006, it’s finally okay for French musicians to sing in their adopted tongue.
At least, it’s okay according to Melanie Pain, who released her second album in English earlier this year. Born in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, Pain moved to Paris to work in design about 10 years ago. Her continual rise, she admits, has more to do with a parade of unlikely circumstances than extraordinary talent.
“I never wanted to be a singer, but I was always surrounding myself with musicians,” says Pain from her kitchen in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. “I was trying to surround myself with cute guitarists.”
Her quest for romance blossomed into a career when she laid down a guide vocal in a friend’s studio apartment as a favour. “One day a friend asked me to sing on a demo. Not long after I had the producer of Nouvelle Vague on the phone and he asked me to sing in the band.”
Originally, Pain rejected the offer, but after some carefully chosen words, she was coaxed into quitting her job in design and going on tour with the band. “I told him I wasn’t a singer, but then he said ‘Oh come on! Of course you are’.”
After treading the boards with Nouvelle Vague, Pain was approached by two of her oldest friends – Anthony Gonzales and Nicolas Fromageau of M83 – who asked her to sing backing vocals on their 2003 album Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. “They said, ‘We’ve known you forever and you never told us you could sing’,” laughs Pain.
It seems that Pain’s delicate, accented voice is destined to find a world audience without the usual toil, and while it’s not a common career trajectory, she is still yet to take a backwards step. Her debut solo album My Name was released in 2005 and her sophomore album Goodbye Manchester – which was recorded after a period living in the English city – in September this year.
While My Name featured a charming collection of indie pop songs – the collection’s message delivered without clutter via joyously simple vocal and acoustic guitar melodies – her new record feels like a genuine progression.
At present, Pain is in the throes of a daunting European tour, with more than 15 shows before Christmas. On the tour she will play with her Nouvelle counterpart Nadeah Miranda, and a host of other close friends to support the release of her new album Goodbye Manchester. On moving to Manchester early this year, Pain says, “It was a dream of mine to be alone, and have some refuge.”
Before she heads off to rehearsal at a studio near home in the 11th arrondissement, I thank her for time and compliment her on the latest album. “Thank you,” she says. “I pretend to be in control, but I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
Melanie Pain is coming to Melbourne for So Frenchy So Chic in the Park, on January 20, 2013 at Werribee Gardens. Tickets available from the festival website.