It feels fitting that we should talk to Bertrand Belin in the week following Leonard Cohen’s death. It’s hard not to think of the Canadian songwriter’s baritone and speak-singing style when you listen to any of Belin’s five albums. Even non-French speakers can sense a dry, laconic wit at play in his lyrics, plus a quiet introspection hidden behind even the jauntier-sounding tunes.
In his lyrics, Belin – like Cohen – practices an economy of words, dealing in the metaphysics and the DNA of everyday life: questioning existence by imbuing life’s small moments with symbolism. Belin talks of Cohen’s ability to sing about a raincoat, and have the listener gets it’s not just about a raincoat. Belin is too modest to compare himself to such an icon, but concedes he might be making music from “the same sort of position in the world”. There’s “some kind of marvellous energy of joy and also a kind of fear and incomprehension,” he says. “[Writing] songs is a way to make equations, knowing that, still, we won’t find the answer – which is what makes it so exciting.”
Belin’s music possesses a cinematic quality, which is fortified by the film clips that accompany his tracks. Mini-movies in themselves, they’re often slightly surrealistic: a visual translation of Belin’s metaphysical leanings. His cinematic sensibility extends to actual cinema too. When we speak, he is working on the score for a new film by Blandine Lenoir – the actor, writer and director with whom he has a longstanding collaborative relationship. Belin has also worked as a composer for dance alongside choreographer Philippe Decouflé and is a writer, poet and actor in his own right. He says working across different disciplines helps generate fresh ideas. “To work with someone in dance or in movies is like taking a breath,” he says. “Or like a good meal. My brain carries on working all the time on songs or writing. All I love and need is to tell stories; to build worlds and I also appreciate seeing how other people build their own worlds.”
Because he is sophisticated and well-versed in culture, with something of a rakish look about him, Belin is often referred to as a dandy. True, he’s a snappy dresser, he says – but he’s not convinced. “A dandy is somebody like Oscar Wilde or Charles Baudelaire who is very erudite,” he says. “They know everything about world history, art, literature and they are very eloquent. But they have a way of being in their body when they are coming into a room; it’s a kind of artistic way to live in general. I’m not like this. I’m just a guy going here and there.”
A flâneur might be a more fitting description, he thinks: the artist-poet figure of 19th century Paris for whom the pursuit of leisure was a profession and whose skills lay in their astute but detached observations of the world around them. “I’m just working with my head in the clouds, my eyes to the sky,” he says. But that’s when he’s not reading: “I do read as much as I can because it’s kind of a drug for me.”
So much so that, incongruously, Belin’s only real contact with Australia so far has been through “a book about tuna fishing”, he says: having read the work of Kenneth Cook (writer of Wake in Fright, whose 1967 book Tuna is considered one of his best). He’s looking forward to his visit: not least to “seeing the sky in a different way.” Belin is based in Paris but grew up on the Brittany coast. “I feel my person is really close to the water,” he says. “I can’t wait to have a new experience of being near the sea somewhere else.”
But he’s excited for the urban experience of Sydney and Melbourne too: “I do like urbanism and the metropolitan way of life. You can meet people from all across the country. You can sit and listen to the stories.” He’s a true, modern-day flâneur.
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of So Frenchy So Chic.*