A touch of Kaas
IT WAS DURING a sizzling gig in Hanoi in 1993 that Patricia Kaas earned the title of 'the French Madonna'. She'd been invited as something of an ambassador, to give the first concert by a French performer since the Vietnam war. 'I remember there were 10,000 people - but they were all men,' the 37-year-old says. 'At the time they told me that the dresses shouldn't be too sexy, that Vietnam wasn't as used to that as the west. I had a long dress, but I didn't know it would be that warm. After two songs the dress was completely transparent.'
Electrifying her audiences comes naturally to Kaas, who's a household name in France. She's one of the country's highest-grossing singers and has a voice that has been compared to those of Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf.
Hong Kong will have an opportunity to hear her perform this month. Kaas has again been named an ambassador and is being launched into the east with a gig at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium as part of Le French May celebrations.
She'll then head off to the mainland for more concerts as part of the Year of France in China festivities. But Kass says it's not such a serious mission. 'I'm coming because I'm curious and I want to share myself with the people,' she says by phone from Paris. 'Of course, it helps that it's the Year of France in China. But in my head, I'm just coming to present myself to this audience, because we don't really know each other.'
Enjoying intimate relationships with her audiences is what makes Kaas so popular at home. With her husky and rich voice, she was performing in cabaret clubs by the age of 12 ('it was my best school, being on stage'). She became a fixture of the Parisian music scene as a teenager, and French actor Gerard Depardieu produced her first single, Jalouse.
When lyricist Didier Barbelivien wrote Mademoiselle Chante Le Blues for her in 1987, she was propelled to the top of the charts in France.
Kaas has since enjoyed success in most places in the world where French is spoken. She has 100 gold and 20 platinum albums to her name, and has been lavished with every French music award imaginable. With her elfish good looks she's also appeared in films, notably in 2003 alongside Jeremy Irons in And Now... Ladies and Gentlemen.
Kaas says she doesn't mind the comparisons to Piaf, Dietrich and Madonna. 'They're all strong women,' she says. 'It's OK if people compare me to them. But we all have our own personalities. I remember when I started playing people called me the 'new Piaf', but physically we look very different and even our voices are quite different. I think it's more about the emotion.'
Kaas says her latest album, Sexe Fort (the Stronger Sex), which brings her to Hong Kong, is an attempt to claim her own name and image. 'It's really part of my character,' Kaas says. 'I wanted to have a name for an album which fits my character, with the title of strength and gender, with the symbol of the woman. I could feel the sensitivity and strength. It was important for me to do this to reflect my character. I have emotion, but I'm also willing to fight for my life.'
The vision of a 22-year-old holding her own while nearly naked in front of 10,000 men brings to mind the feminine powers of Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. Like the latter, her strength has also brought her a gay following.
Sexe Fort is her 12th studio release, a soft rock epic in the tradition of French pop and rock. At first, it sounds stuck in the 1980s, with guitar solos and drum beats bordering on the cheesy - but Kaas' voice is breathtaking.
Although she collaborates with a large number of lyricists, Kaas says that she makes each song on the album her own. 'It speaks about love,' she says. 'But not love songs like, 'I love you and you love me'. You're not touched by that. It's more complicated. The songs aren't autobiographical, but I try to go into the situations.'
So far, Kaas has performed the Sexe Fort show 120 times in 17 countries. She describes it as a back-to-basics approach - with only one dress change. 'I wanted a natural, spontaneous show with no sequences or loops, not a band and a singer, but it's one. I try to always adapt my show to the audience I have in front of me. What I love most is being on stage. I love the contact with the audience.'
She pauses, then offers a final analogy that may well titillate her male fans. 'If I have dinner with a friend, I am just who I am. But if I have a date with a man, I want to be nicer. I want to give him something. Being on stage is a bit like being with your lover. I'm the same person, but I want to give more.'
Sexe Fort Concert, May 18, 8pm, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Wan Chai, $250, $350 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009