Nouvelle Vague shake up and sell the copies

Nouvelle Vague have built a career on giving vintage punk and new wave hits an elegant twist, writes Richard Lord

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 May, 2013, 10:27pm

WHEN YOU FIRST hear what Nouvelle Vague are famous for, it sounds like a good idea for an amusing, one-off novelty record ... but that couldn't be further from the truth. The Paris-based band specialises in lush, bossa nova lounge versions, featuring breathy female vocals, of punk and new wave classics, such as Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, The Clash's Guns of Brixton and Blondie's Heart of Glass.

They're very far from a one-off, racking up six albums and numerous tours over nearly a decade. The reason is simple: there is nothing throwaway about Nouvelle Vague's music. They treat their source material with reverence, reinterpreting it in a way that is loved by not only fans of the originals and the new generation, but even some of those original songs' creators.

There's also a lot more to Nouvelle Vague's music than lounge. It also takes in everything from French chanson to jazz, reggae, country and '60s bubblegum pop, all filtered through a sort of vintage film-soundtrack quality. Their live performances are another matter entirely, with a more dance-orientated feel than their recorded output - as Hongkongers can discover on May 11, when they play at Kitec in Kowloon Bay.

"When we play live with a full band, so many of the songs take on a fuller dimension," says Liset Alea, who has been a full-time member since 2009. "There's a new energy to things, especially with the bass and the drums. On the recorded versions, they tend to get mixed down."

The band's performance in Hong Kong will be a collaboration with avant-garde cabaret Crazy Horse Paris. It forms the start of a short tour of China, also taking in Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai, as well as a private show in Bali, for which the band have decided to arrive a few days early.

Nouvelle Vague have played in Hong Kong before, but not Cuban-born, American-raised, Paris-based Alea, who first performed with the outfit in 2008. Alea, whose voice combines cabaret breathiness with Broadway power and dynamics, generally shares vocal duties on tour with French singer Mélanie Pain. The band's other permanent members are the band's co-founders, the songwriter-producer duo of Olivier Libaux and Marc Collin, but over the years, it has called on a wide range of singers, all young and female.

When the band recorded its namesake first album in 2004, several of the singers had never heard the originals. An urban myth soon developed that this was always the case. But in reality, it was just that the singers were too young to know about punk and new wave.

Some of the full-time members are unlikely candidates for a laid-back, acoustic, lounge-based project: Collin's background is mainly in electronic music production, while Alea herself was a co-founder of drum 'n' bass collective Etro Anime. She also writes and performs her own dreamy yet stirring acoustic music in both English and Spanish, including a few haunting vintage covers of her own, such as 10cc's I'm Not in Love and The Cure's Lovesong. It's not that she had much time to pursue those other projects in her first two years with the band. She says it took up about 80 per cent of her time; these days, the band's wide range of vocal options means she doesn't have to perform at every concert.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the band's popularity is the seriousness with which it approaches its work, and the obvious love the band members have for the songs. With its lush, ravishing, often rather touching renditions of such unlikely material as The Cramps' Human Fly or the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen, the band brings out the sometimes unlikely inner beauty of songs that were sometimes originally performed in a style that consciously eschewed beauty.

Nouvelle Vague's versions highlight why many became pop classics. Alea says that producer Collin plays a key role in finding potential for a song to be taken in a dramatic new direction. "Marc has a cinematographic vision of music. He kind of makes soundtracks, and people love that."

In other words, while listeners and audience members of a certain age may enjoy Nouvelle Vague's music with a smile of recognition, the appeal doesn't lie solely in that smile. If it did, there wouldn't be so many people at the concerts clearly born well after the songs were written.

With the audience a mixture of fans of the originals and followers of the Nouvelle Vague versions, there can be confusion. "It's really wild," says Alea. "A lot of people don't know the songs we're playing. I've even had people thinking that my first name is Nouvelle. I always say that we're not a cover band; we're a discover band," she adds. "People discover songs through us, and we're always discovering ourselves."

Alea's favourite is just such a discovery: whereas most of the songs the band covers are instantly recognisable, it takes a music nerd to spot In a Manner of Speaking by post-punk genre-hoppers Tuxedomoon. "It's such a beautiful song," says Alea. "I love it so much that I've even fooled myself into believing that I wrote it."

A lot of those stars who wrote the original songs are fans of Nouvelle Vague's versions, and the band has received almost entirely positive feedback from them. Since their third album, 2009's 3, Nouvelle Vague have hooked up with such names as Depeche Mode's Martin Gore on Master and Servant; Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch on All My Colours; and former Magazine member Barry Adamson on the avant-garde post-punk band's Parade.

Nouvelle Vague's unique combination of quiet, approachably beautiful music and the instant recognition factor of hearing a famous song so faithfully covered in an alien idiom has also made its music a popular choice for soundtracks. Its tunes have been used in films from Mr & Mrs Smith to Bridesmaids, on television programmes from Grey's Anatomy to Glee, and to advertise everything from cars to medicines.

The ubiquity of the band's music was brought home to Alea, however, in more prosaic circumstances. "We're used as the hold music for Air France," she says. "I called Air France, and they put me on hold - but they put me on hold with myself."


Nouvelle Vague, May 11, 8.30pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$420-HK$780, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2264 1025