There’s something charmingly idiosyncratic about Faiblesse Parfaite, the - aha, this is going to go some ways towards resolving that idiosyncrasy straight away(!) French/English duo of singer Caty Meleuc and guitarist Gaël Macé. We were initially drawn to their unique and fearless songcraft. They are not slow to broach the matters you’re pondering at home, in song... We’ve wanted to feature them for a long time too, since we first heard their LP on Bandcamp Sincere or Engineered, with it's stellar indiepop single, Your Fear, but the whole pandemic thing has sometimes thrown us for a loop, a lazy one. So in the end, finally, we got a round to an email interview and it went a lot like this...
OUTSIDELEFT: For a lot of creative people, the lockdown has been maybe, somewhat okay, useful, a chance to reappraise their practice, their work... How has it been so far for you? Are you still in the UK? I mean as a French-British duo you could have relocated?
Caty: Yes, still in the UK! There is everyday life to keep going. Music is my hobby, a passion, but I have a full time job to pay the bills. And there has been no furlough for me, only working from home and neverending web meetings. In fact, I feel like I’ve had even less time than usual to practice on my parts. The worst musical effect of lockdown has been not being able to practice together and not having the audience to play to. I get such energy from performing! And a screen just doesn’t replace live people cheering you on (hopefully).
Gaël: UK is our home so we sheltered as a family hoping for the storm to pass. Like a lot of bands we had to cancel gigs, and we had to interrupt the recording of our next project half-way. We are recording it in my home studio so it is out of bounds for Caty for the time being. We adapted by playing live-like tracks and sharing with our fans and on music social networks. That was fun to make actually… With the easing of lockdown we tried our first al-fresco-distanced band practice, and we loved it! It felt so good to play proper finally - We filmed it and are sharing the footage on social media so you could say it was a gig without an audience… I also started a documentary series talking about the post-lockdown society as this new world baffles me somehow - it’s a way to make sense of it and hopefully it helps others too.
OUTSIDELEFT: Why Milton Keynes... It seems like an anathema for creative people a heavy weight on the shoulders of people like you guys who have such a lovely organic sound... That place seems a bit overtly-positive rigidly so. I like my city fathers a little more negative in their outlook...
Caty: MK is not that bad, really! You get to appreciate it after a while. Especially the live music venues, open mics and nightly karaoke all over town. You just have to get past the soulless city centre, the rigid grid system and you start to see the cycling paths, the parks and the local life within each neighbourhood. There are real communities if you search a little. It’s also where the work is and where the French Saturday school happened to be for us to meet :)
Gaël: I have a passion for flow and movement and to me MK actually has its own beauty beyond the looks: the way it connects together, the way it’s made to be navigated. I think it is more ready for a sustainable future than most places, which is dear to me - it is not so precious that you would fear experimenting with it. And it is the home of Marshall Amps (among others), which is quite some street-cred in the musical world… Actually the people working there are music fans somehow so it makes for a great scene locally.
OUTSIDELEFT: I guess my question really is what are you even doing here... I am always really interested in people who choose to live somewhere rather than ending up somewhere by accident of birth...
Caty: Oh, that was an accident! Not of birth, admittedly, but of work. I arrived in the UK 16 years ago for my first full time job. I never thought I’d stay that long to be fair but life happened. Since then, I’ve lived across mid-to-south England and south Wales, always chasing the next job up. I must say that Bucks and Northants have had the huge benefit of a great music scene. Until I can live from the music that is. The day that happens, in fact, MK is not necessarily such a bad choice. Many artists choose to live in Bucks, close to London yet affording greenery. Aylesbury and Marillion are close by, Northampton and its rock scene a short drive away, London and the O2 only a train ride away… One small dream at a time, right?
Gaël: I guess it’s a place where life happens - work, activities, etc - and that’s how we met, at our kids French Saturday school. We sometimes practice there during school hours, just because there is no reason not to. Which sums up MK quite well actually, it’s a city that gives you no reason not to ;)
OUTSIDELEFT: Much of your album, Sincere or Engineered confronts, gently, maybe reaching for a new voice, prejudice, racism, sexism and also the tone-deafness and blindness afforded by privilege . Your Fear, in particular, we have played on repeat...
Gaël: I always wonder at the sheer amount of beautiful love songs out there, but at the same time they seem to take up most of the bandwidth. I feel there is so much more we need to hear about, to spark discussion and feel inspired about - the world is sadly not made just of love. So I have more of an urge to talk about things that hurt, puzzle, amaze. I have this naive ambition that every song raising issues is a drop in the ocean of greater good. I try to add a positive, encouraging twist to what hurts, or ask the questions that lead to understanding. That’s the theme in Your Fear - it seems a lot of discrimination comes from our hard-wired fear of the other. It made sense for cave-men as it was a matter of survival but if we actually challenge ourselves to the rationale of our own fears and the barriers we raise, we realise it’s an outdated way of thinking. And we have the gift of reasoning ourselves to come out of these thought processes.
Caty: Music is a way to make us think, like other forms of art. Subjects of tolerance, or lack thereof, touch us to the core of our humanity. Recent events worldwide have shown that no-one is left truly indifferent, without necessarily taking a side but we can’t help but examine our own beliefs. And that’s a good thing. Knowing who we are and hopefully deciding to be good people in the end. Listening to “Care Bears” type songs is comfortable but doesn’t help us grow as people.
OUTSIDELEFT: To Engineer is Human - wondered whether you'd read Henry Petroski's 1992 book and whether that plays a part in your relationship songs...
Caty: I’ve not read it I’m afraid.
Gaël: I haven’t read it either, sorry. But the title resonates - I actually am an Engineer, and there is a beauty in how the laws of nature can be used for our own good once you make the effort of understanding them. Or for our own bad, and that’s where responsibility comes in. And it is what we mean by Sincere or Engineered? Do we contribute to the hate and destruction by the way we design our lives? Even if at an individual level we mean no harm, we may organically create a machine that leaves others behind...
Caty: It makes me think of a question that often comes back, whether technology helps or hinders us. Covid isolation has severed our face to face social links and virtual relationships have taken an enormous place and been a saving grace for many. But we can’t let it become the norm, we need human interaction for our well-being. I’d even say it needs to be the new basis on which we live our new enlightened lives. We are all better when we are in groups that complement each other, the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
OUTSIDELEFT: Prêt Feu Partez such a great pop song, those Osmonds Crazy Horses synth lines and John McGeoch guitars... But it is welded to a dark undercurrent in the lyricAt first I thought maybe it was about Paris 68, but maybe November 2015 or...
Gaël: November 2018 actually! It is a tribute to the Women Rights activists that hijacked the US President’s motorcade during the remembrance parade in Paris. They were denouncing the impunity and arrogance of a system that hushes and crushes sexual harassment. Along with their message, I was amazed by the effectiveness of their method, it was pure genius: to get through the heavily armed protection around the Great Men in Bulletproof Limos, they actually removed weaponry rather than join the arms race. They took their clothes off and had their slogans painted on their skins. You can’t take someone’s skin away, you can’t ask a woman to show her breasts at a security checkpoint so they slipped through the self-assured net. I find great poetic sense in that the most disarmed and vulnerable overpowered the arrogant, armed strongman and made him look belittled hiding in his glass house. There is also an aspect I wanted to raise awareness of in this song - what price do these women have to pay for daring to call him out? We all cheered but they may have paid a high price for it.
OUTSIDELEFT: There's a history of almost disguising the most serious topics with uplifting melodies, NWA, Elvis Costello, Tupac tons of others have done that, did you set out to do that here? Elvis Costello alluded to something about that "I always liked the idea of a bright pop tune that you could be singing along to for ages before you realize what it is you're actually singing." It has its own subversiveness.
Caty: Oh, wait for the second album, then! For my part, I always prefer trying to lift people’s mood, there’s plenty enough gloom to go around as it is. But the messages still need to be told, especially the difficult ones.
Gaël: I’m with that 200%. It takes great skill so we may take a lifetime to master it, but it’s definitely an aspiration.
OUTSIDELEFT: The lyrics are bilingual sometimes within one song, does that impact at all on the notes...
Caty: It certainly affects the phrasing for me and which notes are best accentuated. But it also affords some extra nuances, which can then be put into the performance. I always find it fascinating how each language has a different number of ways to express different subjects. Famously, the British rain has many nuances while French wine probably affords more language subtleties.
Gaël: I think we have this unique situation of being in the UK but wanting to sing in French - most French bands do the opposite! It is a way for us to express being embedded in a land of our choice rather than our land of birth. I am quite peculiar about phrasing our French lyrics so they fit that British Indie sound I love - I drive Caty mad about it, sorry ;). Funnily, when a new song pops up in our heads, it comes in either language and it has to stay in that language - I have tried switching languages to balance things out in the past but the songs say no! Like they have souls and boundaries we have to respect, which is fair enough.
OUTSIDELEFT: What happened in Croatia, stays in Croatia?
Caty: I had a lovely holiday in Croatia and I’d be happy to share the pics, but that’s not the subject here… Gaël, do you want to answer that one?
Gaël: 5000 baisers de Croatie is a love song I wrote for my wife - we went on holiday there early in our relationship and picked up pet names and expressions in Croatian that have woven themselves into the fabric of our couple. It’s a happy song to remind us that we were right to believe in ourselves whatever life throws at us. I actually have a question for Caty on this: how does it feel to sing a love song by proxy?
Caty: One one hand, I have an understanding of the lyrics from my own experience, as do the listeners. All songs speak to each of us in different ways. I may not have the exact same emotion or meaning as Gael had in mind writing it and I don’t imagine singing to his wife. But on the other hand, the fact I know the personal details and who it was written for means I have an additional motivation to get it right, to do it justice for her, for them both.
I like to look at things while listening to things I am not looking at. But doesn't everyone.