After winning a Spirit of the Fringe Award in 2017, singer Christine Bovill returns to Edinburgh this August, performing both her Paris and Piaf shows. The former secondary school teacher spoke to us about her love of the Fringe and of the French chansons that have inspired her.
What does the Edinburgh Fringe Festival mean to you?
At this stage in my career it is the absolute central success platform of anywhere I’ve played or anything I’ve done. The first official show in 2011 at the National Library of Scotland put the show on the map. It sold out in days. People were queuing in the rain for cancelled tickets and I got five stars from the Scotsman and that was it. From then, I was adopted by the famous Spiegeltent and I was there for years. Edinburgh and the festival therefore represents a complete door to success and leaving teaching. As a Glaswegian I owe the city of Edinburgh, which I love dearly, a great deal.
In your Paris and Piaf shows you perform entire songs in French. Why do you think even non-French-speaking people respond so much to these performances?
The idea of speaking to an audience was such a paralysing thing for me for years and years. Then in 2011 at the National Library the script I would always bring on stage I had forgotten – and from that moment I just started talking and telling my story and the show very quickly evolved. People are probably very surprised that this isn’t a tribute show: I don’t try and look or sound like Edith Piaf. I’m Christine Bovill up there. I don’t adopt a character when I’m speaking; whatever comes out on the night comes out and therefore in that realm of just being a natural person on stage I will go into the character of those songs. That allows me to be myself completely in talk and then I flip in the song. These songs are theatrical songs. They are four-minute three-act plays. There is an intensity to these French chansons.
In a nutshell, don’t do this if you’re not going to give it 120%. It’s got to come from the guts and if it comes from the guts, it doesn’t really matter what language you’re singing in. Obviously it does help that I explain the song first. I set the scene in English because so many of the translations are weaker in English, so it’s much more potent to drive home the original French with a scenario, a picture painted beforehand.
You talk in your shows about how you hated French at school. You also tell us how that changed. What is it you love about the French language itself now?
My own love of the French language since I first heard these songs is what carries these songs so much for me. It’s the nature of the language, its conciseness. It’s the fact that these songs are coming from an era when French song was still sung within the rhythms of the French language. After the 60s that changed. If you listen to any modern pop in French, it’s an American or English pop song sung in French. Whereas, within chansons it sounded French. So there is a purity and it’s a very philosophical language. It is not the language of pop. You can’t sing “baby, you can drive my car” in French. English is the language of pop music. So that’s why I turn again and again to that era of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
You mentioned teaching – you used to be a secondary school teacher. Did you ever sing at school to pupils?
Occasionally, but no matter what you sound like, a Fourth Year boy will still sit and say, “Miss, you’re no real. Whit’s that?” I remember having a karaoke at a Christmas party with my First Year class in 2000. It was the year of that hit Blue (Da Ba Dee). That was my karaoke song and I sang it deadpan from start to finish. I was that teacher. But when my career started to take off I didn’t use my own name so pupils wouldn’t find me on Youtube.
Do former pupils ever see you at shows?
Yes. A few pupils came up recently who are now in their early 30s. I taught them in First Year – lovely grown people now. I once did a concert in a school I wasn’t teaching in, I was just approached to do the Piaf show for Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Year language students, and it was one of the hardest gigs. That night I was singing for the French ambassador in the City Chambers and it was a breeze compared to this because I was still teaching so it was so hard when those two worlds collided. I was sweating. A kid took their phone out in the front row at one point and I couldn’t say “put your phone away” – I can’t, I’m a singer!
You write, release and perform your own music too. Does the spirit of the chansons influence the way that you write?
That’s an interesting question because people who didn’t ever know my life as a troubadour in song and bought my album have asked me “have you ever sung in French?” which is weird. But yes, chansons probably does have a lot of influence. I would say Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen – those kind of songwriters influence me subliminally as much as chansons.
You recently posted a photograph on your Facebook page of a notebook and pen. Does this mean you’re working on new music?
Yes. I had a lot of things going on last year, like bad writer’s block, and I’m really trying to write the third album now. I’ve got two or three songs completed, two or three taking shape and I know where I want to go with this and feel more confident, but it’s just lyrics just now. I was commissioned to write a political song about the Western Sahara situation which took a lot of time and which was just put onto a double album of international artists. So I finally completed The Desert is On Fire last month so back to my own stuff. I really want to push – what do I have to say in art and song in the world?
And can we see you perform your own original material soon?
Yes. I’ve got a Christine Bovill gig – a non-cabaret show – in Oran Mor on the 1 Nov.
If readers don’t know you or your shows, what one performance – of yours or one of the singers you are inspired by – should they look up online to get a flavour of what to expect from you at the Fringe?