Born in the slums of Paris Edith Piaf rose through trial and tribulation to became one of the most famous singers in the world today. She remains a symbol of French resilience and power, and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ is a classic still known widely and used in movie scores to this day.
Stirling University graduate Christine Bovill first heard the record as a teenager in Glasgow. Fast forward to now, and Christine Bovill’s Piaf is a hit show, selling out theatres all over the country with an upcoming performance at the Macrobert Art Centre. Kirsten Robertson sat down with the alumni to discuss her journey from Pathfoot to Piaf…
How does it feel to be back?
It feels extremely strange I have to say, there’s a lot of ghosts around. Even just driving in and past Pathfoot building where I studied, so much is unchanged, and yet so much is new.
This is so embarrassing but I don’t think I ever missed a lecture or a tutorial while I studied here. Plus I didn’t stay here, I travelled from Glasgow every day. And I was singing two nights a week in a jazz haunt there. And the Glasgow Evening Times had a big feature on me, and it was put it on the door to the corridor of the French department – nice memories. My life was in Glasgow but I loved studying here.
How did you first discover Edith Piaf?
Well the truth is French was my nemesis in school, I absolutely hated it. I didn’t like school particularly much in general: I loved primary but not high school. And I got to fourth year and I sat in French class loathing it. The teacher sat me on a row of my own because he didn’t like me either. But then a priest, a close friend of the family, came round one night with a record he thought I should listen to because he knew I had been collecting old jazz records. It was a singer called Edith Piaf who I’d never heard of. I recoiled in terror because he told me she was French – such was my loathing of all things French at the time – I just found it so hard. But he said ‘No, side A is sung in English, listen to the second song on Side A, a song called No Regrets’. So I put on No Regrets.
I tend to use this quote in our publicity, it’s by Graham Greene: “There’s a moment in every childhood when a door opens and lets the future in.” And listening to No Regrets was my moment, that was absolutely my moment. After that everything began to change – I listened to nothing else except that record, spent my teens becoming obsessed with the language.
Suddenly school French was my only concern in life. I did my Higher French then did a five-year degree at Stirling University and I went on to become a French and English teacher. And I started writing when I was eight years into a teaching career and then the balance shifted more to professional singing than teaching, and I’d do pockets of supply work. The regular pay check was very handy when I was a poor musician! It was only when I released my album that I quit the classroom for good.
I owe her [Piaf] a great deal. If you had told me while I was here that this little Glasgow dropout of French who ended up doing it at university would share the stage with Piaf’s great friend and last composer [Charles Dumont], the man who wrote Non Je Ne Regrette Rien at the Edinburgh fringe that would have been laughable. It’s a dream story. But remarkably it was a dream that came true.
What’s been difficult through the years in selling the show to theatres is that people assume it’s a tribute show, and it’s not. I don’t look or sound like Piaf – this is my story. But I talk about Piaf’s life, what’s necessary to know and conceptualize the songs, and I talk mostly about the songs. And I explain why the devil a girl from Glasgow is up here singing in French to you!
Were you proud of being a fan of jazz and Piaf growing up in Glasgow?
I was always collecting old jazz records, and still that’s my happy place in music. I am an oddball. I will wave the flag of old jazz to my dying day. That will be my funeral music, morbidly. The focus was so intense – I shut myself off in my own classroom, my dad taught at the school I was at, I had friends but a lot of the time I would make excuses and go to my dad’s classrooms when it was empty at interval and listen to Piaf over and over again. I was fluent by the time I did my Higher because it was in my sleep – I was soaking in these lyrics. It wasn’t even a question of proud, I didn’t shout about it but I wasn’t ashamed of it. Especially when everyone was listening to Wham! and Duran Duran all the time.
In saying that I also love a lot of contemporary songwriters, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are the real songwriters. There’s loads of stuff that I listen to. Queen, I’m a massive Queen fan, and someone recently told me that Queen did a gig when they were just starting out in Pathfoot Dining Room in 1971 or sometime around then.
What kind of response do you get after shows?
What’s very typical is that wonderful emotional honesty that Scottish people have and I love. Often people come up and said “I thought I’d hate this, as it’s my husband or wife likes Piaf, but I absolutely loved it.” Or they just say “I had no idea what to expect tonight.”
To be honest with you, a lot of people get extremely emotional at the end of the show, because of the confessional nature of it. And the resonance of a song like No Regrets for most people is something else. Ireland, particularly Belfast, has embraced this show like no other city for the last six years. People are tearful, they want to hold you and make physical contact with you. It’s a wonderful communion between audience and performer. I think it’s just so intimate and so personal, and yet you’ve got the narrative of this global icon and these globally famous songs. It is curious. And people say very nice things about your voice or the songs as well of course.
How did it feel to perform so soon after the Paris terror attacks?
I was in Ireland when the Charlie Hebdo massacre happened, it was the start of Piaf’s centenary, her hundredth birthday was in 2015. I was performing in Belfast in January as part of the centenary quarter festival. I did the Piaf show and the Charlie Hebdo attacks had taken place that week, but the big demonstration that happened in Paris was happening when I was on stage and that feeling was certainly not lost. It was the most incredible audience, and my voice locked, as I knew it would – you want to dedicate what you’re singing, and singing a song like No Regrets has great meaning.
I went back for a week tour, an eight city tour in November 2015 when the Paris attacks happened. The news came through the day we opened in Derry, and Derry is no stranger to terrorism. That was a tearful concert and a tearful week. You know it’s one of those careers, where on the one hand you have to go on stage – and suddenly everything feels so trivial when you’ve been watching the news. The audience was so wonderful and supportive the whole week. It was an emotional week.
Edith Piaf had a harrowing life, as shown through the Oscar winning La Vie En Rose – how much was true?
Piaf wrote her own biography in 1958 and there was massive amount of reinventing history a little bit, as often happens with people when it’s still in their lifetime. What was interesting about La Vie en Rose was that because it didn’t have a linear narrative, so if you didn’t know her life you could have trouble keeping up as it bounced about so much.
But she had an affair with a delivery boy at the age of 17, produced this little baby, and had no idea about bring up a child! She had wine in a baby bottle and all sorts. And the baby – Marcelle she was called – died of meningitis, she’s the first buried in the plot that Piaf is in. In the show I make a big deal about Piaf’s severe case of conjunctivitis at the age of five that made her lose her sight and the subsequent miracle healing. To what extent it is true I am not sure. The girls in the brothel her granny owned saved up their money for the pilgrimage to Saint Therese – who knows! It’s such a wonderful French Parisian story, why not believe it I say. I would say yes, whether it was a miracle, or medicine was part of it, who cares – her sight was restored at five.
Would you ever live in France?
I love Glasgow. I’ve lived in London quite a lot. I love having Glasgow as my base and getting to travel. It’s a global village we live in, with air travel you can be anywhere. I would love to spend more time in France, especially in this wintery climate we have – it’s just dreicht. I should be in France more than I am. Interestingly Jim Haines who’s a real cult figure in theatre, he founded the Traverse, is coming back for his 61st Edinburgh Fringe festival this year. Jim is going to sponsor a concert in Paris of me doing Piaf. That email just came through today, actually.
How did your solo album come about?
The Sentence That I Serve (2015) tracks were written over the last ten years. There was little material on there that was brand new. Midnight Coffee, the second song, was my first song I ever wrote in 2003 and the first time I wrote in French. I recorded it in 2007, when I was living in London. It was a project that took a long time because of other commitments. The boys [Strange Blue Dreams, band she recorded with] are very busy touring, and having a band as opposed to just session musicians trying to get us all together is difficult.
What are your future plans?
I’m writing my third album. I took some time off December and January, I’ve got two private concerts this month the and Macrobert in March – this is just picking up the pace again.
All going well it would be Paris at the Edinburgh Fringe again: the new show in the format that I shaped. Broadway Baby had described Christine Bovill’s Piaf as ‘The Stuff of Legend.’
It was like, ‘what can I do next?’ So I just wanted to cast the net wider. And the first attempt at this show sealed it for me. So hopefully that is what I’ll come back with. I’m doing the Paris show in London. Piaf of course is a leading light of the show, she features three times. I would imagine I will be back at my Spiegletent in Edinburgh. I also work with the hot club in Glasgow, a gypsy jazz club in Babbity Bowsers. We do an informal session, and I love it. It’s like therapy and the guys are word class – it’s all 1920’s and 30’s stuff.
Future of Jazz, thoughts on La La Land’s message?
Everything comes round again, it takes a La Vie En Rose to get a new generation to hear Piaf’s music. It can take a La La Land for jazz. I loved the film, and what I loved about the film more than anything was the core theme of holding onto a dream. I have lived my life in a way in reverse – so many people go for the big dream then settle down and get a mature job and make mature decisions. I did, I was married, I was a school teacher, came to a crossroads in my life and started writing, went to open mics and taught myself guitar and it all came from there intensely and there’s been a massive amount of highs and lows. La La Land spoke to me just because they do kind of pursue their dreams, but I won’t say anything in case your readers haven’t seen it – but it’s not the ending you’re hoping for.
Why is Edith Piaf’s legacy so strong?
She’s still so much part of the fabric of France, and she’s dead over 50 years but that story, and the glory and resistancé emerging from the darkest hours of fascism and German occupation in France that she’s associated with. And that voice, I’m always keen to remind people that this show isn’t an imitation, no one can really sound like that. She was tiny, and that voice came from this tiny little figure. She had the most appalling life – cinematically horrific. And in my show I do refrain from going too far into the darkness because it’s an evening’s entertainment, you’ve come up to hear it and might get tearful at times. It’s about getting to the end of the – what she achieved despite the life she led, that’s what we’re celebrating really.
Christine Bovill comes to the Macrobert for one night only on the 3rd of March 2017, tickets starting at £5.50 for students.