The Paris-born, California-raised singer, musician, composer, and translator found a kindred spirit in the pioneering pop star, ubiquitous in France but sadly neglected in America.
Keenly in tune with Brassens’ timeless eloquence and timely grit, de Gaillande embarked on an epic two-year mission to translate Brassens’ work and evoke the legendary singer-songwriter for Anglophone audiences. The hard part: to keep Brassens’ melodies intact, de Gaillande had to keep the same syllable count, rhyme scheme, and other poetic parts in English.
De Gaillande spent his teenage years in California immersed in rock, laying out wacky punk anthems on his four-track and using guitar licks to woo girls at Sunday school. He later took these skills to New York, where he rocked with indie and folk-rock bands like the Morning Glories.
But he had a dark secret: He was French. His father, a teacher, made sure he never forgot it. “He likes to impart his wisdom,” de Gaillande muses. “My dad would make my sister and me sit down with a George Brassens song, asking us if we understood what it was about. He would bore us to death. We couldn’t enjoy the music because it was like school.”
The obsession that became Bad Reputation started when the senior de Gaillande sent his son the lyrics to “Le Mecreant,” a Brassens song calling for morality without the crutch of religious authority, a graceful statement of atheist philosophy. It struck de Gaillande and sparked a conversation with his dad that turned into a serious translating habit. “Over the years I had tried to translate the poetry of writers like Baudelaire, so I thought it would be interesting to try my hand at this song, which I loved,” recalls de Gaillande with a smile. “Then I went back to all these other cool ones with great melodies, and boom, it totally avalanched from there.”
Yet this nonchalance belies the task de Gaillande had set for himself: to adapt one of the biggest figures in French music and poetry without completely and utterly betraying Brassens in all his complexity: the iconic iconoclast. A dreamer who dominated the pop scene for decades. A highly individualistic man of powerful convictions—yet no patience with politics or intellectual fads. A proto-punk who worshiped 17th-century poetry, whose banned songs became national treasures, and whose moustache sparked a fashion craze.
It’s nearly impossible to explain Brassens’ significance in French culture—and nearly impossible to underplay it. He’s a teller of tales like Bob Dylan, if Dylan had come from a centuries-long line of satirical tunesmiths and bards. He sounds like Django Reinhardt swinging with an apolitical Woodie Guthrie. A voice like Leonard Cohen’s dominates sparse arrangements that managed to blast French pop apart the way the Beatles did Anglophone rock.
Yet de Gaillande has succeeded in invoking Brassens’ essence by painstakingly, playfully rendering his exquisite, unusual lyrics into English. Lyrics borrowing from the golden age of French poetry, the 17th century, chock full of colorful profanity and medieval references.
Brassens, in his meditation on the vagaries of celebrity “Trumpets of Fortune and Fame,” asks wryly, “I wonder, holy cow, who do I have to f*ck / To make the goddess of a hundred mouths speak up?” Yet he’s just as likely to reference the Old Testament (“Bad Reputation” speaks of the prophet Jeremiah) or 16th-century religious violence (the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Hugenots comes up in “Don Juan”) as to drop an “F” bomb.
De Gaillande relished the challenge. “I found that I was really well suited to it; I’ve been a songwriter preoccupied with lyrics, poetry, and melody for a long time,” de Gaillande reflects. “It was amazing to have this music that’s been in my head for so long come to life.”
A self-taught songwriter, the poetry-mad Brassens made music to fit the words. “He would write lyrics with rhyme and rhythm, and then cobbled the music together to fit,” de Gaillande explains. ”The music feels unpremeditated, fluid, and personal. Sometimes it makes no sense rhythmically, because it’s in service to the lyrics.” To do justice to the music, de Gaillande kept all the rhythms intact, finding the right number of English syllables, and maintaining the original rhyme schemes.
He also found, as he began working with New York-based musicians unfamiliar with Brassens’ songs, that these rhythmic subtleties had eluded most people who played songs like “Bad Reputation.” That is, until bassist Christian Bongers noticed something: Everyone was getting it wrong.
“That was the first Brassens song I ever learned, and I used to play it on guitar. Christian realized that I was playing it wrong, that there is this wild rhythm that’s hard to pin down,” de Gaillande notes. “It has a 5/4 moment that’s bizarre. It took someone with fresh ears to really get it.”
This peculiar sense of rhythm entwines with a quiet interplay between melodies, with little licks and flourishes in the originals provided by a second guitar. De Gaillande, while wanting to respect Brassens’ sonic sensibilities, used a broader, richer musical palette to bring out the many melodies: vibes, clarinet, dobro, another voice thanks to singer Keren Ann (“To Die for Your Ideas”).
But one thing was off the table: drums. “I’ve made a conscious decision to not have a lot of drums, even though I come from a folk rock or punk background,” de Gaillande says. “I didn’t want too many drums or any other instrument with rock connotations because Brassens ignored rock altogether.” Even though hints of rock sometimes shine through on songs like “Penelope,” Brassens seemed to have had little interest in the music taking Europe’s youth by storm.
That was typical for Brassens, a man who lived in a cold-water, no-frills Paris flat even at the height of his illustrious career, a place that had harbored him after he ran away from a German work camp and that he said taught him to appreciate discomfort. Living in his run-down apartment and his own dream world, the only rules he acknowledged were those of poetry. He ignored contemporary culture, politics, and even the bans on his songs, and instead mocked the scandal surrounding his off-color language with songs like “The Pornographer.”
“He uses all this dirty imagery, and then says, ‘See what you made me do?’” de Gaillande laughs. “I went full on with the obscenity.” He turned to the last remaining bastion of obscenity, the last dirty word standing: “Don’t ask me to compose a poem/ If it would upset you to know / That I sit and watch every day / The c*nts on parade / I’m the pornographer of the phonograph, sir / The perverted son of the sing-along.”
Brassens had no interest in being fashionable or cool, and yet defined coolness in a way that resonates for de Gaillande in our day and age. For de Gaillande, it boils down to language: “Using proper grammar, good spelling, and eloquent language is subversive and even sexy in this era of Tea-Party talk,” de Gaillande smiles. “That’s part of the mission of this project: to bring back that kind of sexy.”
“This project has been a real departure for me; it’s very adult and almost square,” de Gaillande laughs. “But I think it’s the hippest thing I’ve ever done. I draw inspiration from Brassens’ attitude: He didn’t care what people thought. He just got the poetry out there.”