By: Andrew Gilbert
Singing in French has rarely led to a fast track music career in the United States. Jessica Fichot's use of her mother tongue is helping the Los Angeles singer-songwriter translate her songs of love and loss. Her latest CD is called "Le Secret."
By day Jessica Fichot writes songs for children. By night, she creates music that's decidedly adult in nature. Not that there's anything R-rated on her second album "Le Secret," a seamless and intoxicating melange of Gypsy jazz, French musette, and folk music from Latin America, the Middle East and China.
Accompanying herself on accordion or toy piano, Fichot explores themes of longing, loss and disappointment, leavened by an occasional ode to resilience. She writes most of her lyrics in French and thankfully includes translations in the liner notes, the better to savor lines like "The heart is the most agile of acrobats/And every time it's a miracle to land on your feet." That's from "La Spectatrice" a typically buoyant tune on which she's joined by Fishtank Ensemble's Ursula Knudson on saw and vocals.
Much like Rupa Marya of Rupa and the April Fishes, Fichot discovered that writing in French unleashed her creativity. Born in Boston to a French father and Chinese mother, she grew up in Paris. As a teenager performing in cafes and on street corners, she only wanted to sing in English.
When Fichot came to the US to study songwriting at Boston's Berklee College of Music, singing in English no longer set her apart. She put her degree to work writing songs for children's educational programs.
Years later, after she had settled in LA, she rediscovered French as a language for self-expression, and she went about creating a polyglot repertoire encompassing Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Mandarin, like this bilingual celebration of Shanghai.
As a performer, Fichot has led several long running bands propelled by some of California's better Gypsy jazz guitarists. On "Le Secret," she features a different line up on almost every track, though her working band is well represented by reed player Robby Marshall and bassist Gabe Noel. When a powerhouse player like guitarist Gonzalo Bergara joins the proceedings, her music really takes flight.
There are times when Fichot's glossy vocals don't seem to match her tormented lyrics.
But at its best, her music is pleasurably disorienting, with songs that feel uncannily familiar, but hard to place. One of the album's last tracks is a Mandarin version of the 1966 Sonny and Cher hit "Bang Bang," a piece that seems to beg for a spot on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. Fichot's music might be inspired by dislocation, but "Le Secret" welcomes listeners in, whether or not you happen to speak French.