"The French language is perfect for talking about sex," muses hirsute Parisian singer and electronic-musician Sébastien Tellier. Over the phone from Record Makers' French office, he explains his music's slow morph from Francophone chanson to pan-linguistic Morodor stomp.
CHILD-BEARING HITS: “If people make love to my music,” says Tellier, “perhaps that means that my music can help create babies — which is a wonderful effect.”
"French has so many perfect words for sex, and this is why it is kind of sad for me, because on this album I only did a few songs in French — the melody always chooses the language for me, and this time, they wound up being English melodies."
Said album is 2008's breakthrough international hit, Sexuality, and the irony that Tellier's 11-song ode to all things carnal would find the French language conspicuously absent is something he's been unable to avoid. The worldwide success of the album's hit single, "Divine," resulted in Tellier performing the song at last year's Eurovision Song Contest as France's representative. The sight of the tall, lanky, bearded Tellier in a white suit cavorting on stage looking not unlike John Lennon strolling across the Abbey Road cover was a sight to behold. But has he turned his back on his mother tongue? "I don't choose the language, really. I've tried every language: English, Italian, Spanish. I choose which language shines the most through the melody. If I have to learn Japanese for one of my songs, then I'll do it!"
Tellier has been fortunate in that he's been able to ride French electropop's renewed wave of popularity while carving out an individual niche as a human voice within a din of vocoders. He first came to prominence in 2001 with L'incroyable vérité ("The Unbelievable Truth"), a record of breezy and melancholy chamber pop that found him holding court with both Air (who produced the album and took him on tour with them) and Daft Punk (who used the album's slowcore masterpiece "Universe" in their Electroma film), the twin titans of France's campaign of electro-dominance. But Tellier was a horse of a different couleur: whereas his compatriots were zapping brain cells with disco apocalyptica, he was using the tools of electronica to fashion himself into a modern-day Serge Gainsbourg, with an emphasis on song and composition.
"The term 'electronic music,' now, means nothing to me, because all music is really electronic, right? What with computers and synthesizers — and even with rock music, you need computers. The thing I like is that electronic music is not the slave to a genre but rather a link between composition and technology. For me, my art and real spirit is in my composition, and these tools, this robot technology, allows me to make music with form and with artistic spirit."
His 2005 follow-up to his debut was Politics, a bold record that fused African rhythms (courtesy of Tony Allen, drummer of Fela Kuti's Africa '70 band) with emotional balladeering. That produced the worldwide smash "La ritournelle." But even then, the seeds of his next project were being planted before his eyes, and the carnal lust that was to become his next obsession proved difficult to escape. "Around the time of that album, I did a gig in New York, and some couple in the audience made love during that song ['La ritournelle']. And you know, the goal of a gig is not just to listen to bum-bum-bum-bum, you know? If people make love to my music, perhaps that means that my music can help create babies — which is a wonderful effect, because with music, you can dance, you can cry, anything. When people have sex in front of me during a song, it's a pleasure — it's like living in a dream."
Tellier's shift from Politics to Sexuality suggests that he will now move on to another subject — or maybe not. "When I did the Sexuality album, I opened the door, in a way, to display my sexuality to the world and everybody. And now, I am a slave, in a way, to sex, to sexuality! Because sexuality is so many things: it is relationships, it's life, it's babies, it's pleasure, it's biology, it's everything! Really, nothing is more important in life, which makes it hard for me to find a better subject."
Of course, one wonders how seriously to take Tellier — is this all just standard French irony in the face of life's absurdity? And though tracks like Sexuality's "Sexual Sportswear" might at first glance seem to be a big joke, Tellier is serious and very open about his music, his life, and the nakedness behind the electronic sheen of his records.
"Since Sexuality, everybody wants to talk to me about sex. It's great! They don't talk to me about drama, or the bass lines in my music; they just want to talk about sex, and pleasure, and the philosophy of the body's pleasure. So for me, this album wasn't just a record, it has become a new way of life — and it's wonderful!"
SÉBASTIEN TELLIER + LEMONADE | Paradise, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | April 5 at 8 pm | $14 | 617.562.8800 or www.livenation.com