Des de Moor
Press Cuttings: Chanson

BBC Radio London 5 January 2003, 13:10 - 13:45 hrs
Des in action
Photo: Eve Matthews

Jackie Clune show

Des was invited as a guest onto Jackie Clune's lunchtime show on BBC London local radio to talk about Pirate Jenny's, but the discussion with Jackie, herself a singer as well as an actor and presenter, ranged much more widely than that.

Jackie. I'm joined now by chansonnier Des de Moor. Is that how you say it, Des?

Des. Chansonnier, yes.

Jackie. Is that the male form of chanteuse?

Des. Er, no, it's the male form of 'chansonnier', of which the female is 'chansonnière'.

Jackie. What does it mean?

Des. Writer of chanson, performer of chanson.

Jackie. Ah, writer and performer of chanson.

Des. Yeah.

Jackie. So what is that then? I've got this sleeve of a CD called English Contemporary Chanson, and on the back it describes chanson in a very brilliant way. It says "Urban, European, dark, witty, political, narrative, dramatic, romantic, acerbic, rarely danceable, always literate, grown-up songs for grown-up people."

Des. Well, that text was written by Robb Johnson, who put that compilation together that you've got there, who is also a chansonnier, and I think it just about sums it up, really. Chanson in French is just simply the word for song, but it tends to be used of song that's from a popular but literate tradition. The typical person that's usually offered as a chansonnier, although he was actually Belgian as most pop trivia fans will know, is Jacques Brel. Also people like Georges Brassens and Charles Aznavour and so on...I suppose the 60s is the best known period of it, but it's still going on today. And it's something we don't really have an equivalent of in Britain.

Jackie. I know. This is something that really pains me.

Des. Popular song has to be brain-dead, or the alternatives are folk or jazz songs where people...Jazz vocalists are generally not very well treated and often the songs they do, they approach from the point of view of musicianship rather than of interpreting the songs and putting the lyrics across...

Jackie. Yes, that's very true.

Des. In chanson, the lyrics are very important. The text is at least as important as the music, and although the music is quite sophisticated, putting across that text is extremely important. I think the other thing is there's a sense in this country that if you try and write something that's poetic and intelligent in a popular song lyric, you're regarded with great suspicion. It's very easy to be labelled pretentious, and there's a feeling that anything that's popular song has to be really banal...

Jackie. Ooh baby don't leave me blah blah blah.

Des. Yeah, a tendency that has become worse in recent years, it has to be said.

Jackie. Yes, chansonniers do use the same subject matter but with a very different take. Jacques Brel, 'Ne me quitte pas', is exactly that, don't leave me, if you leave me, but the lyrics are so beautiful.

Des. You've come across a perfect example. That song, 'Ne me quitte pas' means 'Don't leave me' and in the original French it's somebody begging a partner who's on the point of leaving to stay, and begging them to the extent that they completely abnegate themselves.

Jackie. "And if you stay I'll make you a day..."

Des. Well, no, this is the problem.

Jackie. Wrong translation.

Des. It's a problem of translation with a lot of these. That translation that everybody knows, 'If you go away', which was done by Rod McKuen...

Jackie. Dusty Springfield did a cracking version.

Des. Yes, which was recorded by Dusty Springfield and countless other people...the problem is, it's a great song in its own right but he isn't very faithful to the original. For a start it's 'If you go away', not 'Don't leave me', which the original is...

Jackie. Yes, slightly less desperate.

Des. The lyrics of the last verse go 'Let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog'. It literally is someone prepared to completely humiliate themselves, begging this person to stay, and beautiful though the Rod McKuen version is I really don't think it gets that point across at all.

Jackie. It's not the same song.

Des. And in fact I also do translations of songs and I did retranslate that song for Barb Jungr, who a couple of years ago did an album of chanson.

Jackie. Wow, I'd like to hear that.

Des. And we did a new translation of that song, which was authorised by the Brel foundation and Brel's daughter - I'm quite pleased with that - which is just called 'Don't leave me'.

Jackie. So why do you think we have this problem with sophisticated cabaret and sophisticated songs in this country. In the 60s, like you say, there were some crossover artists who did make it in the pop field even though they were from this cabaret-chansonnier tradition. Why do you think we have such a problem with it here? Cos it does seem to me that in Europe, in Berlin I know of several places where I've been invited to go and sing, where they send me the details of their concerts that they have, and there's amazing sophisticated adult entertainment going on but we just don't have it here.

Des. I think it's partly because of British anti-intellectualism, actually. There's a sort of philistinism in British culture that especially reflects on popular culture, which only has to reach a certain level in this country. And I also think it's to do with...I hate to say it but I think it's particularly the media. I don't think it's the general public. I do this club regularly called Pirate Jenny's...

Jackie. ...at the Vortex in Stoke Newington.

Des. ...and other gigs as well and the audiences that come along often you find are people that aren't familiar with the form but they're prepared to go along with it. Audiences are more open-minded, I think, than a lot of people who write about this kind of thing understand. And it's also because it's difficult to categorise. People in the media in particular like nice categories, and when you do something like I do, or like Barb Jungr's doing now, or Robb does who put that CD together, cos it doesn't fit into Folk & Roots, Pop & Rock, Jazz and Classical which are the four categories you've got in Time Out and the listings magazines, it's really difficult to get people to take notice of it and realise there could be ways of straddling those categories.

Jackie. Your dad is Dutch. Did that affect your interest in this form, do you think?

Des. I think it probably did. Without overstating the case, being a little bit different at school always sets off a chain of things in the way your personality develops, and I never felt, although I was born in England and grew up in England, entirely British.

Jackie. You felt European.

Des. Yep, I've always felt more European. I spent a lot of time in the Netherlands, and as I got older I started going to France and to Belgium, and I particularly liked Belgium, got very interested in Brel. And I'm very interested in the low countries side of Brel. He had this love-hate relationship with Flanders and very much made his success in Paris, but his wife and his family home continued to be in Brussels, and he wrote a lot about that part of the world. I find his attitude towards that really fascinating.

Jackie. Yeah. So you're family background, did you have this kind of music in your family? Was Jacques Brel played a lot at home?

Des. Not really. My mother sings, very beautifully, but a lot of it was me discovering music that she then got into.

Jackie. You went to Belgium and discovered Jacques Brel for yourself?

Des. Well, I knew about him anyway. I tell you what it was was David Bowie, that was what sowed the seeds. He was my first pop hero, and the first full price album I ever bought was Aladdin Sane, which has a fantastic track on it called 'Time' which is kind of a pastiche...

Jackie. "Time takes a cigarette..."

Des. No, not "Time takes a cigarette", that's 'Rock'n'Roll Suicide'.

Jackie. Oh yes, of course.

Des. "Time, he's waiting in the wings, he speaks of senseless things." It's a pastiche of cabaret style, and I absolutely loved that track. Bowie himself did covers of Brel, he did 'Amsterdam' and 'My Death/La mort'. Other artists were doing that kind of thing, there was a little bit of that in the 70s, some people had that waltzy feel to what they were doing, people like Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel...

Jackie. You went on to do a tribute to David Bowie, didn't you?

Des. I did, yes, after very many years I went back to doing that stuff again. I did a show with Russell Churney called Darkness and Disgrace, which we're doing again next month.

Jackie. Which is all Bowie songs. I believe he's seen it.

Des. He's not seen it, he's heard it. He's heard a tape of it. The people who run his website have been very supportive, and he's said to us it's like listening to songs that somebody else wrote and it's an ear-opener, which I was very pleased about -- but very scared in case he does turn up to see it, I have to say!

Jackie. Yeah, but he's cool, though, isn't he? Still cool. Well, listen, we're gonna play on of your songs now, called 'Grandmother was a Hero'. Tell us a bit about this song.

Des. This song is about my grandmother, who was actually German, so it's quite a mixed background, she came from Dresden. She married a Dutchman, and they were living in the Netherlands during the war. So these were circumstances when she was a German national, living in another country that was occupied by Germany, and also they were involved in the resistance as well, they helped smuggle out Jews. But they didn't have a very good relationship with each other, and I think if it hadn't been for the war their marriage wouldn't have survived. And this song is partly about that and about her and what it means to be a hero, cos I don't think if you had met the woman you would have thought that's stereotypical movie hero material but in that place and that time she knew what she had to do. The song is also about my relationship with her, because I was completely terrified of her when I was a child, she was the ogre that we used to go over and visit. And it was a very long journey in those days, cos we lived in North Wales, and you had to go from the Hoek to Harwich overnight which took eight hours. My father wouldn't drive on the motorway, even though it was the 60s and there were motorways, he insisted on driving down the A6 all through Husbands Bosworth and Market Harborough and places like that. And we'd get there and the first thing my grandmother would say to my mother was "Oh you're looking fatter than the last time I saw you". My mother would collapse in tears and it was just one of those horrible family things. Of course, she mellowed over the years...

Jackie. (laughs) Well I can't wait to hear the lyrics to this. 'Grandmother was a Hero' by Des de Moor.

[plays 'Grandmother was a Hero'.]

Jackie. Did she ever get to hear that? I'm guessing not.

Des. No, she was dead by the time that was written.

Jackie. Very complex relationship. I love that last line, she was a hero but heroes have flaws, and she was a human and that counts. Lovely sentiment. I see what you mean about grown-up lyrics for grown-up people. Now, you've been described as a kind of Brechtian Marc Almond by Time Out. How do you feel about that?

Des. Quite flattered in a way.

Jackie. Cos he was somebody who also crossed over, he was into that Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel thing.

Des. Yes, he did a whole album of Brel songs called Jacques. They're interesting, I think. He has his own way of doing them, which is good. He's found a way of doing them which has got something of the pithiness of the originals. And he also did -- quite an interesting selection of material but not entirely successful -- an album called Absinthe, which was all French stuff, not Brel but things by people like Barbara, and I think there was a Léo Ferré on it.

Jackie. We've had a couple of emails. This is from Liz, and she says: "Try Simon Warner's album Waiting Rooms for a new take on Brel-style song."

Des. That's interesting.

Jackie. Know that?

Des. No, I don't know that.

Jackie. "It's an amazing album but Simon does not have the exposure that he should have," says Liz. "By the way, I loved Darkness and Disgrace at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. Looking forward to Hampstead."

Des. Oh, excellent. That's nice. Could I just say to Liz, if she knows Simon Warner perhaps she can point him in our direction. Go to my website, www.desdemoor.com.

Jackie. Well, there you go, we're creating a chansonnier network here on BBC London 94.9.

Des. Sometimes Pirate Jenny's is a little bit like that. Shall I tell you about the Pentameters first?

Jackie. Do, yes, let's do Pirate Jenny's after News and Travel cos I'm interested, I want to come down, I wanna come and do a number, if you'll have me. I've never been to Pirate Jenny's at the Vortex. It's a great little club, the Vortex, and that's your regular club night there. We'll talk more about that in a bit. In the meantime, yes, tell me about the Hampstead gig, cos I'd love to come down and see you singing Bowie songs.

Des. It's Darkness and Disgrace, it opens on the 4 February and runs for three weeks, and it's at the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead, in Heath Street, which is only about half a minute from the tube, above a pub. It's me and Russell Churney who some people might remember from his work with Julian Clary. He was "the lovely Russell".

Jackie. Julian's foil, wasn't he? [Clary impression]. "The lovely Russell. He is heterosexual, I can't stress that enough."

Des. He is indeed.

Jackie. My bad Julian Clary impression.

Des. (laughs) Russell does a perfect one. Perhaps I shouldn't say that on air in case Julian is listening. But, erm, the idea for the show originally came from me, but Russell has been very instrumental in getting the whole thing together. It's directed by Barb Jungr as well so it's a bit of a chansonniers' convention.

Jackie. Because Barb used to sing for Julian, didn't she? She was one of his backing singers for a while.

Des. Yeah, that's how Barb and Russell knew each other. And they were working together and then Russell starting working with me and then one day I said, "Ooh, I fancy doing 'Time' by Bowie? Do you know that?" And it turned out he was a big Bowie fan so the whole thing expanded from there. We said, "Let's do a whole show of Bowie songs."

Jackie. Is it all from the Aladdin Sane album? Which ones do you do?

Des. We go right through from 'Please Mr Gravedigger' and 'London Boys' from 1966, from the Deram work, and the most recent is from the Outside album, 1995, which is 'I Have Not Been to Oxford Town', and quite a few points in between. We were weak on the Berlin stuff but we've been working on some of the stuff from that period.

Jackie. I'm guessing that you don't do 'Let's Dance'.

Des. We don't do 'Let's Dance', we don't do 'The Laughing Gnome' although that's been considered...

Jackie. [laughs] You could do a great bitter twisted version of that, couldn't you?

Des. Well, we may be doing a waltzy German cabaret version of '"Heroes"'.

Jackie. Oh, that would be gorgeous. [News and Travel]

Jackie. ...and coming up after this show Peter Curran's guest is the controversial film director David Cronenburg.

Des. Ooh.

Jackie. A little 'Ooh' there from my guest Des de Moor. You a big fan of his?

Des. Erm, quite a fan, yes. I was one of the few people who liked his film of The Naked Lunch, which was roundly criticised but I thought it was very interesting.

Jackie. But your milieu generally is the chansonnier tradition and cabaret in particular. You run your own club at the Vortex in Stoke Newington which is a lovely little music venue, called Pirate Jenny's. Tell us a bit about that.

Des. Well, I started Pirate Jenny's quite a long time back now, December '94 was the first one, and I basically started it because of the things we were talking about earlier: cos it's quite difficult to categorise the sort of stuff I do and the sort of stuff a few other people are doing now, it's quite difficult to find a sympathetic place to play. It doesn't really work in rock venues, it doesn't really work in folk clubs. Theatres it kind of works in, a lot of people do musical cabaret and chanson stuff in theatres, but there's this formality about a theatre and traipsing out to the bar in the interval and traipsing back in to this black box. Whereas the Vortex was the perfect place to do it.

Jackie. It's great. It's dark, there's fairy lights, there's candles on the tables.

Des. It's tables and chairs, and there's a bar in the room, but at the same time it's intimate enough and attentive enough that you can do the kind of stuff we do at Pirate Jenny's, and people will listen but just feel relaxed and informal.

Jackie. Yeah, it's a great venue, I've done a few gigs there myself. What's the format? Do people just get up and sing or do you book acts?

Des. We normally book acts. I MC it and I always do a few songs, and we usually have two acts that are on, one headliner and one main support. We used to have a bit more than that but it got a bit much trying to fit everybody in, and giving people a fair crack of the whip, and finding enough people that really fitted the format of the night. What I wanted was something that was definitely a bill, so it wasn't one artist, it had that feel of a cabaret bill.

Jackie. Who've you had on? What sort of people play there?

Des. Well, Barb, who's been mentioned a few times...

Jackie. She's great.

Des. Yep, who's fantastic. Robb Johnson. The first night, and we've had her back several times since, we kicked off with a jazz singer called Kate Westbrook who with Mike Westbrook, her husband, has done a lot of orchestral-type jazz, but also a lot of experimental stuff and Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler-type material. The Tiger Lillies, who people might now know from Shockheaded Peter, oh all sorts of people over the years.

Jackie. Cos 'Pirate Jenny's' is a Kurt Weill song.

Des. Yep, Pirate Jenny is a character from the Threepenny Opera, who fantasises about being a pirate queen and sings a fantastic song called 'Seeräuberjenny', Pirate Jenny.

Jackie. So when is Pirate Jenny? Is it every Tuesday.

Des. No, it's the first Tuesday of the month at the Vortex.

Jackie. So there's one coming up this Tuesday.

Des. There's one coming up this Tuesday, and we've got Fran Landesman...

Jackie. Oh, wow!

Des. ...who as you might know wrote the lyrics to a couple of fantastic standards from the 50s called 'Spring can really hang you out the most' and 'Ballad of the Sad Young Men'.

Jackie. Now, I have a card from Fran Landesman, because she of course is mother to Cosmo Landesman who was married to Julie Burchill, and I played Julie Burchill in a play last year and she came to see it and sent me a lovely card. And Julie actually showed me some of the lyrics that she's written and they're wonderful. She wrote some lyrics based on Julie Burchill's autobiography, which are really really worth reading, very entertaining, but I don't think they've been set to music.

Des. Well she's carried on being an immensely prolific poet and lyricist. She's originally from New York, and she was involved on the beat scene.

Jackie. Fascinating woman.

Des. And she's been based in London for many years. And she's working now with a guy called Simon Wallace who is a pianist and also a composer, and with his other hat on does quite a bit of film and TV composing, he writes scores for French and Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous...

Jackie. Yes, I know him.

Des. He's now working collaboratively with Fran on songs.

Jackie. So she'll be on on Tuesday.

Des. She'll be on on Tuesday with Sarah Moule. Simon and Sarah have just recorded a whole album of Wallace and Landesman songs.

Jackie. And it's only six quid to get in. And there's good food, cheap wine

Des. Yep, and we also have an act called Diva Eve, Evelyne Brink, who is a German cabaret singer who in another life is a Madonna impersonator.

Jackie. (laughs) Excellent.

Des. Quite an interesting bill. And me too, of course.

Jackie. So that's at the Vortex. What time does it kick off.

Des. We open the doors about 8, and the show starts about 8:30, finish by 11.

Jackie. Lovely. So that's Pirate Jenny's at the Vortex, in Stoke Newington Church Street on the first Tuesday of the month. And six quid to get in.

Des. Or ten euros. We take euros.

Jackie. Do you accept euros? Do you really? Brilliant! Now you've got lots of other interests. Looking through your website, desdemoor.com, it's fascinating because you actually write for the CAMRA magazine What's Brewing, the Campaign for Real Ale, and also the Ramblers' Association. So you've got these really diverse interests. Tell us a bit about CAMRA. What do you write for them?

Des. I write bottled beer reviews once a month for What's Brewing, their membership newspaper, which came out of contributions I used to make to a website. One of my interests is speciality beers.

Jackie. Is that a Belgian thing? Yes? Cos there's some great Belgian beers. I went to Leuven, when I used to hitchhike in my student holidays...

Des. Well, my ex-partner lived in Leuven for a while and I used to go and visit him.

Jackie. That's where Stella Artois is made.

Des. Probably not one of the greatest Belgian beers.

Jackie. I liked kriek, the cherry beer, which is delicious, and of course there are now lots of bars in London which do speciality Belgian and French beers. So that's interesting, yes, I can make that connection now. But rambling? Is rambling in the chansonnier tradition?

Des. Well, actually I was just looking through the latest edition Jef, which is the magazine of the Fondation Internationale Jacques Brel, the other day...

Jackie. Like you do.

Des. ...and they had a fantastic picture of Jacques himself dressed in a pair of shorts and a waterproof with a big stick and his walking boots...I'd never realised that.

Jackie. So Jacques Brel was a keen rambler.

Des. Walking is another pastime of mine and something I was quite interested in, and I hadn't worked in a proper job for a long time, and this job came up at the Ramblers' Associaiton as their walking information officer and somebody said to me, "You really ought to apply for this", and I did and was offered it.

Jackie. So what information do you supply about walking? Place one foot in front of the other and you keep going?

Des. Oh this is the Lord Macdonald thing isn't it, when he was asked whether there ought to be a national walking strategy, he said we don't need it because everybody knows how to walk. Of course there's a lot more to it than that. There's where to go and gear and that kind of information...

Jackie. Whereabouts in London do you live?

Des. In Deptford.

Jackie. Well there's some lovely walks round there. There's some great walks in London, but people associate the Ramblers' Association, and the Campaign for Real Ale, with the countryside. Do you do specific stuff about urban walking?

Des. That's one of my major interests, urban walking and walking in towns and cities, and something that the Ramblers does have information about and have involvement with.

Jackie. So what are the best walks in London, say for a nice crisp sunny afternoon like today?

Des. My favourite walk in London is any bit of the Thames Path between County Hall and right down to Greenwich. I think that whole stretch of the South Bank there is absolutely fascinating, just great to explore on foot. There's an endless succession of things to look at down there.

Jackie. What are the high points? I particularly like the lamp posts along there.

Des. Well there's the fantastic lamp posts and then there's things like the Oxo Tower, the site of the Clink prison and Winchester Palace, the rebuilt Globe theatre, Hays Galleria, Cherry Garden Pier and all the way into Bermondsey, and then Greenwich itself which is just a marvellous place.

Jackie. Well there you have it. Go and have a walk along the Thames Path. Now we're going to play another track sung by you, though it wasn't written by you. This is called 'The Sailor's Longing'. Tell us a little bit about this.

Des. This is from the compilation that you mentioned earlier on. It's a song by a guy called Wannes Van de Velde, who is a Flemish singer-songwriter from Antwerp. It was one that I heard on an album of his that instantly jumped out at me, I've absolutely got to do this song because it's such a beautiful song. This genre of singer-songwriters in the Netherlands and Belgium call themselves 'kleinkunst', which means 'little art', literally translated, and I always think they're doing themselves down if they can write fantastic tunes like this.

Jackie. Why do they call it little art?

Des. I've no idea, I'm not sure exactly where the origin of the word was.

Jackie. Low self-esteeem?

Des. Perhaps. I thought that was something the British suffered from but obviously they're not alone. I did a translation of this song, and part of the song is sung in Dutch on this version.

Jackie. What languages do you speak, Des?

Des. I just about speak Dutch and French and I can speak a bit of German. Well enough to translate.

Jackie. So just to recap, Des de Moor runs Pirate Jenny's at the Vortex, first Tuesday of every month. You've got your David Bowie tribute show at the Pentameters theatre, Darkness and Disgrace in February, and if you're interested in real ale and rambling you can also read him in the Ramblers' magazine and in What's Brewing...I like the title of the CAMRA magazine. Des, thanks very much, here's 'The Sailor's Longing'.

[plays 'The Sailor's Longing'.]

Jackie. 'The Sailor's Longing' drifting off out of the dock there. That was of course the very lovely and very informative Des de Moor. I really enjoyed that interview: I love hearing people talk who are very passionate about what they do.

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