When Philippe Elan (1960) was asked by the Residentie Orchestra to perform at pop venue Het Paard in The Hague, he needn’t think twice. Their rich versions of French chansons can now be heard on their Ma France album. The singer, who has been living in the Netherlands for 33 years, still feels a strong connection with the French culture. We visited the chanteur in his Amsterdam home for a conversation about the power of the French song. His partner Gijs served the tea.

How did the collaboration with the Residentie Orchestra come about?

This orchestra tries to remove as many barriers as possible for a potential audience. For example, they organize concerts in halls where people listen in a relaxed way having drinks in their hands. They asked me for this project, for which I could select my own repertoire. Although it was pretty exciting for me to perform at Het Paard, I noticed from the start that the atmosphere was good. Only after we had listened to the recordings, that we had made just in case, artistic director Sven Arne Teppel took them to the record company. Fortunately they were just as happy about them as we are.

Until now you have recorded albums with small ensembles. Does singing with an orchestra require a completely different approach?

If you work with fifty musicians, you have to be constantly alert, because you simply can’t afford to miss the train. I really sing these songs with my heart and my soul. In Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ I go all the way and give myself completely. But I also dare to sing more softly; this orchestra allows me to perform a song very intimately. If all goes well, people will mainly hear the passion that I have for this repertoire.

Ma France
Ma France

Do you sing your own work as well?

I reworked a song by Anni-Frid Lyngstad in French for this album. I have a great love for her. Anni-Frid was the dark-haired singer of Abba, the Swedish group that I have always appreciated. Now and then I have contact with Anni-Frid. She heard my performance and she thought it was wonderful, she told me.

Anni-Frid Lyngstad
Anni-Frid Lyngstad

‘A ma mère enfouie’ is full of musical drama, what are the lyrics about?

A man is standing at his mother’s grave. In the song he describes the memories he has of her. In the chorus, he sadly states: “Now you are lying here in the ground.” But at the end of the day he realizes why all those memories had come to him: “Your body may be in the ground, but you are here in my heart.’

Are the big questions of life more prominent in French chansons than, for example, in English songs?

In France we had some excellent lyricists, like Jean Ferrat and Leo Ferré. They wrote not only about major themes such as life and death, but also about society and all kinds of social developments. On this album I sing “La Montagne” by Ferrat. This original version contains serious social criticism. Lyrics are important for me, I can only sing a song if I agree with the words.

Jean Ferrat
Jean Ferrat (1930 – 2010)

What appeals to you in ‘Mon Dieu’?

In this song, the desperate protagonist asks God if his beloved can live longer, even if it is only one day. I was brought up as a Catholic. Although I am no longer a member of the church, wherever I am I like to visit abandoned church buildings to find peace and quiet. I often think of my deceased mother, who left me these wise words: “You don’t have to agree with the Pope to be able to believe.”

Ma France : Chansons symphoniques

Philippe Elan, Residentie Orkest, Jurjen Hempel – Challenge Classics