When we first met Carla Bruni at New York’s Carlyle Hotel in 2007, we were to interview her following the release of her enchanting No Promises album, which was a collection of well-known poems that she had deftly written into songs. It was a project that decisively proved she was not just another model who picked up a guitar in an attempt to buy some street cred. Rather, there was a deep sensitivity underlying her musicality, and an obvious commitment to creating something of genuine substance.
She was also remarkably charming…disarming, even.
A lot happened since then. She married French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, and shared a home with him at the Élysée Palace—France’s White House—until 2012. They had a child together, daughter Giulia, born October 19, 2011. And she made three more albums, all very well received (to date she has sold a total of more than three million records).
This time, we chatted from our respective quarantine locations—hers being Paris of course—as she is releasing a wonderful, self-titled new album on October 9. But her singular mix of fierce intelligence and endearing chumminess—she repeats your name a lot during conversation, and speaks to you like an old friend—readily melted away the nearly 4000 mile distance between us. We talked about squirrels, shared a love of the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers (specifically the episode in which Basil insists Manuel’s pet hamster is actually a rat), and she even opened up about how much she misses her son, as he had recently gone off to university.
The record is surely her most eclectic to date, effortlessly crossing stylistic boundaries and genres, and all the while maintaining an undercurrent of poignancy and honesty. It opens with “Quelque chose,” a strummy, breezy bit of ’70s inspired folk-melacholia, and is followed by the bewitching, lullaby-like strains of “Un secret.” But then the captivating “Rien que l’extase,” which translates to “Nothing but ecstasy,” is exactly that—just the sort of whimsical, spirit-lifting three-minutes-and-twenty-two-seconds we need after an entire year of being so badly beaten down.
She switches to English just once, with the stark, unabashed declaration of true and lost love that is “Your Lady” (“It makes me want to cry and wanna laugh and wanna die / Because without you nothing’s right.”) It’s followed by the album’s mini-masterpiece, “Partir dans la nuit,” which sounds like a lost McCartney/late-period-Beatles track, with lyrics about disappearing from view (more on that below). Throughout, her voice has never sounded so emotionally rich, or so equally vulnerable.
Oh, and a little bonus: We got Mlle. Bruni to tell us just what Monsieur Sarkozy thinks about the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.
A lot of things have happened since we last spoke…
Can you believe it???!
And I guess they’re still happening. Have you found that the quarantine was good for creativity?
It gives us a lot of time, empty hours, and that is not bad for creativity. It was bad for concentration. Long hours with no practical life were strange. Being creative was a great help, though, almost like a shelter.
Creativity becomes like therapy, a catharsis, when all around us is so much uncertainty and worry. But we do need a permanent solution to this thing.
A permanent solution will be when they find something to treat this terrible disease.
But I worry for the music world…
The music world is dying. But it’s not just the artists, it’s all the people working with us. The lighting people, the sound people, the people that help us with touring, the theater owners…those people who are so precious to us.
Right, what will they do? It’s so hard to say.
Here the Metro and trains are very crowded; so we are wondering why the theaters are empty.
So anyway, the new record is a joy.
Was it written before this all went down?
I had five songs before, written from November to March. Then we went into quarantine, and I wrote nine more. We went into the studio on the ninth of June, and instead of recording it in three weeks, we did it in six days. It was like, poof! What I realized was, we don’t need three weeks to make an album—six days are enough.
Well, necessity tends to make you reassess your behavior. If you have to get it done in six days, you just realize that you can. It’s kind of like when they would send fifty people to do photo shoots for magazines, and then shrinking budgets forced them to do it differently.
Yes! When I was young they would do these photo shoots where we would all go to the Caribbean for three weeks, just to get five pictures. From one afternoon!
Was it sort of exhilarating, having to get the album recorded that quickly?
It was a very, very, very, very exciting experience—it was exciting just to come out from [the quarantine]. It was such an incredible time, full of anxiety, full of fear, full of…no one knew, everything was confused. So being in the studio and being able to record was like a miracle! It was like heaven.
Was there a particular reason you decided to do the album in mostly French?
French is really a language I like to write in. It’s not a very comfortable language for singing, but it is incredibly rich as a writing language.
It seems more difficult to sing in French, but the end result has a certain mellifluous quality to it. But maybe it’s just me, because it always sounds exotic to me as an American.
It goes back to French being my childhood language. But I do think there is something very special about the French language.
When you record an album, is it kind of an emotional journey for you?
[This album] was like a journey for me, yes—new energy, new strength. It is an album that has a lot of desire in it, which maybe came from being in quarantine.
Was there anything in particular inspiring you when you were writing these songs?
Well, I try not to listen to other people’s music when I’m writing, because either I get completely discouraged, or I wind up just trying to copy the geniuses. I need to be free from comparing myself to Nina Simone or Billie Holiday or Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, because I think, “Why would I write my stupid song? There’s no point, no one needs it.”
Well, if it helps, “Partir dans la nuit,” sounds like Paul McCartney could have written it, stylistically.
Wow, I am so, so flattered. But I actually didn’t write the music, my friend Michel Amsellem wrote it.
It’s an intriguing title.
“Partir Dans le Nuit ” means to go away in the night, which is something that captures my heart, because I always do that. When people are asleep in my house, even when my husband was President of the French Republic, I would just go away. The police wouldn’t even see me, I would just sneak out.
I know what you mean, I would sometimes just get up and go to Amsterdam or wherever and not tell anyone. And the feeling of waking up in a place and knowing that no one actually knows you’re there is just amazing.
So similar! But now with these phones, we are trapped. Someone calls you and they know just where you are. I told my husband, “I hope you have no mistress, because it will show in your phone.” But I’m not really paranoid at all.
Two of your song titles translate to “Nothing But Ecstasy” and “A Great Love.” Do you think people need music right now that is uplifting?
Well, we need music and books and films…I think we need that more than ever. Libraries all got closed during COVID, but I thought that was very stupid, because it was exactly the time that we needed books—lonely people need books when they are isolated, especially older people. I know that books are not a necessity…but they are!
So I wanted to ask you a sort of philosophical question. When we first met, there was still a real sense of Europe being this powerful and stabilizing force in the world; and that went along with America…there was the “West.” And doesn’t it seem…I mean, you spent four years in the Élysée Palace…and doesn’t it seem like there has been this splintering of the idea of the West, and we’re sort of falling away from our…mission?
Yes, you’re absolutely right. Very much. We’re falling apart…we were already falling apart, even though we didn’t realize it. That’s why I was sad that Britain did the Brexit, because we need to all be together now.
It just feels like a completely different world.
A very different world. Maybe our time is passed. I think the new world now is Asia, Africa. And look at China, everybody says the Communists are against human rights…and that is probably true. But if you check on young people in China, they are so incredibly modern, and cultivated, and full of energy, and full of hope. I think the same for India and Africa. When my husband was President, there was a G8—and he couldn’t believe it was just G8.
It was very arrogant.
So arrogant! But he said, “Let’s make something with most of the world in it, let’s make a G20.” Because we want to know what China thinks, we want to know what India thinks, and what every country in Africa thinks. We have to step down from our pedestal. I would stop judging if I was us.
Well, 2021 is going to be a very eye-opening year.
What do you think is going to happen in America?
I think Donald Trump is going to steal the election, and then it’s going to be a very, very bad situation.
Oh, my husband thinks it’s impossible. And he is only wrong about politics maybe…one percent of the time.