Often compared to the legendary Serge Gainsbourg, singer/songwriter/arranger Benjamin Biolay is less apt to call on a Brigitte Bardot or Françoise Hardy to sing his songs when he can do it just as well himself, although Gainsbourg did often duet with his protégées, most notably Jane Birkin on the scandalous international hit "Je T'aime...Moi Non Plus." Not that the handsome, honey-voiced Biolay hasn't worked with a few female vocalists on occasion; for instance, his younger sister Coralie Clément, who has at times been compared to Hardy and Birkin. Biolay arranged and wrote most of the songs on her 2001 debut Salle des Pas Perdus (which was released in the U.S. in 2002). Biolay is also a renaissance man of French chanson, whether he is extending the tradition as a songwriter, as on his 2007 Trash Yeye, paying tribute to the great singers and songwriters of the past, as on 2015's Trenet, or re-visioning tango and Latin American cumbia as 21st century French pop for Palmero Hollywood. This former enfant terrible of song has evolved into a respected, award-winning producer without a shred of compromise. As such, he possesses a keen ear for showcasing the talents of iconic singers such as Coralie Clément and Keren Ann, while adding previously unheard dimensions to the music of others (Vanessa Paradis).
Biolay was born in Villefranche-sur-Saône, France in 1973. His father was a clarinet player and member of the local orchestra. Biolay played the violin as a young man, going on to study the instrument at the Lyons Conservatoire. Over the years, his musical interests would grow to encompass classical (Mozart, Beethoven), American pop (Chuck Berry, the Beatles), and traditional French music (Trenet). From the violin, he moved on to the tuba, trombone, guitar, and piano. When he was 13, he discovered Gainsbourg's "Histoire de Melody Nelson," which would have a big influence on his own concept recording (2001's Rose Kennedy). From his teens through his early twenties, Biolay was a member of several groups, including Wind? and Mateo Gallion. The latter released a CD in 1994, which had little impact. In 1996, he was signed as a solo artist to EMI, but his initial singles met with little success. Then, in 1999, he met Keren Ann Zeidel (aka Keren Ann), with whom he composed the 2000 French hit "Jardin D'hiver" for Henri Salvador's comeback album Chambre Avec Vue. He would go on to collaborate with Keren Ann on Biographie de Luka Philipsen (2000) and La Disparition (2002). In some form or another, Biolay has also worked with Hubert Mounier (aka Cleet Boris), Isabelle Boulay, Françoise Hardy, and Jane Birkin.
In 2001, Biolay released his full-length debut, Rose Kennedy, a concept album full of hushed vocals, lush strings, and lyrical musings about the Kennedy family — and Marilyn Monroe — mostly from the point of view of family matriarch Rose. The recording features audio excerpts that evoke those golden years when JFK was in the White House, brother Robert was attorney general, and Monroe was on the silver screen. Other than the English samples (from Some Like It Hot, Monroe's "River of No Return," etc.), Rose Kennedy is in French and wasn't released in the U.S. Also in 2001, Biolay issued the Remix EP, featuring new versions of seven Rose Kennedy songs. The album sold more than 75,000 copies, achieving gold status.
Over the next two years, Biolay wrote, produced, arranged, and collaborated on a slew of recordings by an astonishing variety of artists from Hardy to Elodie Frégé. (The latter's Le Jeu des 7 Erreurs sold 100,000 copies in France alone, and won Étoiles de la Musique's "Révélation Française de L'Année" as well as best song for "La Ceinture," written by her producer.) He was also feverishly writing his own music. He composed 56 songs for his final Virgin/EMI date, Trash Yéyé, and pared the collection down to 12 for inclusion. The set sold respectably, but more importantly, its critical reception paved the way for his breakthrough, the double-length La Superbe, his debut for Naïve in 2010. The album was a virtual decalogue of the sensual in French society; its songs ranged from jazzy chanson to indie rock to trip-hop, EDM, and even cabaret. The record earned double-platinum status in France, selling over 240,000 copies. He won two French Grammys that year for Best Male Artist and Best Album.
Biolay is nothing if not mercurial; he always delivers the unexpected. Instead of hitting the road and performing to promote his success, he released Pourquoi Tu Pleures? (Musiques Inspirées Du Film) — from the motion picture of the same name — in which he played the lead role. The set featured a host of unusual duets with actress Sarah Adler, African performers Amadou & Mariam, and Luis Mariano. He followed it in 2012 by acting and performing in the production Pop'pea, a rock adaptation of Claudio Monteverdi's Baroque opera The Coronation of Poppea, presented by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. He also managed to produce a posthumous collection by beloved songwriter and singer Henri Salvador, and sets by Daphne, Julia Stone, and Elisa Jo. He had his own concert performance at the Casino Paris released for television and video, and wrote a song especially for Petula Clark's self-titled comeback album. Most importantly, 2012 saw the release of his own Vengeance. The 14-song set included two charting singles — "Aime Mon Amour" and "Profite" (the latter a duet with Vanessa Paradis) — and went gold.
Biolay returned the favor to Paradis. In 2013, he produced, arranged, and sang on her comeback album Love Songs, and was part of her concert band for Love Songs' Tour. Over the next couple of years, he was in the studio almost constantly, producing recordings by Charlélie Couture and Karen Brunon, among others. In late 2014, Biolay signed to Barclay. He issued Trenet, his debut for the label, a year later. Uncharacteristically, it was a stripped-down, reverential covers tribute to the legendary French songwriter, with Belgian guitarist/bassist Nicolas Fiszman and drummer Denis Benarrosh. Reception and sales were enthusiastic but Biolay seemed not to notice. He spent the next year in a somewhat notorious neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina, writing and recording. In spring of 2016, Palermo Hollywood (named for a neighborhood in Buenos Aires) was issued. Biolay described it as "...the impression of two cities and two hemispheres." The 16 new songs, recorded in Argentina and France, intersect, according to their composer, with Ennio Morricone's soundtracks, French chanson, electro cumbia, chamame, modern big-band jazz, pop/rock, loops and beats, tango, and his love of futbol. The set's title track lead single landed in the Top Five on the French charts and in the Top Ten on various global charts. Still deeply under the sway of his adopted home in Argentina, Biolay followed it with the full-length Volver less than a year later. The album's 15 tracks reflected a mix of neo-cumbia, electro, rock & roll, and classic nouveau chanson. Regarding the latter, the artist claimed in interviews leading up to the release that it was "dead." The full-length offered a number of guest spots, including ex-wife Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas, Sofia Wilhelmi, and Ambrosia. The album's first single, the retro-disco ballad "Roma (amoR)" went to the top of the French pop charts, as did the album. The following year, Biolay teamed with countryman, French actor, musician, and film director Melvil Poupaud (brother of Yarol Poupaud, guitarist for FFF) for a live touring show titled Songbook. The longtime friends share a love of cinema and historic chanson and wove them both together with a flair for humor and theatricality. They took it on the road before committing it to tape in a studio. It was comprised of covers of classic French and international songs by writers ranging from Gainsbourg and Georges Brassens to Julien Clerc, Quincy Jones, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. In addition, the set included well-known songs from Biolay's original repertoire; it was issued in November of 2018.
Biolay had been obsessed with the Jean Graton comic book series Michel Vaillant since he was nine years old. The series reflects the life and (mis) adventures of a lonely Formula 1 driver, as much an existential figure as he is a hero. He has also been a lifelong fan of actor and racecar driver Steve McQueen. Formula 1 (aka Grand Prix) racing is a national pastime in his native France and indeed, after futbol, across Europe. Biolay paid it homage on 2020's Grand Prix. Issued in the early summer, it marked the songwriter's deliberate return to "French rock." He wrote 12 of the set's 13 songs, and co-composed "Virtual Safety Car" with guitarist /bassist Pierre Jaconelli. His other session players included drummer Philippe Entressangle and keyboardist/programmer Johan Dalgaard. Biolay produced, sang, played bass, programmed synths, and arranged the date which was mixed by Pierrick Devin. In April, its first single and video, the Marta Bevacqua-directed "Comme Est Ta Peine?" metaphorically addressed loneliness and separation imposed by quarantine during the global COVID-19 pandemic. ~ Kathleen C. Fennessy & Thom Jurek