Recently Aussie Theatre’s Jan Chandler had the pleasure of speaking with Parisian chanteuse Caroline Nin who is about to return to Australia, yet again.
This time she will be taking her iconic Hymne a Piaf on a tour that will include performances in Melbourne, Canberra, Castlemaine (Vic), Mandurah (WA) and Bathurst (NSW). Melbourne audiences will also have their first opportunity of experiencing another of her shows, Scarlet Stories.
Variously described by critics as a classic femme fatale who can belt, vamp, croon and purr – “the Marlene Dietrich of the 21st Century” – Nin first toured to Australia in 2002 and has visited many times since. Last year she received a Helpman Award Nomination for Hymne a Piaf and, as she tells me, “I think this is why people want me back, because probably some of them haven’t seen my shows”.
8 am Friday Paris time and Nin admits that she would rather be asleep than talking with a journalist in Australia. She was working until 1.30 am and will shortly be flying to Australia. Who can blame her for wanting to rest?
Instead I ask her about her earliest musical memories. Without hesitation she tells of her excitement at having seen Ella Fitzgerald in Paris in the late 1980s.
“She’s just a legend … I didn’t have the chance to see Piaf because I wasn’t born, but I’ve seen Ella who is another of my heroes”.
Nin began her career in the late 1980s at the Hollywood Savoy, as a waitress who sang; not very well she told Laura Griffin in an interview for My French Life in 2011. But, as Nin says in the same interview, she has had time to improve. She went on to train as a jazz singer in London and featured at a number of jazz clubs.
When I ask what made her create her own shows, she laughs, saying it was audience demand. People kept telling her that as a French woman she should be singing in French and she thought, “yeah, you are right, maybe.”
And why cabaret? Simple really, Nin loves telling stories and as a major consumer of biograhies she admits to knowing a lot of little stories about various things. She realised that if she could put songs together that are torch songs, ‘story-telling songs’, she would get more of an audience than by just doing concerts.
One day I decided why don’t I do a story on Edith Piaf and the rest is history…because it’s over ten years that I’ve been doing Piaf now. She takes me all around the world. It’s incredible.
I was intrigued to know how she approached the work of someone as well known and revered as Piaf. She tells me she does not attempt to imitate Piaf as there is no need. The songs are so rich, with beautiful melodies, that they open themselves up to new interpretations. Whilst there are some songs that she is comfortable belting a la Piaf, others she interprets in “a kind of bluesy, jazzy way.”
So how does Nin go about putting together a show such as this? Nin explains that she first chose four or five songs that are well known like ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’; ‘La vie en rose’; and ‘Padam’, always a highlight. Next she selected additional songs that she particularly liked, ones that have a strong story and rich melody. As Nin tells me that’s not difficult with Piaf, because “there’s always a tale of passion or death … she was a very dramatic character.” However if you are expecting to see someone who resembles the famous ‘little sparrow’ be warned; unlike Piaf, Nin is six foot tall and blonde.
Instead of being based on a particular singer, Scarlet Stories was inspired by the Red Light districts in big cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and New York. Nin selected songs that she knew and loved which featured strong female characters. Among the show’s songs are ones made famous by Marlene Dietrich (Lili Marlene), Nina Simone (Four Women) and Liza Minnelli (Money). Sounds perfect for The Famous Supper Club at The Famous Speigeltent in the Melbourne Arts Centre Forecourt where Nin will be performing at 11pm on 6 and 7 March.
All this travel and I wonder how she keeps herself going. “I’m very careful, I look after my health. I like people to think that I’m up and drinking champagne all night [laughter], but that’s not the case … I do yoga and I run.”
And what new Caroline Nin shows may we look forward to? Nin has written two new shows in the last couple of years, one of which she performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre last year – Songs and Stories of the Paris Lido; Nin continues to appear regularly at the famous Lido in the Champs-Elysee in Paris.
Nin also did a new show in Sydney last year which was inspired by the fact that Australians may know Piaf but they don’t know other French artists. I love you, me neither, the title drawn from the ‘infamous’ 1970s Serge Gainsbourg hit Je Taime, is performed with a five piece band, including drums and guitar. Nin describes it as more dynamic ‘really good’, and will be bringing the show back to Australia next year.
I’m really glad you asked about other shows because I think it’s really important to also tell the audience that I’m not only the Piaf chanteuse. Much as I love the Piaf show and I know I will do it all my life, I have other shows … that are highly entertaining and I hope that the audience will like them when I come back to do them.
But you don’t have to wait until 2014 to savour one of Caroline Nin’s performances of Scarlet Letters and Hymne a Piaf. Check the tour dates and put them in your diary, then look forward to a night of seductive story-telling.