‘Sweet and creepy’
French chanteuse/songwriter brings contrasting emotions to a multilingual blend of acoustic styles
Jessica Fichot is multi-ethnic, multilingual, musically gifted and spent her childhood performing in concert halls and cafés in and around Paris. By American sensibilities, she’s a throwing-knife skill and lair full of tamed tigers away from being a real-life Bond Girl, prompting one to wonder what such a woman might find exotic.
Would you believe it’s Tori Amos?
“I grew up listening to and playing music mostly in English, because back then, singing in English seemed kind of exotic to me,” Fichot—the U.S.-born, French-raised offspring of a French father and Chinese mother—said by phone from her adopted home of Los Angeles. “When I was really little I loved Madonna, then when I was a young teenager I got really into Tori Amos, and I wanted to do the singer/songwriter playing piano kind of music.
“I still love that music and think Tori Amos is great, but when I went to college in Boston I felt like every girl who played the piano wanted to be Tori Amos, so I kind of chose another direction.”
After moving to L.A. and listening to a lot of bands singing in Spanish, Fichot became interested in writing songs in French and rediscovered the songs of her childhood, and those of the generations that preceded her. This interest led to Fichot’s current musical role as a chanteuse, and for the last several years she has sung mostly in French over an eclectic blend of jazz, Gypsy and internationally informed folk traditions. To date, Fichot has released one full-length album (Le Chemin), an EP (Le Secret), embarked on more than a half-dozen regional and national tours and played engagements in Guadalajara, Mexico and Shanghai, China. She is currently recording a second full-length to be released next Spring.
More than just a pretty voice, Fichot is a classically trained musician and graduate of the School of Audio Engineering in Paris and from Berklee College of Music in Boston.
For her touring act (which stops at Café Coda tonight, Nov. 18), she fronts a band consisting of multi-instrumentalist Robby Marshall (clarinet, sax, flute), upright bassist Michael Papillo, guitarist Antoine Salem and her on the accordion, toy piano and even the occasional glockenspiel.
“I learned to play accordion for the band and the project that I have now,” Fichot said, “and toy piano I started playing originally because I was tired of carrying my keyboard around and I kept on having technical difficulties. I found this toy piano and it just had this really special sound, definitely not like a piano, but it’s a mixture of sweet and creepy.”
“Sweet and creepy” is a perfect description of some of Fichot’s work, haunting songs like “Berceuse Bancale” or “Un, Deux, Trois.”
“The toy piano is an instrument that is often the first instrument you play as a kid, so it can bring to mind sweet and innocent memories,” she says of the dynamic of her chosen instrument and some of her own songs. “But because of the natural out-of-tune sound of the instrument, it can also sound very dark in a certain context.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the dark aspect of fairytales and still read books for children and young adults that have very dark themes, like A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Golden Compass and even Harry Potter. The dark/sweet sound is not necessarily what I am looking for in every song I write, but hopefully something that people can hear on certain of my compositions.”
It’s unsurprising Fichot refers to childhood for inspiration; she’s also published more than 100 less-creepy songs for children.
“I went to college in Boston, and before I graduated I was working in a local theater writing scores for children’s musicals,” she explained. “After that, I was hired to write and produce songs for a company that publishes educational materials. It was mostly in the context of ESL [English as a Second Language] programs, to teach kids to speak English.”
Fichot, who speaks English, French, Spanish and some Mandarin, says that music is a valuable tool in education. “For me, it’s a great way to learn a language. Even if you don’t understand everything, if you listen to a song over and over again it will help you understand it better.
“The emotion and the words can still touch the audience even if you don’t understand the content.”