By Kirsten Robertson
Born in the slums of Paris, Edith Piaf rose through trial and tribulation to became one of the most famous singers in the world today. She remains a symbol of French resilience and power, and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ is a classic still known widely and used in movie scores to this day.
Stirling University graduate Christine Bovill first heard the record as a teenager in Glasgow. Fast forward to now, and Christine Bovill’s Piaf is a hit show, selling out theatres all over the country.
Brig’s Kirsten Robertson caught up with Christine after her recent performance at the Macrobert Arts Centre to track her journey from Glasgow to the songs of Paris.
How does it feel to be back?
It feels extremely strange I have to say, there’s a lot of ghosts around. Even just driving in past Pathfoot building where I studied, so much is unchanged, and yet so much is new.
This is so embarrassing, but I don’t think I ever missed a lecture or a tutorial while I studied at Stirling. Also I didn’t stay here, I travelled from Glasgow every day. I was singing two nights a week in a jazz haunt there. My life was in Glasgow but I loved studying here. The Glasgow Evening Times had a big feature on me, and it was put on the door of the French department… nice memories.
How did you first discover Edith Piaf?
The truth is French was my nemesis in high school. I absolutely hated it. I remember sitting in French class loathing it. The teacher sat me on a row of my own because he didn’t like me. But then a priest – a close friend of the family – came round one night with a record he thought I should listen to because he knew I had been collecting old jazz records. It was a singer called Edith Piaf who I’d never heard of. I recoiled in terror because he told me she was French – such was my loathing of all things French at the time. But he said ‘No, side A is sung in English, listen to the second song on Side A, a song called No Regrets’. So I put on No Regrets.
I tend to use this Graham Greene quote in our publicity: “There’s a moment in every childhood when a door opens and lets the future in.” Listening to No Regrets was my moment, that was absolutely my moment. After that everything began to change – I listened to nothing else except that record, I spent my teens becoming obsessed with the language.
Suddenly French was my only concern in life. I did Higher French, then a five-year degree here at Stirling and went on to become a French teacher. I started writing when I was eight years into my teaching career and then the balance shifted more towards professional singing. The regular pay check was very handy when I was a poor musician! It was only when I released my first album that I quit the classroom for good.
I owe Piaf a great deal. If you had told me while I was here that this little Glasgow dropout who ended up studying at university would share the stage with Piaf’s great friend and last composer Charles Dumont, the man who wrote Non Je Ne Regrette Rien at the Edinburgh Fringe, that would have been laughable. It’s a dream story. But remarkably it was a dream that came true.
What’s been difficult through the years is that people assume it’s a tribute show, and it’s not. I don’t look or sound like Piaf – this is my story. But I talk about Piaf’s life, what’s necessary for the audience to know and conceptualise the songs, and I talk mostly about the songs. And I explain why the devil a girl from Glasgow is singing in French to them!
Were you proud of being a jazz fan growing up in Glasgow?
I was always collecting old jazz records, and still that’s my happy place in music. I am an oddball. I will wave the flag of old jazz to my dying day – it will be my funeral music! The focus was so intense – I shut myself off in my dad’s classroom, as he taught at my school. I had friends but I would make excuses and go to my dad’s classroom when it was empty. I’d listen to Piaf over and over again. I was fluent by the time I did my Higher because it was in my sleep – I was soaking in these lyrics. I was definitely proud, especially when everyone was listening to Wham! and Duran Duran all the time.
Saying that, I also love a lot of contemporary songwriters. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are the real songwriters. There’s loads of stuff that I listen to. Queen, I’m a massive Queen fan. In fact, someone recently told me that Queen did a gig when they were just starting out in Pathfoot Dining Room around 1971!
What kind of response do you get after shows?
What’s very typical is the wonderful emotional honesty that Scottish people have and I love. Often people come up and said “I thought I’d hate this, as it’s my husband or wife who likes Piaf, but I absolutely loved it.” Or they just say “I had no idea what to expect tonight.”
A lot of people get extremely emotional at the end of the show because of the confessional nature of it. The resonance of a song like No Regrets for most people is something else. Ireland, particularly Belfast, has embraced this show like no other city for the last six years. People are tearful, they want to hold you and make physical contact with you. It’s a wonderful communion between audience and performer. I think it’s just so intimate and so personal, and yet you’ve got the narrative of this global icon and these globally famous songs. People say very nice things about your voice or the songs as well of course.
Edith Piaf had a harrowing life, as shown through the Oscar winning La Vie En Rose – how much was true?
Piaf wrote her own biography in 1958 and there was a massive amount of reinventing history, as often happens with people when it’s still in their lifetime. What was interesting about La Vie en Rose was that it didn’t have a linear narrative, so if you didn’t know her life you could have trouble keeping up as it bounced about so much.
But she had an affair with a delivery boy at the age of 17, produced this little baby, but had no idea how to bring up a child! She had wine in a baby bottle and all sorts. And the baby died of meningitis, she’s buried in the plot that Piaf is in. In the show I make a big deal about Piaf’s severe case of conjunctivitis at the age of five that made her lose her sight and the subsequent miracle healing. To what extent it is true I am not sure. The girls in the brothel her granny owned saved up their money for the pilgrimage to Saint Therese – who knows how much is exaggerated! It’s such a wonderful French Parisian story, why not believe it I say.
What are your future plans?
I’m busy writing my third album and all going well it will be Christine Bovill’s Paris at the Edinburgh Fringe again: the new show in the format that I shaped.
Jim Haines, the founder of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, is coming back for his 61st Edinburgh Fringe festival this year and is going to sponsor me to do a concert in Paris this summer.
What does the future hold for jazz music?
Everything comes round again, it takes a La Vie En Rose to get a new generation to hear Piaf’s music. It can take a La La Land for jazz. What I loved about the film more than anything was the core theme of holding onto a dream. I have lived my life in a way in reverse – so many people go for the big dream, then settle down and get a mature job and make mature decisions. I did – I was married, I was a school teacher, came to a crossroads in my life and started writing, went to open mics and taught myself guitar. La La Land spoke to me just because they do kind of pursue their dreams, but I won’t say anything in case your readers haven’t seen it – but it’s not the ending you’re hoping for.
Why is Edith Piaf’s legacy so strong?
She’s still so much part of the fabric of France, even though she died over fifty years ago. Its her story, and the glory and resistance of her lyrics emerging from the darkest hours of fascism and German occupation in France makes them so powerful. I’m always keen to remind people that this show isn’t an imitation – no one can really sound like Piaf. She was tiny, and that voice came from her tiny little figure. In my show I refrain from going too far into the darkness because it’s an evening’s entertainment. It’s about what she achieved despite the life she led. That’s what we’re celebrating really.
Christine Bovill will be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August.
Check out her website here.