Born in Paris in 1979, Camille Dalmais grew up listening to soul, R&B and folk music of the ’60s and ’70s. In her teens, she fell in love with classic chanson and after making an impromptu performance at a wedding, aged 16, discovered that she wanted to be a singer. One thing led to another, and before you could say “Zut alors!”, she was.
She released her solo debut Le sac des filles in 2002, then earned minor cult status as one of several guest vocalists with production team Nouvelle Vague on their bossa retreads of post-punk/new wave classics. Then things really took off with her sophomore album Le Fil (2005), which has sold in excess of 200,000 copies in France, and almost as many abroad. It also bagged her the coveted Prix Constantin – the French equivalent of a Mercury Music Award – and gushing fan mail from Jacques Chirac.
Le Fil subtly reinvents the ‘concept album’. It starts with an intake of breath, followed by a vocal drone in B that’s ‘held’ throughout, reappearing between tracks and ever-present in the sparse, delicate arrangements for percussion, hand claps, synth, trombone, bass, guitar and Camille’s chameleonesque voice. Human beat-boxing, sampling and looping herself and almost scatting, she is by turns girlish, sultry, pensive, playful and strident.
It’s her live performances that have really won over the UK. Though she initially played to a mostly expat crowd at London’s tiny Jazz Café, favourable media attention and a show-stealing appearance on Jools Holland’s Later meant she soon graduated to larger venues, where her wacky audience participation routines and startling inventiveness have won her critical acclaim. Hardly surprising, then, that her latest release is the 2006 album Live au Trianon.
Camille is often spoken of in the same breath as Björk, mainly because she’s female, foreign and relentlessly experimental, but most likely because you’ll probably either love or hate her. A closer comparison might be Belgian a cappella group Zap Mama, or even Cuba’s Vocal Sampling, but Camille is really in a class of her own, having effectively invented her own genre. “My music is about opening frontiers,” she declares.
Album Review on bbc.co.uk/music
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