Carla Bruni has sat in the velvet seats of Paris’s Olympia theatre many times, but tonight her name hangs outside in bold red lettering. The music hall, opened by Moulin Rouge magnate Joseph Oller, is where Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel delivered their grandiose chansons to rapturous audiences.
Two years since leaving the Elysée Palace, Bruni continues to dominate the French press: paparazzi and television crews line the boulevard. Nicolas Sarkozy, ushered inside to the balcony, sparks the evening’s first boisterous applause from a hall that doesn’t appear to contain many François Hollande supporters.
Bruni’s silhouette is projected onto a screen, before she emerges in a maroon blazer and leather trousers. “Bonjour Paris,” her voluptuous Italian accent trembles with excitement. “It’s not every day you get to sing at the Olympia.” When she returns for an encore, the crowd surges forward, with many proffering bouquets of roses.
Bruni is possibly the closest France comes to a modern-day chanteuse. Perhaps it’s a life lived in public or the warmth of her voice that provokes such affection from the Olympia audience.
Two weeks later, I meet Bruni in a studio on a street off the Champs-Elysées. We’re here to record her Radio 2 series Carla Bruni’s Postcards from Paris, in which she’ll talk about her life in music and play her favourite French, English and Italian songs. She removes a fedora and sunglasses to reveal one of the most photographed faces in the world.
This is the studio where Bruni recorded her latest album, Little French Songs, including the song Mon Raymond, in which she calls Sarkozy her “atomic bomb” and her pirate. All typically French, but in the album’s title track she admits, “French songs are maybe démodées”: unfashionable Gallic artefacts, impenetrable to non French-speakers. But she argues that the rest of the world ignores the French songbook at its peril. “Because we have de quoi frimer (something to show off about): we have Brassens, Breland Ferré.”
You could be forgiven for taking this as Tricolore-waving from the former First Lady, but her enthusiasm for French song is sincere. She recalls as a teenager spending all her money on tickets to every night of Serge Gainsbourg’s three-week residency at the Casino de Paris. She gossips about Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf’s platonic friendship: “He told me that when they lived together they were often so drunk that one had to undress the other to put them to bed.”
Carla Bruni Tedeschi was born into a life of luxury near Turin, where visitors to the estate included soprano Maria Callas. Her father Alberto Bruni Tedeschi, a member of the industrialist Italian bourgeoisie, composed dissonant 12-tone music. Her concert pianist mother Marisa Borini exposed young Bruni to Mozart and Beethoven.
The family moved to Paris when Bruni was seven, and a decade later she swapped university for a life in fashion. “It was an easy way of achieving independence. I was tall and thin enough and I wanted a job that would let me travel.” She was at the forefront of the rise of the supermodels in the 1990s – famously entangled with Mick Jagger – before retiring in 1997.
While Bruni was walking runways, she was writing songs in private on her guitar. “At the end of my modelling years, I began to think I could use them.” She had low expectations for Quelqu’un m’a dit, her debut album released in 2002 on an independent label. “We didn’t think it’d get played on the radio and we were right. It became successful by miracle.” The album went on to sell two million copies in Europe and for her second record, No Promises, which set lyrics by WB Yeats and Dorothy Parker to song, she enlisted her friend and “English professor” Marianne Faithfull for poetry-reading lessons.
In 2007 Bruni met the newly divorced French president Nicolas Sarkozy and married him two months later. “By the time I released the third album, my man was the President. It changed my life in a public way. It didn’t really bother the music, although I couldn’t tour because of all the security reasons.” Today, a guard accompanies her to the studio.
As First Lady, her songs were subjected to heightened scrutiny. The drug references in Tu es ma came, where she describes a lover as more dangerous than “Colombian snow”, solicited a complaint from the Colombian government. “People thought I wrote about drugs, and I’d never promote that. It’s about love addiction.” She calls the reaction from newspapers on this side of the channel “good fun”. She shrugs. “If they make a little fuss, who minds? Not me.”
Bruni paints life in Paris, her adopted city, in vibrant colours, reminiscing about the days she lived in an apartment on the Boulevard St Germain and frequented the second-hand booksellers. It was inspired casting when Woody Allen enlisted her as a tour guide in his 2011 film Midnight in Paris. Now, from her home in the 16th arrondissement, it’s trickier for her to live the bohemian idyll in public, but her music is evocative enough to transport you to the City of Love.