Spanish French

Episode 17: En scène avec Jacques Brel (In the Spotlight with Jacques Brel)

By Duolingo on Tue 23 June 2020

Arnaud Askoy has already had three different careers when, at age 43, he discovers his true calling: singing. But not his own music. Arnaud plans to launch a career impersonating Jacques Brel, one of the world’s most famous francophone musicians, and might just be crazy enough to pull it off. Check out recordings of Arnaud’s live performances here. We also made a Spotify playlist where you can kick back and listen to some of Jacques Brel’s greatest hits.

How to Listen

Listen free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Transcript

Ngofeen: In 2014, Arnaud Bassecourt was a father of two living in Paris with his family. At 43, he’d already had three careers. He’d been a cop, a private detective, and for the last three years, he’d worked as an independent construction worker, un artisan. But he was getting tired of it.

Arnaud: C’est un métier difficile. On se fatigue vite. C’est aussi un métier solitaire. Souvent, on est loin de sa famille. Je voulais arrêter de faire ce métier. Mais je ne savais pas quoi faire d’autre.

Ngofeen: Arnaud got a job renovating a cabin in the woods. He was working on his own, cut off from the rest of the world. Desperate for some entertainment, he dashed to the tiny village nearby and bought a random CD, un CD. It was a “best of” from one of the most popular francophone singer-songwriters of all time. A Belgian man who had died in 1978: Jacques Brel.

Arnaud: Je ne sais pas pourquoi j’ai choisi ce CD. Depuis que j’ai 15 ans, tout le monde dit que je ressemble à Jacques Brel : mes professeurs, mes collègues… C’est peut-être pour ça que j’ai choisi ce CD.

Ngofeen: Back at the cabin, Arnaud played the songs of his doppelganger, and he started humming along. As he listened to Jacques Brel’s rich grainy voice singing, Arnaud started singing along. And that’s when he heard it.

Arnaud: Je me suis dit : « Wow, c’est une chanson vraiment incroyable ! » Même la musique était magnifique. Mais quand j’ai commencé à chanter, ma voix s’est connectée à celle de Brel. Il y avait sa voix, et il y avait ma voix. Mais c’était une seule voix. Brel et moi.

Ngofeen: It was like a light switch going off. Arnaud, who’d never thought much about singing, suddenly saw a clear path ahead of him. He would bring Jacques Brel back to life. Back to the stage. But first, he had to learn how to sing.

Arnaud: Moi, devenir chanteur ? Je n’y avais jamais pensé. Mais à ce moment-là, c’était très clair. C’était une évidence. Je prends souvent mes décisions comme ça. En général, les gens hésitent quand ils prennent des décisions. Ils hésitent beaucoup pour les choses importantes. Mais moi, je me décide vite, en un instant. J’avais décidé : je voulais essayer de devenir comme Jacques Brel.

Ngofeen: Bienvenue and welcome to the Duolingo French Podcast. I’m Ngofeen Mputubwele. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your French listening and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate French, and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

One thing to note: we weren’t able to get the rights to Brel’s music for this episode, so while we can’t share any audio of Brel — or Arnaud singing Brel’s music — please visit our website, for links to Brel’s music and videos of Arnaud to see him perform. He really does look just like Brel!

Ngofeen: Arnaud returned to Paris, eager to share his new idea with his family, especially his 10-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and his 13-year-old son, Hugo. He told them he wanted to become Jacques Brel and perform at l’Olympia, a famous concert venue in Paris.

Arnaud: J’avais un objectif : je voulais chanter à l’Olympia. Jacques Brel a fait ses plus grands concerts dans cette salle. Chanter là-bas, c’était le but de ma carrière.

Ngofeen: Both his kids were enthusiastic. They said he should pursue his dreams. But his partner, his compagne, was quiet. Very quiet.

Arnaud: Ma compagne connaît ma personnalité. Elle s’est probablement dit : « Ça va passer. Je ne vais rien dire. » Elle n’a pas pris cela au sérieux. Elle pensait que j'abandonnerais cette idée rapidement. Pour elle, c'était juste une phase.

Ngofeen: His compagne thought it was a phase, but for Arnaud, it was a calling. He couldn’t fully grasp why, but this was the next thing for him. And it seemed feasible. Because of who Jacques Brel was.

Male reporter voice: Jacques Brel, one of the world’s most enigmatic French speaking singer-songwriters announced…

Female reporter voice: The voice and music of Belgian singer Jacques Brel. It has been 25 years since Brel’s death, and his songs are still…

Ngofeen: Since the sixties, Brel had been one of the most popular French-language musicians in the world.

Arnaud: Beaucoup de gens connaissent ses chansons, mais ils ne savent pas que ce sont des chansons de Brel. Certaines chansons sont connues dans le monde entier… La chanson Ne me quitte pas est devenue en anglais, “If you go away”. Nina Simone a chanté cette chanson, Frank Sinatra aussi, et même Cyndi Lauper ! Brel a influencé Leonard Cohen, David Bowie… Et il a vendu des millions d’albums.

Ngofeen: Brel was a singer-songwriter with a French twist: he wrote beautiful lyrics about love…and death. And he was unusual-looking. His mouth was too big, his performances too intense. But Arnaud loved how once on stage, sur scène, Brel won over everyone.

Arnaud: Brel était exceptionnel sur scène. Il était très théâtral, il montrait beaucoup d’émotions. Le public l’adorait, et était presque hypnotisé en sa présence. Ses concerts à l’Olympia sont entrés dans la mémoire collective française.

Ngofeen: Arnaud knew some people would think he was crazy to impersonate a singer who'd been dead for nearly 40 years. America has Elvis impersonators, but nobody really does that in France. Arnaud didn't care. He was a hard worker, and he was Brel's spitting image. So Arnaud went to the best singer he knew: his mom… And she sent him to her singing teacher.

Arnaud: Ma mère a demandé à sa prof de chant de me donner des cours. Elle voulait savoir si je pouvais faire ce métier. Au premier cours, la prof m’a testé pour voir si j’avais du talent, et si j’étais prêt à vivre une vie d’artiste. Finalement, la prof a dit à ma mère : « Écoute, oui. Il peut faire ce métier. Visiblement, il est fait pour ça. »

Ngofeen: Finally, someone believed in Arnaud’s idea. He vowed to do what Jacques Brel did. Practice, hustle, sing on small unknown stages from Belgium to Paris, until eventually, he could make a real career out of it.

Arnaud: Après tout, Brel aussi a changé de vie. Au début, il travaillait dans une usine en Belgique. Ensuite, il est parti à Paris pour devenir artiste. Comme pour tous les artistes, c’était difficile. Mais quand on découvre l’art, on ne peut plus vivre sans. Il faut être prêt à tout donner pour pouvoir vivre de son art.

Ngofeen: Arnaud decided to take weekly singing lessons to get his technique right. He practiced every day at home. He’d copy the style and mannerisms of the singer, watching old videos. He’d look at Brel’s mouth, sa bouche, and at his jaw, sa mâchoire.

Arnaud: Brel et moi, nous avons exactement la même mâchoire. Nous avons la même bouche, les mêmes dents. Alors, quand je le regarde chanter, j’observe sa bouche, ses lèvres, sa langue, son larynx. Et je peux essayer de faire la même chose avec ma bouche, pour imiter sa voix.

Ngofeen: Their uncanny resemblance gave Arnaud an advantage: when he copied Brel’s movements, he sounded even more like him. Arnaud learned a few songs by heart, par cœur. He practiced. But he knew the real test was to step in front of a live audience.

Arnaud: Moi, je fais toujours les choses à 100 %. Alors, quand j’ai appris plus de 15 chansons par cœur, je me suis dit : « Allez, j’achète un micro, un amplificateur, et je vais essayer de chanter devant des gens. »

Ngofeen: One month after his first lesson, Arnaud headed to the best venue available to him: le métro. He set himself up at the entrance to a subway station with his microphone and his amp. He had never performed before, and he was terrified. He had le trac, stage fright.

Arnaud: J’avais le trac, mais je savais que Brel aussi avait très peur avant d’entrer en scène. Il vomissait toujours avant ses concerts. Alors j’ai rassemblé tout mon courage. Après tout, le trac fait partie de la vie d’artiste.

Ngofeen: In front of the subway station, Arnaud adjusted his black suit — the same style Jacques Brel used to wear during his famous performances at l’Olympia. In the street, Arnaud cleared his throat. Then, for the first time in his life, he started performing. And to his relief, people stopped and started listening!

Arnaud: Autour de moi, il y a une quarantaine de personnes. Les gens m’écoutent. Ils ne bougent pas, ils restent. Ils sont attentifs. Ils sourient. Certains me donnent un peu d’argent, et m’encouragent. Ils me disent : « J’ai l’impression d’entendre Brel. C’est incroyable ! » Ce soir-là, je rentre chez moi avec 80 euros. Je ne m’attendais pas à ça.

Ngofeen: For Arnaud, it was huge. The audience responded to him. They were moved. Those first 80 euros were all the proof he needed: maybe he could make a living out of this. So he decided to perform as much as he could… And wherever he went, people loved him.

Arnaud: Certaines personnes venaient me dire merci. D’autres restaient en arrière et pleuraient. C’était surtout des personnes âgées. Je pense que la musique leur rappelait peut-être une rencontre, une époque, ou simplement leur jeunesse.

Ngofeen: About six months into singing in the streets, Arnaud found himself performing on a street corner in Montmartre, a Parisian neighborhood famous for being a home to artists of all kinds. And in the crowd were two very special people: his kids.

Arnaud: Au début, tout se passe bien. Je chante une chanson. Et après, les gens m’applaudissent. Je chante une deuxième chanson. Le public semble vraiment aimer ça. Je suis content de chanter devant mes enfants.

Ngofeen: Everyone was mesmerized by his performance, until two cops passed by on their bikes. They slammed on their brakes in front of Arnaud.

Arnaud: Les deux policiers s’arrêtent devant moi. Ils voient mon bol où il y avait des pièces de monnaie, et ils donnent un coup de pied dedans. Ils me disent, de façon pas très agréable : « Tu t’en vas ! »

Ngofeen: Arnaud didn’t want any trouble, so he got ready to leave. But the audience didn’t want to see him go. To Arnaud’s surprise, one man in particular, who was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, started arguing with the officers.

Arnaud: Il a dit : « Vous savez qui il chante ? Il chante Jacques Brel, l’un des plus grands chanteurs de la langue française. Grâce à lui, la chanson française est toujours vivante ! Et vous, vous venez lui dire d’arrêter ? Et à Montmartre en plus ! »

Ngofeen: The crowd defended Arnaud’s right to perform. And things got a bit out of hand. Arnaud saw the neat businessman getting arrested by the officers. For Arnaud, this was a revelation: people were ready to fight for him. His kids were on his side that day, too. But they were growing uncomfortable.

Arnaud: Pour mes enfants, le plus difficile, c’était de me voir chanter dans la rue. Ils n’aimaient pas ce risque. Moi, je suis toujours optimiste. Je ne vois pas ce qui se passe autour de moi. Je ne vois jamais le négatif. Pour moi, chanter dans la rue, c’était une chance d’apprendre mon métier.

Ngofeen: During the week, Arnaud took odd jobs to make ends meet, like construction projects or detective work. On weekends, he’d sing in the streets, and at night, he’d sing in bars and restaurants, passing his hat around for tips. He was building his new life. It just wasn’t the life his partner wanted.

Arnaud: Je chantais dans les bars et dans les cabarets. Je dansais avec le public. La vie d’artiste, c’est aussi une vie de fête. On est là pour que les gens s’amusent. Je passais un bon moment, et après, je rentrais tard. Maintenant, je comprends ma compagne. Ça devait être frustrant pour elle.

Ngofeen: For his compagne, this new passion remained an upsetting mystery: she didn’t care about who Jacques Brel had been, in France or elsewhere. What she wanted was for her partner to be home at night and on the weekends. Not performing in some bar.

Arnaud: Quand j’étais à la maison, je disais à ma compagne que ma carrière progressait. Mais je n’avais pas beaucoup de preuves concrètes, seulement l’enthousiasme des gens. Je me disais : « Si je travaille dur, elle comprendra. »

Ngofeen: After a year of him busking in the streets and singing in bars, Arnaud’s daughter, Charlotte, then 11, sat him down to have a frank conversation. She had seen her mother getting more and more upset, and knew her father didn’t get it. So she spelled it out.

Arnaud: Ma fille m’a dit : « Est-ce que tu réalises que Maman en a assez de ce que tu fais ? Ça ne l’intéresse pas. Elle trouve ça nul. Tu n’es pas là le week-end. Tu ne comprends pas : elle veut que tu partes. »

Ngofeen: Arnaud was stunned. But he knew his daughter was right. He’d been oblivious to how his new lifestyle was impacting his relationship. He loved his family, but he felt he had to leave…that very night. Even though he had nowhere to go.

Arnaud: J’ai passé une première nuit dehors, puis j’ai appelé une amie. Elle voulait m’aider, alors elle m’a trouvé une chambre de bonne, à Montmartre.

Ngofeen: In his tiny new chambre de bonne, a maid’s room, Arnaud decided to double down on his career. Anytime he met professional singers, they said he had what it took. But often, theater directors didn’t want to talk to him. Many of them loved Brel so much they told Arnaud: “No one could be good enough to impersonate Brel.”

Arnaud: Ils me disaient : « Tu chantes Brel ? Ah non, tu ne peux pas. Brel est intouchable. Brel, c’est sacré, c’est parfait, c’est magnifique. Tu ne vas jamais réussir. N’essaie même pas. » J’ai souvent entendu ça. Certaines personnes refusaient de m’entendre, même pour une audition.

Ngofeen: Now single, Arnaud spent a year building his reputation as a Brel performer. Then one day in 2016, he was offered a gig in the north of Paris. After he sang, the production company hired to do the lights and sound came to him. They offered him the opportunity of a lifetime.

Arnaud: Ils m’ont entendu chanter, puis ils m’ont dit : « Dans un an et demi, c’est l’anniversaire de la mort de Brel. Quarante ans. On pourrait monter un spectacle sur Brel autour de toi. Tu en penses quoi ? » Alors j’ai dit oui, bien sûr.

Ngofeen: Getting asked to impersonate Jacques Brel on the anniversary of his death was no joke. Arnaud rehearsed for a year and a half. He worked with a coach, a stage director…until finally, in 2018, 40 years after Jacques Brel’s death, it was time to take the stage in front of 1500 people. Backstage in his dressing room, sa loge, Arnaud tried to calm his nerves.

Arnaud: Juste avant de monter sur scène, j’ai pensé à Jacques Brel. Je l’imaginais, dans sa loge, juste avant un spectacle. Je lui ai parlé. J’ai dit : « Tu étais à ma place. Tu avais peur. Tu avais le trac. Moi aussi, j’ai peur. Mais si tu en étais capable, alors moi aussi, j’en suis capable. »

Ngofeen: Backstage, Arnaud straightened his black suit. Then he took a breath, and stepped in front of the audience, into the white spotlight at the center of the stage.

Arnaud: Au moment où on arrive sur scène, c’est parti. On ne pense plus à rien. Seulement deux choses existent : la scène, et le public. C’est incroyable.

Ngofeen: The show was a major success. Afterward, Arnaud went on tour: he gave 15 performances in 15 different cities. Every night he sang, he got a standing ovation. Just like in the streets, the audience was moved. After the shows, they kept leaving gifts for him on stage.

Arnaud: Les gens laissent des choses sur la scène. Ils me donnent des cadeaux : un vieux vinyle de Brel, un livre sur Brel, des vieux magazines avec Brel sur la couverture. Chez moi, j’ai trois boîtes pleines de cadeaux !

Ngofeen: This first tour was important to Arnaud: it was a sign for him that this was going to work — a success he could share with his children. The uncertainty surrounding his career change started to fade away.

Arnaud: Pour mon fils et ma fille, mon rêve est devenu une réalité : ils m’ont vu sur scène, avec un public qui applaudissait. Ils ont adoré le spectacle ! Quand ils m'ont vu dans un théâtre, avec tous ces excellents musiciens, ils ont compris que j'étais un vrai chanteur.

Ngofeen: Today, Arnaud is preparing a new show. His sights are still set on the legendary theater in Paris where, in 1966, Brel gave his farewell performance: l’Olympia.

Arnaud: Depuis trois ans, je gagne ma vie en chantant Brel. Je peux vivre grâce à mon art. C’est génial. Et l’Olympia, ça viendra bientôt. Dans moins de deux ans, ce sera une réalité.

Ngofeen: Arnaud even had his goal tattooed on his arm.

Arnaud: C’est pour ne pas oublier mon objectif : l’Olympia.

Ngofeen: Arnaud, who performs under the stage name Arnaud Askoy, is a singer living in the Paris area, with his kids and his new partner. To listen to Jacques Brel and to Arnaud, check out the links in the episode description. And as we close, we leave you with Arnaud singing an original song.

This story was produced by Adélie Pojzman-Pontay, a journalist based in Paris.

We’d love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked the story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app so you never miss an episode.

Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the #1 education app, with over 300 million users worldwide. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun, and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com.

The Duolingo French Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m your host, Ngofeen Mputubwele, à la prochaine!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Adélie Pojzman-Pontay
Narrator & Protagonist: Arnaud Bassecourt
Managing Editor: Natacha Ruck
Mix and Sound Design: Martine Chaussard
Mastering Engineer: Laurent Apffel
Storyhunter and Assistant Editor: Camille Lindbom
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro