Flora Fishbach caused quite a stir in France in 2017, and 2018 looks like it’ll be her breakout year elsewhere. The Dieppe-born chanteuse released debut album À ta merci to universal praise in January, and by November she was taking home the album révélation at Le Prix des Indés, the coveted prize for best independent debut of the year. A cursory listen to À ta merci (“at your mercy” in English) will tell you some of what you need to know about this exceptional talent, though she also has to be seen in the live arena to be believed.
A charismatic presence both chic and androgynous, Flora pushes the boundaries of theatricality with her distinctive, smoky contralto-vox and ostentatious stagewear. Musically she brings together warm electropop with strikingly visual, tenebrous lyrics, inscrutable and full of intrigue. ‘Le château’ conflates spookiness with one of the most addictive disco hooks in years, while lead single ‘Mortel’ (deadly) fuses a sophisticated ambience with dark imagery, a baroque guitar line and a melody Abba would have killed to add to the canon. Meanwhile ‘Un autre que moi’ harks back to ‘La Isla Bonita’-era Madonna, with added fretless bass and a tantilising lyric about a protagonist who is “slender like a panther in the smoke” (“Élancée comme une panthère dans la fumée”).
“I don’t know what good or bad taste are,” she said recently. “I like to push the boundaries of my voice, the noise of the synths and the sounds in the lyrics.”
Her determination to make experimental pop undeterred by what’s acceptable makes for an extraordinary sonic experience that’s unlike anything around. But there’s more to it than that; Fishbach’s music puts people under a spell. It may be exploratory and on the fringes of the alternative, but her chansons are always irresistibly catchy. It’s pop music at it’s best: off-kilter and created by an otherworldly eccentric. “Every song is a painting,” she says, “a woman that I could have been, that I may have been or that I will be. There’s nothing more beautiful than the universality of variété – it’s a very noble word to me. ”
It was a whistle-stop 2017 that really began at the end of the previous year, when she wowed crowds at France’s premier music industry event Transmusicales in Brittany. Artists that have previously showcased their work over five nights include Stromae, Benjamin Clementine and Jeanne Added. Flora Fishbach’s residency was no less talked about. Her excellent showband have toured extensively throughout France subsequently, with a triumphant sold out show at the Bataclan in Paris in October, and another sold out one-woman show at Thousand Island (formerly Upstairs at the Garage) in Islington, London the following month. If another multitalented, androgynous and musically idiosyncratic pop artist like Christine and the Queens can make waves in the UK, then Fishbach has all that capability and more.
Born in Normandy in 1991, Flora fell in love with the records her parents played to her growing up. The family moved to Charleville-Mézières near the Belgian border, famously the birthplace of the 19th century dionysian poet Rimbaud; his wild and sometimes proto-surrealist verses had – and continue to have – a big impact on her. She recently told Les Inrockuptibles that she was a tomboy and Harry Potter obsessive growing up, and then had to confront the man-woman dichotomy when puberty hit. “Femininity is something that is imposed on us a little, which scared me,” she says. “And then I had no choice, I took it!”
She began to make music on an iPad at home, but having left school at just 15 – working odd jobs in the local vicinity – it was a visit into town from the American singer-songwriter (and Rimbaud devotee) Patti Smith that really turned her head, and set her on her course with destiny. Patti played a show at chez Rimbaud, and Fishbach came full circle in 2017 when she herself performed an acoustic session there. “All of this is too beautiful,” she wrote to her 10k Instagram followers after the show.
The critics in France have been transfixed by the ascendancy of the new bohemian darling of French pop. Le Monde says: “she has the singular authority of a Catherine Ringer [Les Rita Mitsouko], the strange dreamlike-ness of a Christophe, and an authenticity and a fervour that transcends”. Les Inrocks founder JD Beauvallet describes her music as “rough, violent, blackened with vice and bad blood… an electropop the xx plugged into 480 volts”. With France firmly under her spell, it’s the anglosphere now that will soon be at Fishbach’s mercy.