Dancing with bears
Local singer-songwriter Jenia Lubich, who rose to fame performing with the French band Nouvelle Vague, is releasing her first solo album.
Published: November 30, 2011 (Issue # 1685)
Jenia Lubich will present her new album ‘C’est la vie,’ featuring songs in Russian, English and French, at The Place on Friday evening.
Jenia Lubich, a St. Petersburg indie pop singer-songwriter whose voice can be heard on Nouvelle Vague’s most recent albums and whose star is in the ascendant in Russia, will launch her debut album with a concert in St. Petersburg this weekend. Called “C’est la vie,” the CD was recorded with French musicians in Paris and contains 11 songs that she wrote in Russian, French and English.
Lubich, whose songs include the ironic “Russian Girl” (who has “vodka in her blood” and “dances with brown bears,”), frantic “Crisis of the Moment (With a Question to the President)” and love song “Galaxy,” has been on the scene for a while, but made a name for herself through her collaboration with Nouvelle Vague, the French band that performs unlikely bossa nova covers of 1970s and 1980s new wave and punk hits sung by various female singers.
Her local breakthrough came somewhat unexpectedly at a Nouvelle Vague concert at Zal Ozhidaniya club in October 2009. The band had asked her to perform as a guest singer, but she ended up singing virtually the entire show when both the band’s vocalists were unable to come at short notice.
“Usually they have two female singers on stage, but both had to pull out for different reasons one or two days before the concert. As a result, [French musician and singer] Gerald Toto sang three or four songs, and the remaining 23 or 24 songs were sung by me.”
“I realized that it could be a complete disaster, because people were expecting French singers, while I had only been working with them for about six months by then, and it was not an established fact for the Russian public that there was a Russian singer working with them. So I was a new face in every sense — because the posters featured the two vocalists who were supposed to come but didn’t.”
Somewhat at a loss, five minutes before the show started, Lubich came up with the idea of speaking in French when addressing the musicians or introducing songs during the show.
“Then, after the ninth or tenth song, which happened to be [Dead Kennedys’] ‘Too Drunk to Fuck,’ I was lying on stage in semi-ecstasy and heard myself saying ‘Zharko u vas’ (‘It’s hot in here’ in Russian). Everybody was stunned, and I heard somebody whispering ‘Wow, she speaks with no accent.’ So I went on through the rest of the show speaking mostly in Russian. But I’d won the audience over by that time and managed to avoid the negative reaction that I was afraid of.”
Before joining Nouvelle Vague and then embarking on a solo career, Lubich took part in a number of projects including Vinyl Underground, a club music collective performing in St. Petersburg.
“We played at the Office pub on Kazanskaya Ulitsa; we had a DJ, a guitarist, a keyboard player and Duser [Tequilajazzz’s drummer Alexander Voronov], who played congas and bongos — and I laid some quatrains, which I mostly composed as I went along, over that,” she said.
“It was quite interesting, but to me it lacked some unity, because at the same time I was writing songs that had concrete structures, harmonies, melodies, lyrics, subjects and titles.”
Lubich says at that time, she mostly sang her own songs in the kitchen for friends. “I was not sure that anybody else would be interested,” she says.
“Of course, I wanted to do my own thing, but somehow an opportunity hadn’t turned up.”
The opportunity came when she attended a concert by Nouvelle Vague at the now-defunct club A2 in 2008.
“I was really impressed, and after the show, rightly or wrongly I snuck into the dressing room and handed a disc for producer Marc Collin — the disc was badly recorded but it had my songs on it,” she says.
“A week later, I got a message from him saying that the recording was horrible, everything was horrible, impossible to understand — but there was something about it and could you come to Paris for a recording session.”
Lubich, who has an MA from the city’s Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a collaboration project between St. Petersburg State University and Bard College in the U.S., says studying in the U.S. helped to form her as a singer.
She started to write songs in English while spending nearly a year at Bard College, a liberal arts college located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, when she was 16.
“I met students from music departments there, and we started to play and sing jazz,” Lubich says.
There she took part in a musical about the 20th-century history of Germany, created by Bard College’s German department. “I had a song [in German] called “Hunger,” which was originally a march, but we remade it into kind of erotic spy blues with pianist Betsy Wright, who used to say, ‘Jazz is everything, and everything’s possible in it.’”
“It was there that I found out what ‘open mike’ is,” she said. “It’s when you can take the microphone in a club and do something, and the public decides whether it’s decent. If people are bored, it’s a sign that it’s time to leave, and if they start to sing along, wink, clap or snap their fingers, you can go on. It was there that I saw that some people might like what I do.”
One of her first English-language songs, written in the U.S., was “The Rain,” of which she later also made a Russian version.
Born into the family of a professor of English and a psychologist in St. Petersburg, Lubich started performing at an early age.
“It seems to me that I’ve been performing all my life,” Lubich says. “Even as a child, I went with my grandmother on holiday to a sanatorium, and they had an entertainment club there, and they spotted me — I was either dancing outside or singing some children’s song… The stage didn’t pass me by even as a child. But it was nothing serious, an innocent experience.”
When she was about 12, Lubich began training in classical singing, performing with her class in Hungary and Finland and winning local contests. “Then I started writing my own songs, and I realized that my classical voice training was hindering me, so I found another teacher to train me in a modern singing style.”
Nouvelle Vague was formed as a musical project by French producers Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux. The name means “new wave” in French and also refers to the concept of bossa nova, which is “new trend” in Portuguese.
“People who don’t have material of their own don’t get invited to this project on principle; maybe that’s why the songs performed by Nouvelle Vague sound so original and people get the impression that it’s an original band — I know that many people have no idea that it performs covers,” Lubich said.
With Lubich, Nouvelle Vague, whose vocalists mostly sing in English with a French accent, incorporated more French songs into its repertoire.
“One of the aspects of the concept was having a slight accent — as though the singer is discovering new meanings to the words as she utters them,” she said.
“The CD that I gave to Collin included ‘Ville de France,’ a song that I wrote set to a French poem when I was in the fifth form, and he liked how my voice sounded in French. The band’s fourth album was almost entirely in French.”
Lubich, who toured with Nouvelle Vague in a number of countries including France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, Turkey and Finland, features on the band’s albums “3” (2009) and “Couleurs sur Paris” (2010).
Her own album, which was previewed by her five-song EP “Russian Girl” in December 2010, features Marc Collin on keyboards, Olivier Libaux on guitar and Thibaut Barbillon on bass, all of whom are musicians with Nouvelle Vague. It also features Jean Pierre Bottiau and Bruno Ralle.
French singer Nicolas Comment is featured on “Blanc Dance,” a song for which he also helped to write the lyrics, while Lubich sang backing vocals on Comment’s 2010 album “Nous etions dieu.”
Back in St. Petersburg, Lubich formed her own band in December 2010 to make their debut at the local branch of the Moscow-based club Chinese Pilot Jao Da the following month.
With ex-Splean guitarist Stas Berezovsky as the only remaining member of that early lineup, Lubich’s band also features Billy’s Band drummer Andrei Ivanov, keyboard player Denis Kirillov and bassist Dmitry Turyev.
Lubich follows the contemporary French music scene, and says she likes the U.S.-born, Paris-based singer-songwriter Birdpaula and Franco-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra. She also mentions Nouvelle Vague’s Australian singer Phoebe Killdeer, who now performs as Phoebe Killdeer The Short Straws, and the London band Dark Captain Light Captain as some of her favorites.
Of older international artists, she says she repeatedly listens to and finds inspiration in Joni Mitchell.
“Of course, the school of Nouvelle Vague can be heard in what I do now, but it’s all different,” she says.
Lubich does not remember when she wrote the English-language song “Russian Girl,” but suggests it was probably conceived on a flight between Russia and France.
“It’s both a myth and reality,” she says.
“Perhaps there are no such Russians that I sing about and there are no such bears. But at the same time all this exists. It’s a collection of typical things that are usually associated with Russia. But such spiritual impulses do exist. By and large, it’s a song about the Russian soul, which is a mystery.”
Curiously, the St. Petersburg club crowd reacts to Lubich’s songs written in French and English with the same enthusiasm as to her Russian songs.
“I hope they don’t sound mindless and that people don’t think that I sing in English because I have nothing to say — as I lived for some time in New York and have a lot of connections with France, I think I have the moral right to present them to the public,” she says.
“I use English not to cover up a lack of substance, but because I hear some music of my own in that language.
“If I start writing a song from a melody, sometimes I feel that it should be in English, rather than in any other language. It stems from musical phrases and melodic patterns. I feel that English lyrics will be the most organic for it. Or French lyrics. Or Russian lyrics. Every language has its own notes and rhythms.
Seen as very much a St. Petersburg artist despite her international connections, Lubich describes her song “Chyornoye” (Black) as some sketches of St. Petersburg images and impressions.
“When we perform outside St. Petersburg, people often approach me after the concert and ask ‘Aren’t you from Piter?’” she says.
“I think that this is the song that people can work that out from. I wrote it in St. Petersburg, I was walking over Palace Bridge in the rain, cars were speeding by, and it was cold and dark. It’s true, ‘in this black city only the night is white,’ that’s what I felt.”
Jenia Lubich will perform at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 2 at The Place, located at 47 Ul. Marshala Govorova. Tel. 331 9631. Metro: Baltiiskaya / Narvskaya.