Raleigh Williams: “French music tells stories so well”

Raleigh Williams should be part of the French consulate in Melbourne – in fact, she should be the head of the mission, such is her passion for French culture, language, and music. Luckily for us, she ‘s eager to share this passion through her band, La Nuit Blanche, a jazz-meets-chanson project which was recently captured in a live album. La Nuit Blanche are playing at the Jazz Lab this week, which was a great opportunity for a chat with the bandleader.

What are you going to present at the Jazzlab?

It’s la Nuit Blanche’s debut show at the Jazzlab. We are presenting a show of older, well-loved and known French repertoire and more contemporary songs that we’ve tailored to the instrumentation in our band. I’ve selected a varied repertoire from Piaf, to Gainsbourg, to newer pop artists, that are all translated through the ensemble to create a new and unified sound.

What should people be expecting?

My aim is to bring French – or francophone, rather, because some artists we cover are Belgian, Canadian etc – music to our local audience, involve them in the songs, show them that they don’t need to understand every word to be able to enjoy or get the vibe of a song. So I think we appeal not only to those who love French culture, but also those who love great music – be it jazz, bossa, swing or other styles. We just aim to put on a good show with a varied repertoire and whisk the audience away on a journey with us. It’s my aim to transport each audience to a bar in Montmatre, or a scene in a Truffaut movie for a short while!

What is the band’s backstory?

I feel like my co-musicians are musical compatriots – we’ve all come from different backgrounds, musically and culturally: Enzo Ruberto and Salvatore Greco are originally from Italy and specialise in Italian and French folk (but among other things Enzo is also a multitalented jazz double player, featuring in Casey Benneto and Eddie Perfect ‘s projects); Nathan Slater comes from a jazz and flamenco background, Julian Banks from a more traditional jazz background and me – I studied jazz but cover a lot of soul and pop in my day-to-day singing work!

La Nuit Blanche | Photo: Sabine Legrand

How jazz is this project?

Its pretty jazz! We stay within the traditionally set elements of jazz in terms of instrumentation, feels, forms and the like. Plus, we play a few loved swinging standards like ‘C’est Si Bon’ and ‘April in Paris’ that are great in whatever language they’re sung in!

What does jazz mean to you?

Jazz is a form of expression and a common language between musicians. We use this as our tool to convey the music in a unified way, and also it gives us the freedom to express the tunes in new ways. For instance, we have reinterpreted a piano-vocal pop song from a modern French vocalist and turned it into a moody bossa with flamenco flavours. The gorgeous ballad ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ by Jacques Brel never had a saxophone solo in it.

We’ve used jazz as a tool to breathe new life into traditional older songs and also unify the new ones with the same sounds.

What is it about French music that appeals to you?

I have learnt French from a young age, from primary school and onwards, and as any good teacher knows, incorporating music aids language learning immensely! I had a fabulous teacher from school that taught us the classics like ‘Champs Elysees’ and ‘La Mer’ – which is also famous in English as ‘Beyond the sea’ – to help us get a hold of the language and enjoy it and my passion and interest started there!

I sing lots of different styles of music in different bands but La Nuit Blanche has really taken off as one of my main projects.

We have great support from the French communities here like Alliance Francaise and the French-Australian Chamber of commerce.

There’s also a large French or French-speaking population here in Melbourne, so it’s great to appeal to them as well. We are a cultural melting pot after all!

It is also partially because French culture is enjoying a grand moment in Australia and it’s a niche area to specify in.

How do you explain this?

I think that especially in Melbourne, we are – or try to be – European-influenced. Lots of things about French culture have an appeal thats a no-brainer: the food, the language, the art. Certain ways of life hark back to an ageless, simpler time. I think we now search for those elements in a fast-paced life.

Besides, French music tells stories so well. Just like other forms of French art, they can sometimes find a different perspective to the Anglophone. Something small and quirky can become the feature point of a movie (like Amelie) or a song.

The French also love to use wordplay in their songs – Serge Gainsbourg is a fine example of this – so that’s always fun to discover as a French-learner.

What is your favourite French word?

Hmm! So many! I love the word ‘pantoufle’ which means slipper, or ‘ensorceller’, to bewitch something! “Ce qui mensorcelle” is a beautiful line in the classic song ‘J’ai deux amours’.

Nowadays, my sung French is smoother than my spoken French, but I hope to return to finish a French degree in the next year or so.

How did you choose the band’s name?

‘La Nuit Blanche’, in direct translation, means ‘the white night’. But as a French expression, it means to have an all-nighter – hence its use as the all-night arts event that occurs around the world now! My father-in-law, who lived in Switzerland for many years, helped me riff on a few ideas, and we liked the expression. It could be an all-nighter from having a great time partying together or from being kept awake with heartache. As band members, we have had many late nights together! The words are not TOO unrecognisable for non French speakers, and I enjoy the double meaning.

You referred to your bandmates as ‘compatriots’; Is music a country?

The music that we play is our common meeting point, so I would say, yes!

What is its capital city?

For la Nuit Blanche, our capital city would have to be an Edith Piaf song like ‘La vie en rose’ that represents us in a nutshell. But our more popular, offbeat city would maybe be a Camille or Francoise Hardy song.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

Oh gosh! It’s got to be somewhere between ‘Paris, jai pris perpete’ (Paris, I’m forever yours) as I’ve got a bit of travel yearning, or ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ – because as a new mother, I’ve pretty much started a new life this year!

La Nuit Blanche are playing at the Jazz Lab on Thursday 14 March.