The impact of Joan Baez has long been known to reach far and deep. Her shining voice and lyrics of protest, whether those being her own or one of her perfect covers, have resonated with several generations by now.
One musician from Paris, France, felt that impact in an empowering manner. Laetitia A’zou used this power to create her own songs of protest. Two albums into her career and she is now slowly working on her third effort. She explained to me via email how this newest piece of work will out scale her previous efforts, production wise. As a side note she also explained how there is an often overlooked amount of protest in Disney songs.
First of all, for those not familiar with your work, who is Laetitia A’zou?
I’m a folk/opera/swing singer (Laetitia A’Zou, The Andrews Sisters Revival). I am inspired by all the great pop-folk artists from the 60’s to the 80’s. I perform American Music on stage, aiming to share feelings, emotions and music.
When and how did you get into making music?
I started music at a very young age, entering the Conservatoire at 6, where I studied violin, music theory, choir singing and orchestra. What triggered it was my parent’s listening to a lot of classical music, and I fell in love with one of Mozart pieces, hearing the violin. It was the beginning of a great adventure.
Folk music has always been there, my father listening to a lot of french ballads and american folk music (Joan Baez most of all). I started my folk career in 2010, playing covers during open mic’s, while starting composition and song writing. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger… were my main source of inspiration.
Has your music always been political or protest driven?
Yes and no. My folk music is what I like to call mainly protest songs, my aim being to heighten awareness to subjects like poverty, social injustice, war, overworking… This being said, there is another side to my music : I also write ballads
I read that when you heard Joan Baez the wheels started turning for you. Can you tell me a bit more about the influence Baez had on you and your music making?
What I love about Joan Baez is how powerful her voice is, without needing much more instruments than her guitar. Her compositions are both simple when it comes to the melody of the voice, and incredible picking. All the songs she covered are perfectly chosen and very delicate. I love how she both sings ballads and protest songs, without going up to political driven. This is, for me, the perfect balance.
You’ve released two albums so far, your sophomore album being ‘Protest Songs’ (2015). Your second album sounds considerably more subtle, almost like a live version with a very close, personal sound to it. What was the main difference for you in creating these two albums? And do you have a new album in the making?
The first album, The Girl on the Bench, consists mainly in ballads, with only 4 protest songs. More than anything, I worked on the melodies, the lyrics, also writing about History, which is also a passion of mine. To do that, I invested a lot in production, hiring professional singers, percussions, violin and guitar players. In Protest Songs, however, I have decided to focus more on writing less poetic and more protest driven lyrics. Inspired by the work of Pete Seeger (called the pioneer of folk) who wrote very catchy and simple protest music. I thus decided to record mainly guitar/voice, but added a small choir (10 teens) to give it, indeed, a sound of live performance. At the time, music was often played during diners (people REALLY listened) and people used to sing in a good-natured atmosphere.
There is indeed a real difference between the two albums. I do have a new album in the making. I am taking my time for this one, which I also want a bit different from the first 2. I want to make it bigger, more orchestral, and twice as impactful as the other albums. Two songs have already been recorded.
How is the Paris protest music scene in your opinion? Are there many artists using their voice responsibly?
Unfortunately I am an old soul. I live by the music from the 50’s to the 80’s/90’s and am not quite aware of today’s protest scene. We used to have incredible protest singers, with George Brassens, Yves Montand, Maxime le Forestier, Léo Ferré… Today, the one great singer I can think of is Melissmel. She has an incredible power when she sings, and is political driven, with one of her most powerful song: “Aux Armes“.
What do you hope to achieve when you play your songs for people? How do you feel people are receiving songs of protest these days?
What I hope for is to people to listen and to think. We are all triggered by different subjects, especially today when everything is getting harder in almost every way. My protest songs are hard and really sad. The ones that usually get people stop and listen are The Village and the Prisoner’s song. Both are about destruction : war and death penalty. When people listen to something that triggers their interest, they start thinking and get more aware. And then they listen more when the subject comes around. I do not believe in politicians listening to us, but I do believe in the power of people coming together against injustice.
Are you following other active, socially conscious musicians? What contemporary music inspires you?
Melissmel, whom I was referring to, is an artist I regularly listen to, and of course still Joan Baez. Paul McCartney has some very interesting protest songs worth listening. Other than that, I am today focusing on my opera career and listening to a lot of opera music. I am also very interested in the evolution of the themes of the songs in Disney music, a lot of them being about the status of women, loss, colonisation, songs too often overlooked because they are Disney songs.
Do you partake in any activism outside the music?
It depends on what you call activism. I am completely into the respect of nature and ecology. I try as much as possible to help homeless people, whether it is by giving them a meal, or just talk. The french people has recently signed a petition (now 2 073 767 signatures) to sue the government and make it hold its promises for the climate. Other than that, I am not actively involved
If you could form a band with 4 people, living or dead, who would you choose?
I would go for those I consider as geniuses : Paul McCartney, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and John Moukarzel.
What’s on the horizon for you?
To keep working on the album, on my opera singing and on my thesis in Egyptology. Keep it simple but powerful.
Halldór is the managing editor of Shouts – Music from the Rooftops!, an investigative journalist, audio engineer and an animal rights activist on a nomad journey through Europe – still without a definite destination.