Your Introduction to Francophone Music

By Hannah Wisterman
Music Journalist

How many of us speak no Spanish and yet love singing along to “Como La Flor”? Or have gone through a heavy K-pop phase and used the common catchphrase, “I have no idea what they’re saying, but it’s catchy”? Clearly, language is no barrier to enjoying music. In fact, one could argue that the language of origin gives songs a certain flavor that they would lack otherwise. “Gasolina” would not be “Gasolina” if it was “Gasoline”.

You may not even notice how American (or English, or Anglophone Canadian) your music sounds until you branch out to tunes in another language. It’s beyond refreshing to take a day off from listening to your own language—plus, you’ll feel super cultured and worldly, even if you’ve never stepped foot outside your state. If you’re ready to go on a palate-cleansing, world-travelling music adventure, scroll on. Today we’ll focus on francophone music only—that is, music of the French language. I can’t possibly give you a crash course in all of French music, but all of these artists are radically different, so you can get a little taste of a lot of styles.

Peter Peter

Montréal-based Peter Roy started in an Anglophone metal band, but has gone as far away from that as possible. Now on his third album as Peter Peter, and his second as an indie-pop artist, Roy seems to love making songs that are léger—lightweight. With a soft voice and a love for mid and up-tempos, Peter Peter is a go-to for good-mood vibes. I like to call it movie music: Peter Peter’s songs would fit right at home in the background of a teen summer flick. His music also echoes pop of decades past, with old school lower-pitched synths, and timeless “sad boy” vocals. Recommended tracks: “Venus”, “Réverbère” and “Bien réel”. You’ll like him if you like: Lo Fang, MS MR.

Karkwa

I have a special love for Karkwa as the first French band I heard that wasn’t blaringly pop. Another product of Montréal, Karkwa takes its name from the French word carquois, meaning a quiver of arrows. True to their name, Karkwa shoots true. To be fair, they haven’t released a new album in seven years (they’re on hiatus), but as far as Quebecois artists go, Karkwa is a staple. They love a solid acoustic guitar riff, and Louis-Jean Cormier’s vocals carry an emotional quality that transcends lyrics– “Moi-Léger” made me cry long before I knew what he was singing. Karkwa is perfect for a road trip, with easy-to-listen-to melodies and a charming, down-to-earth spirit. Recommended tracks: “Moi-Léger”, “Le Solstice” and “Vrai”. You’ll like them if you like: Death Cab for Cutie, Bon Iver, Stars.

Alcest

Maybe you’re into the heavier stuff. Not to fear, the Francophone metal scene is alive and well. Case in point, Alcest, a post-metal duo from the small city of Bagnols-sur-Cèze. Somewhere in between metal and shoegaze (blackgaze, by some accounts), the guys in Alcest love to shred, but put a lovely entrancing quality in their melodies, which often take some time to build up, which makes each new climax a treat for audiences. I mean, their last album Kodama was inspired by Princess Mononoke. How can you not like the guys? They’re great to fall asleep to, and their specific way of composing songs really scratches an itch; it’s so satisfying. Recommended tracks: “Je suis d’ailleurs”, “Faiseurs de mondes” and  “Kodama”. You’ll like them if you like: An Autumn for Crippled Children, Lantlôs. (Note, you may also want to check out Les Discrets, since there’s a lot of overlap between the two bands.)

Stromae

I would worry that listing Stromae is a cop-out, except he’s just so vital. Belgium-born Stromae is one of the best-known and most successful Francophone artists in the world—his track “Papaoutai” has been streamed over 100 million times on Spotify and was even covered by acapella power group, Pentatonix. Stromae is a heavy hitter, kids. He comes from a house background, but is also heavily inspired by Congolese rumba, so a lot of his songs include bouncy and complex rhythms, as well as Congolese guitar, which is higher and chirpier than the instrument is traditionally. The combination works out better than you’d think. The verses over the beats are truly outstanding, too. Stromae is blessed with both a charming singing and rapping voice, both carrying an irresistible drawl, and his lyrics (should you choose to look them up), nine out of 10 times, are cutting and poignant. We’ll have to wait a while for new music, since he’s busy with the unisex, dance-inspired fashion line he’s made with his wife, because of course that’s the kind of thing he does. Recommended tracks: “Carmen”, “Tous Les Mêmes” and “Dodo”. You’ll like him if you like: C2C, Kiesza.

Did I miss one of your French faves? Have a preferred language for music? Let us know!

Featured image by Didy Photography.

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