Sebastien Tellier: France’s top pop chanteur

When French pop arose fresh-faced and well-coiffed in the early '60s, few would have pictured it a generation later in the hands of a guy who looks like a biker in casual Yves Saint Laurent. But gaze into the hairy, shaded face of Sebastien Tellier (after you listen to his new album, Sexuality), and you're looking at this century's most interesting French pop songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and chanteur.

On the 21st-century French pop continuum, you can slot Tellier between peers like sophisto prog duo Air (for whose Record Makers label he's been recording since it launched in 2001) and masked electrobotica idols Daft Punk (one of whom, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, produced Sexuality). But in terms of both image and music, he's rather different from both of those superstar acts.

Visually, Tellier presents a scruffy contrast to Air's clean-cut, low-key chic and Daft Punk's gleaming android style. His scraggly long hair frames a face covered by both a beard and square designer sunglasses that resemble senior citizen cataract shades. The look seems almost intimidating until you check out Tellier's adorably quotable interviews on YouTube. The man is a sharp spout, noting in his accented English that "if you want to be a great lover, you have to be a nice person," and that he wants to make "very fruity music. Music as a fruit is a kind of perfection."

Of course, Tellier also stands out musically from his peers, starting with his eclectic 2001 debut, L'Incroyable Vérité. Although he mostly whistled and hummed his way through a collection of jazzy late-'60s instrumentals and moody psych-pop, Tellier set the stage for his personality to emerge more vocally on his second album, Politics. That sophomore set bounced around between grandly orchestrated jazz, freaky glitch, '80s nu-wave disco, and spaghetti Western themes. Politics was grounded in the spacey orchestral funk of "La Ritournelle," which found Tellier crooning largely indecipherable lyrics with truly subtle soul.

That soul – mixed with elegant lust — imbues Sexuality, his first explicitly conceptual album. The disc is a confection of gauzy '80s synth-disco styles, with Tellier's breathy vocals blending with ecstatic female moans. De Homem-Christo's production works perfectly on tunes like the luxurious "Roche" (which sounds enough like a slow New York hip-hop groove that you can imagine Fiddy rhyming over it), the Eno-esque temper of "Une Heure," and the fantastically titled Jean-Michel Jarre tribute "Sexual Sportswear."

But "Divine" is Sexuality's true centerpiece. It also became an item of minor controversy — though not for a reason you may suspect. It couldn't be a more delightful pop ditty, bathed in Beach Boys harmonies and framed in a boppy arrangement that drops into moody piano-and-vocal moments. Even so, many French politicians protested when Tellier was picked to sing the track as France's representative to this year's Eurovision Song Contest, because of its mostly English lyrics. Tellier eventually added more lines in French, and goofily mitigated the kerfuffle on the night of the performance by costuming his mixed-gender backup singers in long-haired wigs, beards, shades, and formal casualwear, creating a motley band of Telliers.

It's more than cheery irreverence that bonds Tellier to France's '60s and '70s pop stars as their genuine heir. His gentle, young-man tenor evokes baby-faced idols like Christophe and Gérard Lenorman, while his genre-hopping and perverse charm are pure Serge Gainsbourg. And although Tellier has publicly admitted that Gainsbourg is "too much in my blood" to not be an influence, Sexuality exudes a unique charm that keeps Tellier at the top of the current Parisian pop heap.

 
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