She bears an uncanny resemblance to French actress Isabelle Adjani, but excels in a different art. For ten years now, Nolwenn Leroy has been charming listeners with her rich, dark voice, her delicate delivery and sensitive songs, selling more than two million records in France. Dark-haired, blue-eyed and beautiful, she’s now getting ready for a new challenge as she releases her first album in the United States, after a debut gig at the Drom in New York’s East Village. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for me,” she said, just hours before hopping on the plane for her New York debut. “I know how tough it is to make it there, but I’ve been wanting to cross the ocean with my music for several years.”
The 30-year-old chanteuse was born Nolwenn Le Magueresse in Saint- Renan, at the extreme western tip of Brittany. She moved often during early childhood, following the transfers of her father, a professional soccer player. After her parents divorced, she left her native region to grow up in the Auvergne, near Vichy. When she was eleven, her music teacher noticed her talent and encouraged her to learn the violin (she also plays piano and harp). And the gifted teenager had still more strings to her bow: Two years later, she won a drawing contest called Les Ecoles du Désert (Schools of the Desert), and took part in a humanitarian mission in Mali, an experience that deeply influenced her. But the most important journey of her young life was still to come.
In July 1998, she was awarded a scholarship by the Rotary Club of Vichy to attend Hamilton High School, in Hamilton, Ohio, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. There Nolwenn—or Winnie, as she was called by her American friends— became fluent in English and took lessons at the Performing Arts School in Cincinnati. “I was spending every afternoon and every weekend rehearsing for the high school orchestra,” she recalls. “The experience changed many things in my life. I was immersed in American culture and language, in a small and traditional town. That year helped me forge my character, and it gave me a new confidence in myself and in my music. For the first time, I felt my dream was possible, if I had the strength to work hard enough. If there’s one thing I learned from American culture, it’s that everything is possible.”
When she returned to France, she enrolled in the music conservatory in Clermont-Ferrand, honing the vocal skills she had begun to master in Ohio. In the meantime, she began studying American law, aiming for a job in an NGO or diplomacy in case she failed at a singing career. Then fate intervened. In 2002, like a thousand or so of her peers, she auditioned to take part in the second season of the television reality show Star Academy 2, a French version of American Idol. Impressed by Armande Altaï, one of the show’s judges, Leroy had taken lessons at Altaï’s singing school before joining the young coterie of wannabe stars. After four months of tough competition—which included remarkable duos sung with Lionel Richie, Vanessa Carlton, Patrick Bruel, and Lara Fabian—she was declared the winner on the live show, with an audience of millions of viewers. A year later she issued her first album, Nolwenn Leroy (using her mother’s maiden name), which sold more than 600,000 copies. “It was a peculiar debut for a young singer,” she says now. “I was only 20 at the time. Since then I’ve gotten stronger, and probably less naive. I had fulfilled a dream, but there were too many people telling me what to do. I needed to take back some control of my career. A few artists and musicians helped me along the way, and showed me how to build up something that looked more like me,” she says, citing especially French composer-singer-songwriter Laurent Voulzy.
Pop music, Celtic melodies
Despite critical appraisal, comparing her whimsical lyrics and the mystical atmosphere of her songs to Tori Amos and Kate Bush, her next two albums had more difficulty winning over the French public. That’s probably why she surprised so many people with the release of Bretonne in 2010—the album is a brilliant but unexpected homage to her Celtic roots, with songs in French, English, Gaelic and Breton. “A few journalists in France thought it was a niche album, meant only for a few listeners. I was glad to prove them wrong, and to show that pop music could blend with traditional Celtic tunes to reach a very large audience!”
Indeed, the album, for which she had written several original songs, quickly topped the charts, and has now sold almost a million copies. It even launched a large debate in France about regional culture and revival of folk music and folklore. “It’s an album full of nostalgia for my childhood,” she explains. “It was meant to express what Brittany meant to me. But I couldn’t expect that my most personal project would be approved by so many people, in France, and now—I hope—in the US.”
Approval of an unusual kind has already come from the US, in fact. Between 2005 and 2007, an American research project in Texas studied the impact of music on the aged. Several Dutch and French singers were included in the study, along with Mozart and other classical music. One surprising result: Nolwenn Leroy’s music had the most impact in preventing falls in senior-care homes, prompting the researchers to call it “the Nolwenn effect”. For the scientists, her music “appears to have a different effect on brain-based modulation of gait and stance than other music tested to date”.
The first American album, simply entitled Nolwenn, is an adaptation of the Bretonne album with a few new songs added. There are covers of some English-language classics, including Moonlight Shadow and Scarborough Fair, alongside the traditional Breton Tri Martolod, about three sailors who fall in love with the same girl, and the Irish Gaelic Mna Na H-Eireann (Women of Ireland). “I wanted to present Gaelic songs in English as well as in Breton, but there are none in French on the album. I needed the American audience, which is familiar with Irish and Scottish culture, to discover that there was also a Celtic territory in France, with its own identity.” They’ll also discover a rare and multifaceted talent whose beautiful, haunting voice should prove equally enchanting on both sides of the ocean.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of France Today
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