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Interview: Patrick Bruel

French megastar reflects on London debut

    He's sold 14 million discs, has a string of movie credits and is a champion poker player to boot. But although one of France's biggest stars, Patrick Bruel is barely known in the UK, save for a loyal following among the French ex-patriot community, who will be turning out in force when he finally plays his first British concert at London's Royal Albert Hall later this month.

    For an idea of just how big a deal Bruel is in his homeland, the Pierre Mauroy stadium on the outskirts of Lille was the place to be at the weekend. The first of two concerts showcasing highlights from a career spanning three decades was broadcast live on the main commercial French TV channel, TF1, attracting a viewing audience of four million, in addition to the 25,000 diehard fans who packed the modern arena.

    Football-style chants of "Patreek, Patreek" rang out across the auditorium as Bruel's female fans of a surprisingly wide age range eagerly anticipated his arrival on stage. It was a love-in that continued unabated through two-and-a-half hours of singalong fare. A tad cheesy, maybe, but performed with emotion and no little élan.

    The concert finishes just shy of midnight. Some of the following night's audience are already camping outside the venue to be first in line for the standing spaces - or even to attend the soundcheck, a benefit of Bruel fan club membership. Inside, the artist is doing that decidedly un-rock 'n' roll thing of visibly enjoying a "meet and greet" with fans at the after-show party. He's probably less enthused about fulfilling media commitments as the clock ticks beyond 2am but although obviously tired, he turns on the Gallic charm, pausing occasionally to pick from an impressively healthy plate of post-gig refreshments.

    The 55-year-old was born in Algeria when it was part of France. His parents were both teachers and he recalls being influenced by music from early childhood. "There was music everywhere in my house. I was awaking with Beethoven. I was going to bed with Pink Floyd. My parents' taste was eclectic. If you want to express your emotion by reggae, by rock or by classical, I am able to receive it because I was taught to listen to all forms of music."

    Patrick Bruel's concerts are a hot ticket for his loyal French fans
    Patrick Bruel's concerts are a hot ticket for his loyal French fans

    His Jewish background is important to him and when I ask if it is reflected in his work, he replies simply: "Of course," elaborating that "it's not obvious in the songs, but a suggestion. People know me in my country and know what I think about it all. I never hide anything - what I am, however I think." He enjoys a big fan-base among French Jewry.

    And while Bruel has taken an unconscionably long time to perform in Britain, he has played to Israeli audiences on a number of occasions, with especially fond memories of a concert in Ra'anana. "It's always a special feeling when you go to Israel and it was a really beautiful moment."

    A highlight of his Lille concerts is his performance of a song with a British storyline, She's Gone, from his last album, Lequel de Nous (Which of Us), prompting the waving of Union Jacks around the stadium. There is also an English version as a bonus track on the CD and an endearingly self-deprecating video shot in London in early 2013. Check it out on YouTube.

    Bruel was inspired by the "five marvellous days" he spent at the 2012 Olympics -"fabulous organisation and everyone was smiling" - and wanted a reason to come back. "Now I really want to sing this song in London."

    He cannot sensibly explain why his British debut has been so long delayed. "I don't really know. It's just stupid," he laughs. "I've been talking about singing in England for about 15 years but there was never an opportunity. This time I say, 'no matter where, no matter how, I am going to sing there'. But I know how difficult it is for French artists in England."

    Knowing its market, the Royal Albert Hall website includes a French translation of Bruel's biography and the artist anticipates that the audience on the night will be predominantly French. "As long as the arena is full I am happy," he says pragmatically. "If it is French people, OK. If it's French people and a few English people, very OK. If it's a 70-30 mix, that would be the best."

    The London concert is also likely to feature a tribute to "all the music that has been important to me. I don't know yet but it could be from Paul McCartney to David Bowie to Genesis. Maybe we'll have some surprise guests." Bruel adds that he would one day love to do a duet with Coldplay's Chris Martin, "who was very nice to me when he came to Paris".

    He is also playing American dates during a tour that will reach 700,000 people. But his career in French cinema continues apace with more location work in the offing. And among his cinematic highlights is acting alongside Woody Allen in the 2011 movie, Paris Manhattan. "He came as an actor, did his scene, didn't talk about directing. He was very shy but very interesting."

    Asked about his poker success, he suitably doesn't reveal too much of his hand. "It's complicated because you can't say how much you won but you are not going to say how much you lose. What's important is the balance at the end of the year. You have to be ahead. I am ahead so that's all right. I did very well in three tournaments this year. Then I went to the World Series in Vegas and did really bad. Really bad."

    Playing poker was "totally opposite" to his musical career. "As a singer you are totally naked in front of people about your emotions and what you have to say. When you are at the poker table you have to hide everything, to pretend, to mislead. I always say that actors are not very good poker players but all the poker players are very good actors."

    Although he lived in New York for many years, home is now Paris. "You have everything in Paris - the theatre, the movies, monuments, art, fashion." And privacy? "You can't have privacy when you are famous but it is better here than in England. I have a relationship with fans that is really beautiful."

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