LA-based French-Chinese-American gypsy-jazz chanteuse Jessica Fichot has made it her business to soak up the musical influences from all of her cultural backgrounds and add her own original spin. The results rather stun. The music is all her own. Fichot’s voice is gorgeous — delicate, expressive and hypnotic. It really doesn’t matter whether she’s singing in English, French or Chinese (and she might employ any of them), the listener can’t fail to get carried along. She’s also a classically-trained musician, and an accomplished pianist and accordion player. She plays Club Congress on August 26, so we spoke to her about her past, present and future…
Where were you born?
Upstate New York, which is pretty different than the city. I moved to France when I was two, so I don’t remember much about my life before that. I lived in the suburbs of Paris, then I studied in Boston, and now I’ve been in Los Angeles for over a decade.
Why did you choose to live in LA?
It was a little bit by chance. I wanted a change from Boston after I graduated. I went to Berklee College of Music and, after I graduated, I felt like Boston was becoming a ghost town. A lot of people go there to study and then they leave. I stayed for about a year after I graduated, and I was getting a little tired of it. A friend of mine happened to be moving to LA, and I decided that I would join her to try it out. More than a decade later, I'm still here.
Do you enjoy it? LA is very different to L.A. and Boston …
I do like it. A lot of me liking Los Angeles came because I didn’t have expectations of it. I think a lot of people who move to L.A. and don’t like it, they don’t like it because they either expect to be successful really quickly, or they expect to find a city like New York where you can walk around and see interesting history and architecture. You have to know your way around a little bit better, but I came not really knowing what to expect and I think, because of that, I actually liked it right away.
Tell us about your upbringing in Paris … You were then from the age of two till when?
I left France when I was 19. I did [enjoy being a teen in Paris] at times. I came from a family of engineers. My parents and my brother are all engineers. My parents have always been supportive. For me, music has always been there, and growing up it was really the thing that was different from what everybody else in my family did, and something that was fun. Especially singing. I did grow up playing music, but it didn’t surround me every single place I went. It was something I chose, because I liked it.
You wrote children’s songs in college—is that correct?
I started writing them in college and I’m still writing them now. I went to Berklee to study songwriting, and I actually have a degree as a songwriter. Now, it seems strange to say that, but I started writing songs for musical theater for children, and then I got these jobs writing songs for youth for education. So I wrote these songs that teach English. It’s something that I still do to this day. Once in a while I have clients that will call me and ask me to write 30 songs for a new program, and then these songs will be used to accompany books that children will use when they’re learning English.
Does that help your songwriting overall?
Definitely. There’s something much more technical than people think when it comes to songwriting. It’s easier to be inspired to write a little bit of music. A song has to be structured the right way. Writing all of these songs for kids, it’s made me able to write. When I’m stuck, it’s made me a better craftsman of songs. It’s been really interesting because, when I write songs for these programs I have deadlines, so it’s made me learn to produce songs because I have to, not just write the music but also record people and produce the songs. I’ve learned to do it just by actually doing it.
Your style is obvious drawing from a number of places. How do you describe it?
When I first started this project and released my first album, I told people that I do French chanson. People would ask what that is and I would explain that ‘chanson’ just means song, but it’s also a style of music. Kind of like when you say ‘singer/songwriter.’ Chanson means song, but it’s also a style of music. With me embracing other languages and also singing some songs in Chinese, it’s become harder and harder to describe what I do. The basis is French chanson — original songs in French. Lyric-driven. But also an eclectic mix of acoustic music. I don’t think I’m the only person who has a hard time describing the music that they play. But French chanson, Shanghai jazz, and an eclectic mix of multilingual folk music. Even though the styles might sound different, there’s something about the band playing them and also the similar influences that I think make the show move despite the fact that there are a lot of languages. The last music that I released was songs originally from Shanghai but that style of music was very influenced by European jazz, which influences my own original songs. So somehow it all fits together.
For those reasons, can it be hard to find musicians to play with? Not necessarily. It just happens that right now, a lot of the people that I play with are French. There’s definitely a lot of international people in the band. But I don’t think that it’s a problem to find musicians to play that style. Most of the musicians I play with have a jazz background and I hope they’re excited to play something that’s a little different than jazz standards. You definitely have an advantage knowing how to play jazz when playing my music even though it’s clearly different.
Do you enjoy playing Tucson?
I’ve played Tucson many times before. This is my fifth show, possibly even more. It’s my second time at Congress. I’ve been playing regularly in Tucson—almost once a year for the past five or six years. It’s not too far to drive from L.A. and usually I’ll do a couple of shows in Arizona when I drive east—people there have responded to my music. The people promoting the shows have done a good job. I do seem to have a decent crowd every time I play. But I don’t want to jinx it!
What can we expect from this set?
The more I’ve progressed in my career, the more variety I have in my shows. First when I started, it was really French-focussed. Now it’s brought into other styles. Occasionally covers, sometimes in English, that people don’t expect to hear. The more I play Tucson, the more variety I have in the show. I haven’t made my set list yet, I don’t quite know myself, but hopefully people will like it.
When this run of shows is over, what do you have coming up next?
I’m working on new songs and I’m also doing a lot of work with video games. People are surprised when I tell them I’m a gamer of sorts, but I’ve been writing interactive music for video games. I’m also writing new songs and I hope to put out an album although I don’t want to put out a date yet. My next release will probably be the soundtrack to the game I'm working on, and hopefully shortly after that, an album.