The English translation of écorché vif doesn't do justice to this French expression: "tourmented soul" is too lyrical and romantic. Un écorché vif is somebody who voluntary butchers his own soul. It's brutal. It's like putting the ingredients of your soul through a food processor, set on "shred." This is how, in France, they describe Le Prince Miiaou, the rising star of French rock music.
Le Prince Miiaou, is in fact, a girl called Maud-Elisa Mandeau. Tall, skinny and softly spoken, her big eyes express both a curiosity for life and a deeply buried fear. She released her fourth album at the beginning of this year and came to London for her first concert at the Zigfrid von Underbelly, in Hoxton Square. Although, in her native France, her concerts are selling out at some of the most prestigious venues and the trendiest music magazines are dedicating double spreads to her story, she made a very intimate and discreet entrée onto the London scene.
We meet after her gig. It is almost 11 pm on a weekday and the bars are clearing their outside spaces. Unable to find a quiet spot, we opt for a chat on the pavement. I ask her how she feels about her first London gig. "As musicians, we are too spoilt in France", she tells me while rolling her cigarette, "there is never a concert without a bottle of water on stage. We have two hours for a sound check and if you are not ready, they give you extra time before going on stage. Here, we had half an hour for the sound check, no water on stage and we had to start on the dot. But I like this rush. I enjoyed it. I like taking myself out of the comfort zone."
The absence of a comfort zone is what pushed Maud-Elisa to make music as a form of life therapy. She started singing in her brother's band and then freed herself from that entanglement to create Le Prince Miiaou at the age of 22. She sang about all her negative experiences, anxieties and her anger - "all the teenage stuff" as she calls it today. Every aspect of le Prince Miiaou was born out of rejection. She rejected prejudice related to women in music by creating a male stage name. She rejected any form of external influence and has been self-producing everything, including her music videos. She rejected the French Government regulations that impose quotas on the number of songs in French in every album, by singing the vast majority in English.
Her music is intense. Occasionally it feels like a really strained guitar string that is about to burst. She is captivating on stage, as if the spirit of British punk rock was reincarnated in the body of Jane Birkin. It is almost as if, recorded, her music is trapped in a space, but on stage it escapes and takes on gargantuan proportions; it's overpowering.
Maud-Elisa has constructed her image as an outcast and a rebel. Her fans and the Press loved her for her unique voice and the original space that she has carved out for herself on the margins of the French mainstream music scene. At the peak of her revolt, she released two albums; "Nécessité Microscopique" and "Safety first" where rock, folk and electronic music all came together in an eclectic mix. Then followed her third album "Fill the Blanks with your own Emptiness" which hinted at a shift in her life. Maud-Elisa had evolved. She was living in the French countryside with her boyfriend and cats, doing gardening in her spare time. She was settled and the revolt was over. "It was a blank page. I panicked', she says.
She had to reinvent herself and left her quiet countryside life for Brooklyn, in New York, where she lived for three months last year, searching for inspiration and experiences that she could talk about in her songs. "Where is the queen?" came out of this expedition, which is the first line of a long title that comes in an abstract dialogue, reminding one of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot". "The long title will annoy the journalists", she says with a big grin on her face, proving that the rebel spirit is still lingering in there somewhere. The queen, she confesses shyly, symbolises the idea that she is waiting for.
She invited French music producer Antoine Gaillet and her own brother Benjamin to her "planet" to search for that queen of ideas. She has moved from a butchered soul to a tormented one. The album is a lot more constructed, less scatty, there is a narrative and a mature voice. Her new self wants to fit in, be invited to the big French music festivals and do more gigs. Yet, the French music industry is reluctant to embrace the outcast. "You have to sing in French and the music has to be a lot lighter", she explains. Influenced by Anglo-Saxon music, she believes the melody of the French language wouldn't fit her songs. "It would be like singing flamenco in German", she tells me.
Mademoiselle Le Prince is now looking for a new place to continue her musical journey. Maybe it will be London, or somewhere else. "I think too much. It is all spinning in my head" she concludes, as we part. As long as it spins, there will be more to look forward to from the planet named Le Prince Miiaou.