It was not events that marked my life and career; it was more the people I met - an interview with Charles Aznavour

Wednesday, April 1, 2015
It was not events that marked my life and career; it was more the people I met - an interview with Charles Aznavour

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a man who has over the years received the applause of his audience with grace and humility – even as the applause and ovations get louder and longer. At 90 years old, Armenian-born Charles Aznavour is an icon in the world of music.

It was not events that marked my life and career; it was more the people I met - an interview with Charles Aznavour

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a man who has over the years received the applause of his audience with grace and humility – even as the applause and ovations get louder and longer. At 90 years old, Armenian-born Charles Aznavour is an icon in the world of music.

It is evening when we meet, and he is sitting at the head of a table, tired.  He left Avignon that day by Thalys to Antwerp together with his entourage and his daughter, Katia Aznavour (from his third marriage with Ulla Thorsell).

Evi Van der Planken: You started to perform at a very young age – you were 9 years old.  What was that like?

 

Charles Aznavour: We were foreigners, immigrants. We had to make a living.

He sings about this in a song, Les émigrants.  “When you start living in a country that’s not yours, you have to learn everything:  the language, the habits… An immigrant isn’t always accepted with open arms. However, it is better now.  I feel accepted, probably thanks to my oeuvre.

Aznavour was born on May 22nd, 1924 while his parents were waiting for a visa to enter the United States, with hopes of a better future.  Due to the birth of Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian, his full official name, the family was left stranded in Paris.  His parents chose to start a small restaurant in Paris, although the recession of 1929 soon ended this project.  After that, the family needed an income.

I always worked”, Aznavour says.  He sang in cabarets and clubs in Pigalle and Mont-Parnesse. He didn’t have the right look, however: a long nose, thick, black eyebrows, and a small stature. Yet, this wasn’t enough to make him give up; together with Pierre Roche he formed a duo, and he discovered that, besides acting and singing, he was also a composer.

Charles Aznavour, 2007 © Xavier Thomas. Source: Wikipedia

Evi Van der Planken: These days you are still performing.  It is simply astonishing, the length and scope of your marvelous career, spanning 80 years. How does it feel?

He smiles, before correcting me, “it’s been 81 years”. The success didn't come overnight; he had to work very hard for it. Meanwhile, the struggles shaped his character.  "If I don’t work, I die.  I need to work”, he says.

Talking about Edith Piaf.

Aznavour met Piaf when he was still performing with Pierre Roche.  She encouraged him to write his own chansons.  Thanks to Piaf, he had the opportunity to perform in Montreal.

Charles Aznavour: I spent several years in the entourage of Edith Piaf – she is the one who taught me to stay true to my own self when performing, and not to become somebody else. The audience doesn’t accept this.

He went on to say: "The image that several authors and cineastes have of Edith Piaf doesn’t serve her right. Edith had an incredible sense of humor. I still picture her walking on a bridge in Lausanne with a green balloon on a string in her hand, she was walking the whole time like that. Incredibly funny, typically Edith.  Edith and I were accomplices in laughter."

                       

Evi Van der Planken: Let’s look at your impressive curriculum: you wrote more than a thousand songs and musicals, you made over one hundred albums, played in 60 movies, you sing in 5 languages. You are ambassador to Armenia.  What event had the biggest impact on you and why?

Aznavour replies, very humbly: “It was not events that marked my life and career; it was more the people I met.”

Evi Van der Planken: I decided to ask him, simply: what is art for you?

He responds very decisive and to the point: Photography and Cuisine. He is not about to deliver a thesis about art; rather, he brings up the forms of art where he will always find it.  "La chanson, c'est une photo" – “writing a chanson is as if I put my life, my feelings, into a photo.” Some songs are like a polaroid: one by one appear the figures, the context, the memories, and when the song is sung, the photo has been developed.

Evi Van der Planken: If you would have to choose one artist over all other art-forms, which artists do you love most?

Charles Aznavour: Charles Trennet, without a doubt.  He was a friend, a great artist, a spectacle. Trennet was a man of great ideas; in all the years we knew each other, he never told the same joke twice.  He surprised his entourage always with his fresh mind, always innovating.  That was his greatest gift.

Evi Van der Planken: You wrote in total over 2000 songs, most of them about love.

Charles Aznavour: I didn’t write or compose that many songs about love. I wrote songs about all facets of life. But people mostly remember my love songs.

Evi Van der Planken: Is love art?

Charles Aznavour: Love is not an art principal, but therefore not any less important.

I must say, this was not the answer I expected from Aznavour. I expected him to place love on the top of his list. But, sitting next to him once the interview was over, gave me the feeling that nostalgia has become more precious.

Interview made by Evi Van der Planken.

Image above: Charles Aznavour (b. May 22, 1924) – French singer © Mariusz Kubik

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