Renaud Séchan and his twin brother David were born on May 11th 1952 in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. There were six children in the family. Their father, from a Protestant background, was a German teacher and detective thriller writer; their mother came from a working class family in Northern France. They lived in a modest but confortable apartment in Paris.
Anarchy in the blood
At primary school, Renaud showed little taste for school work and, as a result, was a mediocre pupil. Apart from his interest in drawing and French, there was no great change at secondary school either. He was undisciplined, and rebelled against any kind of authority. From an early age his father, whom Renaud later described as an "anarcho-socialist", had inculcated in him a distrust of the police, the military and imposed order in general. Already, in 1967, when he had to repeat his fourth year at the Lycée Montaigne in Paris, Renaud was passionately interested in politics. The following year, the events in May were to change everything. For a month, he took an active part in the student protests and, like many others, lived in the occupied Sorbonne University buildings. It was during this time that, accompanying himself on guitar, he wrote his first song.
Following this period of illusions, Renaud's new ambition was to become an actor. He stuck out a final year at lycée, specialising in art, before turning his back on the school system for good. His parents forced him to go to work and he did a series of jobs: warehouseman, paperback book seller, etc. But he spent most of his money on motorbikes, his great love ever since he saw the film "Easy Rider".
A chance meeting one summer with the actor Patrick Dewaere led to him joining Romain Bouteiller's troupe at the Café de la Gare, which included, among others, Coluche and Miou Miou. He stayed with the troupe five months, enough time to develop a taste for the stage, before going back to work in the bookshop where he was previously employed.
In 72 and 73, Renaud's future was by no means clear. Sacked by the bookshop, he hung out in bistros and with friends, writing songs for them for fun. With an accordionist friend, Michel, he played in the Paris streets. The duo went down well with young audiences but also with older people, who appreciated the duo's resurrection of the age-old Parisian street singing tradition.
One day, Coluche's producer, Paul Lederman noticed them busking along the queue outside one of the comedian's shows. He hired them to play at the CafConc, a café-theatre he was opening on the Champs Elysées, and gave them the name Trois P'tits Loulous (another musician was added to the duo). Their repertoire consisted mainly of realist songs until, after Michel left to do his military service, Renaud continued solo, singing his own compositions: songs such as "Hexagone" and "Camarade Bourgeois". Without having ever really intended to embark on a singing career, Renaud was offered a contract to record an album by a producer of an independant label.
In 1975, aged only 23, he brought out his first album, "Amoureux de Paname", a selection of the songs he sung in the street. influenced by the revolutionary ideas of May 1968 uprising, these songs expressed the disillusionment with society prevalent in the early seventies, but above all described a certain style of living in "Paname" (the argot - Parisian slang - word for Paris), and particularly the suburbs, the theatre of every kind of experience. The track "Société tu m'auras pas" sums up Renaud's state of mind as well as that of a whole section of French youth unable to identify with the values drummed into them by their elders.
Following the album's release, Renaud sang at the Pizza du Marais for three weeks, sharing the bill with another singer, Yvan Dautin.
Despite the beginnings of a singing a career, Renaud still dreamed of becoming an actor. In 77, he performed nightly in Paris in a play by Martin Lamotte, "Le Secret de Zonga", whilst continuing to sing at the Blanc Manteaux (formerly the Pizza du Marais). In October, he released his second album, "Laisse Béton". In 78, the title track went to the top of the charts and made him known nation-wide. "Verlan", the coded Paris slang that inverts syllables and which Renaud used in the song, became popular throughout France. Renaud's fame was growing. His performance at the Printemps de Bourges festival in April, accompanied for the first time by a group of professional musicians, was a triumph.
Renaud's third album, "Ma gonzesse", came out in January 79. The songs are both more tender and more intimate than the previous ones, particularly the title track, but also "Chanson pour Pierrot". In March, he played five nights to full houses at the Théâtre de l'Hôtel de Ville in Paris. He suffered from terrible stage fright but, full of humour and fantasy, he knew how to strike up a relationship with his audiences. 1980 saw the release of the album, "Marche à l'ombre", which included hits such as "Dans mon HLM" and "les Aventures de Gérard Lambert". In order to satisfy growing demand, he played nightly for the whole of March at the Bobino theatre in Paris. This resulted in two live albums, the double album "Live à Bobino" and "Le p'tit bal du samedi soir", which included some of the realist songs he sung back in his busking days.
Now an established figure in the new wave of French singers, Renaud had become a star without ever really intending it. Now almost thirty, his initial revolts had tempered somewhat and he was more concerned with describing what he saw and the lives he imagined people had. In 1981, in the album, "le Retour de Gérard Lambert", he denounced drugs in "la Blanche", human stupidity in "Mon beauf", and paid tender tribute to his grandfather, "Oscar", a miner.
Renaud had evolved as an artist: his preoccupations were now different. He was also married now, to Dominique who, in 1979 had given birth to their daughter, Lolita. His Bohemian lifestyle had given way to family life. He had also discovered sailing and the sea, a world more conducive to inner peace than revolt.
In 83, strengthened by this newly acquired serenity, he released an album very different from the previous ones. Even the record sleeve is less agressive. It is probable that the birth of his daughter had changed his way of looking at things. His songs had become more tender: "Morgane de toi" and "En cloque". Closer to mainstream French "variété" than the rock-folk of his débuts, the album was the singer's most successful to date and was played by all the radio stations. "Dès que le vent soufflera" was a huge hit, with sales of 1.2 million in only a few months. Renaud's contract with Polydor had almost expired and the album's success enabled him to sign up with his new label, Virgin, on extremely advantageous terms.
Now a fully-fledged French pop star, Renaud was back on stage at the Zenith in Paris From January 17th to Febuary 5th 1984. He then went on a tour which included Quebec.
There was no respite after the album's release and the ensuing promotional tour. In 85, encouraged by singer Valérie Lagrange, Renaud and his friend Franck Langolff wrote the hymn of "Chanteurs pour l'Ethiopie" - Renaud was the founder of this charity campaign to raise funds for the effort against the famine in Ethiopia. More than a million singles were sold.
The same year he brought out another album, "Mistral Gagnant", recorded in the USA and produced by Jean-Philippe Goude. "Miss Maggie", the first single, was a fierce but humorous critique of Britain's Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. But he also sang about lost illusions and made bitter acknowledgements in songs like "Fatigué" , "Morts les enfants" or "P'tite conne".
Now at the height of stardom, Renaud was finding the number of his detractors was increasing in proportion to his fame - and the size of his bank account. How can one sing about misery, revolt and the Paris suburbs in Parisian street slang when one is a school teacher's son and a millionnaire This was the kind of question his critics were asking, without succeeding in really discrediting him.
Exasperated by these media jibes, and no doubt devastated by the death of his friend Coluche in June 86, Renaud decided to do no promotion work for his new album, released in April 88. "Putain de Camion", a hommage to his late friend, was only a partial success: nevertheless 600.000 copies were sold. The beauty and quality of the album won him several awards : the Ville de Paris prize, the Ministère de la Culture Prize and the SACEM (the French society of Authors and Composer's) prize. A tour followed and then in October he returned to Paris to play in one of the capital's largest auditoriums, the Zenith, baptising his show, "Visage Pâle attaquer Zenith".
In 91, after the Gulf War, Renaud brought out "Marchand de Cailloux", an album with a marked Irish influence, especially in tracks such as "La Ballade Nord-Irlandaise", a song about the children of Belfast. With songs full of both tenderness and outrage, the singer remained faithful to his habitual themes: youth, love and injustice.
Later that same year, he finally gave in to film maker Claude Berri and accepted to play Etienne Lantier in his epic French production of Zola's novel "Germinal". During the shooting in Northern France, which lasted several months, Renaud became familiar with area where his grandfather, a "chtimi" (miner) lived and worked. Moved by the warmth and spirit of the local people, Renaud decided in 93 to release an album devoted to the traditional music of the region, "Cante el'nord", entirely sung in the local dialect. He received the Victoire de la Musique award for best traditional music album.
In 94 he began writing again and, in his own recording studio at home, recorded the album, "A la Belle de Mai", named after a very old quarter of Marseille and a poetic tribute to that city. He sang his admiration for Che Guevarra, Zapata and Pancho Villa, but also about his youth : "C'est quand qu'on va où ?" and "Le sirop de la rue". Sales were around 500.000, down on his previous albmus, nevertheless, Renaud remained a bankable name in French music. In May 95, he played for a month at the famous Mutualité auditorium in Paris, usually reserved for political or social meetings. He then left on a nation-wide tour of France.
Profoundly influenced by the work of Georges Brassens ever since his youth, Renaud, now forty, decided to record twenty three of the late artist's songs. "Je suis un voyou" and "Le Gorille" were songs he wanted the younger generations to discover. He considered his "musical mentor" to be "a poet-rebel against all institutions" and a paragon of protest and free-thinking.
The year of 96 was also marked by a long tour ending with a week at Olympia in Paris in December. Renaud is an artist who enjoys a warm relationship with his audiences. During his concerts, he talks a lot and knows how to encourage the convivial atmosphere many of his fans expect from him. His colourful language, the idiomatic verve of his Parisian "argot", the vindictiveness of some of his songs, but also in his interviews are his trademarks.
Light at the end of the tunnel
1997 was the beginning of a bad patch for Renaud. Following his wife’s estrangement, he had a nervous breakdown, indulging in too much alcohol.
Nevertheless, he managed to pull off a series of concerts in Germany and Ireland in 1997, but later disappeared from the front stage until October 1999. At this date, Renaud got out of the shadow and embarked on a tour of France, performing in hundreds of small concert venues, but never setting foot in the capital. Only two musicians accompanied him for this Tour de France: piano-player Alain Lantry and guitar-player Jean-Pierre Buccolo who is best known as Titi from "la Mère à Titi"’. The show was accordingly entitled "Une guitare, un piano et Renaud" and featured an acoustic rendering of Renaud’s repertoire. Only two songs were written especially for the tour and added to Renaud’s now classic pieces. "Elle a vu le Loup" narrates a young girl’s coming of age. More personal, "Boucan d’enfer" recalls the racket that took place in his head when his wife left him…
Although not based on any new album nor launched by any promotion, the tour proved a huge success. Renaud received many tokens of love from his audience that knows him so well and respects him so much. The venues were always sold out, and the artist did not fail once to connect with his public.
Although it was not supposed to last more than three months, the tour went on until Summer 2000, and then until 2001 with two weeks in Quebec. This very special tour took end on March 9th 2001 in a small venue in the Parisian suburbs. Thanks to it, the singer got over his sentimental distress and managed to overcome the inspiration problems he never lied about.
During the 2001 Victoires de la Musique Ceremony, the artist was awarded a special tribute prize for his lifetime work. That same year, a group of rap artists released an album entitle "Hexagone 2001", featuring remixes of Renaud’s titles. Last but not least, Renaud went back to the studio for the first time since 1994 and released an original album entitled "Boucan d’Enfer" on May 28th 2002. Navigator and cartoonist Titouan Lamazou signed the cover of this album that was co-written by Renaud and the two friends and musicians that accompanied him on his tour. Featuring 14 tracks, "Boucan d’Enfer" recalls the artist’s anger and disillusions, his sadness and grief—that he had tried for a few years to drown in drink.
Renaud was back in the limelight, but as a hurt fifty-year-old, as the dark tone of his lyrics and interviews reflected. Undoubtedly sympathizing with him, his fans rushed to the stores to get the album. It sold more than 450,000 copies in the first week.
The first single entitled "Docteur Renaud, Mister Renard" came out on April 18th. The second one should feature "Manhattan-Kaboul", in which Renaud sings a duet with Axelle Red.
In the meantime Renaud was also back on the cinema set. In April, he starred in "Crime Spree" along with Johnny Hallyday, Gerard Depardieu, and Harvey Keitel. The film was shot in Quebec by American director Brad Mirman.
With the start of his tour entitled "Boucan D’Enfer", Renaud’s popularity exploded as soon as December 3rd 2002. All tickets were sold out in advance for this string of 170 concerts. The shows packed in night after night and audiences revelled in them. At the end of the tour the singer was overwhelmed with both joy and exhaustion.
In June 2003, Renaud joined Johnny Hallyday on stage for the latter’s 60thbirthday. Yet due to his being extremely tired and easily stage-frightened, the singer did not manage to master his voice.
A keen as ever on speaking his mind with his vivid, vindictive slang, which he uses in his songs as well as his interviews, Renaud will always remain a very peculiar figure of the French music scene.
On the 17th of October, the singer returned to the record-shops. He brought out a DVD entitled "Tournée d’enfer", a digital recording of a concert at the Lille Zenith in April 2003. A double CD version was also released. The same day a new compete works was issued in a limited edition : "Le Roman de Renaud", made up of twenty albums.
November 2004 saw the release of "Mon film sur moi et mes chansons préférées de moi" (My Film about Me and My Favourite Songs by Me), a compilation of tracks selected by Renaud which came complete with a documentary about the singer’s chequered life and career, made by Eric Guerret and Didier Varrod.
Meanwhile, coinciding with this release, his partner Romane Serda’s debut album hit record stores. Renaud had produced the album for the new ‘woman of his life’ that he had met in 2002. In March 2005, the couple recorded the duet "Anaïs Nin" together. And on 5 August 2005, they took their wedding vows at the town hall in Châteauneuf-de-Bordette, in the Drôme region.
At the end of 2005, Renaud published a children’s book, "Le petit oiseau qui chantait faux" (The Little Bird That Sang Off Key), basically a fairytale fable about freedom. The CD book was illustrated by Serge Bloch and Gérard Lo Monaco and the music provided by Paul Lazar and Eduardo Makaroff.
Deeply committed to humanitarian causes and very aware of what was happening in world affairs, Renaud went on to record "Dans la jungle", a song dedicated to the French hostage Ingrid Bétancourt, still being held by guerrillas in Colombia. On 23 February 2006, Renaud took things one step further and organised a public concert of support for Ingrid Bétancourt at Le Zénith in Rouen, taking to the stage with fellow French music stars including Raphaël, Carla Bruni and Vincent Delerm.
2006: "Rouge Sang"
At the age of 54, Renaud became a father once again. His son, Malone, was born on 14 July 2006. This new arrival in his life appeared to give the singer a new boost and in October of that year he went on to release a new album, "Rouge Sang" (Blood Red). This album marked the return of Renaud, the voice of protest, railing against society’s ills and attacking politics, religions and bourgeois bohemians (on his first single "Les bobos"). But it was another track from the album, "Elle est facho" (She’s a Fascist) that sparked political controversy. The song, parodying a woman who votes for the far-right party, Le Front National, ended with the hardhitting line "elle vote Sarko" (“she votes for Sarko”, a reference to right-wing politician and presidential candidate Nicholas Sarkozy). Given the heated climate in the run-up to the French presidential elections in 2007, Sarkozy’s UMP party denounced the song for defamation of character. But nothing could halt the unstoppable rise of “Rouge sang.” The album went platinum the day it was released, with sales rapidly topping the 500,000 mark.
The "Rouge Sang" tour kicked off in the spring of 2007. Renaud performed at the Paris-Bercy Palais Omnisports from 27-30 March, and put in appearances at several of the major French-language festivals, including the Terres Neuvas, Francofolies, Paléo and Fête de l’Humanité. He finished his tour on 29 September with a free concert at Paris’s La Cigale that lasted six hours and included all his greatest hits. A live album of the Bercy concerts came out in November.
The spring of 2008 found Renaud working on an old dream: transcribing into French some of the most famous Irish traditional songs. He recorded his adaptations in Dublin, and the album was released on 23 November 2008, entitled "Molly Malone", an allusion to his son Malone. On this album Renaud recounts the trials and tribulations of the Irish people he so admires: a combative and rebellious people with a strong working class sense of solidarity, their melancholy of exile, and the inevitability of mourning in a country in civil war. Aficionados of the genre will recognise adaptations of "Dubliners", "Molly Malone", and "The Water Is Wide". The album features both French and Irish musicians on violins, uilleann pipe and tin whistle, in the purest melodic tradition of Irish music.