“Music is painting in the air,” Italian musician Franco Falsini once observed. This weekend, when the I Madonnari Festival returns for its trentesimo anniversario at the S.B. Mission, the pastel artists won’t be the only ones filling the atmosphere with artistry. With her band’s colorful, vibrant, and whimsical blend of French chanson, Chinese ’40s swing, gypsy jazz, and international folk, L.A.’s Jessica Fichot will paint the air of the street art festival on Saturday afternoon in a special free performance.
Playing accordion and toy piano and backed by friends — in this weekend’s iteration, Adrien Prévost (guitar), Sylvain Carton (clarinet, sax), and PJ Wyderka (upright bass) — Fichot and company have charmed audiences across the world, from France to China to Mexico to Canada. Born just outside of Paris in La Celle-St.-Cloud, near Versailles, Fichot grew up saturated in French language and culture, and her upbringing lives on in the swinging, sultry original French accordion tunes on albums like Le Chemin and Le Secret. Yet the multitalented, multilingual Fichot doesn’t channel just one culture or genre in her tunes, but many, etching into the ether a borderless musical festival of upbeat feelings and flavors and childhood wonderment. “When I was living in France as a kid and a teenager, I liked to sing in English because that was the language I wasn’t speaking in school — French was the language I wrote my essays in, and I felt a little bit more free from the constraints of language with English,” she said. “Now it’s kind of the opposite — I live my life in English, and I sing in French. French is the language of my childhood.”
Her most recent work, 2014’s Dear Shanghai EP, was a work dedicated to her mother, who grew up in Shanghai. Singing entirely in Mandarin, Fichot takes listeners to 1930s and ’40s Shanghai, the jazz capital of Asia at that time, but with a modern twist in production and interpretation, including variations on old pop songs from the era. “It was something I wanted to discover for myself; it’s part of me,” she said of her heritage and learning to sing in Chinese. Singing in Chinese also was a way of carving out a niche in the world of chansons, she added, with Mandarin being an under-sung tongue in her homeland.
Fichot’s music straddles epochs as well as geographies, and she aims to make sure her vintage sounds have a contemporary luster. “I like the sounds of that era, and it’s nice to bring these songs back, but I’m pretty conscious that I don’t just copy it — I try to add little elements in the production, so that it’s not just trying to reproduce exactly that vintage sound,” she said.
Fichot is also fluent in a variety of musical languages. In her spare time, she writes children’s tunes for ESL programs. “I really get to write in a lot of different styles — anything from reggae to a geeky rap,” she said. For her next project, she’s hoping to venture into the world of video game music and sound effect composition. With a penchant toward “story-centric and adventure-based games,” Fichot is educating herself on how to shape digital sonic worlds and enriching the rest of her creativity in the process. “Thinking about music as a soundscape and as the score of a game is really giving me new energy for everything else I do in music,” she said.
So whether it’s stirring up auditory visions of old Shanghai or melding music to the visuals of a video game, Fichot’s colorful chansons have a way of painting pretty pictures in the mind. Hear her and her band play at the Mission Saturday, and let your imagination fill in the blank spaces, whether they’re in your head or on the Mission grounds.
Jessica Fichot plays at the I Madonnari Festival at the S.B. Mission (2201 Laguna St.) on Saturday, May 28, at 2 p.m. For more information, call (805) 964-4710 x 4411 or visit imadonnarifestival.com.