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Charles Aznavour, France’s most famous crooner will take to the stage at the Greek Theater Saturday for the first of three North American shows. While the singer, best known for hits such as Toi et Moi, Hier Encore and She, downplays the cross-continent trip that will also take him to Montreal and New York – “I’m too old to tour,” he says – the ninety-year-old will follow with performances in Antwerp and Moscow before recording a new album in Paris for a December release.
Songs in both Spanish and Russian will be on the L.A. bill to please the diverse local audience, only a small sampling of the many languages he speaks and sings in.
The singer, who started his career under Edith Piaf, palled around with Ray Charles and drank Petrus with Frank Sinatra, now serves as the Armenian ambassador to Switzerland and the country’s permanent delegate to the UN. He is also active in international diplomacy and humanitarian causes through his foundation.
Aznavour sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in his villa just outside of Avignon, which the ever creative singer designed and decorated himself in traditional south of France style. Before sitting down in the music room where he writes and composes, we were greeted by his Chihuahua mix Loki, a rescue from Los Angeles where his daughter and grandchildren reside.
What keeps you working so consistently at an age when most people are retired?
If you don’t constantly work and have ideas, we age in our minds and that is the most terrible aging. The knees are difficult, but as long as the mind is working, everything works. I have plenty of plans for another ten years. I want to be the only singer still singing on stage at 100 years old. That will be great, the only one in the world! Only 10 years to wait. Unfortunately, that’s really short.
How do you approach your role as ambassador?
I am able to be active in diplomacy; for example, we have brought 12,000 people to Armenia from Syria. We have to get them out of the country because they are going to be killed because they are Christian. Not just Armenians who are Christian, Yadizis, and some Kurds too which are Muslim but live differently. It’s not politics, no politics at all. It’s diplomacy.
I work by myself and I tell people what I have done afterwards. I don’t ask the president what I should do. I think that would be too difficult. For example, I have an upcoming appointment with the ambassador of Turkey, which is rare. I don’t want to say before that I am going to go, because they’ll say ‘Don’t do that’ or ‘Don’t go there’ and I want to be a free man. There are difficulties with not only Turks that don’t want to recognize the genocide but some Armenians that don’t want me to be friendly with the Turks. So I have to be careful. But I want to be on the contrary and have good relations with the Turks. I have nothing against the Turks because they didn’t create the genocide, it came from their grandfathers. On April 15th it will be 100 years that they haven’t recognized it, so if I can help in any way I’m gonna do it. I hope that I can help something happen between the two countries.
Is your humanitarian work an extension of that?
I have my association which is Aznavour for Armenia. It’s difficult if you don’t have a telethon or something like that, but I’ve built it. I do everything myself. I give benefit concerts and some of the income from songs. The benefit concerts will sell thousands of tickets so we make money from that. I don’t ask for donations from anyone. I work from inside, it all comes from the heart and goes directly there. I go to Armenia every year to find out for myself what the humanitarian needs are, the immediate needs. We have built new and rebuilt 47 schools and 3 surgery centers.
But be clear, I have nothing to do with the politics, I don’t want to. In my audience I have all religions, all colors, all incomes, all languages. I’m not going to betray one for the other. I’m open to everyone who likes my songs. I visit countries for my pleasure too. I went to Cambodia and Thailand, not to the beaches, but across the country to take photos. I went to China, I haven’t sung in China, but I do want to do a concert there.
You’ve been in over 70 films and were recently the French voice of Up. Any upcoming roles?
I’m retired from film. Acting takes too long. I don’t want to spend two months away from my family and my work. If there is a small part I would accept it, but I want the time to write. For the past four or five years I have started to write books, seven now, and I’m writing a fiction book for the first time. I’ve just written a musical that will be on Broadway soon called Vive le Vie about Lautrec.
There is something I would like to talk to Atom Egoyan about. I see myself having a small part. The subject is very unusual; it’s something that has never been done before. I wrote it, not for me exactly, but there is a small part that could be for me. If he doesn’t like it, well, I won’t be mad about it. I’m going to meet with him in Canada and propose the story to him, and see if he’s interested. I’ll meet with him in September when I go to Montreal.
Are there any pop stars you admire or want to work with, or new music you like?
I see the new stars, I buy their records, and I’ve done plenty of duets with rock stars. You know, there is not ‘styles of music,’ ‘kinds of music’ there are two types – the good and the bad. I’ve written a lot to help young people understand what we are doing is not easy. You can’t become a star in one day. That’s very important to help the youth understand. They sing and they will never be a big star because they sing what they think is good, but are imitating Americans, which is not their own language. I don’t know any French songs that have been famous lately in America, before it was La Vie en Rose, C’est Si Bon, strong French songs. Pop songs, the Americans do it much better.
What do you think of the state of French music then?
French music is slowly coming back. The French people never found any rhythm, we have tango and jazz, but everything has come from outside. So I used that with French lyrics, to bring them together, which works for the public. I’m a French artist, I’m not American or Italian or Armenian. I’m French, and I want to show the public the best of what we can do in France. We are the best lyric writers, because we have kept the language alive through songs. Young people are coming back to the French songs, and they will be proud of their culture.
There’s all these contest shows, The Voice, Do you Know the Lyrics? They come on and think they are stars, and they will never be. Maybe one in ten thousand will make it. Maybe. And the shows are selling it as a dream, but to have a dream it can become a nightmare one day. We have to get young people to realize it doesn’t happen like that, it is hard work.
I’ve had three books on this matter, and now I am writing the fourth one. They were very well received. It started a conversation with young people and people in show business. I’m the boss in this country. Sinatra was the boss in America, [Julio] Iglesias is the boss in Spain, and I’m the boss in France of course. I think it’s important to have somebody to follow. I had my bosses, three: Piaf, Charles Trenet, Maurice Chevalier. They were the best.
Is there a theme for the new album?
The past. Things I have lived, things I have seen. For the first time I wrote a song about the war. It’s the first time, I have never done that before. But you know, the ideas are always in the air and right now they are all coming back so I’m coming back with them. I’m almost finished writing it. I’m correcting some things. I’m never really happy with what I have done. I have to work through it again and again and again. For one word I can stay awake two days and two nights for that one word because it doesn’t have the right balance to my ear. Nobody can replace one word in my songs. No one. The lyrics are my pride.
Look, I had this wall full of golden records, and I had to say, ‘That’s enough!’ To always look at myself there. I’m going to replace it with only pictures of family and friends.
[Walking THR through the pile of photos waiting to be hung on the empty wall, it’s not only his family – from historical snapshots of his great grandmother and elementary school photos to candids of his wife, children and grandchildren – but photos of the singer with Gerard Depardieu, Bono, Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, Jackie Chan, Bob Dylan, Charles Trenet, Jean Cocteau, Yul Brynner, Lino Ventura and Piaf.]
The whole wall will be only pictures. It’s better than a wall of gold records. No more ‘Look, I sold so many records.’ I’m free now. There’s the [French medal] Legion d’Honneur. I put it in the corner so nobody can see it. I used to be proud, I’m finished with that. I say to young people, don’t be too proud, just do the work.
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