On his latest album, the artist goes back to his Italian and French music fascinations. He successfully draws from the greatest hits ofpopular musicians such as, among others, Edith Piaf, Dalida, Marino Marini, and Serge Gainsbourg, extending the artistic lifespan of those pieces for the next generations.
Just like your entire generation, you liked and still like English songs, such as those of The Beatles. Their dominance in the international pop music of the last decades seems clear and well-established. What attracts you in this French and Italian repertoire?
It’s a question of generation. In the Poland of my youth, the radio and television would mostly play songs and broadcast events from Central Europe, such as the festival in San Remo or concerts of French artists. My family had their share in it, too: my father was an actor, mum – a teacher, aunt – a pianist, my grandma would sing, my brother was very musical – and they all listened to those songs. The ‘tabloids’ of the time, that is two or three papers on the market, would write about the life of Dalida, Joe Dassin, and Charles Aznavour. Thus, they were a natural source of inspiration for me. Already at that time, I admired their individuality and powerful voice. Also, in some kind of over‑expressiveness. This passion shaped my future repertoire and perception of the characteristics of my voice. Hence the vibrato, which I was using less often in the last years and to which I returned on this album due to the repertoire.
From several hundred songs, you picked only nineteen for the album. What were the selection criteria?
I didn’t do that on my own; Wojciech Borkowski, Head of Music, Janusz Kulik, my manager, as well as Ela Zapendowska and a lot of people from Sony Music participated in the process. We met several times to listen to songs and discuss them. It took us one year and a half to get ready for the recording stage. Finally, we managed to handle legal issues – the record company helped us obtain the consent of relevant composers and authors’ inheritors. The selection was very difficult and painful. To almost every track on the album, I could add four more pieces. We took into account our emotions or decided by vote, almost like in real elections. I presented the pieces to a lot of people and asked, which one would you choose? In the end, we opted for sixteen songs, which were registered first. Then, we added two re-worked pieces and a bonus from a long time ago.
Does it mean we can expect a follow-up on the Italian and French motif?
Of course, if we could get rights for another set of songs, it wouldn’t be a problem. Especially given the fact that I already released an album with French songs some time ago, and it was a huge success. Later, I came up with an idea to draw from that repertoire again, but this time, adding new pieces, such as Italian songs which I loved when I was young.
In your opinion, what’s the difference between the French and the Italian part of this material – in terms of its air, atmosphere?
There’s a huge difference between the two. It mostly shows at the level of lyrics and music style. Well, I wouldn’t say Italian songs are superficial, but they’re mostly hits – such as ‘Quando, Quando’, ‘Bambino’, and so on. Besides, they’re very broad and melodious in nature – even the dramatic ones – and all are about love. Everyone can hum them. The French ones can be hummed, too, but they’re also very meaningful and thought-provoking. That’s why it was so difficult to set them in the right order on the album. Another challenge was to put them together in a concert programme, so that songs like ‘Je suis malade’, which is very dramatic and moving, and ‘Quando, Quando’, which I’ve already mentioned, wouldn’t go one after another. But coming back to the main point… France conquered the world with its originality and wisdom, while the Italians added some sauciness and fun to the picture, which the audience needs so much. People bought it, which brought great popularity to artists like Al Bano, Pupo, or Drupi… However, it was the French who made real and ambitious international careers – Piaf, Dalida, and Yves Montand, who achieved success even in America. The latter was even engaged to Marilyn Monroe for a while; everyone envied him, and his songs were on the top of the charts.
If the lyrics are so important, it means that the translator plays a crucial role in the process. Most of the songs on ‘Kolor Cafe’ were translated by Rafał Dziwisz. What do you think about his contribution to the album?
It’s invaluable. First of all, the translated lyrics shouldn’t be rough and clumsy; and Dziwisz’s translations are smooth. He’s an actor affiliated with Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Cracow, who writes and translates for a lot of people and theatres. My friends from Wrocław, where he performed and participated in writing one of the plays, discovered him and recommended him to me. It turned out he’s brilliant because he can perfectly match his words with music. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Italian translations were quite easy to remember; but, for example, it took me a long time to memorise the lyrics to ‘Miłość to jest gra’ from the repertoire of Joe Dassin, because they contain lots of literary associations rarely used in everyday language. And they have to be there to maintain the meaning and message of the song. Of course, Rafał sometimes indulges in ‘licentia poetica’ and he has every right to do that. Just like in the title song ‘Couleur Cafe’ – in the original, Gainsbourg is singing to a woman who has dark skin; hence the reference to coffee. In the translation, there is something else, because the translator wanted it that way. French songs are more difficult, and thanks to Rafał’s efforts, their Polish versions are beautiful. But I’d like to stress that those songs were written several dozen years ago and, in some sense, in literary terms, some of them are archaic and obsolete. It’s not an album for youth to listen to on an MP3 player on the beach. I’m very excited about its reception given the tremendous success of my French collection released several years ago. Potential contemporary recipients, ‘richer’ in the latest pop hits, which are ‘nice, easy, and light’, surely won’t buy that. But I’m curious whether my audience comprising four generations of music lovers will be satisfied with it. I hope so – they’re waiting for something new, and in this case, for songs which are still popular all over the world.
What’s the role of the singer as ‘an interpreter’ of lyrics and emotional content of songs? How do you approach such popular songs? Do you try to present them in your own way? Or do you rather open a dialogue?
I’m not a copyist, but I can say – although it may sound immodest – that my cover versions are appreciated by the audience and critics, which shows in the sales of my albums and the popularity of my concerts. Of course, I could take easy and simple songs, but I much rather preferred ambitious works of prominent artists, such as Kofta and Grechuta. And it turned out I extended the artistic lifespan of those timeless gems of music, building my credibility at the same time. I’ve never turned a classic piece ‘upside down’. I don’t like transforming songs at a push. If an artist X or Y records a song by Osiecka or Młynarski in the spirit of the original, their personality and character will finally win anyway. I might be accused of staying close to the original. Perhaps I do, but I do it on purpose and to pay tribute to the masters. I don’t imitate anyone like it is done, for example, in a TV show where the participants pretend (often with success) to be the original musician. I filter these songs through my maturity, so it’s Michał Bajor interpreting popular songs. I believe we should pay tribute to the originals; respect the melody and greatness of the song. Lady Gaga and Madonna showed it’s possible to sing ‘La vie en rose’ by Edith Piaf maintaining the character of the song and adding your personal touch to it. Some people might want me to make my mark and sing them, for example, like swing or jazz. But I can’t sing jazz, so why should I fool around if there are people better than me in that field. I won’t compete in jazz with Urszula Dudziak. I don’t want to pretend. I can only show myself, fairly close to the original.
At your concerts, you mix your songs with stories, anecdotes, and jokes. This helps you connect with the audience. Do ‘Kolor Cafe’ songs have a narrative potential?
It’s an important aspect. For a couple of years and after releasing several albums, I’ve been talking a lot during my concerts. And a lot of people think it works well. Zofia Kucówna, a prominent actress, once said after my concert that she didn’t know what she liked more – my singing or talking [chuckles].Therefore, I know that if I went on stage, waved to the audience, shouted, ‘Hello, Opole!’, and sang a couple of songs, one after another, without any introduction, people would be very disappointed. My concert is a kind of acting and singing monodrama constructed as a performance. It always contains plenty of stories – recollections, serious, humorous, and even personal, referring to my private or stage experiences. It may not sound very humble, but not every artist has that. I’ve seen performances of great singers, who shouldn’t announce their songs. It’d be better to smile and sing. And they shouldn’t be blamed; it’s not a shame. Still, emceeing requires some public speaking skills, and not everyone has that…
At the end, could you tell us something about the musical setting of the album?
I was working with the regular crew with whom I’ve been working for many years. Wojciech Borkowski is the Head of Music and the music producer of a couple of my latest albums. He has great stylistic talent; he pays much attention to the arrangements of songs and gets on well with musicians. He can perfectly capture the style and atmosphere of every music era, successfully adding subtle modern elements. That’s how he approached my latest albums recorded by Sony – ‘Moja miłość’ and ‘Od Kofty… do Korcza’.
Authors: Jacek Pióro, Zosia Zija