Tea, Waves and Savage Ducks: The Genius of Camille’s ‘Music Hole’

There’s a couple of ways that most people living in the UK will have heard of Camille Dalmais, albeit probably unknowingly. Firstly, her song ‘Senza’ was used on an advert for a Ford SUV a few years back. Second, she sang ‘Le Festin’ on the soundtrack to Pixar’s Ratatouille; the song was also used in Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso. Nouvelle Vague fans might remember her vocals gracing their first album on the covers of ‘Making Plans For Nigel,’ ‘Guns of Brixton,’ ‘In A Manner of Speaking’ and ‘Too Drunk To Fuck.’ In a sense, Camille has become more famous outside of her native France for singing other people’s songs than she has for her own music career.

That’s a real shame. Perhaps it’s because she sings mostly in French? The foreign-language barrier may have been particularly cruel to Camille. Her three solo albums may have mostly been sung in her native language, but her second album was a mainly English affair that showed off her witty song writing ability to its full extent.

Over the past three weeks I’ve listened almost non-stop to three of Camille’s albums, pondering why her works were never really particularly well received outside of France, and why more fans of Björk in particular didn’t really pick up on her talent. I decided it was time to give her the dues she deserves and take a look back at possibly her best-known work, her third, mostly English-language album, Music Hole.

After releasing her full debut album proper Le Sac De Filles in 2002, Camille’s avant-garde edge starts in 2005, with the release of her album Le Fil, or The Thread. The album’s major conceit is that within every single song – and beyond – there’s a low-pitched droning noise playing throughout. On the original version of the album, this drone extended thirty minutes beyond the final track, essentially doubling the LP’s running time (and making a much younger me wonder whether there would be some brilliant hidden track at the end of it. There wasn’t).

Musically, most critics compared the album to Björk’s 2004 effort Medulla, due to its unique use of voice as an instrument. I wouldn’t entirely disagree with that, but there’s one major difference between Medulla and Le Fil: pretty much all the sounds you hear on Le Fil come from Camille’s own mouth, whereas Medulla relied a lot on the outside help of choirs, beatboxers and Tanya Tagaq (although, as a side note, Medulla is still one of my favourite albums by the Icelandic wonder). It’s simply amazing what Camille can produce with her own voice.

2008’s Music Hole is named after this very idea, the notion that as much can produced with the human voice as it can without much additional instrumentation. It’s also her most accessible to mainstream audiences for a particularly distinctive reason: it’s her only album to be sung almost entirely in English, with a few exceptions. The piano talents of Jamie Cullum make an appearance too, though if you think that means it’s going to be all smooth jazz numbers then… well, you haven’t heard her replicating as many animal noises as humanly possible yet.

Music Hole was my first major introduction to Camille at 17; I’d already become a huge fan of the electronic wizardry of Björk and the song writing talents Kate Bush (The Dreaming, on which Bush shows off some of her most stunning vocal acrobatics, remains one of my favourite albums) but nothing quite prepared me for what Camille was about to throw at me. I’d heard ‘Gospel With No Lord’ once by chance, hunted it down and written about it for my now-defunct personal blog. Upon seeing it, my parents bought me the album as a present for doing well in some mock exams at college. The LP amazed and terrified me in equal measure. It still does. It’s a behemoth of musical ingenuity and some frankly bizarre lyrical themes.

Thinking about it, ‘Gospel With No Lord’ wasn’t the best introduction to Camille. It’s a pretty song, a relatively simple tale of finding strength within yourself, one that combines the sweetest end of Camille’s vocals with only the lightest of touches of the vocal layering and quirkiness that spreads like wildfire across the rest of the album. It’s like getting the complimentary bread at a restaurant; a pleasant touch that simply sets you up for the most satisfying portion of the meal. And this meal is like one of Heston Blumenthal’s weirdest creations.

Because now we’re presented with ‘Canards Sauvages,’ literally a song about evil ducks. The found sounds of water trickling through bamboo is about all the percussion that appears on the song, other than a few finger snaps and a really simple, pitch-shifted beatbox effect. Camille leaves enough room in the instrumentation for her own comforting tones to drift across the track. And when you’ve got a tale about ducks rebelling while other animals tremble in fear at what humans could do to them. It’s not really an animal rights song, more a really strange fairy tale that reaches a crescendo with a choir and a cheeky wink to the audience.

Not that Camille can’t be serious now and then. ‘Home Is Where It Hurts’ is a lovingly crafted extended metaphor about being tortured and trapped with your own body and memories, while ‘Winter’s Child’ is a particularly haunting tale about the potential psychological and physical damage suffered by children born in warzones. Then there’s ‘Waves,’ a meditation on the nature of modern life. Camille turns her attention to the waves that constantly surround us every day, from those coming from microwave ovens to X-rays and Wi-Fi. ‘The Monk’ is the only completely instrumental track on the album, combining some of the most restrained playing of Jamie Cullum’s career with the most operatic end of Camille’s voice.

But Dalmais’ genius lies in the grey area between serious and funny, and more often than not in the simply batshit. Thus we get to a song like ‘Cats and Dogs,’ a piece that starts in a typically French sing-song fashion, evoking chanteuses of days gone by such as Edith Piaf. But then, you listen to her words. They’re… indescribably weird. A word hasn’t been invented yet for what these lyrics actually sound like. “Cats and dogs are not our friends, they just pretend/ It’s just emotions we invent, so we forget we’re by ourselves.” Perhaps if she’d stopped there, ‘Cats and Dogs’ would be a funny satire on the tradition of French chansons (her later over-the-top effort ‘Le France’ certainly achieved this with its theatricality). Instead, Camille goes one better and completely changes the tune halfway through to mimic as many animal songs as she can; woofing, meowing, bleating, mooing, if an animal can make a sound she did her best to replicate it (and often succeeds). In the live version of the song, Camille mimics a conversation between a cat and a dog and the surreal nature of the situation is only exacerbated by the hushed, slightly nervous laughing heard from the audience. Like a handful of her other songs, it’s impossible to take ‘Cats and Dogs’ with any level of seriousness, but it does highlight how comfortable the singer is with turning her voice to what is, on the surface, some pretty serious material. Björk would never be caught singing like this in such a prolonged manner, and neither would any of her American counterparts. But there’s something wonderfully endearing about Camille’s sense of humour that sets her apart from the rest.

Camille’s vocal abilities, if placed into a more conventional, mainstream environment and minus the animal noises, would probably be considered as good as some of the best singers of her generation. It’s a fact that Dalmais is almost fully aware of, which brings us to one of her crowning achievements, the self-aware, witty and highly observant ‘Money Note.’ In terms of construction, it’s one of the poppiest and most accessible tunes on the album, following a typical structure and with some of Camille’s most conventional vocal performance. There’s a specific reason behind that, though. ‘Money Note’ is a wry, sideways glance at the divas in music, from Mariah Carey to Whitney Houston, and their powerful vocals. The irony here is that, while Camille sings about wanting to sound like them and reach the notes they do, by this point in the album she’s already outdone them all with her vocal abilities. “I just want to beat Mariah,” she sings, holding her notes and warbling her way through the line as if she’s literally jabbing a stick into Carey’s ribs. She ends her vocal performance with an impossibly high note that even Mariah couldn’t hope to achieve, and even though it’s pitch shifted just that little bit, it’s not out of the realms of possibility to imagine that Camille could reach further beyond the octave limit Carey became famous for.

Dalmais would go on to make a fourth album, Ilo Veyou, which was sung in a combination of English and French and contained more instrumentation than her previous efforts. It contained a few more conventional tracks but also featured more of the weirdness she became semi-famous for outside of France (meditating on female ejaculation on ‘Wet Boy,’ being almost psychotic as the other woman on ‘My Man Is Married But Not To Me,’ and reflecting on the poor decision to make a home on the Red Planet on ‘Mars Is No Fun’ just for starters). For beginners though, the often ingenious and sometimes terrifying Music Hole showed off what Camille could do best. Perhaps one day Dalmais will get the recognition she deserves and be held aloft like her peers. For now, her voice remains a hidden gem of the underground.

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