Finding connections between Jacques Lacan’s controversial philosophy, Wes Anderson’s pastel fantasias and Charlie Parker’s sax virtuosity is a complex undertaking. For French songstress Petite Meller, however, synthesizing high-brow influences with a pop aesthetic is second nature.
Despite drawing from lofty academic sources—Freud and Žižek are top on her list of influences—the permanently rouged singer-songwriter makes jazz-inflected pop music that’s nothing short of joyful. She also has an eye-popping visual aesthetic to match—her videos take the viewer on a cinematic journey from the French Riviera to Kenyan villages, featuring nods to classic New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. Ahead of her upcoming debut album release, we caught up with Petite to discuss her intellectual and cinematic take on the world of pop.
You first emerged as part of the electropunk band Terry Poison, whose sound and aesthetic were drastically different from yours. How did you make the shift to the solo artist we know today?
“I was in many bands and I was touring a lot around the world. When we had a show here in New York at CMJ Festival, I was fascinated by the city and its magic made me remember the old records I used to listen to as a child—the music which I really connected to: Dizzy Gillespie, jazz and blues, Charlie Parker. I also went to jazz clubs here and I felt like in this city, you have to do your own thing—you can’t run away from truth. I had two friends on Facebook who I met—Napoleon Habeica and A.T. Mann—and I asked them to direct my first video, ‘NYC Time.’ It was hard to believe in myself until then, and the new genre I developed, which is a mix of jazz, French chanson and African music.”
You have such a strong filmic aesthetic in your videos– you even quote classic French new wave film “Pierrot Le Fou” in the “Backpack” video. How did you craft that aesthetic?
“I’m really addicted to all types of cinema, from Hitchcock to Michelangelo Antonioni. [He’s] my favorite director, so I take scenes, like the intro from Antonioni’s ‘Eclipse,’ and use them in my videos. Each of my videos references scenes from cinema, like ‘Backpack’ is based on ‘L’enfer’ with Romy Schneider, where she waterskis. We went to the same location in France to shoot.”
You’ve mentioned previously that you’ve been inspired by philosophers like Jacques Lacan. How does that play into your songwriting?
“This is the source of my lyrical inspiration. ‘Backpack,’ for example, talks about how Žižek interprets Jacques Lacan—that you should love your symptoms. My lyric about finally feeling time physically means that finally I can love my symptoms, how all the things that used to hold me back as a kid have become advantages. Every concept you absorb, whether it’s cinema or philosophy, stays in your subconscious. I never write before going into the studio—I just let my subconscious out into the microphones and only after do I realize which ideas I was talking about.”
You also have a very distinctive fashion sense. Is there a philosophical element behind it?
“People often ask me how I build my style, but that’s how I go to the bank. The only costume I really have is my makeup, but even that’s a symptom. I had traumatic sunburn when I was a kid and it stayed with me.”
Even though you deal with these traumatic subjects, your songs still sound so happy.
“I got a lot of reactions for my new song, ‘Baby Love,’ from people all across world— people saying it made them happy or smiley. That’s what I’m doing this for, just to make people feel alive again. It’s still a really sad song if you read the lyrics. It’s about broken hearts and not knowing what it means to be anything. It’s about jouissance, about pleasure out of pain. It’s from Freud, there’s eros and thanatos. Thanatos is a pleasure you get out of death, but it also keeps you alive.”
You filmed the video for “Baby Love” in Kenya. What attracted you to working there?
“In ‘Baby Love,’ all those kids don’t even have shoes but I wanted to show those girls have broken hearts like us, have normal lives like us. When I was researching the video I could only find traditional African images, and I wanted to show how there’s style there. When I got to Nairobi it was amazing. I discovered all these girls who had the same dreams as me, to be actresses, to do fashion. I wanted to show a realer reality. It’s a bit woman power as well. I read about those girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria and didn’t come back home, and it stayed with me. I wanted to do something about those girls so we don’t forget them.”
You’ve posted pictures in the studio with Starsmith and other high-profile producers. How’s the debut album coming along?
“It’s going really well. I’m recording in Sweden and London, and in LA with Pnau. I’m just putting the finishing touches on it. It’s all inspired by African sounds. In London I worked with a guy called Craigie Dodds. He grew up in South Africa and was on the Graceland album. He got the band Ladysmith Black Mambazo to record some vocals on my album. I’ve got an African sax player and percussionist to perform it live as well.”