In the wee hours of a dark winter’s Sunday in Paris, French photographer Christophe Berjot arrived at my Airbnb apartment in his small European car big enough only for two people. As we drove through the deserted streets of Paris, we passed the debris of the previous day’s Yellow Vests attacks; the twisted burnt metal of street bins and small cars.
Christophe knew the streets as well as someone who was born and raised in the city and drove with an unusually gleeful smile on his face. Unusual for a Parisian, at least. Together we smiled at the possibility of the morning.
We parked in a narrow street. The only stir was from the rubbish being taken by the wind. Shielding ourselves from the December winds with our coats, we walked to the end of the narrow street and there loomed the unforgettable sights of Paris – Hotel de Ville and just beyond, the Seine. This was the setting for our photo shoot.
Hotel de Ville, Paris. Image by Francesca de Valence
Along the banks of the Seine as the sun was rising, we shot the images for my song, “The Seine” (pronounced “Sen”).
There is 777km of the Seine river throughout France and we stood at just one point on Rive Droite in between 2 of the 37 bridges that cross it in Paris alone. In the history of Paris, it will always be, that on that day, we were there taking photos. Have you ever thought about where your favourite photos have been taken? Because it will always be that on that day, you were there.
Image by Christophe Berjot
Truth be told, this photo shoot was an afterthought. We had done the first and “official” photo shoot a few days earlier. But Christophe, the artist that he is, wanted to do another one. I wasn’t going to argue.
Here I am wearing some clothes I had picked up the night before from a trendy d’occasion (vintage) store. How cute is the Italian scarf I picked up for 5 Euro? The lady in the shop was so happy to help style me for the photo shoot.
Image by Christophe Berjot
Christophe brought so much child-like excitement to the shoot. It was an incredibly easy collaboration. You could just imagine the two of us together – two kids playing in Paris’ backyard. The energy was high and the weather was around 4 degrees! That’s the temperature for magic, it seems.
Christophe Berjot in action on Pont des Arts, Paris. Image by Francesca de Valence.
This was my second Christmas in Paris in as many years. I wasn’t going to lie, I didn’t really want to be home for Christmas. I was questioning what “home” really was. It didn’t have to be the place I was born or lived. It could be anywhere that I chose. And I chose Paris.
I felt a connection to the land. The place seemed to share my frequency. I resonated louder in Paris. I was more because of Paris. My family lineage goes back to France amongst many other places. But I never felt the pull to the other places, just France.
So I went. I went after my father died. That same year. I went that year, because that would be a mighty distraction from Christmas without him. And whilst the irony was that I hadn’t actually spent a Christmas with my dad in 10 years, it was different. Very different.
This is a picture of me 9 years ago in the Chateau my family owned before the French Revolution in the Normandy region of France. The backyard is now the Jardin of the town. I was treated like the guest of the year when I visited, especially as my surname is the very name of the family that ruled that town. My father’s name. My name.
This is me at my ancestral family maison in Normany, France.
The first trip in Paris was a creative experiment – my Songs de Paris. That experiment is still very much alive with “The Seine” being written on the 3rd trip to Paris and already one song already released “Red Cat”.
Honestly speaking, it was a bit of an escape to be creating in Paris and not Christmas-ing in Australia. With all the homelessness and materialism that wrecked me at Christmas time, I was actually happy to be away from a mountain of wrapping paper on Dec 25th.
I had joined a French language meetup group and that particular week we had to converse in French about our Christmas traditions. The group were from all different backgrounds and in Paris for different reasons – but French was not any of our first language.
It made complete sense that we would be talking about Christmas. But as the conversation came up, I started to feel a wave of something come over me. Something that I had only noticed twice before. Something that I know that if I let it, it would be unstoppable. I crept out to the toilet and once inside the cubicle, I felt the rush come over me. Walking along Rive Gauche, I let the wave embrace me and I felt the wholeness of grief.
“I thought I left you behind
But you caught up with me on the south side of the Seine
Surely now’s not the time
But you are bigger than me and here you come again”
I wrote “The Seine” on Dec 12, 2018 as part of my weekly songwriting practice that I do as part of I Heart Songwriting Club. The theme was “gift” and I wrote this song in response to the overwhelming grief I had experienced the day before along the left bank of Paris.
The gift was acceptance and truth. And the gift was to myself.
I sat up on the bed with my guitar in my loft apartment in the 10th arrondissement in Paris and looked over the rooftops whilst writing this.
Rooftops of Paris. I took a photo from my apartment window most days to observe the change. Image by Francesca de Valence.
It flowed, it poured, and it was brief. It came just as freely as the grief came. And in an hour it was over.
“I let the wave crash over me
It’s in my mouth so I can’t breathe
I surrender silently”
My experience with grief had never been around death, until this point. But my experience of the death of my father was one of the most profoundly transformative experiences I’d ever had. Grief wasn’t the first emotion to hit when he died. In fact, that took over a year to come.
I was filled with love and awe for so long after his death. We had been estranged for 8 years and when he returned to my life, he was terminal. I knew it was the end, he was hopeful. So I dug my heels in for the healing that I deeply yearned for.
I had written many songs to process this and I was ready. I just hoped he was. My tenacity reigned here too and the following 9 months was the most healing and connected time for me and I think in some ways for him too.
He gave me the greatest gift to allow me to heal. I think that’s why the grief took it’s time and was so unexpected to hit when it did – on the left bank of the Seine. And now that the wave has subdued, I am still left with the love and magical connection that we had.
This image was taken at the Brisbane Powerhouse after my support gig for Jimmy Webb. It was the last time my Dad saw me play in concert. I played bedside for him everyday until he passed.
With my Dad, Jack, at the Brisbane Powerhouse after my support gig for Jimmy Webb.
I love that I have a songwriting journal through my weekly songwriting. It helps me know what I was feeling and when. And with the music, it is a far richer journal than simply words. There are so many feelings that I cannot express in words alone and I’m grateful that music, harmony, melody, intonation, rhythm, allows me to express that.
You might know my story about me playing guitar. It still blows my mind that I’m a guitarist. Only 4 years ago, I decided that the pain of not playing was greater than the pain of being disciplined to learn it.
Had I not had my guitar with me in Paris, I’m positive I wouldn’t have written “The Seine”. Heck, had I not had my guitar in Paris, I wouldn’t have written any “Songs de Paris”. And when I really look at it, it was the very trust in myself that allowed me to even go to Paris to begin with. Trust gained from seeing results with previous activities that I embarked on – like playing the guitar and writing songs.
I am so grateful for 100% going after my wildest creative dreams. Without it, I can’t imagine what I’d be doing today, and don’t want to.
I performed “The Seine” for the first time in Paris only 4 days after writing it. I had a few gigs booked and as the “Songs de Paris” had been a constantly unfolding creation, I was always open to inserting new songs into the show as they were written. It was here at the Bibliotheque Andre Chedid, on the left bank of the Seine, I sang “The Seine” fully introducing the song in French language.
Bibliothèque Andrée Chedid, Paris. Image by Francesca de Valence.
My concert at Bibliothèque Andrée Chedid.
After the concert, I had some drinks at a lovely restaurant with some friends where it had a second performance that night on the firm request of my friends around our table. The staff of the restaurant had joined us by the end of the song and asked for a photo.
I took my small “recording studio” in my suitcase to Paris. And set it up in my small apartment on my small table and used my wardrobe as my small vocal booth. I am so glad to have captured the performance of “The Seine” in the place that I wrote it.
Listen to my interview with Kelly Higgins-Devine on ABC Radio on Aug 13, 2019
To be continued…