All that Zaz: A chanteuse embraces the many shades of French pop

There’s an undeniable something about the best French pop music. A certain, how do you say, je ne sais quoi. From the “ye-ye” music of Francoise Hardy to Plastic Bertrand’s New Wave hit “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” pop songs in the French language often have an irresistible joie de vivre.

The music of Zaz is thoroughly imbued with it. From her breakout 2010 hit “Je Veux,” a cabaret celebration in favor of “l’amour, la joie, la bonne humeur” over the lure of material goods, the singer born Isabelle Geffroy has developed an international following as a chanson ambassador. Known by the bubbly mononym Zaz, she brings her retro-modern band to the Emerson Colonial Theatre on Oct. 5.


Sometimes pegged as Gypsy swing, the Zaz sound is rooted in Hot Club jazz a la Django Reinhardt. But through four albums, most recently “Effet Miroir,” she has expanded her palette to include electro-pop and ethnic song traditions from south of the equator. She’d prefer to sing her songs rather than attempt to describe them.

“I think I am doing Zaz music before anything else, and that it has a lot to offer,” she says in an interview conducted, and translated, by e-mail.

As a child, Zaz studied several instruments, including violin, guitar, and piano; she also took choral singing lessons. She performed with various groups before making her solo splash with “Je Veux,” reaching No. 1 on the French album chart with her self-titled debut.

With her second release, “Recto Verso” (2013) — more nimble guitars and serenading accordions — she enjoyed similar commercial success, both at home and abroad. The album topped the charts in both Switzerland and the Czech Republic, and it fell one spot shy of doing so in Germany.

Zaz, who grew up in the French interior and spent part of her teen years in Bordeaux, dedicated her third album, “Paris” (2014), to her adopted city. On cover versions of familiar melodies including “Sous le Ciel de Paris” (“Under Paris Skies”) and “Paris Sera Toujours Paris” (“Paris Will Always Be Paris”), Zaz and her band paid homage to the city’s boundless capacity for romance. On the instrumental break of the latter song, Zaz improvises the percussive sound of brushes on a drumhead: “Ca va dack-a-doo-dat.”


Commended for her scat singing, she replies with modesty.

“I don’t know if I have talent, this is your opinion, but thanks!” she writes. “I’ve always loved that, play[ing] with sounds . . . When you improvise with musicians, it’s magic. I am having a blast.”

Her aptitude for vocalizing often draws comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald’s. But Zaz’s speedy delivery of her French lyrics can sometimes sound like wordless syllables to the untrained American ear.

“What I witness by singing here, there and everywhere, whether in the streets or onstage, is that we have a common language everywhere in the world: the language from the heart,” she writes. “When we [have] the right intention, even if people do not understand all the words, they feel things. And it matters a lot to me, the emotion that we manage to convey through music.”

She does have songs that land on the melancholy side. “Eblouie par la Nuit,” for instance, from her first album, is a forlorn torch song, written for her by the French performer and actor known as Raphael. “On s’en Remet Jamais,” from her latest album, marries a danceable beat reminiscent of, say, Roxy Music to a dour lyric: the title translates as “You Never Get Over It.”


But Zaz connects mostly through her sheer exuberance. Asked whether she feels she has retained a sense of youthful innocence and wonder into adulthood (she’s 39), she agrees.

“But don’t we all? Maybe mine shows a little more.”

Watch me smile, she invites listeners on the Piaf-esque solo-piano ballad “Ma valse” (“My Waltz”), as she basks in the glow “of being alive and queen of my innocent world.”

She’s looking forward to sharing some of that here in les Etats-Unis.

“It’s so exciting to see the public speaking French, singing French, when you’re on the other side of the world,” she writes from across the pond. “It is heartwarming.”


At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets $35-$110, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.