Are first ladies — past or present — permitted by protocol to sound sexy when they sing? Are they allowed to craft smoky chansons that evoke images of fragrant blossoms on drowsy summer days, soft lamplight filtered through red silk pashminas, or amorous walks in misty rain?
If such delicious melodies are not allowed to be performed by a former first lady, then Carla Bruni, the wife of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, has shattered any and all covenants. Even Bruni’s songs of unrequited love purr with warmth.
The Italian-born, French-raised Bruni, who performs in Boston Feb. 15 at the Berklee Performance Center to support her latest album, “French Touch,” confesses that she was never a traditional first lady, and for that the world should consider itself fortunate. She was recording music before she was first lady, while she was first lady, and at 49 she’s still producing breathy gems.
“I took my job very seriously when my husband was in office,” she says on the phone from Paris. “But I still had time to do my own things when I was done with my duties.”
For Bruni, those other things usually involved music, which she says has always been the love of her life. Her career began when she was 19, not in a recording studio, but on the catwalk. Throughout the 1990s Bruni ascended to the rank of supermodel. She walked the runway for fashion houses such as Christian Dior, Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Yves Saint-Laurent, Chanel, and Versace. In France she was fashion royalty, earning millions a year and dating celebrities befitting a supermodel of her status.
She left modeling in 1997 (“It was time for new girls and new faces,” she says) and began work on her first album “Quelqu’un m’a dit” (“Someone Told Me”).
“I come from a family of musicians,” she says. “I started writing music as a child, even when I didn’t quite know it could be a job. It’s just something I’ve always done. It was a natural move for me.”
Her 2003 debut was a sensation in France and other francophone countries. It hit number one on the French charts and stayed there for 34 weeks. “Quelqu’un m’a dit” was filled with all the drama one would expect from a French chanteuse, even one who happened to be born in Italy. The title track, a weeper about lost love, includes the line (loosely translated into English) “They tell me that our lives are not worth much/They pass in an instant as roses wilt.” Cue the ennui.
The album also included the wickedly playful “Le plus beau du quartier” (“The Most Handsome Boy in Town”). The song felt like a gleeful takedown of the cads she likely encountered during her modeling days.
Her music is stripped-down, usually just Bruni’s soft voice accompanied by guitar and a touch of percussion. It’s a musical smoothie of folk, blues, a pinch of jazz, and French chanson-style arrangements reflecting inspiration from Bob Dylan to Jacques Brel.
She followed it up in 2007 with “No Promises,” which set the poems of authors such as Emily Dickinson, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, Walter de la Mare, and W.B. Yeats to music. The concept sounded dangerous; the execution was flawless.
A whirlwind courtship and subsequent marriage to Sarkozy in 2008 caused a minor scandal in France. They were married after dating just a few months. As first lady, Bruni continued her music, sometimes over the objections of the French public.
“I don’t understand why they were upset,” she says. “I gave all the profits from the album [“Comme si de rien n’était”] to charity. Some people, you know, they’re always unhappy.”
Bruni no longer needs to worry about upsetting her fellow countrymen — Sarkozy was defeated for reelection in 2012 — unless they object to her recent duet with Willie Nelson. Her latest, “French Touch,” is an album of unexpected cover songs. It ranges from a stirring, somber take on Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All,” a reinvented version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” and the first single, a light, breezy cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1978 hit “Miss You.”
“It was a difficult to pick songs,” she says. “I could have recorded 50. But I really tried to choose the songs that meant something deeply to me. These were the songs I was playing on the guitar when I was a teenager, or singing with friends.”
She’s singing her covers to new audiences this winter. She has previously performed in the States, but this is Bruni’s first official tour of the country. Is she worried that people will only come to her show because she is a former first lady? A former supermodel? A former girlfriend of both Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton?
“I don’t care why they’ll come to see me, I just want them to come! I think the music is what will hopefully intrigue them,” she says.
Outside of music, Bruni has plenty of experience being a model-turned-first lady, but she is hesitant to offer advice to another model-turned-first lady, Melania Trump.
“It’s different,” Bruni says, struggling it seems to find the right words. “We were newlyweds when I was first lady. She’s been married for a while. I think she had a better idea of what to expect.”
Bruni pauses for a moment and tries the answer again.
“I don’t really have advice, but I do wish her all the luck in the world.”
At Berklee Performance Center, Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $37-$79, 617-747-2261, www.berklee.edu/events
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