In September 2010, Boulbar, French singer-songwriter and photographer, set off for a journey across the U.S. Departing in New York and ending his trip in San Francisco, Boulbar set off alone without a plan just his recording equipment, a rented Ford, two Leica cameras (an X1 and a V-Lux 20), one road map and a knife in his pocket. Throughout the journey of 8000 kilometers (almost 5000 miles) Boulbar stayed in motels (motor hotels). In the evenings, in the solitude of shabby rooms, on the edge of highways or in lost cities deep in America, he wrote, composed and recorded songs of what transpired and what he witnessed during his journey. The album that came out of that journey is appropriately titled, “Motor Hotel.” It is in essence a musical travelogue.
Having also documented his trip with those two Leica cameras, an exhibition of his photos are on display at the Leica Store in Paris through March 20. On March 1, Boulbar will be performing some of the songs from his new album at the Leica Store in Paris. He will be accompanied by live drawing by Vincent Gravé who has reworked several of Boulbar’s photographs from his trip into paintings.
We had the chance to chat with Boulbar about his journey, his new album and upcoming showcase.
Q: Boulbar, you’re a songwriter, how did you first start in music?
A: I’ve been making music since my teens. As soon as I started playing the guitar, I wrote my first songs. I found it magical to be able to make my own compositions. From then on, I really wasn’t interested in playing other people’s songs and from my first band on, we mostly played my songs (I guess I was a bit of a tyrant!).
Q: The U.S. and the ‘60s are both in “Requiem for a Champion.” Is that an introduction to the “Motor Hotel”? A forerunner? Is that what inspired you in “Motor Hotel,” the films of the ‘60s? Isn’t it a visual cliché set to music?
A: The last song from my previous album “Requiem for a Champion” is called “The American Dream” and in fact, it’s the introduction to “Motor Hotel.” Films from the ‘50s and ‘60s influenced my writing of “Requiem.” For this album, not more than that. I left for my cross-country trip in the U.S. without trying to retrace anyone else’s footsteps, like following Kerouac’s path, for instance. I followed my own road. As for it being a cliché, America is just that. It’s really weird that a country can be so like its own clichés. You often get the feeling you’re in a movie: the landscapes, the people, the sounds. As for the motel rooms I stayed in, trust me, they can be just as creepy as they are in some of the movies.
Q: “Motor Hotel” is rather sweet, not very much like the image of the ‘60s that you could get precisely from those old films, and with a somewhat warm and reassuring voice, is it that universe, is that the one you felt when you traveled across the States?
A: It’s not very like the ‘60s because I didn’t want to make a ‘60s record. As for a warm and reassuring voice, above all it was primarily to please the over-fifties who still buy records! Seriously, I didn’t really feel all that soft during my trip (apart from the kindness of the people I met). I saw some magnificent scenery, but the U.S. is a pretty tough country. The heat, the huge deserted expanses, the distances. This country must have been a hard one to tame. And then there are all those who are left out, the voiceless, the ones who live in motel rooms that I talk about in my song “Desert Motel.”
Q: It has been 20 years since Gainsbourg died, 20 years to the day from your exhibition; when we hear your voice, we think of him … and you?
A: It’s hard to talk about Gainsbourg; he’s become such an icon. On my previous project, which was a concept album, I was compared to him (for better or worse for that matter). Moreover, I hardly ever listen to Gainsbourg even if he is part of my culture. I don’t like the Gainsbarre period, which I find rather pathetic. On the other hand, the Gainsbourg of the ’60s and ‘70s, that was really classy.
Q: Other sources of inspiration perhaps? A decisive moment for you that influenced your music?
A: At 16, I discovered that Lennon had started playing guitar at the age of 16. So, I tackled the guitar. Not to be like Lennon, but to play his songs. I was crazy about the Beatles. Then I discovered I could write music and I really loved it. But each time I listen to “Abbey Road,” it is always with the same feeling of perfection. Otherwise, Brel has meant a lot to me at certain times, so have Dominique A, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd. There are lots more, but it would take too long to list them …
Q: In addition to writing and composing music, you came back with a photographic journal of your trip. Have you always done photography? Was using a camera a first for this trip? What brought you to choose a Leica?
A: I’ve been interested in photography for a long time. I really admire the war photographers of the ‘60s (the ‘60s again!): Don McCullin and Gilles Caron. I’m also a big fan of Raymond Depardon and his wanderings in the desert, especially the American ones. So, I‘ve been taking pictures for quite some time and then Gaëlle Gouinguené offered me the opportunity to work with a Leica during my trip across the United States.
Q: So, you left with a Leica X1 and V-Lux 20 to capture the audio and visual atmosphere, which are going to enhance the scenography of your concerts?
A: Exactly! The photos and videos will serve as a support to Vincent Gravé who is going to rework them live.
Q: Were you satisfied with the quality of the images?
A: Of course, how could I be anything else with a Leica?
Q: What did you like most about the Leica X1?
A: The color quality. I switched to digital about 2002 and for the past few years I’ve gone back to film. I got fed up with digital color. I was always disappointed with the result. With the Leica X1, I must say that I’ve been blown away. It’s awesome, even in low light. The colors, the details are fantastic. Now I have a dream to have one of my own!
Q: You will be exhibiting at the Leica Store from February 20 to March 20, 2011. What exactly do you plan for March 1st, have you already envisioned a showcase?
A: Yes, an acoustical showcase with Vincent. I worked with Vincent on my previous project “Requiem for a Champion.” The concept album has been adapted for a comic strip. Vincent Gravé is the artist and I am the scriptwriter. For the new project, “Motor Hotel,” we’ll be getting together live; I sing solo and Vincent Gravé will draw live or use montage. We’ll do a few songs.
-Leica Internet Team
You can also read the interview in the original French. For details about the exhibition and showcase on March 1, visit http://fr.leica-camera.com/news/news/1/7348.html. You can find a sneak peak of the new album, along with more stories about his journey on Boulbar’s website, http://www.boulbar.com.