It’s late afternoon in Paris and L’Impératrice’s Flore Benguigui and Charles de Boisseguin join NME on video call from a pretty garden in the 18th arrondissement, close to bohemian Montmartre and Benguigui’s apartment. They’re sat on a bench against light blue skies, bright spring sunshine and they’re surrounded by cherry blossom. “We’re also being very French, drinking white wine,” Benguigui laughs, before both hold their glasses up to the screen for a celebratory toast.
The Parisian space-pop six-piece certainly have a lot to celebrate. As well as already having critically-acclaimed debut album ‘Matahari’ under their belt, they were selling out venues pre-lockdown (including a two-night run at the famous Paris L’Olympia) and produced a series of lauded virtual art-pop gigs during lockdown. Now, they’ve just released their excellent second album, ‘Tako Tsubo’, an album where they head into bold new territory.
As well as adding a groovier edge to their space-electronica sonics (Warren G and Nate Dog were touchstones), they’ve ventured – for the very first time – into both the personal and the political. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Benguigui goes deep on ‘Submarine’ about a personal relationship and the patriarchy is smashed on satirical album standout ‘Peur des filles’ (‘Fear of Girls’). What triggered the change?
“Now I have found my place in the band and feel comfortable with the boys, I feel like I can really write about my feelings and myself for the first time,” Benguigui smiles, sipping more wine from her glass. L’Impératrice began life initially as an instrumental-only outfit, made up of five musicians from jazz, rock and classical backgrounds. After de Boisseguin heard Benguigui sing at the funky Le Café La Presse, he knew she was the missing link to the group’s sound. She joined soon after.
“When you first arrive,” Benguigui continues, “you’re a girl in a band of boys and when you write stuff that is very intimate, it’s hard. You don’t feel very comfortable. Now, it’s the opposite. ‘Submarine’ is probably the most personal, super-deep song on the album, being about a break-up I went through last year. People have now said they prefer this style and that means so much to me, because it’s such a personal song. In the end, everyone can relate because it’s just a super-sad love song.”
The closeness of the group as a unit feels palpable, but when Benguigui first joined the group, she faced much sexism from the media and industry professionals as their first and only female member – something which further deterred her from venturing into writing personal songs. The criticism, she says, was relentless.
“It’s an industry that’s made up of like 90 per cent of men and it’s very difficult for a woman like me. I’m very protected in this band and I’ve got my five brothers with me. But as a woman in the industry, you have to be super careful, way more careful than a man, about how people – mostly men – in the industry want to shape your character, how you are on stage, how you are in your life, what you write in your compositions… everybody was criticising how I was on stage. They all had an idea about what kind of person I should be, what I should do.”
De Boisseguin elaborates, saying Benguigui faced criticism from audiences, the media but “especially the pros, the people working behind the scenes.” Benguigui says she wasn’t even seen as a “true” musician. “There was a tendency to think that I was the image of the band and the boys were the music, the thinkers. They don’t also think that I’m a composer and a writer too.” Benguigui studied music and was an acclaimed jazz artist in her own right before joining. “It’s very hard for us because we feel like we always have to fight to be seen as a group: all six of us composed this album equally.”
The group’s defiant response to such sexism was to bring her voice and musicianship to the centre of their latest album. It was something they also got the confidence to do, they say, from listening to trailblazers like Billie Eilish. “I really worked on the vocals, on the sound of her voice in the studio,” de Boisseguin explains, taking a draw from his cigarette. “I wanted her voice to sound really close, intimate, like Billie Eilish whose voice is amazing. When you hear Billie’s voice, it sounds like she’s super close to your ear. You can’t ignore her or anything she says or does.”
The defiance could be seen too in the group’s video for ‘Peur des filles’ – the first music video the band have acted in so far. A scathing parody of misogyny, the video – a nod towards cult horrors of the 60s – sees Benguigui cooling singing: “You’re scared of girls / Ah, if only they were guys” before she’s seen killing all the male bystanders around her.
“I wanted to talk about feminism because it’s something that really is important to me, but I really didn’t know how to talk about it,” Benguigui explains. “As we’re a group of six people, everybody had to be okay with me sharing political opinions. In the end I wanted to talk about the subject through this irony of all the men being scared of the women when of course, it’s the opposite.”
In 2019, the group headed to Tangier, Morocco, where many of the ’60s beat generation like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs hung out. “It had a lot of history, a lot of mystical vibes,” de Boisseguin says, explaining that the group spent two weeks creating, determined to push their sound forwards. “We went there to get a bit inspired, to do something different.” A short while later, the group had the album sketched out. “We made something really different out there,” de Boisseguin adds. “There was something very special about that place.”
de Boisseguin began meticulous production on the project soon after, working “night and day” and collaborating with producers from afar under lockdown. They brought in Neal Pogue, whose work with Tyler, the Creator, Outkast, Kaytranda and TLC were key touchstones for the album’s funkier, R&B leanings like on sad-banger standouts ‘Voodoo?’ and ‘Digital Sunset.’
“To work with Neal was a huge moment for us. He wouldn’t let us compromise,” de Boisseguin says. “For the first time we basically decided to trust ourselves and do what we wanted to do.” Benguigui agrees, “It brought us to a place we didn’t expect. I think he brought a very special sound to this album and it’s [themes].” While heartbreak is thematically front and centre (the album’s title refers to ‘broken heart syndrome’) so too is overcoming loneliness – a feeling certain to chime with listeners everywhere right now.
As the last of the wine is drunk, Benguigui’s light blue Barbarella-like hair reflects on her glass. “Blue is a colour we’re obsessed with,” she laughs, noticing the reflection. “Light blue is really the colour of this album.
“It makes you think of all the blue notes in jazz, blues music, music about deep feelings and hard emotions, of heartbreak – in short, everything it’s taken to get us here. The light blue is also about daylight, just being outside – I guess everything we miss at the moment,” she says, looking up to the clear Parisian skies. “I guess this album is hopeful too, and we all need a bit of that right now.”