by Dean Ferguson
|Original article appeared in the December 1996 Vol. 4 - Issue #11 of DMA Dance Music Authority Magazine.||"It feels great, so absolutely GREAT to be back!"|
That's how France Joli describes her own feelings when asked about the most successful dance industry comeback story in recent memory. With a new album nearly completed, and a new single, "Touch", poised to explode throughout North America the irony of her impact on the dance community of today seems to simultaneously surprise and delight her. She's been mobbed by fans throughout her current tour, from enthusiastic eighteen year olds who've just discovered her to the 'old friends', as she calls them, in their thirties who grew up with her music. Many from the latter camp, in fact, keep asking her where she's been all these years. To France, that's the ultimate compliment. "It means they've been thinking about me, and wondering how I am. It makes me feel wonderful!" People constantly tell her how much they've missed her, and she marvels at the idea that so many people seem to care. She responds emotionally to the fanfare and ovations that have followed every one of her recent sold-out shows, with joyfully tearful encores the order of the day more often than not. The audiences are responding so enthusiastically, she supposes, because she's "come full circle, back to my roots... my dance music roots. It's wonderful to be working with Tony Green again!"
In order to come full circle, one has to start at the beginning which, in this case, takes us back to Montreal in 1978 when fifteen year old France Joli began making the rounds, armed with nothing but determination and that voice! "I used to sing Barbra Streisand songs at my auditions... big torch songs like 'He Touched Me' and 'People'," she recalled with a laugh. Early in 1979, she caught the ear of a local producer who in turn introduced her to a young, up and coming producer and songwriter named Tony Green. They clicked instantly and, within days of their initial meeting, Green had written a song just for her. It was called "Come To Me".|
"For as long as I can remember I had dreamed of becoming a recording artist… a pop star. I knew right away that this was the song for me. I could feel it!" She and Green completed the tracks for her self-titled debut album over the next few months and, by Spring, she had been signed to Prelude Records in the U.S.A.
"Come To Me" was released as a single that June and it quickly began gaining momentum in the clubs. The story behind France's debut performance of the song in public has become legendary in the industry.
An All-Star, open air, on the beach concert had been planned for July 7, 1979. At the last minute, one of the headliners, Donna Summer, canceled and France Joli got the call to perform. The concert was on Fire Island, at the height of the Disco craze and more than five thousand fans had gathered on the beach. France remembers it vividly. "Sister Sledge was there. EVERYBODY was there!" Having just turned sixteen, she was understandably excited - and understandably nervous - when it came time for her to perform. She stepped up to the microphone and began to sing, never realizing that she was about to turn the first major corner in her career and, in the process, steal the show from the biggest and brightest names in the industry. Seven minutes later, when she took her bows, the crowd went wild, flipping head over heals for this unknown Canadian teenager and proclaiming her, from that day forward, a star in the truest sense of the word. "Come to Me" became the number one disco song of the summer, and the definitive Fire Island dance classic.|
Romantic idealism as well as the pain of unrequited love were recurring themes of the France Joli hit streak that followed her breakthrough smash. Tonight, her second album with Tony Green, produced the indelible hits "The Heart To Break The Heart" and "Feel Like Dancing". Though her friendship with Green would remain constant through the years, by 1981 they had decided to part company professionally. A new production team, Crown Heights Affair, was brought in to produce her third and final album for Prelude, and with them she scored yet another major hit, "Gonna Get Over You". By this time, France felt that it was time to test her wings. She signed on with Epic Records, recording first an album with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and then a second set produced by George Duke. Though both albums met with lukewarm receptions in the U.S., she continued to rack up hits internationally. She toured the world, breaking records in Europe, Mexico, South America and the Far East, and scored one of the biggest global hits of her career in 1984 with "Party Lights", a George Duke production that went on to win the two biggest trophies at that year's prestigious Yamaha World Popular song Festival in Tokyo. To win either the Most Outstanding Performance Award or the festival's Grand Prize Award would've been more than any artist might've dared to hope for, but France walked away with both! She was invited back the next year as a honored guest star and subsequently spent the better part of 1985 touring with Duke in support of her newly-released fifth album, Witch Of Love.
By 1986 though, the hits had stopped coming and she soon found herself without a recording contract for the first time in her career. To France Joli, the time between recording contracts might actually be looked upon as a blessing in disguise. She's philosophical about it, having used her time wisely to mature as a songwriter while rearranging her own priorities in life and expanding her spiritual boundaries. Though she doesn't practice any religion in the traditional sense, France has unshakable faith in a higher power. "Everything, every experience happens for a reason... this has been a period in my life that I was meant to go through for whatever reason. I've grown from it... I've learned."|
Getting in touch with her own feelings and emotions has been an important part of the journey for France. Songwriting is a way for her to explore, and express herself emotionally. The songs she has written are introspective and powerful, none more so than the track "Brother" which will be included on the new album. It's a song about her own brother, Michel, a vivacious 12-year-old boy whose life was cut short by a freak accident at home when France was only four years old. it was she who discovered his body, and it's taken her years to come to terms with the loss. "I have such vivid, wonderful memories of him when he was alive. I've always wanted to involve him somehow in my life... this was my way to connect with my memories of him. I actually started writing this song as a prayer to him back in 1981 or '82." The rest of the album, she says, will be equally poignant, and its essence will be a celebration of life. "The album's (continuity) was important to me.. and Tony is doing an incredible job. He's written some of the most wonderful songs ever. all of the aspects of today's dance music (house, HiNRG and Euro) with the right balance of ballads and R&B too. Something for everyone... it's going to be an incredible album."
France has continued to tour regularly through out the years, as her fan base has remained constant. She continues to be a top draw at night clubs throughout the country, particularly now that nostalgia for the 1970s has made "Come To Me" and her other early hits recurrent in regular rotation at dance stations everywhere. And she's always in demand at gay venues, where support for her has never wavered. Thinking back to her auspicious debut on Fire Island all those years ago, France begins to get emotional once again. "They've always been so loyal... so kind and so supportive." It's easy to see why people from all walks of life - straight or gay, married or single, black or white, in fact anyone from 18 to 80 - are drawn to France Joli. Everything about her is sincere and genuine.
When asked how she is able to connect with so many different people on such an intimate level through her music, France pauses for a moment to think before answering. "It's about sharing, and I love to share... sharing whatever has affected me emotionally is something that has always come naturally to me. If I read a book, I have to talk about (how it made me feel) to everyone I see. I don't like going to the movies by myself because, to me, it's so much better when there is someone there to experience it with you... someone you can talk to about how the movie makes you feel and like that." It's the same way for France with regard to her singing and her songwriting. She opens up completely on stage. "I'm sharing my experiences when I sing... my emotions, my hopes, my dreams... things that everyone can relate to. And everybody relates to love!"
When we spoke to France Joli, the official release of her new single "Touch" (a spectacular blend contemporary dance club sensibilities with the right touch of old school, melodic disco panache) was still a few weeks away. The pre-release buzz has been unprecedented, with radio stations and club jocks alike stumbling over each other to be the first in line for promotional copes. The more enterprising programmers were already playing (and reporting!) pirated copies from every imaginable source, including taped preview plays gleaned from the interviews France has been giving to dance music radio stations in major markets across the country and clandestine recordings made at clubs where she's already performed the song live. The hype here is genuine, with this unreleased track already totaling enough club play points to warrant a top five debut on last month’s domestic dance/pop buzz chart! When we asked France how it felt to be so close to the release date, she laughed and related quite charmingly that the anxiety and anticipation reminded her, more than anything else of the call of nature. "It feels like this… you're in your car and (your bladder) is full. There's no ladies room around so you sort of just forget about it, knowing that you'll be home soon enough. The minute you get to your door, though, it becomes unbearable! You cross your legs and bend your knees while you try to find the door key, thinking all the while that there's NO WAY you're going to be able to hold on long enough to get inside!! Of course, you always do somehow seem to make it inside JUST in time, and that's how I feel about this record. I'm standing at the door, with my keys in my hand, and I've got to go NOW!!"
Fear not. For France and the rest of us, relief is in sight! Look for the new France Joli single, "Touch", on Popular Records to be in stores by November 1st, with her new full-length Popular album due shortly thereafter.