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Meet French Pop Star Petite Meller

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She might be a “singer-songwriter”, but something about that description doesn’t seem to fit French musician Petite Meller. Maybe because it fails to account for her high-energy brand of pop, the unusual image she’s cultivated – think blusher all over her face, baby bonnets and swimming hats –or the fact that her music is as much about the visual element as the sonic. Her avant-garde look and blonde fringe have earned her comparisons with Lady Gaga, but her sound is a totally unique blend of French chanson, cheesy Euro-pop and elements of Afrobeat.

If this isn’t ringing any bells, you might remember “Baby Love”, a single hailed by the Guardian as the “song of the summer” back in 2015. It was high pitched, up tempo and anthemic around the choruses – the perfect song to throw your hands in the air and dance to. In the controversial video, Petite posed, sipped tea and danced around a giraffe sanctuary in rural Kenya flanked by local school kids. Its colonial aesthetic divided opinion, but the videos she’s released since place it as part of a stunning series in which Petite follows her musical influences around the world, a journey that takes her from Senegal to Mongolia. On Friday, she released her debut album, fittingly titled Lil Empire.

Below, Refinery29 caught up with Petite Meller to find out more about her growth from philosophy student to pop star, to ask where her global sound might come from, and the story behind those remarkable videos.

Hi Petite. So I hear you’re London-based now, by way of Paris and New York. How did you wind up here?
I’ve been in London for two years! It’s actually a nice story how I got here. I grew up in Paris and then my family moved to Tel Aviv. After that I was living in New York and starting to do my own solo projects, mostly because the city was making me remember jazz records I was listening to as a child, like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. I wanted to do a video so I teamed up with people I met online and we shot my first video, called “NYC Time”. I uploaded it to YouTube and a British manager googled “NYC Time” because he had a call to make to America. He saw the video and called me and said “come to London”. I loved the U.S. but it was a great thing to move here and record.

Did you have a musical upbringing in Paris?
In the house I grew up in there were a lot of jazz records, lots of French chansons from my mum, like Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg, as well as African records like Fela Kuti. I think I have always had a sensitive ear; as a child I was recording songs on my tape recorder, or the sounds of water, for example, and my first song was a duet with some kid I fell in love with.

I always wanted to make my own sound but it took me a long time to get there. When I went to university to study philosophy it was a really inspiring time for me to write lyrics – I would write songs in classes. That’s how the first two songs came about. But it was only in New York that I remembered the kind of music I grew up on. I needed to go through time to grow my own understanding of where I come from and what I wanted to do musically.
The new album is pretty eclectic. If you had to sum it up, how would you?
When I came to London I worked with many different producers, but I think the album has its own sound – it’s a kind of jazzy pop.

And what about the visuals – where does your inspiration for your videos come from?
When I write the songs I immediately visualise the videos because the sound sends me to where I should shoot them, which is often in a far away country... my imagination is very expensive! And then I’ll often also take a scene from a movie and do an homage – like to the girls in The Virgin Suicides or Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Women. It feels now like every time I do a video it's a journey to my past memories from childhood.

The video for “Baby Love” has been received as controversial, since in some scenes you’re playing the role of a colonial white woman in the house – were you worried about that?
No. I went to do this video after a lot of troubles in the area with Boko Haram and I wanted to show strong African women in the video, I wanted to show a different angle on things.
And the video for “Milk Bath”, where you’re swimming in the famous pink lake in Senegal, how did that come about?
I had to fight to get in there! We needed some scientists to give us permission to go there so they asked me to give them a sample from the water so that we could go inside. It was amazing! I wanted to do a shot where I floated and it was so hot; you struggle a lot to make your vision a reality, but when it happens it makes you stronger.

What are you up to next?
I’ve just been in LA, working with Sam Spiegel who featured on the music for Spike Jonze's Kenzo ad. There's a new album coming up – a new journey.

Lil Empire is out now.
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