Carla Bruni Opens Up About Her New Album, Being First Lady, Fashion, and More

The former first lady of France talks about her new album, Little French Songs, and much more.  

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Carla Bruni’s transition back to civilian life seems to be going smoothly.

Upon entering the penthouse suite of a posh hotel in midtown Manhattan, I’m greeted by a waft of cigarette smoke and gales of laughter. Bruni, sporting denim jeans and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, is chatting and puffing up a storm with her pal (the topic, they later tell me, was the intense smoking habits of Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey). The view is marvelous, providing a panoramic vista of Central Park.

France’s former first lady—her husband is ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy—has taken a brief sojourn in New York to promote her fourth album, Little French Songs, a delightfully quaint pop record released earlier this year.

There was some exciting news today with DOMA and Prop. 8 being struck down by the Supreme Court—a big step forward for marriage equality. I know this is a hotly contested issue over in France, too.

Well, I’m glad! I think it’s good! What do you think?

I agree. It’s about damn time. Now, when did you start singing?

When I got my guitar at 9 years old, I started singing all the songs I like—The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Georges Brassens, or Italian songs by Lucio Battisti. I’d play songs for my family. I also played piano when I was a kid, but I don’t really sing with the piano. And I used to think you needed a very strong, powerful voice to sing, like Prince or Michael Jackson, but little by little, I worked with what I had.

But before singing, of course, there was modeling, and you were a very successful model in the early ’90s—modeling’s golden age, so to speak.

It was a very different era and a very nice time for modeling—we got the attention. Before the model was just a body and a face, but now we were names. Everyone got a little famous at that time. I really liked it. I needed to be independent and to travel. I would have loved to have studied and become a doctor, but that would have meant staying home for so long. I love my parents, but I wanted to go.

Why did you decide to walk away from modeling?

Because I was 30. It walked away from me! And then I had more and more free time, and more and more time for music. I had written music before but never recorded it, so when I stopped modeling I began writing and recording my own songs—just demos at home on a 4-track.

Was it tough to transition from modeling to music?

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When I first released my album, people were a little bit sarcastic, but the album was very simple and not fake, so you can like it or not like it but you couldn’t say, “Oh, she’s trying to be a pop star.” And the album was very well received in France, and the public seemed to like it, so it was a very lucky first shot. Success is very much related to luck and isn’t really related to talent, otherwise why would there be so many talented people with no success, and no-talent people with success?

Good point. The man with the highest IQ in America was working on a horse ranch, after all. So what inspired you to write your new album, Little French Songs?

Melancholy, nostalgia… I feel melancholic all the time; it’s just my nature. And romanticism. I also think there are some joyful and funny moments as well.

The second song on the album is a charming ditty called “Mon Raymond.” Let’s talk about Raymond.

That’s my man! I like to change Nicholas’s name. I like Raymond because it’s a very old-fashioned name. And now, I call him that. Since I wrote the song, I say, “Hey, Raymond—would you like a cup of coffee?” He likes to be called Raymond, but it’s just for fun.

Will you be touring soon?

I’ll be touring France in November and then touring Europe, then I’ll be coming to New York in April.

It’s been five years since your last album, Comme si de rien n'était.

Well, I’m slow. But yes, the situation was special.

It certainly was. I spoke with Vanessa Paradis fairly recently and we discussed her return to music after a similar hiatus—while married to a powerful man. Did you feel like when you were acting as the first lady of France, it stifled you artistically?

What was on hold, really, was the touring part. Security checks on the audience aren’t so nice when you’re first lady! But not so much the writing part—that wasn’t really on hold. The writing part is the main part of the job for me, and the most intimate. I love playing live. It was frustrating to not be able to, but these five years flew by fast.

What’s the transition been like from first lady to citizen? Have you experienced any culture shock?

Very naturally! The other transition from being a songwriter with a normal life to first lady was tougher. But my modeling experiences and singing experiences trained me; my life was always public. Modeling exposes you. I don’t think I was used to it, because you never get used to it, but I had some practice with being in the public eye and didn’t really suffer from it.

When you were France's first lady, the fashion big three, as far as first ladies go, seemed to be Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton, and yourself.

I think they’re fantastic. It’s a position where everyone looks at you, obviously, so you have to bring something elegant, but at the same time, something natural that fits with you. They’re both great because they’ve brought a wind of youth and modernity to this position. It’s a position of age, and they’re younger women. They’ve injected a sense of fashion into a classic role.

What was the most difficult thing to deal with as first lady?

Hmm… Fear of judgment. Also, the fear of doing something wrong. You’re walking on eggshells most of the time but it’s normal because it’s about a whole country. You don’t want to say anything stupid or do anything stupid. If I said something stupid right now, it doesn’t matter, because it’s only about me. But when you’re representing a country you have to respect the people, and be nice. It’s something bigger than you; it’s like a costume you wear that’s way bigger than what you are. But the public obligations or protocols were not so tough. Tough is going to work every day and not liking your job, not having enough money to raise your kids. That’s tough. My life was never tough.

Is it nice to not have to be nice anymore?

I must say, I feel better when I’m nice. It makes me a better person. I like to be polite and welcoming people, so I feel I’m still that way on a more private level.

Now, inquiring minds want to know: what was it like to date Mick Jagger?

I didn’t really date Mick. I’m actually sort of … we met a very long time ago, and we’re sort of friends, to tell you the truth. I don’t know why this legend has spread? He’s a legend, so that’s probably why!