Four years ago, Parisian singer/songwriter Eric John Kaiser followed a girl to Portland, Ore. The relationship with the girl didn't last, but Kaiser's love affair with his new country flourished.
The 37-year-old Kaiser is known as the "French Troubadour." But if you didn't know he was Paris born, you might assume his guitar heavy, poppy, folky indie rock sound is informed by his adopted hometown (he often sings in English). It isn't until he sings in his native tongue that the dichotomy becomes clear and that switch between English and French has made Kaiser kind of an anomaly. When he plays Pengilly's on Wednesday, Jan. 19, some people will go to see him for that reason alone. Kaiser is OK with that.
Since becoming a full-time musician a few years ago, Kaiser has released a few EPs, two full-length albums (one he finished while still living in France) and is working on a third, putting them all out on his own. While quick to sing in French to American audiences--using his anomalous nature to his advantage--he doesn't sing in English much when he performs back home, which he does at least once or twice each year.
"French music is different. A lot of it is on the words," Kaiser said, his lilting accent carrying the last syllables of some of his sentences high, making statements sound like questions. "French music is a lot based on the lyrics. [The French] have a very strong literary culture, so I think the words are really important. Everything is a question of perception. Over there when I go back now, I'm the French guy singing in French in the United States. A lot of people are fascinated by that. When I'm here, I'm the French guy singing in French. I never get away from it," he said. "That's just the way it is."
Kaiser's smoky singing voice is full of the rich, throaty vowels of his native language. In some songs, accordion, trumpet and organ provide a European tone, while in others, guitar bridges the difference between the two worlds. The music on his first full-length, L'Odyssee (2006), which are heartfelt songs about Paris (all have French titles) and that he wrote before setting off for Portland, are, for the most part, rockers. On any given Friday night, these are the sounds that would be pouring from a Northwest coffeeshop.
French Troubadour (2009), which was recorded in Portland, also has a couple of serious strummers but has a more European bent. It opens with a song titled "La Marseillaise," and though it isn't a straightforward rendition of France's national anthem, it does include phrases played by a mournful, patriotic trumpet.
Then, it seems the farther he gets from France, the more French some of his music becomes. In his 2010 EP, Portland Rendez-Vous, all four tracks evoke images of Parisian cafes and strolls along the Seine.
It's a creative necessity for Kaiser to reflect on his roots as well as the influences of his new home.
"There is a kind of artistic need and this thing of growing as an artist," Kaiser said. "The music and the people I'm surrounded with that I discover help me grow and get perspective. I hope my art improves constantly. It's a never-ending story in a way. When I'm in Paris, it's not at all the same as when I'm in Portland."
Portland works for the musician as a home base. When people think "singer/songwriter," they think Northwest, specifically the City of Roses. The music scene is conducive to Kaiser's motif and he says the move there was to the right place at the right time.
But he is more than just the French guy singing in French in Portland pubs. Kaiser lives up to the "troubadour" in his moniker as well. He tours constantly--he'll be in Rhode Island and Boston for the first time in the spring. For him it's more than just getting in front of new fans who might want to buy his records. In nearly every new person he meets, he finds another story, another song idea.
"The more I travel, the more I discover stuff and I have to put it down in music. More and more I find I like writing about people on the road who inspire me. The more people I meet, the more I want to write about."
And the more people meet him, the less likely they are to see him as a novelty act. Being the French Troubadour certainly gets people in the door, if only out of curiosity, but Kaiser knows once they're in, he can speak to them in their language.
"There's not much I can do about [being the French guy]," Kaiser said laughing. "I never lived outside of Paris before moving here four years ago. That's just my story. It's also, I think, it's about communication. You need to share music with people. If it helps draw them into what I'm doing and makes them intrigued, I'm fine with that. It doesn't bother me."