By Thom Dent
When listening to Pi Ja Ma’s music it is obvious that their singer, Pauline de Tarragon, loves to draw. Her voice is like a paintbrush, spattering sonic canvases with wide-eyed vocals and harmonies lifted straight from the bright, colourful playbook of 60s pop.
When de Tarragon was 16, her friends put her forward for the French TV talent show Nouvelle Star. The first time she ever performed publicly was in front of over 1 million people on national television. She finished third in the competition, and was told she was going to be a star.
However, pop stardom was never what she wanted. “I was a bit disgusted by the cameras,” she told Spill Magazine in 2019. So instead of pursuing music, De Tarragon moved to Paris and began studying at art school in favour of fulfilling her artistic dreams. It was in Paris where she met Alex Concato, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who now forms the other half of Pi Ja Ma.
The pair quickly struck up a working relationship as de Tarragon was allowed for the first time to have fun creating music, free from the glamour and overt manufacturing that had tainted her experience of the pop star lifestyle. Pi Ja Ma are the antidote to that lifestyle. It is pop music, yes, but stripped of all its pretence and phoniness. It’s pop music that doesn’t want to be famous.
Their debut single, ‘Radio Girl’, was written in response to de Tarragon’s brief brush with fame. It’s a goofy, endlessly fun pop song that delights in satirising fame, stating “I didn’t want to be the Beatles” before lurching ironically into a guitar riff that could’ve been ripped straight off Rubber Soul.
Pi Ja Ma’s debut album, Nice to Meet U, is a whirlwind of bright colours and sounds, like a 60s pop record doodled over with synthesisers and crayons. ‘Vertigo’ and ‘I Hate U’ stomp along to the beats of French yé yé and British rock and roll, throwing them through a kaleidoscope of arcadey synth flutters. Lead single ‘Ponytail’, meanwhile, addresses the anxieties of a psychedelic trip with a naïve spirit that matches the innocence of the Beach Boys-esque instrumental.
Pi Ja Ma wear their vintage influences proudly on their sleeve, with everything from Françoise Hardy to Shocking Blue and ABBA manifesting in their music. The trans-European inspiration extends into the modern, with bands such as Broadcast, whose simple, DIY sound is something Pi Ja Ma very clearly emulate.
Their live show is captivating for de Tarragon’s stage presence, always giddy with excitement and eager to destroy any ‘rockstar’ image she might accidentally display. De Tarragon often draws while on stage, taking a marker pen to her bandmate’s clothing and instruments, which are wrapped in paper and usually already covered in doodles. It’s a long way from the artificial world of TV talent shows, and definitely a lot more exciting.
Concato and de Tarragon are of different generations and have very different ways of working, as explained in an interview in Arty Magazine. He has been writing and producing for 20 years and works in the obsessive manner that comes with this experience. De Tarragon, on the other hand, is instinctive and impatient, doing whatever feels good in the moment. The result is music that feels expressive and playful, while also maintaining a thoughtfulness in the way it is put together.
While Pi Ja Ma are more than capable of messing around, there are moments of quiet truth in their music that make them all the more compelling. 2021 singles ‘Bisou’ and ‘Should I Call U Baby’ both come from the pair’s upcoming second album, and both offer a more reflective side to their songwriting.
‘Bisou’, released on Valentine’s Day, is a simple, tender thing. De Tarragon asks for small acts of affection atop an acoustic guitar and luscious drum machine. Meanwhile, ‘Should I Call U Baby’ is the most heart-aching of anything Pi Ja Ma have ever put out like Françoise Hardy reimagined with the pulse of a New Order synthesiser. The music video, which touches upon themes of sexual harassment and misogyny, adds a darker undercurrent to the song, transcending the saccharine innocence of its classic French sound with a raw, angry aftertaste. Pi Ja Ma are not afraid to borrow the sounds of the 1960s, but their politics are far from old-fashioned.
While their first EP and album were written entirely in English, these new songs purposefully bring more of the band’s first language into the foreground. As such, Pi Ja Ma are beginning to bridge the gap between their British and French influences lyrically as well as musically, bringing the retro pop stylings of both countries together in a modern context. They’re the musical equivalent of the Channel Tunnel. And they’re brilliant.