“I’ve played these songs so much that I know them better than my own,” she said, “because they are sort of tattooed somewhere inside me.”
When her husband left the Élysée Palace, her transition to public life was seamless, Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy said, “because I never stopped writing songs. Music is like a shelter for me — from noise, and from the children. Like a bubble. I have a bubble tendency in any case — that’s the way I live. I like loneliness.”
That’s why, when she married Mr. Sarkozy in 2008 — a move that both astonished and semi-scandalized the French (there was speculation that their whirlwind romance and union were a contractual arrangement for publicity purposes) — and moved directly into the presidential home, she brought her guitar with her. She continued to write and record songs, and released her third album, Comme si de rien n’était, (“As If Nothing Happened”) that summer — just as her husband’s popularity was slumping in reaction to his proposed economic reforms.
“With my music, I could cope,” she said, running a hand through her hair, “because it was so far from the role of public life. And who was going to stop me from playing my guitar? No one. I could play at night, on the plane. I’m a poor guitar player but I write my songs on a guitar. So I would bring a small guitar, a Taylor — it’s child’s size but a real guitar, with very good sound — and I would play all the time.
“The one who had the weight on his shoulders was my man. He was elected. He was the president. I was there to be with him and help when people asked me for help. It was really easy for me.”
She knows that is not the case for most first ladies.
“It was much harder for the next one,” she continued, referring to Valérie Trierweiler, the girlfriend of François Hollande, who beat Mr. Sarkozy in the 2012 election, “because she was a journalist, and she couldn’t work anymore, she could only write about literature, and that’s what she did. She lost all of her work, basically.”
As for that other famous former model, now in the White House, Melania Trump, “We have a lot of common points — she was a model, and she comes from another country, just like me,” Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy said. “But she was married to her husband long ago, and me, I met my husband when he was the president. I came from show business and fashion, so it was different.” The two women do not know each other and have never spoken.
Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy has met Brigitte Macron, the wife of France’s current president, Emmanuel Macron. “They invited us for dinner at the Élysée Palace, and it was nice. They are very nice people,” Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy said.
“I think she will cope. Everyone does it their own way. I told her not to worry about what people say, because it is not about her. They talk about her position. And it’s normal that people get aggressive about it. All the time I felt like a target. Because it was a very good way to hit my man — to hit me. That’s what happens when you are in that position.”
Now, of course, Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy is in an entirely different position.
“French Touch” was the initiative of David Foster, an award-winning music producer and a former chairman of Verve. He attended her 2014 concert at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University in Los Angeles, where she sang her own songs in French, and was so charmed that he offered to produce her next record.
But, she recalled, he had one stipulation: “ ‘Could you write songs in English?’ ”
“And I said, ‘Oh, I’ve tried. I tried. For many, many years I’ve tried. I get the title, but I don’t have the vocabulary.’ ”
“So he said: ‘Then let’s do some covers. You must you have some songs you like to play.’ ”
She did. He flew to Paris, and in three weeks they recorded 22 songs, whittled it down to 17, then 11. Some are jaunty, like The Clash’s “Jimmy Jazz.” Others are more sultry, like “Please Don’t Kiss Me,” which Rita Hayworth sang in the 1947 film “The Lady From Shanghai.”
And, like the songs she writes, they are all about her favorite theme: “Love,” she said. “Lost love, new love, family love. Love is not only passion and desire and love with your man. It’s also friendship, links. I love my cat. And the children. Sisters, brothers and friends who are chosen sisters and brothers. And books.”
Next to her on the table sat a paperback copy of Colette’s “La Chatte.” She fingered it gently. “It’s lovely, Colette,” she said. “There is strong music in it. Very strong music.”
The daughter of the Italian concert pianist Marisa Borini and the industrialist and classical composer Alberto Bruni Tedeschi (although she later learned her biological father was her mother’s Brazilian lover, Maurizio Remmert), Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy lived in Italy until she was 7, when her family settled in Paris. At French schools she studied violin and piano, but she couldn’t get her head around theory. “I would only use my ear and eyes,” she said. Eventually, “the teacher stopped trying.”
Someone — “I can’t remember who, an uncle, or my parents maybe” — gave her a guitar when she was 11. “I took group lessons at the Italian School,” she remembered. “We were like 40 in that class, with one teacher. And we learned ‘Oh Susannah.’ Three chords.” She air-strummed and sang the refrain notes in tune.
“Then I went to my friend Cécile’s the next day — we took the lesson together — and I picked up her guitar and started playing, ‘Oh Susannah.’ ” She sang another phrase of it in French to demonstrate.
“And Cécile and her mother said to me, ‘How can you know this song already?’ I said, ‘Because I played it all night.’ And I realized I had found something I loved. They made me realize it. I thought, ‘Maybe I can do that. Maybe it’s something for me.’ ”
She played as a teen — when, that is, she wasn’t sneaking out to dance all night at Le Bus Palladium nightclub in the Pigalle neighborhood.
“I didn’t speak English when I learned some of the songs, so I would sing them phonetically,” she said, breaking into a Frenchified version of The Beatles’ “All My Loving.”
“And then I learned English and I understood the lyrics and I discovered the songs again.”
When she became a model in 1987, at 19, Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy kept playing and singing. She quit fashion as a full-time pursuit in 1997 and devoted herself to writing songs. She sent some of her lyrics to the French singer Julien Clerc, and he set them to music, recording six of the songs for his 2000 album, “Si j’étais elle.” She recorded a couple of albums of her own, breathily crooning chansons in French to acoustic guitar.
Her first album, “Quelqu’un m’a dit,” (“Someone Told Me”) in 2003, debuted atop the French album chart and spent 34 weeks in the top 10, and went gold or platinum in several other European countries. Over the years, critics have called her music everything from the highly noncommittal “pleasant, sometimes compelling,” to the more enthusiastic “classically chic and subtly sexy as her Christian Dior wardrobe.”
Today, she takes her two children — Aurèlien, who is 16, and Giulia, who will be 6 later this month — to school; hits the gym, where she does an hour of cardio and some Pilates — “to stay skinny,” she whispered; sorts out some household issues, and then sets to her writing.
“French Touch” has been a hit in the Sarkozy household. Her husband liked her version of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All,” she said, “because it’s romantic.” Her daughter prefers “Moon River” and “Stand By Your Man.”
For her son, “who loves metal,” she recorded “Highway to Hell.” At first, he was dubious. “He said, ‘Mom, it’s going to be ridiculous. You’re an older lady,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘They are older people too. We are the same generation. You are the young one.’ ” Once he heard it, she said, he decided it wasn’t so bad.
The greatest compliment, however, came from the Rolling Stones. “They tweeted, ‘We like your ‘French Touch,’ ” she said. “I was like, ‘Yeah!’ ”
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