Like a lot of young musicians, Jessica Fichot initially wasn’t interested in her parents’ music. Growing up in France, “I only wanted to play and sing American music,” she remembers.
But when she moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston, that all changed. Watching her Latino friends in her new home connect with their roots through song, she felt a similar pull.
“Somehow seeing people listen to music in Spanish made me want to listen to music in French,” she explains.
Now, Fichot tours the world playing her own original songs sung in the French “chanson” style, a romantic mélange of jazz, pop and light opera, which she further enhances with touches of gypsy jazz, Parisian folk and, as her bio puts it, “the wilderness of her imagination.”
But France isn’t Fichot’s only cultural touchstone. Just as the music of her father’s French heritage enticed her after college, she’s lately felt the lure of her mother’s birthplace: Shanghai.
“It’s a city that really appeals to me,” Fichot says, “not only because my mom is from there, but because it really has that west and east influence.”
From the 1920s until 1949, when it was banned under communist rule, the popular style of music in Shanghai was shidaiqu, a term literally meaning “songs of the era.” Sung entirely in Chinese, usually Mandarin, the music was typically performed with European jazz instruments (piano, bass, drums, clarinet or accordion), but played in a combination of eastern and western styles.
Over the past several years, Fichot has sought out and listened to hundreds of shidaiqu songs, compiling her favorites into a new EP, Dear Shanghai, that takes the music of post-war, late ‘40s Shanghai and gives it an insouciant, chanson twist.
Fichot updated the arrangements of sprightly tunes like “Ode to Spring” and the romantic ballad “Look at Me,” but the divide between her own music and shidaiqu was narrower than one might think. Because post-war Shanghai, Asia’s largest port city, was such a cosmopolitan place, “the French influence is already there without me,” Fichot explains.
Ironically, one of her greatest departures from the original shidaiqu arrangements was to add a Chinese harp-like instrument called a guzheng to a couple of tracks, played by Bei Bei, a local master of the instrument.
“The original style actually did not have any traditional Chinese instruments,” she says. But on “Manli,” a shidaiqu-style song originally written and recorded in ‘60s Hong Kong, the guzheng gives the track an exotic, spy-movie vibe.
Dear Shanghai includes two Fichot originals, also both sung in Mandarin: the stately title track and “Daydream,” a rollicking gypsy-jazz romp that prominently features Fichot’s accordion, her preferred instrument. It’s a clever feat of musical reverse engineering — two completely modern tunes that evoke the feel of a bygone time and place, where the cultures of east and west collided in unexpected ways.
It’s in those collisions that Fichot finds the elements of shidaiqu that continue to fascinate her. To western ears, “there’s always a few things that are a little off,” Fichot explains. “The phrasings are a little different, or sometimes there are measures that are skipped.
"It’s almost like the musicians who were writing these songs were trying to do an AABA jazz form, but couldn’t quite make it work,” she concludes. Instead, they created a completely original sound, one Dear Shanghai both pays tribute to and expands upon in ways that surprise and delight.
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Jessica Fichot and her band will perform a Dear Shanghai release show on Thursday, Nov. 20 at Curve Line Space in Eagle Rock. See Fichot's official website, www.jessicasongs.com, for more info.