Believe it or not, the most successful band Catherine Capozzi has been involved in came together totally by accident. In 2003, her alt-rock group, All the Queen’s Men, had added to its repertoire “La Vie En Rose,” a song that had been performed and popularized 40 years earlier by the acclaimed French chansonniere Edith Piaf.
One of the members of the audience happened to be the coordinator of an upcoming Bastille Day celebration in Boston, and the man asked Capozzi and her group to perform an entire set of Piaf songs.
“We didn’t even know who Edith Piaf was back then,” says Capozzi in a phone interview from her home in Boston. “But we felt that it would be kind of interesting, we did it, and it was a huge success.”
And so was born the cover band Ziaf, which performs exclusively the songs of Edith Piaf. Ziaf, comprised of Capozzi on guitar, pianist Dana Price, singer Christine Zufferey, and drummer Tamara Goodings, will perform Friday and Saturday, April 28 and 29, at Odette’s in New Hope.
“We had no idea what the market was for this,” Capozzi says. “We have been so busy that (All the Queen’s Men) has been on hiatus.” Ziaf, whose name comes from Zufferey’s initial and Piaf’s name — “Christine’s the only one who can pronounce the words,” Capozzi says — has since put out three CDs and has toured throughout the northeastern United States and Europe.
Edith Piaf (1915-1963) was, and is, 43 years after her death, an icon in French popular culture. Born to a circus performer father and prostitute mother, Piaf (from her nickname “Le Mome Piaf — “little sparrow”) endured many heartbreaks during her short life. A homely waif who stood just four-foot-eight, Piaf nevertheless was beloved because of the pure passion of the songs she sang. Her songs, often about relationships, just as often autobiographical, were full of melancholy.
Tunes such as “Mon Legionnaire,” “La Vie en Rose, “L’Hymne … l’Amour,” “Milord,” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” were considered quintessentially French. Piaf was also responsible for helping start the careers of singers like Charles Aznavour, with whom she collaborated on several tunes.
Her life was rife with tragedy. She lost her only child at age three, survived three car accidents, was addicted to cocaine and morphine, and saw several lovers killed. When Piaf died, the Catholic Church authorities refused to allow her a funeral Mass, but 40,000 people showed up at her memorial service nonetheless.
“She was, in many ways, the original sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roller,” says Capozzi. “Her life was much like that of Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison, only it happened much earlier.” To those tragic figures Zufferey adds Billie Holiday.
Piaf’s oeuvre has seeped into American popular culture as well, a note at a time. An interesting example of this is in one scene late in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan,” set in post -D-Day Normandy in 1944. A group of GIs awaiting a climactic battle in a small French city find a phonograph outside a shattered cafe. One soldier plays the record, and as the group smokes, reminisces, and awaits a German onslaught, the squad’s interpreter translates Piaf’s “Tu Es Partout.”
Believe it or not, neither Capozzi nor Zufferey have seen the movie nor heard of the Piaf scene. That’s a shame, because it was one of the most touching scenes in a film full of them.
The women confess that even as they continue to play Piaf’s music, they are just now beginning to get acquainted with it. “Ten years ago, I would have considered her music to be the kind of music you’d hear at a vintage clothing store as background music,” says Capozzi. “But from researching her life on the Internet and from what others have told us, she has started to become a more interesting character.
‘When you listen to the original songs, there’s so much orchestral movement,” Capozzi says. “We are a simple raw combo of guitar, piano, drums, and voice. Most people who have heard French music know that there is also a tradition of accordion and piano, but we had no intention of doing that. We wanted to stick to our rock roots while continuing to be faithful to the essence of the songs and spirit of who (Piaf) was.”
As their knowledge increased, say Capozzi and Zufferey, their reflections on Piaf’s life “began taking on new meaning.” Zufferey, the lead singer of the band and the woman charged with approaching the Piaf repertoire in French with Piaf’s distinctive diction and vibrato, is a native of Sierre, Switzerland, a small town two hours east of Geneva in the mountainous region near the Italian and French borders.
It is Zufferey’s job to choose which Piaf songs the group performs. “She had the full box set,” says Capozzi. In the group’s publicity photo, Zufferey towers over the rest of her bandmates. She stands just five-feet-seven, but she likes high heels, and she looks like a basketball star compared to Capozzi, who stands five feet tall. “I think the photo just came out that way,” Zufferey says. “Much of the effect was an illusion that came from the camera angle,” adds Capozzi. Both laugh when discussing the photo, in separate interviews.
Zufferey, the daughter of a telecommunications-executive father and a mother who worked for a student exchange program, also comes from a long line of winemakers. Even though the Zuffereys spoke French, Edith Piaf was, well, pretty much unknown. “I never listened to French music growing up,” Zufferey says. “I hated it. I liked rock and English and American music.”
She learned guitar growing up and came to America to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied film composition. It was in Boston where Zufferey met Connecticut-born Capozzi and performed with All the Queen’s Men.
Now, Zufferey has at least some passing familiarity with at least 250 Piaf songs. She says she enjoys the later period of Piaf’s recording most. “It was more raw. She was at a point where she didn’t really care. She had lived a lot, and you could hear it in her voice. It was totally bare.”
Her favorite Piaf tune is “Mon Dieu,” which tells the story of Piaf’s relationship with a boyfriend, the great boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was killed in a plane crash in 1949. “She was just asking God to be with her lover for one more day, just a little longer,” Zufferey says. “I just love that song because it is so dramatic; it is so beautiful in the melody.”
Ziaf will tour France, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland this summer. Zufferey says she enjoys interacting with the many Piaf fans the group meets. “People get really excited and appreciate her. This music really transcends borders and languages.”
Zufferey sees the ironies inherent in her newly discovered love for Piaf’s music. “I went so far away to discover my roots,” she says.
Ziaf, Friday and Saturday, April 28 and 29, 8 p.m., Odette’s, South River Road, Route 32, New Hope. The four-woman group performs the work of French chanteuse Edith Piaf. $20 cover with $10 minimum. 215-862-3000.