Posted December, 2011
Photo by Hacine Brahimi
Over the years I’ve had the distinct privilege – and I do count it a privilege – of chatting with people who have emigrated from another country to call America home. The vast majority of these people LOVE America with a purity that is rarely seen among us who have enjoyed our liberties for an entire lifetime.
I’ve met people who escaped oppressive regimes in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe with just the clothes on their backs. They came here genuinely excited about the many opportunities afforded them just by showing up. In many cases, these people have become very successful entrepreneurs.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with a young man who left his native country of France (and I’m not implying that France has an oppressive culture) to call not only America but Arizona home. That young man, Cyril Niccolai, is a former medical student turned musician who came to this country because of its still-fertile, musically receptive audience.
I became aware of Cyril when I received a review copy of the excellent debut CD, Our Revolution, by his band, The Fairchilds (see the Boomerocity review of it here). It was immediately love at first listen – the album was that good. Full of brilliantly written lyrics and melodies, the disc was chock-full of delightful sources of earworms and aneurhythms.
Because of this great album (and, I suppose, the obvious envy I had that a young man from France gets to call my former, adopted home town of Phoenix “home”), I jumped at the chance to interview Mr. Niccolai. He had just come off of a two week PR tour of radio stations on the East and Gulf coasts. He called me from his East Valley home on the edge of the Arizona desert.
I normally don’t include my incidental chit-chat with the people I interview into the pieces I write about them. However, Cyril’s enthusiasm about our country was so contagious (I could almost see his eyes wide with wonder over the phone line) I felt that the reader would be robbed of a true sense of who Niccolai is as a person as well as an artist.
When Cyril first called me, it was during a rare desert thunderstorm. I had to laugh when he said (in his wonderful French accent that, no doubt, melts the hearts of the women he comes in contact with), “You know what? Today is not a good day for Arizona. It’s pouring rain. Not cool. Usually the weather in Arizona is so glorious. But today it’s just the exception. Not fun!” When I told him that I was still jealous that he was in Arizona and I wasn’t, he said with a laugh, “That was to make you feel better – that you’re not missing anything today.”
Sharing more about his background and upbringing and how it affects his view of the weather, Niccolai said, “I was raised in Nice in the south of France. We are so used to the sun, when it’s raining it feels sad. When you go to Paris or London, rain is part of the environment. You get used to it.”
Because so many celebrities call the Phoenix area home for at least part of the year, I asked Cyril if he’s had the opportunity to meet any of them. “No, actually, I’m not here quite often. When I’m home I am just doing the boring stuff like paying bills and then I just go back on the road. I haven’t even had time to visit my friends!”
When I moved to Phoenix from Huntsville, Alabama, as a nine year old, I had visions of a dusty western town and that I would ride a horse to school ala Mark McCain from the TV show, The Rifleman. Imagine my surprise and disappointment to see kids actually riding bikes to school on beautifully paved streets and sidewalks. I asked Niccolai if living in the Phoenix area was as he had envisioned.
“I’d come here quite often over the years and I have friends here. I came here for the first time right after high school in 1998 – just before going into medical school. I spent the whole summer here. I came back three years later and then two years later. It was pretty comforting for me. I was going from my country to another totally different environment so I had to be a little bit comfortable. Phoenix was the place! I knew at least ten people around here. In New York, it’s too big. I love New York. It’s just an amazing city. But to stay for months, it wouldn’t suit my style. I like to drive. I like to be able to just feel free and drive if I want to drive and not be stuck in five hours of traffic jams. I needed a little bit of simplicity – kind of like family style and Phoenix is exactly that. It’s a balance between a big city and still a very genuine, American lifestyle. So that’s the perfect balance for me. And, no winters! I love that!
“So, I knew exactly what to expect. What I didn’t know is that I would like it that much. Since I bought my place here it changed things for me. Now it’s like my home base. I have my home base in Paris and now I have my home base in America which is in Phoenix, Arizona. I think it’s pretty exotic. I like it very much.”
Cyril and I were like two raving fans talking about our love for the Valley of the Sun. However, after taking quite awhile sharing stories about the area, we eventually began to
Photo Courtesy of Cyril Niccolai
talk about his debut album, Our Revolution. After raving about the CD, I asked what the reception towards it from others has been.
“You know what? So far, I’m knocking on wood because it has been amazing! All the reviews have been good. Well, we have one – it’s not a bad one. The guy’s not into mainstream rock – more into metal/hair. He doesn’t say that the album is not good. He says that he doesn’t like it because it’s not his taste. Aside from that, all the critics and all the reviews we have are just amazing.
“I was in Napa Valley this weekend playing at Live In The Vineyard. It was amazing. It was incredible. It was in California so it was wine, food and music – a lot of established artists so it was great to share experiences with them. I did two gigs and the reception. What we had was amazing with the audience. They were clapping, shouting, singing – it was just so cool to feel the connection. That’s why you make music in the first place – to connect with people and to try to entertain them. It was amazing.
“It’s a long journey and we’re going step-by-step but so far I’m very pleased with the way things are going. Very cool.”
In researching Cyril’s background before the interview, I read that he had something like 200 songs that he had written before he felt like he had 12 that he felt comfortable putting on the album. I wondered if that was a difficult process to go through.
“No because I started writing songs when I was fifteen. You go through this process where you start to grow as a writer – like a craftsman in his lab learning his job. At some point you have all of the influences that you have to acknowledge and at some point you find your own style with all of those influences. That is the turning point. That’s when I know that I can release something because those songs are really a snapshot of who I am right now. I’m okay with those songs having a life right now.
“After that, also, when you have to choose songs for a record, it’s not the best ones. It’s just the ones that will work as a whole, as a unit, as a record. From my musical theater background, I always felt that a record is like a journey – a beginning, a middle, and an end. You have to be balanced and that was the work we’ve done with the producer, Jim Lowe. It was to pick the right songs and to make sure they were working as a unit.
“We are both control freaks and it’s hard to let go and say, ‘Okay, it’s done!’ I’m trying to do that – to let go more; to realize that it’s just a snap shot of who you were and what you had to say at that point. So now I’m starting to compile for the next one. It’s going to be different. Of course, you make mistakes. That’s how things go, you know? I’m very pleased with it.”
As he concluded his thoughts, he once again spoke with seemingly wide-eyed wonder at the opportunities he is able to take advantage of in our country.
“You know, talking to you right now, being on American soil – for me as a French guy, it’s a dream come true. My eyes are wide open. I’m like a kid in a toy store. Every day is a new experience. I’m so thrilled just to meet people. This weekend (at Live In The Vineyard) we met Chad Kroeger from Nickelback, Daughtry, Michelle Branch, Christina Perri, Safety Suit, O.A.R., Jack’s Mannequin – some of those I never heard of. It was very, very interesting to understand the American market and the American artists. That was very interesting.”
Cyril’s comments prompted a question about the differences between French and American markets and audiences and how they view and appreciate their music. His response caught me completely by surprise.
“There’s a huge difference. I guess that I was born in the wrong country because music in France – kids have no education about music. Here, when you arrive on American soil, it’s so intimidating because there are so many great artists and people know this stuff. Even the regular Joe on the street has this background of Elvis Presley, all the bands, all the Californian bands, they have all this knowledge of music.
“When you put out a record, you cannot mess with them. It’s not a fun thing to do. They know this stuff. I was amazed that, even when you talk with people at the end of a concert, they know music. They really love music. They have knowledge for that. That’s the main difference, probably, is that you have to do it good because people know their stuff here.
“France, they don’t have that. Kids have no education at all for music. We all have the same variety crap on the radio; the same twenty songs. Really, I swear to god, when I go back home and I turn on the radio, I want to cry. I really do want to cry. Here, when I turn on the radio, I have Sympathy for the Devil and at the same time I have Enter Sandman by Metallica and then it switches to Guns N’ Roses. So everything is within the same station – you have so many different things. It proves the open mind of Americans – especially for rock and roll. It’s the country of rock and roll.
“France is a very tough market for rock and roll right now. Everything you hear on the radio is hip hop, techno, pop – there’s no rock! If you want to do a rock record, you’re screwed because there’s no room for that. If you want to do a rock record in Europe, you have to go to Germany, to Sweden, Norway – that’s the kind of places where rock is still on. But France? Not at all.
“When Ozzy Osbourne, for example, is doing four shows – sold out – in Germany, he only does one show in Paris and it’s not sold out. They have to give away tickets. And it’s the same for Bon Jovi in France. It’s always the last country on the list. On some tours, they just skip France. It’s not interesting for them. There’s just not the audience for rock music anymore. If you go for Lady Gaga, it’s going to work. But, if you go for more interesting bands, it’s done. France is screwed right now. Radio stations are not willing to give rock a huge shot at it. Life is a circle so, hopefully, it’s going to come back. But, for now, it’s a dead market for rock and roll.
“Like I said, I weep when I listen to the radio (in France). It’s just really sad. That’s why I’m so happy to be in my car here and just put anything on – a country channel, rock channel, variety channel – everything and it’s always entertaining and you don’t have the same pop crap that you have in France and I’m sorry to say that. I’m not a good ambassador for my country for music. It’s really sad.”
Taking a shot at diplomacy, I commented about all the other areas that France excels in to which Niccolai replied, “Yeah, but you always have to work. I was talking to people from Napa Valley and they are very good with the wine. I was talking with some chefs and now American chefs are very good, too. So if France wants to stay in the race, they’re going to have to work for it. They have to recognize that they have to keep on working.”
Photo Courtesy of Cyril Niccolai
Our conversation segued into the purpose of the chat: discussing a couple of the songs from this intriguing album. The first cut, I Need You, is a very deep, contemplative tune. I asked Cyril to share his thoughts behind the writing of that song.
“Doing the record, of course my first goal was to entertain people. At the same time I wanted to also express that I was aware of what was happening around the world. It’s not just to be pessimistic but to acknowledge that the world can be crappy sometimes. But even in the saddest situations hope is still there. What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger. A wiser man than me said that. It’s in times of big struggle that you can move forward and try to look for hope.
“When Barack Obama was elected, I was amazed. I was in Paris at that time – downtown Paris near the Bastille Square which is a very old gathering place –the old peace gatherings were there. I witnessed when Barack Obama got elected. All those people – all those French people – didn’t know anything about America . . . they just knew about Barack Obama being elected. They didn’t know about his politics, about his vision, about his ideals. He was just one man symbolizing hope.
“Once again it just amazed me – that one guy. It was great. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t want to know about his politics. It was just about one guy bringing hope to people – not only inside his country but outside his country. It was the same in Germany, in Spain, in London – people were gathering and they didn’t know anything about politics in America. But they wanted to believe that this guy was symbolizing hope because he was different and it was change. He was symbolizing that anything could happen. That was so cool to see people smile again. For a short amount of time he gave hope to those people.
“So, going backward, I thought about Martin Luther King and Malcom X and those great black American guys and what they’ve done and what they accomplished for this country. I went through all their teachings. I went on the internet and I read all of their teachings and tried to sum up their ideas into one verse which is very, very hard, of course.
“But I just wanted to say that we can have a very pure idea and it was a statement from me to start the album with this line in particular which is: ‘Means we use shall be as pure as the ends we seek’. It’s an actual quote from Martin Luther King. I just quoted him. That’s his sentence. It was a statement from me to start the record like that. It’s nothing to do with politics, once again. It’s just about human beings and how we should, in an ideal world, this is how we should behave on a daily basis.
“So, the first verse is about Martin Luther King – I have a dream and we’re all brothers and sisters and we’re all interconnected. That is what we are. That is the truth! The second verse is about Malcom X, saying, ‘You can believe in whatever god you want. You can be Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, whatever you want to be but it’s your own faith. Don’t try to compete with your neighbor. It’s only for you. It’s something that you should keep for your inner-self and not something that makes you better than everybody else. It’s not a competition – it’s an act of believing. You should just be happy to believe in something and not try to compete with your neighbor.’ That was the second verse.
“The third verse, of course, was about Barack Obama with his ‘Yes, we can!’ and ‘We can change’. I don’t know how many times he said those words, ‘Change’ and ‘Yes we can’. He said that so many times. Once again, it’s positive words. Yes, we can! There’s something more positive than this and we can change. Let’s hope for the best and let’s change for a better place or for a better situation. That song is a very hopeful song, actually.”
I wouldn’t want to pick a favorite off of this album but, if I had to, Our Revolution still stands as one of a couple of favorites. I even used it as the theme/thread for one of my Weekly Spews entitled (Our) Revolution (9). I was dying to hear Niccolai’s story behind that tune.
“When you try to write a record, you try to have meaning in it. I don’t want to give a lecture to anybody. Who am I to say that? It’s just me having a cynical view of the world. That’s my cynical view. Actually, there are two songs that are related on the record: Our Revolution and Body of Lies. Body of Lies is the follow-up to Our Revolution.
“First, you just joke about the world – just be cynical about it. Then, when you see that there’s no change at all, you have Body of Lies. ‘Did you hear what I said before? The world’s really screwed up!’ So, those two songs are related. There’s the warning, Our Revolution, the cynical point of view and then there’s the action. ‘Who do you think you are? What are you doing here in this world?’
“I kind of like this concept of having this journey within the record, having these layers. But for Revolution, when we picked the song with producer, Jim Lowe, he said that we needed something more spontaneous. Everything on the record – the melodies are not complicated but there are a lot of notes everywhere. Everything is ‘pretty’. That’s what I like, also. But we needed something more spontaneous; more like a shout – a primal scream. So that’s why Revolution and in Body of Lies, there are not too many notes. It’s just me talking, singing around those two notes but trying to make a point.
“Like I said, Revolution is like a very cynical thing. Yeah, right. We think we accomplished so many things but, in the end – yes, we have technologies. Yes, we can order movies. We can order food 24/7. Yes. But, in the end, we’re just lazy, resting on a couch, doing nothing all day long. Instead of taking the car and just go and buy a pizza, now we can call the pizza place and have it delivered in 30 minutes. But is it better?
“The whole song is about we think we accomplished so many good things, which is true. But, in the end, do we really think that we’ve done the right things with those technological breakthroughs. I know that we sometimes look at one situation and just laugh at it.”
As Cyril passionately explained the thought behind Our Revolution and Body of Lies, I was reminded of the Beatles’ Revolution 9 and asked if that song inspired Our Revolution in some way.
“Not at all, actually. When I wrote this one, I was thinking of a Sex Pistols vibe. More like a ‘punky’ thing. This is the most punky thing I can ever do which is not so punky. This is my version of punk which is not so punk. People will laugh when they hear that. But, yeah, I was thinking more about this rebellious kind of thing. But, now that you mention it, of course, with you mentioning it, I guess when Lennon wrote Revolution 9, that was around the Vietnam War. So, of course, he was like, ‘Okay, we’ve done so many good things and now what? Now what? We’re supposed to be better than the others and we’re going to do a war again?’ I guess that he had the same feeling that we have right now.
“We should learn from our mistakes but, unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. We have the answers. We know that we’re still trying to compete with religion and people are still making those mistakes. The only way this situation is different is – I always think of this metaphor of an 80 year old guy, very rich, having an affair with a 20 year old girl. It’s the biggest cliché in the world. We agree on that, right? But the guy? The guy will not ever consider that because he thinks that this situation is different and no, no, no, no, she’s not there for the money because this situation is different because it’s him. That’s very weird to me that we all know we have the keys to change things but we don’t use them. That’s pretty sad.”
From the research I had done on Cyril, I knew that the tune, Unbreakable, is especially close to his heart. I wondered why that was.
“When I wrote it at the time, my two closest friends - they had huge problems. They were struggling trying to move forward. But at the same time, they didn’t want to give up. So I had this vision – that is usually what I do when I write a song is to have this movie in my head, this story line in my head. I can visualize the characters, the action and the locations. I was looking at this guy taking hits all day long and he kept moving forward, trying to look at the bright side. But the thing was, ‘You know, I’m human. I’m strong and I can take some hits. No problem with that. At some point I have a breaking point. At one point I’m going to completely die because I’m human. I’m not unbreakable!’
“It’s important nowadays to acknowledge that people are struggling in life – especially with the economy and stuff. It’s hard for everybody so it’s comforting to say, ‘You are not alone. I’ve been there.’”
It is this quality of caring for others – for the world; the quality of character; the sponge-like trait that wants to experience, absorb and positively influence his life and his world that will draw friends and fans alike into Cyril’s orbit. I’ve yet to meet this remarkable young artist in person. But, whether it’s watching him perform or sitting down and having a lengthy chat over a meal, I am looking forward to doing so some day.
I’m convinced that this same quality will draw you into Cyril’s orbit – his revolution. It’s my prayer that some of his wide-eyed wonder about our world – specifically, our country – will rub off on you and me.
You can read the Boomerocity review of Our Revolution here. You’ll also want to keep track with Cyril, his solo acoustic performances and any of his gigs with the Fairchilds by following and bookmarking him and the band at the following sites: