Jean-Louis Bergheaud was born on January 28 1954 at La Bourboule, a small spa town in the mountainous centre of France, the Massif Central. The son of divorced parents, he spent most of his time with his grandparents on a lonely farm at Murat-le-Quaire, a small village in Auvergne, the name of which he was to adopt some years later. It is there that he acquired that taste for the soil and the rural life which would often crop up in his work.
From the age of seven, he began to learn music with the local band, which his father, a carpenter and occasional musician, also belonged to. The child developed a distinct talent for instruments such as the cornet and the tenor saxophone, and ended up going to the local conservatoire, where he studied music throughout his adolescence. A solitary young man, he was an avid reader of classical poetry and tormented romantic literature, from Andre Gide to D.H. Lawrence. At 15, he discovered jazz and rhythm'n blues from an English teacher, who encouraged him to pursue his schooling in defiance of his father's wishes. Finishing school early and starting work on the farm was to have been his destiny in life, but the adolescent ended up getting the first school-leaving diploma in his family history.
At 17, Jean-Louis married and became a father. He went to university in Clermont-Ferrand but he caught the travelling bug, and divorced to go travelling. Several years of wandering followed, from Paris to fashionable resorts where he did small jobs: beach attendant at Saint Tropez, ski monitor at Avoriaz. Around 1977 he got bored with this and decided to take up music seriously. He returned to Auvergne to stay for good. His single collective effort, the group Clara, was short-lived. He sang and played the saxophone and guitar, but above all, he wrote lyrics. William Sheller, interested by the group's work, hired them for a time as backing musicians.
Although the Clara experiment did not work, it nevertheless allowed Murat to record a solo single with EMI: "Suicidez-vous, le peuple est mort". The title alone brought him to the notice of the critics. But the public was not interested, and indeed the radio station Europe 1 censured it. Right from the start, Murat's repertoire was in the sombre, romantic, despairing and poetic register. An album of six songs, entitled "Murat" came out in 82, then in 1984 a complete album was produced, "Passion privee". But the sales were pathetically low despite the mere 1,000 produced. Despite a tour with Charlelie Couture, Jean-Louis Murat's contract was terminated.
In 1985 he recorded for CBS but nothing was published. Nothing was heard of him between 1984 and 1987. He lived alone in Auvergne for three years, regularly going to Paris to try to find a recording company, but in vain. Depressed and at the end of his resources, he needed time to build up his work again.
In 1986 Virgin took an interest. A contract was signed in 1987, and a single, "Si je devais manquer de toi", came out, projecting Murat to centre stage. This success with the public was confirmed by the 100,000 sales of the album "Cheyenne Autumn", which came out in 1989. It is a renaissance, full of atmosphere, rather glacial in tone, with some of Murat's best songs ("L'ange dechu"). The following year a small original album was recorded, "Murat en plein air", in which he gives homage to rural life. In a superb video recorded in Auvergne, the singer is seen performing some of his songs in a twelfth-century chapel, Notre Dame de Roche-Charles. All his love for his birthplace, for its farming traditions and for nature in general, shine through in these shots.
Murat is now a recognised and admired musician. In 1990, the film director Jacques Doillon offered him a role in his film "La vengeance d'une femme", with Isabelle Huppert and Beatrice Dalle.
A year and a half went by between the recording of the "Manteau de Pluie" album and its appearance in the autumn of 1991. Considered by some critics as his most beautiful album, it evokes many themes: Japanese poetry ("Le manteau de pluie du singe"), Brazil ("Le mendiant a Rio"), the mountains ("Col de la Croix Morand"), love ("le lien defait"), etc. After the synthesisers of "Cheyenne Autumn", Murat goes back to guitar and drums, played by Neil Conti of the English group Prefab Sprout.
In 1991, Murat recorded a duo with Mylene Farmer, "Regrets", which was accompanied by a clip filmed in the snowy landscapes of Hungary.
The "Venus" album, recorded in 6 days, came out in October 1993. That was the year Murat first went on a real tour. He does not find it easy to go on stage, which was why he took so long to decide. With six musicians recruited from the classifieds, Jean-Louis Murat started rehearsals in a small theatre in Vichy. The tour started in Auvergne, at le Puy-en-Velay, on November 10 and ended eight months later in July 1994. The three concerts he played in Paris, at La Cigale on December 16, 17 and 18, were recorded live for the album "Murat Live", and showed the simplicity of his musical arrangements during stage performances. There is no doubt that Murat is not at his most expansive on stage, and while despite this, the fans nevertheless rush to his concerts, there is no apparent electricity between the artist and the audience.
In addition to extracts from the tour, the live album also presents the music Murat wrote for Pascale Bailly's film, "Mademoiselle Personne". His characteristic writing appealed to other singers of repute such as Johnny Hallyday, Jeanne Moreau and Sylvie Vartan. However, in the end only Vartan recorded two of his songs, in 1996. Earlier, in 1990, he wrote a song for Julien Clerc. Himself a keen music fan, Murat has recorded homages to other artists, such as Joe Dassin, his lifelong idol Leonard Cohen, and Gerard Manset, to whom Murat was likened in his early career.
"Dolores", probably Jean-Louis Murat's biggest commercial success came out on September 16 1996. He, however, considers this seventh album as minor, a transition. It records the break up of a relationship, and has a trip-hop flavour with tender, melancholy overtones, less obscure than usual. A year after a highly mediatised launch, this album became the subject of a discreet tour of a few theatres, among which was the Theatre du Musee Grevin in Paris in October 97. Alone on stage with the keyboard player Denis Clavaizolles, Murat, awkward as usual on stage, presented a show of total simplicity with photos of Auvergne as the only backdrop. Both attracted and disconcerted, the audience still came.
His contact with the public may be difficult when he is on stage, but Murat is nevertheless anxious to communicate. He created his own Internet site on which he shyly reveals a little of himself by means of literature, cows and the recipe for an Auvergne soup (la potee auvergnate) - delicious! Somewhat of a hermit, Murat is nevertheless concerned by the world around him and his involvement in various combats is for real. He has long been a militant in Amnesty International and has also supported the Kurds and the fight against child abuse.
Murat was back in the music news in August '99 with a brand new album entitled "Mustango". This album marked a radical change in Murat's public persona - the singer went from being a solitary recluse in his native Auvergne to a singer-with-a-conscience, campaigning against violence ("Belgrade") and intolerance ("Les Pedes"). The title of Murat's new album is a symbol of solidarity with Mustang, a tiny kingdom in Tibet. The singer also made a few radical changes to his website, replacing his famous cows with his own artwork and swapping rustic images of Auvergne for pictures of American Indians and Tibetans.
Murat also left his native Auvergne to record his new album, flying out to work in studios in the USA. The singer ended up spending several months in the States, working in New York and in Tucson, Arizona, with local musicians such as the Texan duo Calexico. Murat's faithful French collaborator Denis Clavaizolle was also involved with "Mustango", taking care of the production side of things.
Murat kicked off a new tour on 12 October '99, hitting the road with three musicians: Alain Bonnefont, Regis Oomiak and, of course, Denis Clavaizolle. The tour - which proved to be one of the longest of Murat's entire career, included three memorable concerts at le Trianon in Paris. Murat brought this leg of his tour to a close on 17 November '99 then took a short break before setting off on the road again in February 2000 and playing right through until the summer festivals. "Muragostang", a live album featuring extracts from this tour, was released in the autumn of that year.
A special songwriter
Murat may irritate some music fans, but he appeals to many others. Both 'separate' and influential, his artistic talent as a songwriter makes him a singer apart, apart, who is read as much as listened to.
Less than two years after the release of "Mustango", Jean-Louis Murat was back in the French music news with "Madame Deshoulieres". This rather mysterious album based on a series of poems written by Antoinette Deshoulieres (a young noblewoman born in 1638), marked a clean break from the rest of Murat's work. Fusing Murat's modern musical approach with baroque compositions written by Daniel Meier, the album featured the voice of French actress Isabelle Huppert reciting Antoinette's poetry over Murat and Meier's arrangements.
In the course of his eclectic career, Jean-Louis Murat has managed to attract vehement criticism on the one hand and adoring praise on the other. But wherever one stands in the great Murat debate, there's no denying that the man is a truly exceptional songwriter whose work deserves to be read as well as listened to.
Murat has often said that he could release two albums a year. True to his word, he brought out a new album in March 2002. Entitled "le Moujik et sa Femme", the album consisted of eleven tracks lasting less than 50 minutes. Very different from "Madame Deshoulieres", this new album found Murat exploring the realm of pop music. With concise, unpretentious lyrics and a traditional form alternating verse and chorus, most tracks featured rather catchy tunes. Highlighting this newly found simplicity, Murat asked for the contribution of two young musicians, bassist Fred Jimenez-a member of Bertrand Burgalat's band-and drummer Jean-Marc Butty. "L'Au-dela"' was chosen as the first single release from the album.
Murat hit the road again at the beginning of April, kicking off a major French tour. After bringing the house down at the Bourges Music Festival on 11 April, Murat kept up his busy tour schedule right through until early June.
Jean-Louis Murat went on writing more and more songs. Before the end of the year he had also practised his painting, drawing, poetry, diary-and-letter writing-activities that also influence and nourish his music. In February 2003, he went back to the studio to record a 23-track album entitled "Lilith" and released in August. The lyrics on the album featured some dark but very poetic images, and it was influenced by Murat's role model a.k.a. Neil Young. Reflecting the mood of the whole album, the first single was entitled "Le cri du papillon" ('the butterfly's cry'). Bass-player Fred Jimenez (a friend of the artist's) and drum-player Stephane Reynaud performed on it. The two musicians also accompanied Murat on the tour that followed the release.