Festival Director Jean-Francois Ponthieux only has eleven months and a handful of days to make the So Frenchy So Chic festival one of best experiences you’ll have for the year. Le Journal discovers how the boy who grew up in a small village in France, became the Festival Director of Australia’s biggest celebration of French music.
How has the SFSF festival evolved over the last six years?
I think we’re better at paying attention to the details and we’ve really refined the audience experience. We want to understand how people respond to the SFSC environment and cater everything specifically for them; from the drinks to the food – we’re aim to create an effortless experience. These days, a big part of my job is making sure I do all I can to create alchemy (the alchemy of joie de vivre), but it can only happen when the environment is just right.
What was the first SFSC festival like?
It was like jumping into the ocean for the first time. It was unpredictable and sometimes the details got lost. I remember we ran out of change and the only place where we could get some on a Sunday in Melbourne was the casino. Back then, I didn’t have golf buggy, so I think I ran about 30ks in one day. I learnt the hard way that if you order 1000 bottles of corked wine, you’d better have enough bottle openers!
Describe the challenges and the advantages of embracing two cultures?
I’ve lived in Australia for 20 years now. When I first came here, I wanted to immerse myself in the Australian culture. In a way, I lost touch with France – not my family, but the idea of what France is.
For me, Australia was a land of endless possibilities. European settlement is still a work in progress, yet there is are all these deep historical and cultural layers. Unless you’re Aboriginal, everyone else arrived here with a suitcase. For me, there was a sense that this was a place I could make my mark. As time went by, however, I felt emotionally drawn to France again, and these days I want to share a more modern, real version of France – one that captures the idea of French conviviality.
What sort of kid were you?
I was always up to mischief, (nothing too dramatic!), but yes, always searching for adventure. I guess I just did my own thing. It took me thirty years to find my path. I refused to give up on that whisper, that one day I would find the thing I was meant to do. I did a lot of different jobs, in lots of different areas, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realised all these experiences would one day help me in the future.
What music did you listen to growing up?
I listened to a lot traditional French music: Maxime Le Forestier, Serge Gainsbourg, Yves Simon, Leo Ferre – but my older friends were big influence – lots of Neil Young, and The Who. That might explain my eclectic tastes.
Name a couple of special moments that you’ve experienced over the last few years.
I love watching the artists bond with each other. A lot of these people play the festival circuit, but they don’t have time to get to know each other. SFSC is different – they are here for a week and we make sure there is plenty of down time for the artists to relax. Some amazing bonds have formed over the years.
Last year, watching everyone dancing on stage with Soviet Supreme. It was amazing and it had nothing to do with ‘commercial success’. I loved seeing how much the crowd appreciated the acts. This year I received an OBE by French Government for Arts and Culture. It made my parents very happy! I guess for me, it’s confirmation that taking the road less travelled, turned out to be the right path. It’s also a reminder that I’m only as good as my last gig …
Three things you love about Paris?
I return to Paris for meetings with some of the artists who end up performing at the festival, so I get to discover Marc Collin (Nouvelle Vague’s) local café, or party at Tom’s house (Soviet Suprem’s). I love rediscovering Paris from the local perspective. Be a tourist in the city I use to live
Walking the streets of Paris, it’s only 20ks from north to south.
Long lunch with friends – with plenty of wine.
What brings you joie de vivre?
A couple of things: the moment I live in, and trekking. Each year, I trek for two weeks. For me it’s like meditating – it keeps me grounded and inspired, so when things go wrong, I have this foundation that stops me for loosing my mind! Joie de vivre is a complex thing; it’s like going to the gym, you have to maintain it.