The singer Sheila (a.k.a. French born artist Annie Chancel) has been an emblematic part of the French music landscape since she started in the early 60’s with a music trend that emerged in Southern Europe, largely deriving its inspiration from the UK and American rock’n’roll and twist music. She was the then archetypal French middle-class well-behaved 16-year old girl propelled by what was called the « yé-yé » pop music movement (adapted from the English term « Yeah ! Yeah ! »). In this interview for FAB UK, Sheila revisits some events that had then a tremendous impact on her Anglo-Saxon career worldwide during the disco era, including her most famous (& worldwide) hit “Spacer”. In 2021, the show is going on for one of the queens with her latest album which includes some songs in English
In the late 70s, the disco was a radical turning point for the « yé-yé » girl who gained popularity in Europe and in the US club circuit with a string of disco hits. The international success all started with « Love Me Baby » that had become a mainstream Top 10 hit in Europe in 1977. How did all that started?
SHEILA : It all started in a funny way. I was loved by families. I did not have that kind of night club clientele. One day I heard a song and I fell for its rhythm. I said to myself : “This is what I want to do”. I love dancing so I saw this as an opportunity to clash with the image of the archetypal middle-class teenager that I had had so far. Yet, when we released the song “Love me baby”, nobody knew it was me simply because…I did not say it was me. The group was called Sheila and B.Devotion and all what people could see on the record sleeve was a drawing. They started playing it in clubs and it became a success on dance floors. On a big radio station, listeners would then start calling and saying : “This is Sheila’s voice”. They knew it was me. That was how it all started.
When the French girl’s « Singin’ in the rain » disco cover version took America by storm…
The follow-up single was a 7-minute disco version of « Singing in the Rain » and was even more successful. You promoted your records on the major European TV shows, including the British « Top of the Pops » (TOTP for the out-and-out enthusiasts). What was the experience like, being carried away by the turbulence of an amazing success in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands… ?
SHEILA : “Love me baby” was a success all over Europe, but “Singing in the rain” was the hit that not only was played a lot in the UK, but the one which enabled me to make it in the USA. I remember I was in New York when I realized they were playing it on the radio since it was a cover of Gene Kelly’s song. My song in the U.S.! It was like…the Graal for me!
When you formed the disco band “Sheila and B. Devotion” (B. stands for Black) in the late 70’s, was the fact of being a white girl singing and dancing, surrounded by three black guys, something unusual, at least in France? Did that trigger any kind of – either negative or positive – reaction?
SHEILA : That was like a landslide. I was the blond girl dancing in shiny sequin hot pants with three black guys. That was kind of shaking up codes. At that time there were some reactions either in the press or on TV. Today we are taking about racism. At that time that was terrible too. I have always fought against racism, even before the band.
In the early 80’s, for your second album in English you collaborated with Nile Rodgers, the famous composer, songwriter and producer, i.e. none other than the co-founder of the legendary worldwide band Chic ! He wrote and produced for you the album “King of the World”. How did that happen?
SHEILA : Nile had heard the song “Singing in the rain” but he did not know who I was. He even thought I was a model, hence one of the songs called « Cover girl ». When I met him he was not that famous ; he had had a couple of hits. That was funky black music. Nile wanted to write an album for me. He wanted to take me somewhere else. I was a disco queen at that time. When Nile wrote and produced « Spacer » for me, my French producer said “I don’t want that. I want disco again”. Nile said :“I work for her. I do what I want to do and I have my vision of what we should do”. The strength of the album was that it was funky music oriented. I literally fell for what he had written for me.
DID YOU KNOW ?: « Spacer » was a big success in all the top charts in Europe and which peaked at #18 in the UK singles Chart and #28 in the USA. This was Sheila’s biggest hit with millions of copies sold worldwide. To top it off, when talking about Sheila’s hit « Spacer », there’s no better congratulation than Nile Rodgers’s himself: « There’s no other Chic’s songs that sounds like that. There’s no Diana Ross’s song. No Blondie. No Sister Sledge. Nothing goes like that. Only her (Sheila) record goes like that. You know in England people like the song « Spacer ». I just played the introduction and the audience started singing. They were screaming » (Rodgers’s interview from video trailer of Official King of the World 40th Anniversary)
In 1981, you were in L.A. and Keith Olsen was the producer of your following album, “Little darlin’. The album had definitely a sound inspired from the 80s U.S rock’n’roll. Tell us more about it…
SHEILA : Keith won 17 Grammy Awards In the 80’s, he was one of the biggest producers. He produced people like Scorpions, Toto, Santana and many others. He was none other than the producer of Pat Benatar or the iconic band Fleetwood Mac. I loved what Pat Benatar was doing. I found it great. I wanted so much to work with Keith. In the back vocals of my album there were singers who then became famous like Tom Kelly who wrote Madonna’s “Like a virgin”. They were great artists. I had a fabulous time with them and you know, beyond work, we have stayed in touch. I kept in touch with the people who became so special to me outside work.
2021 : A friendly “Law of attraction”
After a six-decade career, one thing which is for sure is how Sheila has remained so energetic when on stage. No wonder that, 40 years after “Spacer” , there was a joyful reunion with…guess who? Nile Rodgers. She has kept a strong bond with Rodgers ; when they are together they are both radiant.
You recorded « Law of attraction » in New York one of the 3 songs which are in English and which feature in your new album “Venue d’ailleurs” released in April 2021. How did that happen?
SHEILA : Even with an ocean between us, nothing will divide us. There is something special with Nile. He is my soul mate. He is a cornerstone of my career, just like Keith Olsen. Nile and I have always kept in touch, beside work, talking to each other either when we have ups or when we have downs. I had the idea of this album for four years, gathering all the styles I had been doing since the beginning of my career : ballads, rock, funk. It is an eclectic album yet coherent and with harmony. Everybody had told me “You know, Nile is not really writing anymore now”. When I called Nile to ask him if he would like to do another song with me again, he immediately accepted. He said “You are part of my life. I would do anything to please you.” I did not even have to ask him really. We said to ourselves : “ 40 years after, shall we make everybody move their feet on the dance floor again?” hence “Law of attraction”.
There is another song that I like which is « Ooh la la », it has a rock sound reminiscent of the 80’s album “King of the World”. What is the story of this song?
SHEILA : As I said, Keith is another cornerstone in my life. I knew it would be great. I love rock’n’roll. I called Keith to talk about my project. He said : “Of course I wanna do it “. He looked for songs. When I heard “Ooh la la”, I loved it. This was what I wanted.
Last in you new album there is a duet, It’ not over yet, with Jason Scheff, the former bassist and singer for the veteran pop-rock band Chicago. No less…This is another – not only professional but – friendship story too ; can you tell us a bit more?
SHEILA : Keith called Jason Sheff for this ballad. My biggest surprise is that Jason wrote the song. So, singing with giants like Keith and Jason, is an incredible opportunity and such pleasure. They also did back vocals. There is no ego in such collaborations but just pure joy.
I heard a rumour
If you manage the French language, the other songs, both tunes and lyrics are incredibly beautiful, like “La rumeur”. It took years for Sheila to get rid of a false rumour that spanned over three decades and saying that she was a man. It even went on even after her only son Ludovic was born ! The song “Cheval d’amble” is another emotional song as it is a tribute to the premature death of Ludovic then aged 42 in 2017.
One of Kylie Minogue’s favorite disco song
A lot of rock bands like Duran Duran love She ila’s1980 “Spacer” record. And to refresh your memory, Rodgers is not only the architect of « Le Freak » and « Good Times » with his band Chic, but also« We are Family » by Sister Sledge, « Upside Down » by Diana Ross, « Let’s Dance » by David Bowie…You name it ! Last, would you believe – and this is the icing on the cake – they say that that was when listening to the hit « Spacer » that artists like Madonna, Deborah Harry (Blondie) and David Bowie felt like having an album produced by Nile Rodgers…And this is another icing on the cake for Sheila; Kylie Minogue who released her album « Disco » last year has recently revealed her fav’ disco playlist. Among her disco artists you will find Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and…guess who? Sheila of course with « Spacer ».
After a « King of the World » 40th Anniversary special remastered edition last year, remember the other keynote for 2021 is of course, as Sheila mentioned earlier, her latest album “Venue d’ailleurs” with the invigorating “Law of Attraction” as your feet simply can’t help beating the floor! Last but not least, intoxicating “Law of Attraction” remixes are to be out for you to go on beating the dance floors after the summer with hopefully COVID-free clubs !
Bravo Sheila, you deserve all this and…c’est Chic !
INTERVIEW BY Cyriaque Griffon
PHOTOGRAPHER Christophe Boulmé
Acknowledgement : Ludovic Barnouin