My Name is Cécile Cassel Part 2
Cécile Cassel's chic is typically Parisian and the French actress-turned-rock-star unfurls it with equal measure of reserve and exuberance as she strides into the Café Beaubourg.
In a Gucci sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, her hair pulled back, she climbs the stairs and sits at a window table. The unstudied part of her look is studied. It’s like she threw on what she is wearing. But she looks great. Effort is needed to pull that off. But as she opens up it is clear Cassel is laid-back and unguarded, which is untypically French. She is cosmopolitan, having lived in both New York and London, and speaks English with only the slightest affectation of her native tongue.
“French music can get very intellectual,” she says. Charles Aznavour said, the French write lyrics and then try to find a melody and that Americans write a melody and then try to match words. “It’s not the same thing. I write my songs in English. It makes me feel freer.” Her story is a journey with stops and detours on the path of self-realization and empowerment.
It started young, as she strove to carve out a niche in a household of glittering stars. Cassel’s late father, Jean-Pierre Cassel, was one of France’s most recognizable and celebrated performers. Cécile’s half-brothers attained similar fame: Mathias fronts a well-known rap group in France; while her other half-brother, Vincent, is one of the country’s most recognized actors. But despite the high-octane nature of her house-hold, Cécile felt sheltered as a kid and Cécile spent much of her youth feeling normal in the southwestern Basque region of France, where she still has a home in Biarritz.
“In Biarritz I can be who I am. I can wear jeans and T-shirts, and no one cares. I like the game of fashion. I work really hard with Alexandre Vauthier for my stage costumes. But it is fantasy. Most of the time I’m just super laid-back.” Cassel says she never felt pressure to jump into the fire of film. As fate would have it, she got sucked into the family trade as a young girl anyway. “I really wanted to be a social worker growing up and I also wanted to be a dancer. I loved Michael Jackson,” she says. She began training to enter the Opéra National de Paris as a ballerina. But a foot injury shattered that dream. “Still, I love being around dancers,” she says. “They are the most humble people in the world. They know they have to work every day. If they don’t, they can lose it all. I stretch 30 minutes everyday still.”
“I don’t really know how the cinema thing followed,” she sighs. “An agent spotted me in a class and I just started to do it.” At 18, she made her debut on a French soap opera and soon she was landing roles in cool-kids films. She even got a small role opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov in Sex and the City.
But Cassel, unlike her brother Vincent, didn’t gain momentum in film. Around 2010, Cassel distanced herself from the camera. After a tragic loss of a dear friend in a violent car wreck, she felt questions rushing into her mind. She reflected on life, her future and what she wanted to accomplish. “A couple of weeks earlier we were dancing, celebrating his 30th birthday. The next day he was gone. I asked myself what if I died? What would I have achieved? Would I have done what I wanted to do?” Pausing, she adds: “I needed to prove something.”
Growing up privileged had advantages. But achieving a goal of one’s own motivated Cassel like never before. She dyed her brown hair platinum blonde and began writing songs. “I still have the same Yamaha piano I had as a child,” she says. “That’s where I start most of my songs. I learned Haydn and the sonatas and preludes. I’m more into Erik Satie though.”
“I was super-frustrated as an actor,” she continues. “When you’re an actor you want to work. But it depends on so many people. I needed to find something to channel all of the energy I had.” As fate would have it, the French singer and producer, Yodelice, spotted her jamming with friends. “He came up to me and invited me to his studio,” she says. “I was lucky, I admit.” What Yodelice heard had nothing to do with luck. Cassel, who adopted the stage name HollySiz, was bursting with talent. Ardently, she had been practicing and assembling demos. Her material needed to be groomed and smoothly produced. She had to cut her teeth on the hard wood of performing on stage. But the core talent was there.
“When I went to the studio to sing for Yodelice, I really didn’t care so much. I was just myself,” tells Cassel. Yodelice was so impressed he invited Cassel to open for him on tour. After scurrying to hire musicians and form a band, Cassel found herself on stage at two of Paris most iconic venues, La Cigale and the Bataclan. The baptism was by fire. “I was so nervous but it went really well,” she recalls. HollySiz was born. “I was so unconfident before. I still am. With HollySiz I created a superwoman.” She sold out shows at another famous venue in Paris, the Olympia. “The first one was sold out only 15 minutes before I went on stage. But I did it.”
“If my stage presence can radiate confidence to other women in the audience that’s great,” she continues. Achieving that goal has not always proved simple. Cassel says the world of music is supremely different than the world of cinema. In rock, she gets thrown to the wolves and has to fight her way out. She remembers one particularly moment at a music festival in Rennes. Instead of playing for a packed house of partygoers, she found herself singing to a group of agents sitting down, more concentrated on their Blackberries than interested in music.
“I started apologizing between songs. The agents weren’t listening at all. All I wanted was to leave. When I got off stage my manager said: ‘You’re a rock star, if you want to apologize for what you do stay home in bed. Even if people don’t care, do your thing.’ It was a real lesson.” With two albums under her belt—My Name Is and Rather Than Talking—Cassel has come a long way. She proved she knows how to do her thing and needs no reason to curry favor. Most importantly, she feels that the stage personage she created has helped her attain her true colors. “I thought I was doing a character by creating HollySiz. She turned out to be 100 percent me. My brothers were really happy for me that I started doing music. They saw that finally I found something that made me happy.” Working and proving herself continues daily and tours are a particular test.
Cassel’s first tour was a 120-gig marathon. “We were driving around Europe in a mini-van, staying at the shittiest hotels you can imagine.”
“Gigs are a dialogue with the audience. I love that. People forget everything. It’s the best release.” She explains: “Making music is an artisans’ trade. I get more stressed during rehearsals than the actual gig. If you work hard, you have the adrenalin but the stage fright goes away.” She adds: “I like imperfections. I like it when you hear the voice crack or the guitar slightly off tune.”
While she says her first album reflected the first thirty years of her life, the second was about where she is today. “I don’t like to talk about my private life because I put everything in my songs,” says Cassel. “I’m very pessimistic about our world today—women’s rights; migrants; ecology. They are all desperate issues. I write about them in a poetic way. I want to put hope in the songs. I was so shocked during the Trump campaign how people were speaking of women. When I came back to Paris, in Poland there were huge protests for anti-abortion laws. I felt in danger as a woman. So I started writing about it. Then the song had an echo to women, to the audience, I was telling people that they were not alone.”
Solidarity through music is her goal. “Art has that quality. How many times have I been helped by a book or felt moved looking at a painting? Music can help you not to feel lonely.” Now that the road of musical adventure has opened its arms, Cassel realizes her sojourn brings with it responsibility. “The first album was just about me,” she says. “Now, I have something to say. I want to do music because I have no choice otherwise. I want to be free.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: Kava Gorna
TALENT: Cécile Cassel
STYLING: Markus Ebner
Photographed in Spring 2019 around Paris & Biarritz, France
This editorial appeared first in Mytheresa’s The Album Nr. 2 2019