“There is but one Paris and however hard living may be here, and if it became worse and harder even – the French air clears up the brain and does good – a world of good” — Vincent Van Gogh
The City of Lights, Paris, is often thought of as the most romantic city in the world. A destination seemingly crafted especially for the longing looks of languishing lovers, the city boasts an even more intense relationship than the constant stream of honeymooners — its passion and love of music. The city has been the refuge for artists for centuries and continues today as a bastion of artistic freedom and an unwillingness to be anything but its true self.
As one might imagine, because of this affection for the arts, the city has also been a home for many musicians, actors and writers across the years. Though not necessarily famed for its pulsating music scene, like Germany’s Berlin or Britain’s London, there has always been an undercurrent of musicality that gives the city a hopeful tune upon turning every corner. Perhaps the city’s finest musical contribution is the widespread inspiration it has dished out from every arrondissement.
Sometimes it’s the Seine, others it is the streets which seem to flow as easily with the finest bread as it does wine and cheese. But, more often than not, the songs listed below are inspired by the very feeling one gets when touching down in the fine city of Paris. It may seem like the back end of a bad holiday brochure, but the truth is, there truly is no city like Paris.
Below, we’ve gather ten of our favourite songs written about Paris including tracks from Joni Mitchell, Phoenix, Joanathan Richman, John Cale and many more. All aboard the Eurostar — next stop, Paris.
Best songs written about Paris:
10. ‘Paris is Burning’ – St. Vincent
Annie Clark, AKA St Vincent, has never been afraid to commit to an artistic proposition. The songwriter certainly caught the world’s attention with her electro-driven, pulsating vision of Paris ablaze with indie fire. A classic indie-pop banger, Clark made the track in her bedroom far away from the French capital, but ‘Paris Is Burning’ (not to be confused with Ladyhawke’s track of the same name) is a pounding jam.
Enamoured with the spectacle of the city, the song looks back to 1871 and chronicles the underclass revolt that emanated from the Paris Commune. A waltzing beauty, the song is guaranteed to infiltrate indie playlists for years to come as it works both as a historical recollection and a swirling metaphor for an inescapable situation. As ever, the choice is yours.
9. ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ – Serge Gainsbourg
One of the archetypal French pop stars, no list about the country’s capital would be complete with Serge Gainsbourg. This song comes from the very beginning of Gainsbourg’s career in 1958 and sees the singer and future artistic agitator sing his song of a lonely ticket inspector.
In a typical fashion, Gainsbourg discusses the destitute situation the inspector finds himself in every day as he makes his way to work. Calling the Parisian Metro as a “cloaque” (cesspit), the singer completes the set of sardonic lyrics by suggesting he is so bored that he should use his ticket puncher to leave a permanent hole in his own head.
8. ‘Give Paris One More Chance’ – Jonathan Richman
Beginning with the bustling street sounds of Spring in the city, Jonathan Richman lays down a plea for the city. Using his idiosyncratic vocal delivery to make a post-modern point that would impress the Louvre, there is a vibrant joy to this song which feels akin to drinking wine at 11am.
“And if you doubt that Paris was made for love,” sings Richman in the refrain, “give Paris one more chance.” It’s an archetypal song both of the city and of Richman. Arriving on his first solo record Jonathan Sings!, the track is flecked with charming smiles and simple pop sensibilities that make it one of his finest.
7. ‘Place Pigalle’ – Elliott Smith
Having travelled the world for most of 1999, Elliot Smith decided to take a break from the world and settle in Paris to lead a somewhat secluded life. Rather than aim to lay his head somewhere fashionable or “cool,” Smith headed for Pigalle, the neighbourhood located next to Paris’ famous red-light district Montmarte and the Sacre Cour.
The location, usually equally filled with tourists seeing one of the aforementioned attractions and locals buying their groceries and sharing stories, acts as the perfect backdrop for Smith’s love song about a French girl he met with enjoying his “temporary half-holiday”. Looking for one song to typify love in a foreign country? This is it.
6. ‘1901’ – Phoenix
One of the few pop acts to cross The Channel, the Versailles band Phoenix defined an entire generation with their seminal indie-pop banger ‘1901’ taken from their fourth album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
Though lyrically the song makes little sense, Thomas Mars, the band’s singer, would eventually open up about the song’s origin, claiming that it was a “fantasy about Paris” before the cultural zenith of Belle Époque. No matter the reason for writing the track, no matter where you are in the world, if you play this song at a party, you are guaranteed to ensure at least a string gaggle of millennials will be on the dancefloor in minutes.
5. ‘April in Paris’ – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
‘April In Paris’ was a jazz hit for Freddy Martin in 1934, but it didn’t really achieve the acclaim its universal title deserved until Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong picked up the song in 1952 as part of a musical for Doris Day. Later appearing on Ella & Louis, the song is revered as one of the finest jazz standards.
If this is your first introduction to the song, may we suggest you get the tissues ready because this one is a tearjerker. Fitzgerald and Armstrong’s vocals compliment each other perfectly, and the song is only enriched by the knowledge that both Oscar Peterson trio and Buddy Rich perform on the song. Pure class; if there was one song that fits Paris no matter the year or decade, then it is this one.
4. ‘Free Man in Paris’ (Live) – Joni Mitchell
Appearing on Mitchell’s 1974 album Court and Spark, Joni’s song ‘Free Man In Paris’ was inspired by the head of Geffen records, David Geffen. The pair enjoyed a close relationship over the years, and, in the song, Mitchell describes the trip she shared with Geffen, Robbie Robertson and his wife Dominique as they travelled to Paris. It has since become one of Mitchell’s most revered and popular songs.
The song quite explicitly describes Geffen at the time and how Paris offered him respite from his imposing career. Mitchell sings, “I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favours. No one’s future to decide.” It’s a joyful piece that uses Paris as the perfect backdrop for her internal conflict and desperation to break free.
3. ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’ – Grace Jones
Arguably Grace Jones’ defining hit is inspired by Paris but not necessarily its finest points. ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’ is a chilling account of the musician’s time frequenting the darkened corners of the city’s nightlife and the untold creepiness that it can sometimes bring with it namely seeing the same lurking face over and over again.
Released on Jones’ seminal 1981 album Nightclubbing, the track is bristling with underworld glamour, despite its dark origination. A reggae twist on Astor Pizzalo’s tango classic ‘Libertango’, Jones takes the track into weird and wonderful positions that, in 1981, felt entirely revolutionary. Naturally, Jones doesn’t take kindly to being spied upon by the “same face” so confronts them in French, typifying her no-frills approach to face-offs.
2. ‘L’Accordéoniste’ – Edith Piaf
Of course, no list about Paris would be complete without ‘The Little Sparrow’, Edith Piaf. A singer who wasn’t inspired by the city but crafted and moulded by its very essence, this track, written by Michel Emer just before he was destined to leave for the war, is as close to perfection as one can hope to achieve. As Emer bids farewell to the city he loves, perhaps for the final time, the longing and pain in his words are married with joyful moments of nostalgia.
The song tells the story of a sex worker and her accordion-playing boyfriend who dream of marrying once he returns from the war. As Piaf sings of “how beautiful life will be”, there is a genuine and present sense that she knows it will never happen. It is one of Piaf’s signature tunes and is doused in the romance, reality and regality that Paris deserves.
1. ‘Paris 1919’ – John Cale
The title track from Cale’s 1973 album Paris 1919, the Velvet Underground man, is clearly out to make a point. A wonderfully gifted musician and equipped with a better ear than most, Cale was setting out his stall as one of the world’s most competent songwriters and composers. Having produced records for Stooges and Nico in his downtime following the VU’s split, Cale was ready to break out and have his name up in lights.
It would be a brief foray into baroque pop. His only attempt at arriving at such a McCartney-esque sound, there’s still something wholly beautiful about ‘Paris 1919’. Lyrically, the song is pretty absurd, leaning on Dadaism as a way to negotiate the fragmented stories Cale tells within the notes. The album is described as a kaleidoscopic reimagining of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, but, aside from that, this is just a brilliant song. It captures and enraptures you in equal measure, providing smiles, laughs and the odd tear.
It’s a song that best typifies Paris because, above all else, the only thing Cale wanted you to take away from listening to the song was the atmosphere he intended. After all, that is what propels Paris to this day — feeling.