PARIS — “Bob Dylan refused to go back onstage unless I came to see him immediately,” Françoise Hardy recalled in a recent interview. On the evening of May 24, 1966, Mr. Dylan’s 25th birthday, he was playing his first concert in Paris and wanted nothing more than to see the then 22-year-old French singer, whom he had dedicated a song to but never met.
“I went and he agreed to go back on stage,” she said. A few months earlier, while in London, Ms. Hardy had turned the heads of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Brian Jones. Singing in French, English, Italian and German, the shy beauty and talented French songwriter cast a spell on many of her contemporaries — and over France for nearly 60 years.
Ms. Hardy’s memoir “The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles” is published in English this month, and, in the United States, her new album, “Personne d’Autre” (“Nobody Else”), has just been released. It is the singer’s 28th and the first after six years of silence during which Ms. Hardy fell gravely ill. She learned she had lymphatic cancer in 2014; her health declined; and, in 2016, she was placed in a coma from which doctors thought she would never wake up.
Against all odds, Ms. Hardy has returned and recovered her sensually adolescent voice, and her taste for writing. Her airy, timeless and elegant album is perhaps a literal “au revoir,” as in “see you again soon,” to life and loved ones.
Ms. Hardy is well-versed in singing about partings and beginnings. In 1968, at age 24, she rose to the top of French and British pop charts with “It Hurts to Say Goodbye,” written by Serge Gainsbourg. Ever since, she has been a French national treasure, known as much for her long androgynous silhouette, austere elegance and melancholic songs as for her wit and forthright intelligence.
In her memoir, Ms. Hardy examines what it meant to shoot to fame at 17 and what it feels like having been an icon in France for nearly six decades. The literary critic Bernard Pivot called the book “a brave confession both painful and invigorating.” It is a ruthlessly honest account of Ms. Hardy’s successes and failures.
Born in 1944 in Paris, Ms. Hardy was the daughter of a beautiful young working-class woman and her much older and wealthy lover, a married man who never lived with his secret family, and came out as gay in his later years.
Ms. Hardy grew up fast. At 16, she received a guitar as a reward for good marks at school and started writing songs. A year later, after a few auditions, and music lessons, the record label Vogue offered her a contract. The whirlwind of the swinging ’60s, which she lived through in Paris and London, did the rest.
Her first serious boyfriend, the photographer Jean-Marie Périer, contributed to making her a star, shooting her for the celebrity, fashion and music press. William Klein and Richard Avedon also photographed her for Vogue and other magazines.
“When I came to London to perform at the Savoy in the mid-60s, I was well aware that the British press was more interested in the way I dressed than in my songs,” Ms. Hardy said. She added that she took style as seriously as music, and that she asked the couturiers André Courrèges and Paco Rabanne to dress her. One night, she said, she would wear a simple, futuristic white tunic by Courrèges; the next, a steel dress by Rabanne weighing 35 pounds, which needed adjusting with pliers. Occasionally she opted for the less painful alternative of the Yves Saint Laurent’s “smoking” suit.
Ms. Hardy’s voice, lyrics and silhouette enthralled both public and critics. She only needed to walk down the street in London to be offered a part in a film. That’s how she came to be in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 movie “Grand Prix.” “I was very naïve and a well-brought up young woman,” Ms. Hardy said. “I couldn’t see how I could turn down offers by well-known film directors. However, I far preferred music to cinema. Music and chanson allow you to go deep into yourself and how you feel, while cinema is about playing a part, playing a character who might be miles away from who you are.”
When the May 1968 student uprising took place two years later, her record company ordered Ms. Hardy and her new boyfriend, the singer Jacques Dutronc, to leave Paris. “We went to Corsica, it was bliss.”
Ms. Hardy doesn’t view those events with nostalgia, however: “In my view, May ’68 and the student rebellion didn’t achieve anything,” she said. “It was simply the expression of a social and sexual evolution which had started in the early ’60s. In pop music, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had already paved the way to a change in society.”
When she returned to Paris in June, after a million people demonstrated in favor of President Charles de Gaulle and put an end to the student rebellion, Ms. Hardy said she was more shocked by the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the United States than she had been by events in France. “This shook me to the core,” she said. “I have always loathed political violence. It never works.”
Does she think the current strikes and violent demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms will lead to a resurgence of the May ’68 spirit? “I admire Emmanuel Macron for his intelligence,” Ms. Hardy said. “We must let him reform France. Part of the French people don’t want to see the reality and are stuck in the Marxist ideology. What I like about President Macron is that he is an idealist but not an ideologue and is firmly grounded in reality.”
Ms. Hardy shares with France’s president a love of words and language. She said she devours both literature and essays about current affairs. And sometimes becomes friends with their authors — like the provocative novelist Michel Houellebecq. “What distinguishes a writer from a great writer is originality and style and Houellebecq has both. He is a great stylist. I also could feel immediately his profound suffering; he is very disarming, and extremely funny.”
Ms. Hardy seems attracted to writers who have the courage to bare all and reveal terrible personal pain, without losing their sense of humor. Her memoir follows into their steps. She writes, for instance, about her mother’s euthanasia and her sister’s schizophrenia, and her father’s murder by a much younger male lover. Ms Hardy’s implacable sincerity can feel sometimes devastating but is never devoid of wit and soothing humanity.
“Writing,” she said, “has always been for me a way of diving deep into myself.”