SINGER Charlie Winston must currently rate as France’s favourite Englishman. Still relatively unknown across the Channel, he rocketed to fame in France in 2009, when, his first single, Like a Hobo reached No1 in the French charts and stayed 11 weeks in the Top 10.
The album Hobo went on to sell 600,000 copies as the French public fell in love with Winston’s hobo image – an errant, busker sporting a threadbare suit, and coiffed with a battered trilby. He was a modern day troubadour.
However, sitting backstage at the Bourges music festival, attired in bondage trousers and a Victorian military mess jacket, Winston has more of the Adam Ant than the battered busker about him. Are the Hobo days over?
“No, I’m still in hobo mode. I’ve always had a bit of a hobo lifestyle and that was where the idea for the first album came from, but I had to let go of the image, you know, wearing the hat and the waistcoat.
“I didn’t want to be attached to that image forever.”
The hat may have gone, but Mr Winston has never been off the road, touring constantly for what seems like the past two years, just taking time out to record the new album Running Still which has already sold 100,000 copies since its release at the end of last year.
A collection of 12 songs in the blues, rock and soul mode, Running Still is more “raunchy” than previous offerings, less acoustic folk guitars and the use of more hip hop dance rhythms. “This record,” says Charlie, “was an effort to capture the true essence of what the band and I have become after three years of touring and recording.”
The Running Still tour has been to France, Germany, Poland, Canada, there is even a date at the Mercury Lounge on New York’s Lower East Side, but Charlie, I say, I can’t see any UK dates. “Me neither,” he laughs. “We should be touring in the UK at some point, though. The new album is going to be released in Britain in September.”
What will the British public make of him? He would be the first to admit that he doesn’t quite fit into the British musical model.
“I got famous in France simply because I was living and playing here. When I started getting successful, there was some British media interest, but everyone focused very heavily on the fact I was big in France.
“The British music press and radio didn’t really like that. The British music industry prides itself on finding homegrown talent – you know the thing: big city, working-class lads in the Beatles or Arctic Monkeys mode. As a Norfolk lad making it big in France, I didn’t really fit into that category.”
Fitting-in can always be a problem for expats, and although there might only be a slither of sea between our two countries, sometimes we are culturally and linguistically world’s apart. How is Mr Winston adapting to life in La Belle France?
“Well, my French isn’t too bad” he admits. “C’est pas parfait mais c’est pas mal,” he jokes.
“A lot of people talk about expat lifestyle, honestly though, I don’t know what expat lifestyle means. I’ve got a rock and roll lifestyle – always on tour with nowhere really to call home. However, for the two years that I lived in Paris, I loved the café lifestyle.
“Hanging out down the café on the corner, chatting with the locals, enjoying a glass of wine – always a Côtes du Rhône. I call it ‘doing the French thing.’ “It’s probably the best way to improve your language skills. If you want to learn French, you’ve got to live it and speak it.”
And if we move on from the café for a spot of dinner, what will he be eating tonight?
“I love all French Mediterranean food. Anything from Nice is nice.
“Mind you, no matter how good French food is, I’ll be the first to admit that I really miss a good English breakfast.”
Don’t worry though, when you see Winston in concert, he burns off his “full English”. On stage he bounces about always wearing the same boyish grin and the audience love him. “Playing to a French audience is like playing to an old friend,” he says affectionately.
Now on a tour with 24 French dates, Winston this month plays Tournus, Bourgogne, Paris and Marmande, Lot-et-Garonne.