I had a chat with Sunitra from French music band Mélange à Trois.
What’s your background and how did you come to form the group?
A loooong time ago, in my early 20s [Sunitra doesn’t look like her 20s were that long ago], I was working as a stylist in Sydney and a hair and makeup artist and I was being booked a lot by record companies to do style and makeup on musicians, a lot of up and coming acts, developing their images. I was asked to work on an amazing project which was called Siva Pacifica, which was a world music project based on French Polynesian music and it meant that we got to go to France and film a documentary. So we went to Paris to film a documentary, I was doing hair and makeup. Basically once I got there I realised “oh my God, I can’t go home now”. I had been on the same block in Surry Hills for the 2 years every day doing hair and makeup so that was what got me to Paris. After 2 weeks of working there, I decided – we were meant to be going on to London and LA and back to other work in Sydney – but I decided I am going to jump off the bus here right now!
So I stayed and I was doing some modelling work – I visited some styling and modelling agencies and decided to line up work to make plans to stay. Got in with a very good agent in Paris and they said “just lose 5 kilos and come back in a month”. In that time I managed to be snapped up by a Frenchman and then a month later was asking myself “why have I put on 5 kilos and not lost 5 kilos?” I found out that I was pregnant. We had a great time. It was a wonderful experience. He had a house in the South of France with rosé vineyards and houses in Brittany. It was definitely a whirlwind. After 7 months in France, we came back to Australia and lived in Bondi.
So I have a French Australian child who is now 20.
So that’s when you learnt your French then? In France?
On the road in France, things like going to the boucherie and trying to buy my groceries and trying to understand the words. Once we came back to Sydney, once our daughter started school, she went to the French school in Sydney so everything was in French. So the French bubble continued.
But funny enough, he was a great lover of music but he loved world music so we didn’t really listen to much French music when we were together. It wasn’t until we separated that he gave me a CD which was a compilation of gypsy French music, which had some great songs on it and I listened to it non-stop.
So which artists are on it?
Brassens, Paris Combo, enough to spark an interest in it. It wasn’t until many years later that I moved to Adelaide. I hadn’t played music before – I was actually offered a record deal in my early 20s but I turned it down because it was music producers who were producing pop rubbish – they basically said you have a good look. I didn’t like the music of the people I was working with. I didn’t really respect because most of it was manufactured.
Even my children listen to the music that I play in the car. Before I was doing this music, I was doing cabaret shows and ukulele events because that’s where that started. For example, we did a show with The Eagles music. I didn’t think it was my cup of tea but once I started to pick and choose. The musicianship is incredible, the harmonies are incredible and the lyrics are great. So my 5 year old will say Mum I want to hear “Witchy Woman” and even what they hum around the house is their classical tunes they have to learn for their instruments or humming French music.
Did you ever get musical training?
Basically self-taught. I had violin lessons as a child from a crippled nun who would stand and beat me and made me learn from the same book for six years! So that was not a great experience. I did really wish I had a good experience with that. It wasn’t until I think 3 or 4 years ago, my neighbour came over with a ukulele and said “come to my club tomorrow”.
So you’re self-taught?
Yeah, from playing in ukulele clubs and being offered spots. We played at cabaret shows. Through that I met Pascal, who is my double bass player. He is a very talented musician. He plays double bass and he says he doesn’t play guitar, but he does.
We started out in Winter last year. I’d worked with Pascal before but kept saying to him “you’re French, let’s do something in French!” Pascal moved here when he was about 9. At that time, I met a guy who was French who played guitar and we had the idea of let’s just get together and have a jam. I then said, it was Bastille Day coming up, let’s just approach the restaurants and see if we can get a gig. We got a gig straight away at La Vigne.
Which you’ve been playing at since!
Yes, it’s been home since. Pascal and now because Florent left in January due to other commitments. So now we’ve been working with Pascal’s brother-in-law- who I’ve worked with before who is an amazing trumpeter and keyboardist. His name is John de Nichilo. We’ve asked him to please help us out. He plays in a lot of other good bands too. So he’s been playing with us and we have just managed to score two of the best guitarists in Adelaide who are keen to start working with us. Because the name means mix of three, I had the idea that for small venues, we will be a trio so we will just mix it up. It gives people who come along something a bit different. I won’t reveal the names of the two guitarists but will just say I am very excited and there are two surprises coming up soon.
How did the name come about?
I just came up with it because I do have a limited vocabulary in French. I did try to go a google search and found there was a brewery with the same name. But since, I’ve been doing youtube, there is another Mélange à trois. So I am hoping I won’t have to change the name any time soon because it’s a good name because it’s a play on words and keeps people guessing.
I was quite chuffed that I am in a band with two French guys and I was the one that came up with the name!
We have been misnamed a few times. When you google our name, other things do come up and I think “I hope the kids don’t google me because that’s not what I meant!”
So you said you got together June last year? So not long?
Yeah the first time we played at La Vigne people were saying “how did we not know about you. How long have you been playing together?” Ummm about 15 minutes. It was good and then a friend of mine told me about the Unley French market so we got into that. In the meantime, Florent had ties with the French consulate so we did that. We did the French Film Festival. Now the Art Gallery has booked us to do the closing night of the Musée D’Orsay. And we’re booked for the Bonjour Barossa and the French Consulate’s Bastille Day event at the Art Gallery. So we will get to play among the beautiful works twice which is unbelievable.
So Sunitra, what’s your background?
Thai and Australian. I look more like my Father who has quite mixed blood so Irish decent, but on one side Russian/Spanish, on the other side Dutch/Polish and then on my mother’s side Thai.
And your surname is Martinelli?
My husband is Italian. He’s a real mix too. His mother is half Scottish half Irish and his father is half Irish half Italian. So techinically our children are more Irish than anything. So big mix.
So how would you describe the style of music that you play?
Ooh, that’s a good question. I would say it’s a sultry, smooth and fun mix.
Any particular era? Do you sing your own songs?
In the beginning at La Vigne we were mixing in my original music which was only in English so we had a plan of translating into French. We did starting singing some of Florent’s original music but once he left, we pulled back from that. Because we’ve had some gigs that were purely for French audiences, we pulled the English songs out for those. So the aim is to translate some of my original music into French but for the time being, until we have these two new musicians up and running we will stick to the French covers.
The French music I love is from the 60s and 70s. I like good music with a good guitar line. I’m not into synthesised music. Music that is melodic.
Do you have a favourite song to perform?
We do like “Nathalie” by Gilbert Bécaud. It’s about a French man who goes to Russia and falls in love with his guide and ends with a very Kazakh tune with French, which gets everyone up and dancing.
We started playing “These Boots are Made for Walking” in French “Les Bottes sont faites pour marcher” so that’s a really fun one. People end up singing it in English over the French and everybody’s dancing
What sort of age group are you getting to your shows?
We are finding in Adelaide that it is the older people who don’t have kids anymore who go out. Parents with kids come to La Vigne on a Sunday afternoon or to our show at the Karkoo Nursery at Blackwood as there are chickens and a hen that walks around, there’s a cat. The kids can get lost amongst that. I do love when the parents can come along
People seem to be generally loving the music. We don’t play it so loud that you can’t talk over the top. The music is nice and gentle. Our aim is for everyone to have a good time.
When people think of French music, they automatically think of Edith Piaf. Is there any Piaf in the repertoire?
I didn’t want to do it but we had so many requests so we do “La Vie en Rose” but we also do another song which is so beautiful and tragic which is “Dans ma rue”. I am really conscious that a lot of people do Piaf specific shows and do them very, very well so I was really hesitant.
What is your favourite song to listen to, but not necessarily to perform?
Ooh. That’s a good question. Well, we are going to do it soon. I hesitated because I thought it may be too clichéd. We are going to do “Lady Marmalade” soon because I have heard a Bossa Nova version of it. The one funny thing we have done is songs that Australians are familiar with like “Michelle” by The Beatles and “Chanson d’Amour” by The Manhattan Transfer and we are finding they are songs that the crowd likes and they like that they can sing along to it. So we enjoy doing that. It’s funny I met this guitarist who said “wouldn’t it be great if you did Lady Marmalade”. So that’s one we are going to be working on soon, a Bossa Nova version of it. I like to include music from all different periods and the feedback we’ve had is that we have a great selection of songs. So that’s been great feedback. So I think that’s been our success so far.
You can listen to Mélange à Trois on the following dates:
14 July -7-8.15pm Bastille Day, The Art Gallery of South Australia (no more tickets available)
29 July 6:30-8pm “A Night of Spring Colours”, The Art Gallery of South Australia, free
19 August 2-4pm Karkoo Nursery, free
16 September 2-4pm Karkoo Nursery, free
21 October 2-4pm Karkoo Nursery, free
18 November 2-4pm Karkoo Nursery, free
16 December 2-4pm Karkoo Nursery, free