French folk-rock icon Renaud was the poet laureate of the urban Paris experience, illuminating the dark underbelly of the City of Light via the street-smart, politically charged slang later embraced by the hip-hop generation. Despite his subject matter, Renaud Séchan was himself the product of a middle-class background. Born in Paris' 14th arrondissement on May 11, 1952, he was one of six children born to a teacher who moonlighted writing detective thrillers. A poor student with a decided anti-authoritarian streak, Renaud was passionate about politics from an early age, and was an active participant in the landmark student revolts of May 1968. During a month-long student sit-in at Sorbonne University, he began writing his first original songs, and after quitting school worked a series of blue-collar jobs while pursuing a career as an actor. After a stint with a theatrical troupe including future stars Coluche and Miou Miou, Renaud worked in a Paris bookstore, on occasion busking for spare change from passers-by. One day, producer Paul Lederman caught him and an accordionist friend playing on a Paris street corner and invited them to perform at the CafConc, a new café and theater he was opening on the Champs Elysées. When the friend was called to serve in the military, Renaud took the stage as a solo act, performing his now-extensive repertoire of original political anthems including "Hexagone" and "Camarade Bourgeois." The CafConc made him something of a cause célèbre in Paris leftist circles, and in 1975 he issued his debut LP, Amoureux de Paname, a record steeped in the disillusionment and angst of the twentysomething generation.
Songs like "Société Tu M'auras Pas" enshrined Renaud as the voice of Paname (Parisian argot for the city's suburbs), but despite his initial flush of success he still dreamed of pursuing a career in drama, spending virtually all of 1977 co-starring in Martin Lamotte's play Le Secret de Zonga. His sophomore LP, Laisse Béton, finally hit retail in 1978, and its title cut topped the French pop charts, vaulting Renaud to national stardom and popularizing "Verlan," the coded French slang sourced for its lyrics. For the 1979 follow-up, Ma Gonzesse, Renaud explored more personal and intimate themes than on previous efforts. The record proved another massive success, culminating in a sold-out, week-long live stint at Paris' famed Théâtre de l'Hôtel de Ville. Buoyed by the hits "Dans Mon HLM" and "Les Aventures de Gérard Lambert," 1980's Marche à l'Ombre was another blockbuster, and Renaud spent the entire month of March headlining Paris' Bobino Theatre, a residency that yielded two separate concert LPs, Renaud à Bobino and Le P'tit Bal du Samedi Soir. Despite his popularity, the singer was not without his critics, who questioned what right a multi-millionaire superstar on the cusp of age 30 had writing and singing songs articulating themes of urban despair, youthful rebellion, and socio-economic struggle. Renaud responded by turning inward, populating 1981's Le Retour de Gérard Lambert with sharply evoked narratives spanning the spectrum of human behavior and emotion. The album also included a much-acclaimed anti-drug anthem, "La Blanche."
Renaud continued his maturation with 1983's Dès Que le Vent Soufflera. His most tender, introspective record to date, its sound largely abandoned his signature folk-rock approach for a sound inspired by mainstream French pop, a formula that generated his best-selling album to date. In 1985, Renaud founded the Ethiopian famine charity organization Chanteurs Pour l'Ethiopie, and with friend Franck Langolff, composed the all-star benefit single of the same name, selling more than a million records. That same year he issued the solo LP Mistral Gagnant, recorded in the U.S. with producer Jean-Philippe Goude. The June 1986 motorcycle accident that claimed the life of his longtime friend, the celebrated anti-establishment comedian Coluche, was the inspiration behind the 1988 album Putain de Camion. While a commercial letdown, the record was nevertheless widely acclaimed by the press and earned Renaud the Ville de Paris prize, the Ministère de la Culture Prize, and the SACEM Award. Politics returned to the forefront for 1991's Marchand de Cailloux, an album inspired by the Gulf War and the ongoing strife in Northern Ireland. That same year, Renaud co-starred in filmmaker Claude Berri's epic adaptation of the Emile Zola novel Germinal, and while filming in northern France he began work on Cante el' Nord, a 1993 album spotlighting the traditional music of the region. By contrast, Marseille was the inspiration behind 1995's A la Bell de Mai, a collection of original songs that also paid tribute to enduring rebel icons including Che Guevara, Emiliano Zapata, and Pancho Villa.
With 1996's Renaud Chante Brassens, Renaud paid tribute to his spiritual antecedent George Brassens, covering 23 of the late French icon's songs and dubbing Brassens "a poet-rebel against all institutions." Although the record was warmly received, Renaud's life soon went into free fall. He separated from his wife of close to two decades and suffered a nervous breakdown, at the same time battling alcohol abuse. He toured Germany and Ireland in 1997, but otherwise disappeared from the live circuit until late 1999, touring small concert venues throughout France in the company of pianist Alain Lantry and guitarist Jean-Pierre Buccolo. Originally scheduled to span three months, the tour instead extended into the following summer, followed in early 2001 by a two-week trek through Quebec. That same year, Renaud earned a lifetime achievement honor at the Victoires de la Musique Awards. No less significantly, he was the subject of Hexagone 2001, a collection of remixes masterminded by contemporary hip-hop artists. Finally, in mid-2002, Renaud returned with Boucan d'Enfer, his first new material in seven years. An unflinchingly honest song cycle detailing his struggles with depression and drink, the album sold close to 500,000 copies in its first week of release. A sold-out 170-date tour followed, with an April 2003 date at the Lille Zenith documented via the live disc Tournée d'Enfer. In early 2005, Renaud produced the eponymous debut LP by singer Romane Serda, who became his wife that August. At year's end, he also published a children's book, Le Petit Oiseau Qui Chantait Faux. With 2006's Rouge Sang, Renaud returned to the protest spirit of his classic work, decrying the rise of right-wing extremists and bourgeois bohemians alike. Three years later, he released Molly Malone: Balade Irlandaise, a project that he had envisaged almost two decades earlier. The record collected Renaud’s favorite, traditional Irish songs, which he translated into French and recorded in the Irish capital, Dublin. While the recording met with mixed reviews due to the singer's use of an Irish accent in some of the songs, it nonetheless topped the French and Belgian charts (and landed at number two in Switzerland). It would be his last studio effort for seven years.
In 2011, Renaud and Serda divorced as he relapsed into alcoholism and inactivity. The compilation Rarities appeared in 2013, and he was appointed Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French government. In 2014, a two-volume tribute was recorded by 15 artists including Carla Bruni, Benjamin Biolay, Cœur de Pirate, and Nicola Sirkis. Entitled La Bande à Renaud, the first volume appeared in June, followed by its companion in October. A year later, director Didier Varrod's documentary Renaud, On T'a Dans la Peau (that commenced in 2002) debuted on France 3 to massive critical and popular acclaim. After reporting to the press that he had gotten sober again, he completed a series of new songs. In January of 2016, he released the new single "Toujours Debout" on his website and followed it with "J'ai Embrassé un Flic." Both songs ended up at the top of the charts. A full-length album, simply titled Renaud, was issued in April, followed by the singles "J'ai Embrassé un Flic" and "Les Mots." All three hit number one in France. By June, Renaud was certified Diamond by the recording industry, which denotes sales of over half-a-million units. ~ Jason Ankeny