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The self-styled mystery man of contemporary French pop, singer/songwriter Gérard Manset spent his career in the margins of the mainstream, steadfastly avoiding the press interviews, live performances, and promotional commitments so vital to commercial success. His uncompromisingly stark and intimate music nevertheless captured a rabid cult following, and despite (or perhaps because of) his extended retreats from the musical landscape, each new Manset record was celebrated as an event by listeners and critics alike.
Manset was born in the Paris suburb of Saint Cloud on August 21, 1945. The son of affluent parents, he grew up in the city's 16ème arrondissement, and later studied at the Ecole des Arts Déco. While in art school he discovered rock & roll, teaching himself guitar and writing his first original songs. In early 1968, Manset self-financed the sessions for what would become his full-length debut album, Animal on N'Est Mal, and while Pathé Marconi agreed to manufacture and distribute the release, the student revolts that followed in May guaranteed the record little attention, and it sold only a few hundred copies.
Manset's music nevertheless piqued the curiosity of a few adventurous Paris radio programmers, and his burgeoning cult following was enough to convince Pathé to record a second LP, a self-titled effort issued in late 1968. The potent mysticism and melancholy of songs like "Je Suis Dieu" and "On Ne Tue Pas Son Prochain" captivated critics, and set the stage for his 1970 follow-up, La Mort d'Orion, a symphonic concept album that was the first Manset project to generate sales commensurate with its media acclaim.
But Manset refused to capitalize on the attention heaped upon La Mort d'Orion, instead retreating into seclusion and building his own recording facility, Le Studio Milan. After a series of freelance production and engineering gigs, he finally resumed his own recording career, issuing Long Long Chemin in 1972. The singles "Jeanne" and "L'Oiseau du Paradis" proved minor hits, but a three-year hiatus preceded the release of his next LP, Y'a une Route. The album nevertheless was a chart smash, selling in excess of 300,000 copies and vaulting Manset to national fame — he recoiled in horror at the attendant media attention, however, and in 1976 issued Rien à Raconter (Nothing to Say), a trenchant declaration that his music alone would serve to voice his opinions and beliefs. The 1978 release 2870 further distanced Manset from mainstream consideration, exchanging his lush, folk-inspired melancholia for a darker, more imposing electronic sound.
Still, despite his aversion to interviews and tours, he retained a devoted fan following, and even after announcing an extended hiatus from music to travel Asia and Latin America, his 1981 comeback effort, Le Train du Soir, was greeted with the usual listener and critical interest. With 1984's Lumières, Manset stripped his music to its absolute essentials, creating the most austere music of his career to date. Its 1985 follow-up, Prisonnier de l'Inutile, was no less severe, and heralded the end of the second phase of his career. Manset spent the next several years nurturing his long-dormant interest in the visual arts, mounting exhibitions of his paintings and photographs. In the spring of 1987, he changed course yet again, publishing his first novel, Royaume de Siam.
After remastering his back catalog for digital reissue, in 1989 Manset finally released a new LP, Matrice — a dystopic, rock-inspired opus widely considered his finest record to date, it was also his best-selling effort since Y'a une Route. Revivre, a comparatively upbeat album inspired by his journeys to the tropics, followed just a year later, but failed to match the success of its predecessor. Manset responded by once again retreating from music for several years, in 1993 publishing his second novel, Wisut Kasat. His 1994 LP, La Vallée de la Paix, proved the most optimistic record of his career, a creative rebirth that coincided with a new generation of French acts celebrating Manset's massive influence via Route Manset, a tribute compilation featuring contributions by Jean-Louis Murat, Salif Keita, and Cheb Mami.
Manset did not release his next album, Jadis et Naguère, until late 1998 — a return to the bleak world-view of previous efforts, its arrival was trumpeted by a handful of print interviews, during which he maintained his distaste for touring, proclaiming "I find it immodest and totally ridiculous performing my songs in front of a live audience." Manset spent the next several years as a composer for hire, penning material for Juliette Gréco, Indochine, and Raphael. Six long years in the making, his next solo release, Le Langage Oublié, finally hit retail in 2004, but its follow-up, Obok, trailed just two years later, introducing a new lyrical perspective steeped in realism and character studies. The album's release served notice of other changes as well: in interviews, Manset admitted that he was seriously considering a brief tour, resulting in frenzied media speculation. Ultimately, the rumored tour never materialized, but Manset did record another whole new album, relatively quickly, by his standards. Manitoba Ne Répond Plus arrived in 2008, but there was to be no more new music for some years, as the enigmatic artist returned to writing prolifically, publishing several novels and travelogues which kept him busy into the next decade. He also contributed lyrics to a large number of albums by other artists, including Gwennyn, Julien Clerc, and Axel Bauer.