The Western world has never had to grapple with the idea of a First Lady artiste — much less a former glamazon who just last year told the press that monogamy bored her to tears. And certainly, no wife of a head of state has ever recorded a song like ''Tu es ma came'' (''You are my dope''), a bluesy number in which the première dame de France, in her sexy, husky purr, compares a lover to ''Afghan heroin'' and ''Colombian white.'' (Just try to imagine Laura Bush crooning that W is as powerful as smack.)
No one appears to mind the momentary hiccup; everyone gathered in Bruni's yard on a recent July evening seems to appreciate just how rare this intimate little gig is, and that it's the closest they'll come to seeing the First Lady perform publicly for a long time. After marrying the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, in February of this year, Bruni announced that, for reasons of security and propriety, she would not play live as long as her husband remains in office. ''It would be sort of obscene,'' she says. At the same time, Bruni, once famous for her liaisons with Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, decided that she shouldn't have to give up her music career just because she happened to have married the leader of a G8 country. ''It's not that I want to use my husband's power to sell my songs,'' she says, sitting in her home office after the BBC crew has left. ''I just don't believe that women should drop everything. That's something machiste'' — macho — ''that I cannot bear.''
The British and American press responded like shocked little church ladies — ''French First Lady...Sings of Drugs and Sex'' ran a headline in the New York Daily News — and a Colombian politician publicly chastised Bruni for supposedly stereotyping his country. The French, on the other hand, have more or less responded with one of those shrugs they do so well. And whatever mini-scandale the record has provoked, it hasn't hurt European sales, which have reached 260,000 since its release last month. (Proceeds will go to charity.)
When Bruni wrote the so-called ''drug song,'' prior to meeting Sarkozy, she knew that it would likely cause a stir. But, she says, ''it doesn't bother me much. It's actually nice to have people searching for a meaning [in my lyrics]. At least they read them! It's a song about love addiction, when people just go crazy, you know? I know it can be taken in other ways, but in the end, all the songs speak for themselves.''
When Bruni accompanied her husband to visit the Queen of England in March, she did so looking very much the demure First Lady, clad in a modest Christian Dior suit. But there's little that seems official or stately about the woman sitting on a Fender amplifier in the middle of her office this evening. It's a cozy room, packed with books of poetry and plastered with pictures of the 7-year-old son she had with her philosopher ex-boyfriend, Raphaël Enthoven. (In the photo collage above her desk, there's also a snapshot of Bruni with her old flame Mick Jagger, he sporting a floppy white sun hat.) The only security guards are two plainclothes chaps keeping watch outside her front gate. Dressed casually in denim trousers and a simple gray blouse, Bruni converses freely in French and English (she also speaks Italian) and swigs unself-consciously from a bottle of Corona. ''Would you mind terribly if I smoked a cigarette?'' she asks, holding up a pack of ultra-slims. Across town, at this very moment, Sarkozy is holding court with none other than Barack Obama. Gosh, wouldn't she rather be chatting with thatAmerican than this one? ''Oh, no,'' Bruni says, smiling graciously. ''It was not, like, an official dinner or anything. It was a [business]meeting, and they're working so hard in those.''
Since assuming her new role earlier this year, Bruni has been careful to keep out of politics — a delicate move, considering she was raised with ideals much further to the left than her right-wing husband's. Born to wealthy industrialists in Turin, Italy, in 1967, Bruni fled to Paris with her parents and two older siblings when she was 5. (At the time, Italy's militant Red Brigade were kidnapping members of prominent families.) She grew up in a musical household — her father composed operas and her mother was a concert pianist — and by age 7, Bruni had learned to play the guitar.
After high school, she decided to pursue modeling as a way to explore the world. Within two years, she became one of the most in-demand names in high fashion, strutting down runways with the likes of Linda Evangelista and gracing the cover of more than 200 magazines. Her public romances with rock stars and actors earned her the reputation of a man-eater, an image she now calls ''completely exaggerated.'' She traveled everywhere — and always with her guitar in tow. ''I was playing all the time, just writing for pleasure. I didn't dare make it professional,'' says Bruni. But when she decided to retire from modeling at 29, ''I thought, I can sing or write.''
With its simple melodies and poetic lyrics rooted in the tradition of chanson fran¸aise, the wonderfully lo-fi album Quelqu'un m'a dit(''Someone Told Me'') stunned those expecting just another embarrassing misfire from a vapid ex-supermodel. ''A lot of people wouldn't have bet on her, but that record was so undeniably beautiful,'' says Josh Deutsch, chairman of Downtown Music, the label releasing Bruni's new album in the States. (His company was not involved with Bruni's first record.) It was also the rare album in a foreign language to resonate with, as Deutsch puts it, ''musical tastemakers over here, which is very different from the people traditionally into 'world music.''' Ironically, when Bruni did record an album in English, it flopped. Last year's No Promises, which put the poems of Yeats and other Anglo-American literary giants to music, sold just 35,000 copies here.
The decision to return to singing primarily in French on Comme si seems to be the right one. Though some British reviews have been harsh (''First Lady...of Schmaltz,'' sneered The Independent), critics in Bruni's own country have been kinder, if not quite ecstatic. In fact, as much of the world continues to regard Bruni with a mixture of fascination and puritan tsk-tsking, France has embraced her as their own 21st-century Jackie O. Her approval ratings are nearly double her husband's (68 percent in a recent poll). And that's before she's begun the humanitarian work — most likely for women and children — that she plans on tackling in the coming months. ''There are things I can do to help people that are much more important than a singing career,'' she explains. But nothing will keep her from her guitar for too long. Bruni will continue to compose and record, even if she can't tour. Instead, she'll simply stay at home and serenade her biggest fan: her hubby. ''I sing for him,'' she says, beaming. ''He likes it.'' We can only imagine.
The Soundtrack to Her Life
''I have funny tastes,'' says Carla Bruni. Funny? Nah. There's nothing wrong with listening to some blues followed by a little punk rock. A look at the First Lady's eclectic ear for music.
The Depression-era songstress ranks at the top of Bruni's list of favorite blues artists. ''Her voice, her records — they still sound fantastic!''
Bruni has covered the legendary French crooner's ''La Noyée'' but calls his 1961 ''La Chanson de Prévert'' ''the song I dream of writing.''
The sound of her friend Faithfull's ''exalted voice'' on the synthy ''The Ballad of Lucy Jordan'' (written by Shel Silverstein) ''brings a tear to the eye.''
Bruni has been a fan since her teenage years, and now so is her son. ''He sings 'Should I Stay or Should I Go?' with such a French accent! It's really cute.''
''She's so young, and so talented,'' says Bruni of the Grammy winner. ''I love her voice, I love her songs, I love her face! I think she's brilliant.''