Nicolle Rochelle: The Furthermuckin Expat Q

In 2006 workers at the Cinémathèque Française were striking again over something or other; I arrived at their closed doors the same moment as a colorful troupe from the new Parisian musical, Looking for Joséphine. French theatre director Jérôme Savary’s homage to Josephine Baker, Looking for Joséphine was set to open at the Opéra-Comique Théatre at the time, and destined to become the biggest hit of Savary’s distinguished career. As it happened, I’d spoken with Baker understudy Carmen Barika through m’man Mark Darkfeather before she hit Paris and I recognized her (from MySpace?) outside the Cinémathèque. We all sat oustide the Brasserie les Spéctacles café talking shit for hours. Which brings us to the star of that particular show, Nicolle Rochelle.

Born Nicole Leach in Livingston, New Jersey, lil’ Nikki decided she’d be entertaining the world at the age of 5. She appeared on The Cosby Show (four times, as two different characters); in the James Earl Jones vehicle, The Vernon Johns Story; off-Broadway in Fame—The Musical; and an episode of Chappelle’s Show as Dave’s ex, among other things. I peeped Looking for Joséphine at the Opéra-Comique before its bigger venues and world tour, and the Brown grad did her thing: a sexy, comical, singing, dancing tour de force worthy of any other rendition of Josephine Baker I’ve ever seen.

Nicolle stayed in Paris after the close of the play in February, and landed fast on her feet as the lead singer of the French band, Ginkgoa. (I just missed them at Le Chat Noir last week, but don’t make the same mistake: they hit NYC in February.) After four eventful years for us both, we had a talkative catch-up at Café Latin during the light snowfall last Friday.

How’d you score the starring role in Looking for Joséphine?

I got this email: “Audition for a Josephine Baker type, to play a girl from New Orleans who then plays Josephine Baker. A little dance, a little singing.” How could that not be my job? And the day before, I had decided, “No more New York theater. I’m gonna move to L.A., I’m gonna work on my album. No more musical theater.” It just drains you and doesn’t pay you, and then you don’t get anywhere, ’cause no one really cares about you if you’re on Broadway. If you’re Rihanna, you could be on Broadway in a second. But if you’re me, you gotta audition for years, and you might get it but Rihanna might come in at the last second, and she’ll get it. [laughter]

When I called them, I was like, “Hi, I’m the new, reborn Josephine so I’d love to audition for you!” And [director] Jérôme Savary’s daughter was looking at the message like, “Who’s this girl, talking about she reborn Josephine? Okay, whatever.” I wore my grandmother’s original dress from the 30s, I wore her jewelry. I had choregraphed a thing, I had been watching her videos all week. I had already been studying her life, already read her biographies and stuff.

You’re singing lead now in a French band, Ginkgoa. How did that come together?

I fell upon this website that had a lot of announcements for musical theater, all these types of things. And I’m looking looking looking. “Ginkgoa: looking for a singer to replace the actual singer that had left. We’re a group that’s been around for three or four years. We’ve done about 60 dates all around Paris.” And they’re from Lyon. [Guitarist Antoine Chatenet] put his name and his number and said to look at MySpace. I click on it: the world of fairies/flirty/classical/bossa nova/jazzy… I’m like, this is me! I gotta be in this group!

I called him and he didn’t pick up. So then I’m walking around the area. Oh, there’s Jazz Manouche on the corner of my old house, I’m gonna go there. So I go there and I’m chillin, and I see this dude in the corner, he’s kinda cute. I go sit at this table and I’m like, “Hi, do you dance swing?” So he was like, “Are you a dancer?” And I said, “Mostly I’m a singer.”

And this was the guy.

“Oh that’s funny, because I’m looking for a singer.” This is the guy! People talk about conjuring? Like, I was almost scared. Because I was literally praying, I had shed some tears even. And my friend cancelled our rendezvous. Like, I would maybe have been at my friend’s house drinking wine. I walked in three bars that I had been in before. I was just staring at him like, “This is so weird. I was just praying on the street to talk to you tonight.” He had never been in that bar before, and I hadn’t been in there in months. I didn’t even live in that area. And then they closed the next day for renovations for three months.

So after that, I auditioned. And at first, he was like, “Your accent may be a little troubling, but either way we’ll work on it if I pick you.” But then he was like, “Of course I’m gonna pick you because you’re the most qualified” [laughter]. But also because eventually he started realizing and thinking, It’s a cool thing you’re American and not just a French girl singing French songs. Because it is chansons Française but it’s like jazzy, a little bossa nova, a little classical, even. All the songs are in French and there’s a very classical aspect to it.

You have solo music in the works too, no?

What I’ve written for myself is a mix of pop, jazzy reggaeton and a little house. ’Cause my favorite genres are reggaeton, house and swing. So those three genres are stuff I’m really looking to combine. I just record ideas on my BlackBerry or my iPod and then I bring them to the studio.

How easy or difficult is it for you to maintain financially as an artist living in Paris?

I stay with a friend now. I pay him a decent rent combined with my storage, because I can’t have everything in his apartment. It ends up being a moderate price rent, which I can make with part-time jobs. But what did end up happening, which was amazing, was Congès Spectacles [the French unemployment fund for artists]. OMG. ’Cause I’ve got enough money to survive for months without doing anything. The thing that ends up being so hard about the artist thing is that my voice is very sensitive. So if I had another job all the time, it might not be able to sing the way I want it to be, which would then end up jeopardizing my projects and getting the funds for that project that I really need. So I decided to not go back to the grind right away and just work on my album, which I been doing. Babysitting. I like to play with kids and work with them.

So you babysit?

Now I’m doing it again. The official company I’m with is Playing English. So I play with her and it’s in English so she can kinda learn English. It’s been kinda difficult right now, because of the pressure of English. She’s young, she’s a shy type, and so she’s a little nervous about speaking English, she doesn’t know it. It’s one of the harder times I’ve had with children, which usually doesn’t happen to me because I’m really good with the kids and I get along. But this girl is a little intimidated by the English so it’s a little more difficult. Sometimes I’m like, Why am I doing this? I just don’t know if I wanna exert this amount of brainpower.

I went into it with my mom right after Joséphine ended, like, “I’m going to Starbucks, I don’t care. I’m gonna make coffee. I love coffee, I’m in love with Starbucks. Nine-to-12 shift, I don’t care.” So then she’s like, “I’ll pay you, don’t do that,” ’cause she was so upset about it.

You really want to stay in Paris then.

I don’t want to live anywhere all year long. I’m really into traveling. I’ll always visit home, or I’ll visit Cuba or I’ll visit Ibiza. But I want my homebase, the first apartment that I own or rent again, to be in Paris. I’m trying to make it. But what my feeling is, is that it’s out there to have. This comes from my mom: anything you want, you can materialize. Kinda like the Ginkgoa thing, which was kinda weird. But, like, if you want it? I could literally probably walk all around here and find a café to sing in tonight that would probably pay me to sing. So you want it, you gotta go out and get it. If I hit the street and look, I could probably get a job. I’m living on my friend’s couch, and it’s fine for me.

After Joséphine ended, I also got sought after to do a film in France. I did a TV movie playing a character like Josephine Baker, La Maison des Rocheville. It was France 2, and it was five episodes of a movie every week. And I sang, I danced, I had my first little love scene ever in my life. I mean, I’m not shy, but the only bad thing is that now it’s on porno sites because that’s what they do. [laughter] I mean, it wasn’t that hard, but there was even an American website, the guy was like, “Thank god for French films! Thank you, France! We got Nicolle naked!” I was like, Damn, okay, my ass in the air. Great. [laughter] I’m not shy, but it’s a little weird.

So, that movie contacted me right when I was ending Joséphine. That gave me income, great. Congès Spectacle happened, that was amazing. So due to all that, it hasn’t been hard for me yet. Just now I started to run out. I have a gig in March to teach swing dancing. Sometimes little events hire me to sing. There’s all these venues. You gotta get on it and call people, or get out. It’s networking, it’s being out there, it’s looking around, it’s believing in it, and it’s great.

I interviewed Paris Soirées hostess Patricia Laplante-Collins weeks ago. She mentioned it was harder to up and roam the world as a woman in her day. The blues is full of men getting on trains and leaving, wandering. Is it easier for women to do that nowadays?

I’m really adventurous. It comes from my father. He’s completely spontaneous and always on an adventure. We were always going to motorcycle rides and exploring new things. So I’m really not nervous about places. Plus I feel like, I lived in New York, I can hang anywhere.

The only thing that actually recently happened to me that I felt… Recently I went to Morocco. And that I could see was one place where, I’ve never experienced that before, the kind of cultural difference where you feel that women aren’t so independent. Even if now it’s like, “it’s modern, you can do what you want.” But the fact that those women are still under legal law to not walk with a man at night that isn’t their husband? They can’t be in a car with a man that isn’t their husband late at night, or maybe ever? There’s certain laws where I’m like, wow, you know? I really don’t like that. It gives me a little agita. And then, only men at cafés! I don’t feel welcome. I don’t feel comfortable walking around.

In Lebanon, the same thing. Those guys, even when I had no décolité or anything, they were just like, “Hey, how you doing? Do you wanna have a coffee? Do you wanna go to my hotel?” I’m like, I’m not a prostitute now because I don’t want to have a coffee. I don’t like the treatment. That’s where I felt not free to travel. When I was in Morocco, I was in Casablanca, and I didn’t really feel like this was a place to walk around even. Like, where are all the women and girls? They’re in the house, and all the men are around. It was the weirdest thing. So that, I didn’t feel comfortable. The cultural difference you have to, I guess, watch out for.

But Paris is so… I read so many books about French culture and a lot of the things I read were about how much women philosophers are revered in Paris. If you ask an American woman, “Who is your idol?” she would never say a woman philosopher. But a lot of French women would be like, “Simone de Beauvoir.” Where we’re never like, “Margaret Mead is my…” [laughter] So it’s very interesting. I like the analytical culture. You can also be in a cabaret with your chest out and it not be like, “Oh, you’re a stripteaser.