Even at 2,362 meters above sea level, high above the Rhone Valley near Sion, Diane Tell can be found. Pictures of her are hanging on the wall of the mountain restaurant of a gondola lift. When the journalist looks at the photos alienated by herself, the boss comes in and starts talking about Diane Tell. Sometimes she was even giving concerts there, it would be good if his best regards could be passed on to her. Diane Tell twinkles when she hears this at her residence in the valley below: “Every now and then I sing at the local church, because people here are nice and discreet, never pushy.”
Her way to Switzerland
Diane Tell grew up in francophone Québec, lived in France for about 30 years from 1988, and has now resided in Switzerland for eight years. But her last name had nothing to do with the Swiss national hero, she explains with a laugh. When she began her music career, she was looking for a stage name because her family name was very common in Québec – three in her school class had the same name. She liked the name of the Canadian telephone company Bell, so she changed it to Pell. “But the printer of the concert poster understood Tell on the phone – and so it was on the poster. I thought, well, this must be fate, especially since pell can be misunderstood as shovel (pelle) in France.”
However, it is no coincidence that Diane Tell moved to Switzerland. With a twinkle in her eye, the now 63-year-old recounts: “Even as a girl, I had the dream of travelling to Switzerland. I already liked skiing and loved jazz, so I wanted to go to the Montreux Jazz Festival. At the age of 14, I bought a ticket with my own money to travel to Switzerland. Unfortunately, my mother forbade me to do so. I guess my childhood dream is a testament to my good sense, because I really love living here in the mountains.”
Timeless – and topical again
Diane Tell’s self-titled first album was released in 1977. Three years later, she achieved her international breakthrough with “En Flèche”. This can be explained above all by the hit song “Si j’étais un homme”, which has become an evergreen in the French-speaking world. “It still accounts for over 80% of the airplay of my song catalogue and is also coveted for sync rights,” Diane Tell explains. This is helped by the fact that to date some 20 other artists have released new versions of this chanson, whose title seems more topical than ever. The text is sophisticated and full of irony, but also beautifully romantic. “I wanted to express that as a working young woman, I was not in the feminist movement because I was already independent. So, I told my potential lover: If I were a man, I would do these things for you.”
Other songs of hers from the 1980s also seem timeless and amazingly alive. “You have to understand that I studied at the conservatory,” Diane Tell explains. “That’s why even my early songs are a bit more complex than traditional pop songs in terms of melody and harmony. Besides, right from the start, I recorded with exceptional musicians who used almost exclusively organic-sounding instruments.” The first album featured local jazz musicians, and from the second album on, she had always recorded with the best possible musicians, including greats like Pino Palladino and Robbie McIntosh from the Paul McCartney Band.
The challenge of French lyrics
Diane Tell and her curiosity evolved quite a bit over the years, sharpening her artistic signature, as evidenced by the thoughtful, almost meditative current album “Haïku” (2019). In any case, one is not surprised that the French Ministry of Culture awarded her the distinction of “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres” in 2022. Her career highlights also include her involvement in two musicals, which have been performed a combined total of over 300 times. In “La légende de Jimmy” she played and sang an important role, in “Marilyn Montreuil” she not only played the leading role and sang, but she also composed the music for it.
Currently, Diane Tell is compiling her 16th studio album together with arranger and co-composer Pablo Pico to be released next year. The musical settings of existing, integrally left erotic poems, up to 500 years old, already sound confidently calm, subtle and full of character in their demo versions. “Since I otherwise almost always write the lyrics myself, I am very aware of the importance of a good set of lyrics. Especially in the French tradition of greats like Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré, I think it’s imperative that you write lyrics that really say something and also sound good; this is actually very difficult.”
Independence above all
The digital upheavals in the music business are also a great challenge for Diane Tell. In 2000, a major company licensed her entire song catalogue, which allowed her to finance the production of a new album. But then the market collapsed very quickly, she says, and she signed a deal to distribute her entire catalogue digitally, a good five years before Spotify. “I particularly like the fact that I know the owner of this company and can speak to him directly.” Then she founded her own label Tuta Music to become even more independent. “It was easier for me, of course, because I am not at the beginning of my career anymore and I have a back catalogue that belongs to me and provides me with income. But I produce my own music and have to finance it.”
For her label, Diane Tell can produce the physical versions of her music exactly the way she wants. Such recordings are now part of the merchandising and are mostly sold at their concerts. As an example, it shows an elaborately designed double vinyl version of “Haïku” with a lot of enclosed exclusive material. “I have such products produced in small quantities in line with market requirements and distributed in the individual countries. I once handed over the ordered copies of a box set to the representative of a Swiss record company at a motorway service station.” The great advantage of her independence, she says, is that she now has access to all sales data and can evaluate it. “My company, Tuta Music, grew at the same time that digital rights revenues grew. That was probably the second smartest move I’ve made in my life. The first, of course, was to start my own business and become independent.”
Diana Tell was a member of the French copyright society Sacem for 41 years as a composer and lyricist, and of the Canadian copyright society Socan for as many as 47 years, 5 of which she also served as a board member. “I loved the board work at Socan,” Diana Tell explains. “Because I believe in collective rights management and have tried to improve it as a board member. Together we are stronger. That’s important because there’s a lot of pressure from the industry, especially since streaming. There are hedge funds buying up catalogues, and not just the publishers’ catalogues, but the actual rights of the composers.”
Diana Tell has been a member of SUISA as a composer and lyricist since June 2023. As a publisher, she still has a publishing house that is a member of Socan and Sacem. And she has had a publishing company with SUISA for a longer period. This was ultimately the reason why Diana Tell also joined SUISA as a composer and lyricist. “I have noticed how actively and courageously SUISA participates in the current developments in the digital field with MINT, how professionally it works.”
Diana Tell also lets others benefit from her experience. On her popular blog “Diane Cause Musique” (subtitle: “Je ne suis pas un modèle, je suis libre”), she explains how the music business works in all its facets and what to look out for. The most important advice to young artists was: “No matter who you work with, you have to give something back to that business partner, you have to share the profits. But these are relationships that have a beginning and an end. So let’s say we’re talking about the first five years of a career. You can share fifty-fifty if that is what it is worth to you. But do make sure that when the relationship ends, you get your rights in the music back.”