There’s something about the plaintive plinking of a toy piano that Jessica Fichot finds irresistible.
“There’s something really creepy and sweet about that sound,” the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter said. “Creepy because it’s a child’s instrument and sweet because it’s always out of tune.”
Both elements are evident in Fichot’s exotic, evocative music, which blurs the lines between French chanson, gypsy jazz, Latin American folk songs and pop standards. She shares her far-ranging repertoire with audience members Saturday at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo, marking her third visit to the Central Coast.
Born in upstate New York to a French father and a Chinese mother, Fichot spent most of her childhood in France.
“I was obsessed with American singer-songwriters” such as Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos, Fichot recalled. “It wasn’t until I moved (back) to the United States that I got interested in French music.”
After earning a degree in sound engineering in Paris, Fichot studied songwriting at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston — later putting her skills to the test by penning several children’s songs for educational programs and musical theater productions.
“That was good training for me because I was writing very, very simple songs, very catchy songs,” explained Fichot, whose resume currently includes more than 100 children’s songs published in a dozen countries. “I’d write a reggae song about animals (or) a rap song about recycling.”
Meanwhile, Fichot was searching for her musical identity.
“I found out there were more women out there who were better at being Tori Amos than I was, including Tori Amos,” she said with a laugh.
Finally, Fichot stumbled upon “the musician who changed my life” — Mexican-American singer-songwriter Lhasa de Sela, known for her trilingual lyrics and fairytale-infused folk songs.
That discovery led her to other multi-cultural acts — French ska-punk rocker Manu Chao, for one — and encouraged her to rediscover her childhood home’s greatest stars, such as Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg.
“I kind of clicked musically,” the singer said.
Unable to find any accordion players familiar with the classic French style, Fichot learned how to play the instrument herself. She picked up the toy piano out of practicality. (“I got tired of carrying my (full-size) piano around,” she quipped.)
Fichot’s 2007 debut album, “Le Chemin,” garnered praise from the likes of LA Weekly, the Detroit Metro Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, which described her sound as “cosmic cabaret, a delicious blend of acoustic styles.”
Fichot’s sophomore album, “Le Secret,” flaunts its international flavor with songs in English, French, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. There’s even a Chinese-language cover of Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” originally recorded by Mickey Dolenz.
“There’s definitely a lot of textures,” Fichot said.
“La Route M’appelle (The Road Calls Me),” which opens the album, incorporates the sounds of everyday objects such as flicking lighters, spinning coins, ripping paper and fingers brushing against skin. “Berceuse Bancale (Broken Lullaby)” recalls the delicate tune of an antique music box, while “Shanghai” blends a slinky, sexy Brazilian-style groove with traditional Chinese instrumentation.
According to Fichot, the album’s lively title track is particularly fun to perform.
“Whenever we do those up-tempo fun folky gypsy jazz songs, it’s a 98 percent guarantee that the audience will be into it, whether we’re playing an upscale venue or a real rowdy crowd,” she said.
“What’s great about a place like Steynberg is we can do the rowdy songs and the emotional ballads and it usually works,” said Fichot, who will be accompanied by robby Marshall on clarinet, saxophone and flute, Michael Papillo on upright bass and Antoine Salem on guitar. “It’s cool. It’s friendly.”l