Take Nick Cave, add a splash of Leonard Cohen, sprinkle with Serge Gainsbourg and you might have something approximating Eric Cantona’s first single. Yes, you read that right: The Friends We Lost is seriously good. The footballer turned actor turned chanteur whisper-croons his way through a gorgeous meditation on life with a handful of gnomic Cantona-isms thrown in for good measure (“Like a red snake in the water / In mind a winning number / Listen to the silence over the fear / The deep ocean that we can’t hear”). The single is just the start. Next up is a tour, a live album and a studio album.
Cantona tells me that, from childhood, he always hoped to play his own music on stage, but he didn’t think he had it in him. He hadn’t written any music, nor did he think he could sing. But in lockdown he decided to teach himself the guitar to help him write songs for live performances. The albums are by the by – gigging is the main attraction. “I’m still a bad guitarist, but good enough to write songs, and I wrote maybe 30. I did it just to go on stage, because I love the connection with an audience – football, theatre, music. And music, for me, was the dream.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that it has taken Cantona 57 years to record his first single. He was, of course, the ultimate rock’n’roll footballer. Nobody had such style on the pitch, whether playing with his collar raised like a preening peacock, puffing his chest out to celebrate another wonder goal, or jumping into the crowd to kung-fu kick an abusive spectator. The assault earned him an eight-month ban and a two-week prison sentence, reduced to community service on appeal. Cantona walked away from football at 30, bored and disillusioned after winning five league titles in his six years in England (the first with Leeds, the rest with Manchester United).
Appropriately enough, Cantona, performer sans pareil, became an actor in the late 90s. Now, with more than 30 movies under his belt (perhaps most famously Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric), he is embarking on a new venture.
We meet in London at the European headquarters of Universal, the record company releasing his music. Cantona is a tall, imposing figure. With a mottled beard, caterpillar eyebrows and spectacles, he could pass for a don – university or mafia. We have met previously, in 2009, when he was promoting Looking for Eric. Despite his well-earned bad-boy reputation, what struck me then was his warmth and a surprising shyness.
Fourteen years on, he has lost none of that warmth. The first thing he does is reminisce about Loach and the time we met. You sense he would be happy to talk about the great British film-maker all day long.
Cantona was born in Marseilles to a Spanish mother (a dressmaker) and a French father (a psychiatric nurse and artist). His father introduced him to Italian opera and he grew up listening to Puccini and Verdi. By his teens, his taste had evolved: “I listened to a lot of Sex Pistols, the Clash, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin.” At 17, now a professional playing for Auxerre, his life was transformed – by discovering Jim Morrison and the Doors. “It was a shock for me. The lyrics, the energy, the live performances. When I met them, my life changed completely.”
I give him a look. You met the Doors? “No, I meant spiritually. So I was inspired. Break on Through (To the Other Side) and The End are very cinematic. We feel the freedom of Jim Morrison in his songs.” I ask him if he knows the answer to my one obscure Jim Morrison titbit. Who was the last person to see Morrison alive? “Agnès Varda,” he says, instantly citing the French film-maker. Cantona knows a lot about a lot. When I was talking to him about Loach all those years ago, he could reel off the plots to his most obscure films.
Cantona is not finished listing his music heroes: “The last ones who really inspired me were Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Daniel Johnston.” I tell him I can hear the influences of Cave and Cohen in his music. He looks chuffed. “Thank you.” How would he describe his singing style? “I hate it when people try to be like somebody. We all have our own personalities and I don’t want to be like somebody else. I tried to find my voice. So I never took lessons. And I found it. I feel completely in connection with my voice.”
Universal has given me four songs to listen to, two in English, two in French. Cantona’s voice is rich, seductive, very French. I assume Cantona wrote the lyrics and a professional musician wrote the music, but Cantona says he is responsible for all of it. “It’s completely me. Nobody interferes with my work. People help me a lot, and I listen to them, but at the end of the day I decide everything. They are my songs and I love them.”
Is The Friends We Lost about loss through fallouts or death? “Death,” he says. “And it’s about the time we waste. Like with family, sometimes. I always have the feeling that I could have spent more time with them. Every time I do something, I do it at 100%, but I always have this feeling I could have done more.” So the song is about regret? “No, I don’t know if you can call that regret.” Cantona, who lives in Lisbon with his family, mentions a Portuguese word – saudade. He doesn’t know an English or French equivalent. “It’s just a feeling. It’s when you remember something, for instance your grandmother, and you have this great feeling of seeing her in your souvenir, and one second later you realise you will not see her any more because she is dead. That is saudade.” This is the emotion that The Friends We Lost evokes for him. “Yes, I love this word. It’s more than regret. It’s this little moment.”
The song I’ll Make My Own Heaven contains the lyrics: “I’ve been heroic, I’ve been criminal / I’ve been angelic, I’ve been infernal / You hate me, you love me.” It’s not autobiographical, by any chance, is it? “Completely.” He laughs. The song rocks with defiance. “Instead of regrets, it’s: I’ve done some good things and I’ve done some bad things. At the end of the day, whether you hate me or love me, I’m the only one who can judge, because what you see as bad maybe I don’t see as bad.” Cantona doesn’t do regrets, with the exception of the kung-fu kick. In 2021, he stated: “I have one regret. I would have loved to have kicked him even harder.”
During a press conference in 1995, after the successful appeal against his prison sentence at Croydon magistrates court, he said: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Many people thought he had lost the plot. His words may have been cryptic, but they made sense. He was the trawler, the press were the seagulls and the sardines were the morsels for which they scavenged. Some of your lyrics, I say, are as Cantona-esque as the sardine speech. “Everything is Cantona-esque,’” he replies, with a smile. “Even the music.”
He has also shot the video for the single, which stars his 13-year-old son, Emir, the elder of his two children with his second wife, the actor Rachida Brakni (he has two adult children with his first wife). “I did the lyrics, I wrote the music, I wrote the video and directed the video. I can do everything but be humble.” Is he serious about his lack of humility? He bursts out laughing. “It’s all about derision. Derision?” He questions his use of the word. Laughing at yourself? “Yeah. Laughing at myself – or life. It’s a circus, just a big circus.”
Cantona has never lacked confidence, so it’s interesting that he doubted whether he could write music. Well, he says, self-belief and doubt are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two have happily coexisted throughout his life. “The only thing I’m sure about are my doubts,” he says. “Doubt gives you the ability to try things. As I’ve got older, I’ve only become more sure that I’m only sure about my doubts, even more than before.”
Mortality is a spur, he says. “If we were eternal, I wouldn’t do so many things. Now, I’m 57 years old; I don’t want to spend time with people I don’t like.” He pauses. “Actually, I never did it. I don’t want to waste time. I try to use every second, with people who inspire me.” Does he think about death much? “In a good way, because it encourages me to do things today rather than tomorrow or the next week.”
It’s 26 years since he retired from football. I ask him if he sees anybody in today’s game with a similar character to his own. He cites Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager. “I like Guardiola. He’s an artist, a creator. Everything he does, nobody has done it before. He is the spiritual son of [the legendary Dutch forward] Johan Cruyff.” And players? He shakes his head. “What I love in football today is only the work of Guardiola.”
Does he worry about football’s soul when top clubs become the playthings of the obscenely wealthy? “I think I’d support a team from the third or fourth division or non-league. Like Ken Loach with Bath City. With the soul.”
When I ask about the prospective sale of Manchester United, he quietly, but emphatically, tells me he won’t be going there. “Don’t speak about that,” he says. No? “No. I prefer to speak to you about Guardiola, the positive things in football, than to speak about this kind of thing. It’s not a day for it today.”
Cantona has rarely shied away from controversy or difficult subjects. In 2010, he called for a social revolution against banks, encouraging people to withdraw their money in protest at the global financial crisis. In 2012, he announced he was collecting the 500 signatures from elected officials necessary to stand for president, only to reveal the next day that it was a stunt to highlight the French housing crisis. In 2015, he condemned western governments for their failure to support refugees fleeing wars started or inflamed by the west.
Would he ever go into politics? No, he says; conventional politics is not the solution, as far as he is concerned. He would rather say his piece through his art – whether it be music, photography, poetry, painting or acting. “I do care about the world, and I used to talk about it, but it destroyed my health, because I feel it too strongly. Now, I prefer to play in a movie like Inhuman Resources [the 2020 Netflix series in which he starred]. I prefer artists like Banksy and Ai Weiwei. There is one song that talks about the state of the world. Now, I prefer to express myself in song. I think it’s stronger and more useful than talking.”
I tell him I interviewed Bansky. “You met him? No! He was hidden?” No, I say – face to face. He sounds so excited. “He’s the Massive Attack singer?” No, I say. Now, he is disappointed. “But how do you know this is Banksy? Yes, exactly. You know why I say that? Because I am Banksy,” he deadpans. Cantona is obsessed with the anonymous graffiti artist. I notice his arm is tattooed with Banksy’s Girl With Balloon. He had the tattoo done about 10 years ago. I tell him that would be worth a fortune – a Banksy tattoo on Cantona’s arm. Typically, it reminds him of a movie. “Have you seen the French movie with Jean Gabin, Le Tatoué? He has a Modigliani tattoo on his back, so an art dealer tries to scrape it off.”
So he has ruled out a career in politics, but he picks out one thing he could change in the world. “Artificial intelligence. The people we call geniuses, for me, are the most stupid people in the world to create these things. They will destroy humanity and the planet.” He is fearful for his children’s generation – their jobs, their sanity, their climate. “At the same time, I’m very optimistic. Because this generation can do something. We have to be optimists. We have to believe in them. They are our saviours.”
Is he surprised by how things have turned out for him post-football? “Yes. I think about my life – the life of a lucky man who has had the opportunity to express himself in different ways. It was in sport; now, it’s in any kind of art. If I don’t have the opportunity to express myself, I prefer to die. I just need challenge. To feel alive, I need to feel fire inside me.”
Now, he can’t wait to express himself on the road with his music. So much is unpredictable, so much can go wrong, he says, and that is when it becomes closest to the magic of sport. “What I like in life is all the imperfections. How you use the imperfection. How it becomes worse, or the energy gives you something positive that you will never have if you have that second chance. On stage, it’s the same as in life. You have a moment and it’s how you answer it, how you react. It’s great to have this kind of imperfection.” He is relishing the prospect of being on stage, luxuriating in the conflicted energy of an audience. “As I say in the song, people either love me or they hate me.”
It’s time for Cantona to have his photo taken. Last question, the publicist says. I ask Cantona what he would ask himself. He thinks about it. “Myself? Last question? I would ask: how many facets do you have? Because in my life I have done a lot of things.” And your answer would be? “I will answer that I have as many facets as the photo of my psychiatrist has pixels.” And with that, he grins, giggles and leaves.
The Friends We Lost is released today. Eric Cantona tours in October (October 26th, Stoller Hall, Manchester; October 28th, Bloomsbury Theatre, London; October 31st, Liberty Hall, Dublin) – Guardian