By The Quietus , November 4th, 2009
French thespian and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg talks to Adam Anonymous about juggling music and movies, recovering from her cerebral haemorrhage, and living in Serge’s shadow
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You could reason that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s seeming sideline as a recording artist has, to date, mirrored that of her considerably more widely appreciated acting arc. It appeared no accident that 2006’s 5:55, her first album in adulthood, emerged in the same year as Michel Gondry’s bewitchingly vivid The Science Of Sleep. Gainsbourg’s character in the latter, Stéphanie, and 5:55 essentially riffed off equal measures of unselfconscious deep thinking and that je ne sais quoi only a quietly beautiful woman of French blood could muster.
Now, with 5:55’s follow-up, IRM, due in early January, it’s tempting to return to such semblances. An undercurrent of distressed discordance ripples beneath a veneer of tranquillity, not at all removed from the general vibe of Gainsbourg’s latest cinematic outing, Lars Von Trier’s psychologically scarring fuck-fest Antichrist. Sure, she doesn’t [Antichrist and/or meal spoiler alert] contemplate cutting her clitoris clean off with rusty scissors at any point during IRM. But a similar darkness lurks beneath outward calm, undeniably apparent in moments such as the title track’s accompanying industrial clangs.
Beck was of integral involvement, taking charge of the record over numerous sessions at his Californian home studio, maintaining a collaborative thread that saw Nigel Godrich, Jarvis Cocker, Air and The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon contribute to 5:55. Of greater importance to understanding IRM, however, was a water-skiing accident and subsequent brain surgery Gainsbourg endured between the two albums. Indeed, as keen Francophiles may well already have spied, the title IRM is derived from the French for MRI, the medical scans she was subjected to while in hospital.
We chatted to Paris-based Gainsbourg direct from Australia, where she has just completed filming next movie The Tree, to talk about all the above and living in the shadow of her famous father, Serge…
Your accident has cast a creative shadow on IRM. Were the actual MRI scans you underwent influential to the record?
CG: Yes. I remember lying in that thing and I thought of a song. It had to be put into song, because the sounds are quite disturbing. Rhythmically I found it very interesting, so I talked to Beck when we met. I asked him if he thought it would be a good idea and he did. With my accident, I spent a year without working and it was difficult. I took a long time just to feel better and it was – how do you say, traumatisme? – traumatising.”
Beck took control of various elements of this record. Was there a certain amount of letting go involved to allow him such a big input into your music?
CG: For me it was very important that he wasn’t going to do everything and then give me tracks already done. I wanted to really collaborate. We did for nearly a year and a half. I went back and forth to Los Angeles. In the end I came up with titles and ideas of songs, this MRI sound and pianos, but not much compared to what he brought. It was amazing to watch him perform, creating songs from scratch. Usually he made me listen to different beats, saw which one I was the more attracted to, and then built from that. There’s something very spontaneous with the music, you get a feeling of the mood you were in. The album has different moods and I was in different moods throughout that year and a half. With each travel I was in a different state each time. I can hear it on the album.
So there wasn’t one overriding frame of mind?
CG: No, not a main mood. Beck asked me at the beginning what I wanted the album to sound like and I had no idea. I didn’t want to be precise. I didn’t want to take away any ideas that he would have. The second time I went in I had done Antichrist, and that was quite heavy. Coming back from that I stayed for three weeks in Los Angeles and it was a difficult time. A difficult time that I’m glad I had, because it just makes you think of things you wouldn’t think of if you were in a very good state.
So does your acting work have a marked effect on music you are making around the same time?
CG: It does. The film [Antichrist] hadn’t come out, so I just explained what I had been through and the film was so extreme that I had lots to talk about. I can’t say that it really went into the songs – I don’t think it did – but it gives you a baggage.
Even though English isn’t your first language [Gainsbourg even initially answers our call in French], it is the dominant tongue throughout IRM, as it was on 5:55. What’s the reason behind that?
CG: I find it very, very difficult to sing in French. I don’t know why. Well, no, I know why: I have too many references to my father. I already relate to him so much in music. [On 5:55] I wanted to avoid any resemblance with the lyrics. Not to have a distance, not to feel that I was different, it’s just that it was easier for me. And to write in French, for it to sound good, is very hard. You have to be very, very talented, which I’m not. Maybe it’s too close to what I know too well, and there’s something magical about English to me because it’s not my language. And for this album, because it was Beck, I wanted to speak his words. Beck writes with many references to American culture, it’s very prevalent in his way of writing, and I loved the idea of being a foreigner inside that culture. I didn’t try to sound American. I think I felt French but with an English accent. A mixture is what I like.
Circa 5:55, you were so shy about singing that you admitted to recording from behind a sheet in the studio. How do you feel about your voice now?
CG: Oh yes, that was with Air. I felt much more comfortable [on IRM]. I think Beck made me feel more comfortable. In the studio it was just the two of us with a sound engineer and the fact that it was so intimate made it easy. I don’t think I have a real personality in my voice, so I wanted to try things. We were just having fun. To do those songs live – because I’m leaving for Los Angeles to meet a band that Beck has put together – that’s a whole different story, because it’s the opposite of intimate.
You’ve never played a full live show before, is that correct?
CG: No. I did two songs on an Air concert and it was petrifying. Horrible. I had to wait for the whole concert, get into two songs and then I was out. I’m 38 and I feel like I’m doing the things I should have done at 18, starting doing gigs and things like that. I’ve got to learn everything very quickly. We’ll try and put something together.
So would you feel more vulnerable singing, particularly in a live situation, or filming an intense, intimate movie scene?
CG: I feel much more vulnerable with this [singing]. With film you’re protected, it’s somebody else’s world. There’s a director behind everything and you get to know everybody that’s around you, it’s another family, it’s something that can be very intimate. But it’s wonderful to be able to step from a film to a recording studio. It makes you breathe in a different way, to have experiences that are nothing to do with one another.
Are there two separate artistic mindsets that you tap into when you’re being creative in those separate arenas?
CG: Yes. I find that when you’re acting you keep secrets to yourself, the work is very much your own and then you show what you need to show, but it’s still very much to do with your own mind. Recording songs is the opposite. You have to expose yourself and make it very, very personal. There’s no disguise. I find the music much more personal.
Was it frustrating that almost every review of 5:55, while positive, referenced your father? Or do you find that inevitable?
CG: It’s inevitable, certainly in France, because he’s so well known there. People know everything about him. And I compare myself to him. I have to. There’s no way I can escape from that. Even with this record I had one of his records in my mind, the album he did that had ‘New York USA’ and ‘Couleur Café’ [Gainsbourg Percussions], because there are some African rhythms. On the last one I was not referring to [Histoire De] Melody Nelson, but I had it in my head. So, yeah, I refer to him myself all the time, so it doesn’t surprise me that other people do.