Charlotte Gainsbourg: The Furthermuckin Q

With her new Beck-produced album MRI, Charlotte Gainsbourg is positioned to become more familiar to her collegiate American audience than her famous parents: the late French singer Serge Gainsbourg and her English mum, actress Jane Birkin. Gainsbourg père was France’s controversial national treasure, who dueted on “Lemon Incest” in 1984 with 12-year-old Gainsbourg fille, Charlotte’s musical début. Three years later, she’d win a César (the French Oscar) for the comedic dramedy, The Hussy. Lately, though, Charlotte Gainsbourg is notorious in her own right worldwide for her Cannes award-winning turn in director Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Hipsters who haven’t heard 5:55 (her 2006 album, produced by Air) have surely seen her by now in I’m Not There, 21 Grams or The Science of Sleep.

At the Hôtel Montalembert in Paris, Gainsbourg answers the door to her private suite wearing a loose white T-shirt and faded bluejeans, barefoot. In conversation, she sits on the floor sipping tea from Le Palais des Thés, her speaking voice nearly as whispery in person as on record. Preparing for a trip to America for rehearsals with a live band, she shared a quality hour’s worth of conversation.

Are you reading at the moment?

Reading a book? Yeah, I’m reading La Peste by Camus. And I’m re-reading another book just because the first time I wasn’t really concentrating: it’s The Journal of Hélène Berr. She was a woman during the last war in France during the Occupation, so it’s a journal. And then, I’m always reading a lot of books at the same time and I forget about them, I never finish them. So, what else? I’m trying to know more about poets, so I’m just in the middle of discovering English poetry.

Is Albert Camus a favorite of yours?

Not really, but I read L’Étranger. I thought of beginning again from the letter A every book that I haven’t read, and a bit of just the classics that I’ve missed. So C is very close to A.

Let’s assume you’ve got an iPad. What three books and films would you want pre-installed on it?

I love the smell of books. There’s something that you can’t have with… Maybe poetry. Maybe Verlaine and Rimbaud and Baudelaire. It’s an easy, easy answer. I’m not sure it would be watching again my favorite films. I’m so en retard—how do you say, “behind”?—that I would like to have the three next films and not the ones I’ve already seen, or even my favorites.

How did you first meet Beck and consider him to produce your sophomore album, MRI?

We met…really, it was an accident. I came to see Nigel Godrich, who was his producer at the time. So he was recording with him? And then years went by. And once the whole story with Air was finished and the album [5:55] was really over, I thought about a new album. And it was very very awkward for me to ask Beck. I didn’t know if he would say yes, but I didn’t know what it would be like. I had no plans of musically what I wanted. And he asked me in the beginning if I had a style I had imagined. I didn’t. I just wanted to explore things with him. The basic idea was [to] try and have fun with him, and explore as many styles as I could. And I think that’s what we did.

I don’t know what I would have done if he had said no. It was just great that he answered straightaway. We met in Los Angeles; we discussed we should start working five days together and see how things went, because we didn’t know if we would get along or not.

I don’t think Beck has ever produced anyone else.

No, I don’t think so. But since, he has. It gave him a new idea. I think he enjoyed it, I hope so. So anyway, after those five days, we had worked on three songs that are still on the album. And those were “Heaven Can Wait,” “In the End” and “Master’s Hands.” Which were three different directions already, it was like a spectrum of what we could do. And I called him again and said, “Would you do the whole album with me?” And he agreed, and so it was quite a long adventure, because it lasted for a year and a half on and off. I was working and living in Paris, so it was each time… I think the shortest stay was five days, that first session, and then it went up to three weeks. With my family, without my family, in different moods.

Was any of MRI recorded in Paris?

No. Most of it was done at his home, which for me was very helpful, because there was something very casual that didn’t put any pressure on my shoulders. And I felt like we were experiencing something, but not looking for any result or I didn’t think of the album as a result. I was just trying to let go, trying to have fun and, yeah, enjoy myself.

Do you have any favorite Beck albums?

I love the last one [2008’s Modern Guilt], maybe also because I knew I was going to work with him, I sort of treasured that album. But of course Sea Change, yeah, Mutations also. It’s easy to say the same things. I love his voice, first of all, and that was difficult for me to want to put my voice instead of his, you know? Because I’m very attracted to his voice and his way of singing. What I like about him is the fact that he can’t really… He has a style of his own, but he takes from every style, every different, des univers différent. He’s not—I’ve got difficulties with English—he’s not, il n’est pas entendu. He’s always surprising, I mean, and has new ideas. And I think that’s the way he worked with me on this one, was something sort of organic, trying to work with what was around us, and trying to make something new. Having not that many references.

I just saw director Wim Wenders’s The Soul of a Man this week, a documentary about bluesmen Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and J. B. Lenoir. Some modern players did some blues covers, and Beck did Skip James’s “I’m So Glad.”

The blues references I had no idea about. Although I did love the fact that I was learning about his own references. I learned a lot of things thanks to him.

But that’s what I loved the most with him, was the fact that I was learning. I was learning from scratch. I could’ve observed him for weeks and weeks. I didn’t want to stop, because he was so inspiring. To see someone wake up in the morning with his guitar, just nonstop until late at night, just getting ideas and it never stops. So it’s quite fascinating. And it was a great surprise for me, because we started really creating the song. Well, he was doing everything, the choice of the rhythm… At first, I would give, of course, my point of view and what I thought, but he did everything. So each song was gradually taking form, but then I would go back to Paris, and quite later on, he would send me the mix. And so I would see just the work he put in until then. It was enormous what he did, the arrangements and everything. He re-recorded everything, then went back to what he originally did. There’s a lot of work behind it, that’s what I’m trying to stay. [laughter] Because I thought it was really done just like that, in a day. That was the way we recorded it. But then, yeah, a lot of work.

What is your least and most favorite aspects of American culture?

Well, there was a time, it was maybe three or four years ago, I thought of living in New York. Just for a change, and thinking it would be exciting. And in the end, I got scared because I thought Obama wasn’t yet elected and I thought, “Oh, it’s not my culture, I don’t know anything about America. I’m not a part of this.” And I felt that I couldn’t ever be a part of it, and I felt very secure in France, knowing that this was my country. Now, I have a lot to say about this country.

But the thing I understand the least is all the social aspects. Not social, but the medical. Now that we’re having problems here with the hospitals and everything that’s—not collapsing, not quite—but sort of ébranler a little bit with the new politics, I can see how I treasure this. And so of course with the American medical thing is, I don’t understand. I mean, I really don’t get it. But I can see how lucky we are in France to have that system. And it’s a system that works, so I don’t see why they’re so scared about the change. There’s proof that it does work. Of course, there’s a lot of sacrifices on other levels, but I don’t know.

So, yeah, that’s the thing I maybe don’t understand about the country. But I think it’s very important for me to be taken out of France. I’m more curious in America. I look at things. People seem very open, and less judgmental.

Definitely in New York City, at least.

Yeah, that’s the impression I got in New York. It’s more conscious there, and people are really, not only sweet, but it felt very easy. Everybody could do something and you weren’t going to be hit on the head. There are critics, but you feel that you’re free to do whatever you want to do. There’s more freedom. And then I could feel that in Los Angeles, although Beck never stopped to criticize the city—Los Angeles, or even America—but still, he lives there, and he hasn’t moved. So I could see that there is something artistic about that city. There’s something that makes you create things. It’s strange. You are surrounded by ugliness, and there’s something that’s very creative about that. You have to push that aside, you have to find your own beauty inside that ugliness. Well, that’s my insight, but maybe I’m wrong.

Reality TV has long ago spread its way over here to France. Does this American obsession with becoming famous seem bizarre to you?

I find it horrible. I’m not really sure about what to say, but I can see the power of television. There was a program on French TV yesterday. It wasn’t a reality show. It was a TV game that was a test. You know that test that they did after the Second World War? I don’t remember the name of the guy, to see how you would do things under authority. And he’s very very well known, I’ve forgotten his name. But they did the same test here in a TV game to see how far people would go in cruelty. They give electrical shocks to a guy that they can’t see but they can hear? And it’s quite fascinating to see the power of this kind of authority, and the lack of judgment, the lack of morality, morale? It’s not a real show, it’s a test. Although the contestants think they’re in a real game, but it’s a fake.

You recorded MRI in California and you film movies around the world. What factors influenced your decision to raise your two young children in France with your partner, actor-director Yvan Attal?

Just the fact that it was easy. We didn’t raise our children in France because we thought that was the perfect way of raising them and the perfect thing to do. That’s just because we’re French, we live in Paris, and that’s also what we know. As children ourselves, we’ve been through this. To raise them in America would be a complete discovery, so you don’t really know what you’re up for. At one point, I would really like to try a year in New York or in Los Angeles. And for children, I think it’s great just to be able to move. It’s quite terrifying for them to leave their friends and everything, but I think it can give a lot.

So you’re touring Europe and America for the first time?

These first concerts were quite a discovery for me because I thought they would be the end of something. I said I would do it, and I’m going to realize that it’s really not for me. And on the contrary, I was very excited by them. I love the musicians I’m performing with, and we’re becoming sort of a team. And it’s lovely not to be just the only one there, and it’s not only about me. The music is the major part of this, which is very reassuring for me. So, I want to try it a bit further and see how it goes. We have this date in Coachella which is a bit terrifying for me. I’ve never done this, and I can see who they have for that day. You know, I don’t know if he’s confirmed, but there was Thom Yorke, and Gorillaz. So, a bit intimidating, but I still want to do it.

When did you first decide with certainty to pursue music as well as film?

I have no certainties. None. But it’s been part of the game. The fact that any day, even films coud not continue and maybe nobody will ask me. I’ve always had this thing on my shoulders where I felt that everything could stop, and I’m really very uncertain about the future. So I’m just taking things every day, and see how I can still do films and accompany this album as far as I can. And it’s really juggling, without sacrificing too much of the films I really want to make. But up until now, it’s been possible. It’s only my family life and every… It’s been quite intense years, the two last years. But I mean, there’s worse than mine.

What’s the difference for you between American films and European films?

There’s a big difference. I don’t want to be too critical, but sometimes with American films, it’s too square? That it’s so well done that… And in France, there’s this thing: sometimes films are not very well done, but the spirit is good. And it’s a pity that we can’t mix both. [laughter] It’s true, because there’s something, the subjects, and it’s not, c’est pas un hazard. The Americans very often take ideas from the French. So we have good ideas. They know how to talk with this language. Movies is a language, and sometimes we do films a bit unprofessionally, and it’s a pity, I find. I just saw Alice in Wonderland, and it was such a journey, it was wonderful. I do love when somebody’s real spirit is sympa with all the money of the studios making it possible. We can’t do this here, it’s impossible.

Tell me about your collaboration with Air on 5:55.

The thing is, because there was a gap of 20 years between the album I did when I was a child and the album I did with Air, it was all very dramatic for me. There was a load of pressure that I put on myself, on my own shoulders, of going back to the studio without my father. And really with his shadow everywhere, that was very very difficult, but also a beautiful thing for me. Because I was rediscovering something. I was in such admiration for Air, that everything they did I was just amazed by, the whole thing. So it was a beautiful adventure but very emotional. That’s the best way of putting it. With Beck, I was less emotional, so I could… How do you say “J’ai profité?” Because it’s not a profit…

You profit from something. Not that you learn from it, but you appreciate—

Yeah, I appreciated everything. I was able to appreciate everything. I felt more freedom, and I had the impression that he did everything so that I would be comfortable, and that everything would be easy. So I enjoyed myself a lot. The fact that it was outside of my own country also was, I had no references, it didn’t matter. Even though I could hear references to my father’s songs in the end. It’s a nice thing to have taken me out of my own references, my own quotidian.

Would you record a French album?

Maybe. The first one, for me, it was out of the question of singing in French. I wanted to be as far as I could from French. Then this one with Beck, I loved his way of writing so much that I didn’t see the point. I couldn’t write in French. I tried, but I wasn’t happy with what I did. He found the only song in French that I’m singing, it’s a Canadian song. So maybe for another album, maybe I’ll feel freer. It’s very heavy for me in French because of my father. Every word has weight, which makes it difficult. For me, what I find is so incredible with music is that I don’t feel that I’m working. There’s only pleasure. And putting French into that would give it another aspect. But I don’t want to depreciate the French, and it’s my own culture. I saw with Beck, he always wanted me to speak in French the most I could in the songs, try to translate a song in French. So I tried to put as much as I could of my own culture into this album.