Up until she began working on her fourth album, Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg never felt like a musician. An actress? Absolutely. Over the course of her career, she’s won two Césars (France’s equivalent to an Oscar), and worked an enviable slate of directors. (In 2017 alone, the prolific performer appeared in three features: Ismael’s Ghosts, The Snowman, and Promise at Dawn.) A noted voice within the fashion world? Nars Cosmetics tapped Gainsbourg earlier this year for a collaboration inspired by that simple, chic look that’s often attributed to French style.
But when she speaks of her music career—now four albums deep—it’s with the words of someone who until recently, was merely along for the ride. It was a feeling that started with her 1986 debut album Charlotte for Ever, which featured the eye-brow raising duet “Lemon Incest,” co-written by her father, Serge Gainsbourg.
“I was pretending, but I was so happy to just be with my father. Thanks to him I was able to sing a little,” Gainsbourg tells CR. The musician is calling from her West Village New York apartment, moving around as she speaks. Occasionally she’s accidentally hit a button on the phone, giving her soft-spoken recollections an unexpected sense of familiarity. At 46, she talks very practically about her music journey, graciously giving credit to her collaborators, who previously had written all the lyrics and guided her through the process.
“When it started again with Air, I didn’t feel that I was a singer, I just felt that I had a wonderful opportunity to work with people I admire,” she says of her 2006 sophomore album, 5:55.
Air and Gainsbourg’s resulting collaboration was a dreamy piece of art pop, her breathy sings-peak staged over skittering electronic jazz beats and washes of synth. But it was an aesthetic on loan from the French duo. Four years later, Gainsbourg’s third album, IRM, written and produced by Beck, favorited the Los Angeles’ musician’s idiosyncratic rock.
“With Beck, it was the same feeling,” Gainsbourg confirms. “I’m lucky to be around people I consider a genius. I was always longing for their writing.” Still, the desire to do more than interpret was always at the forefront of her mind. Gainsbourg jokes that she likes projects laid out step-by-step. Because of that inclination, there was always the lingering doubt that she wouldn’t be able to step outside her creative wheelhouse.
“I started writing some lyrics and trying to push myself to write because I really wasn’t feeling very comfortable with not knowing if I would be able to write or not,” she recalls. “It took me a while to realize that I really wanted to write. I wanted to write the whole thing. I was always going back and forth from notes I had to not believing I would be satisfied and trying again.”
Her self-doubts were put on hold in December of 2013, when her half-sister Kate Barry passed away after falling from a window of her Paris apartment. Gainsbourg is open about the tragic event and its effect on her decision to move her family to New York—to the shock of many. (“I could feel a sort of embarrassment that [the story] didn’t make people comfortable,” she recalls. “I didn’t want them to feel sorry.”)
But now, several years and hundreds of hours in the studio later, she can also pinpoint the freeing effect it had on her work. The minor-key track “Kate,” a tribute to her late sister (“On d’vait vieillir ensemble,” she sings. “We should grow old together”), served as turning point in the studio, informing much of the album.
“Everything started to make sense,” she recalls. “It was very concrete and straight to the point. I wasn’t pretending anything. I was very honest. At the same time, I had felt very protected by the music. It was exactly what I was hoping for: To have an energetic movement in the music and at the same time being able to be very vulnerable and truthful with the lyrics.”
Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Paul McCartney (yes that one—he wrote “Songbird in a Cage”), Owen Pallett, and Connan Mockasin all contributed to the process. But it was the artist Sebastian Akchoté who helped Gainsbourg shape the sound of Rest. She recalls connecting with the Ed Banger Records producer over a shared cinematic language inspired by the horror films she watched with her parents as a child. (Gainsbourg gleefully notes she saw Jaws as a four-year-old with her mother, Jane Birkin) She was looking for a big sound to support her lithe soprano and she found it in Akchoté’s synth swells, dark disco beats (“Sylvia Says,” “Deadly Valentine”), and in the case of understated ballad about motherhood, “Dans vos airs,” gently strummed guitars.
“I was admiring Sebastian very much,” says Gainsbourg. “But it was more of a collaboration. He was understanding what was going on. And he worked with me, understanding that even if I would say very personal stuff, that he was saying the same things in a different way. You can feel grief with anger. I didn’t want this to be an album that would only be sentimental and weeping.”
Searching through her memories and repurposing them became such an engrossing process that Gainsbourg claims they delayed finishing the album, even after it reached its final form. “It took me a huge amount of time to accept the fact that the record was ready,” she laughs lightly. “I could have gone and on.”
True to her mission, Rest is laced with personal recollections that never feel overtly heavy. Memories of her father, informed the driving bilingual ballad “Lying With You.” And with a gentle lullaby synth hook, and Gainsbourg’s longing sing/speak the title track takes comfort in the concept of eternal rest. As she explains, Rest is the kind of record Gainsbourg could only make after experiencing intense mourning, and choosing to continue living.“Of course my sister was linked to absolutely everything,” she confirms. “Maybe it’s me trying to find her. When you lose someone, you try to find links everywhere. Today I know that New York makes sense also because it’s where she used to come, too, on her own to visit her father, the great composer John Barry. He used to live here. Again, little bits and pieces that I put together when means something. I don’t need them. But I like trying to find these little details.”
Rest also had another unexpected affect. After pushing through her doubts, Gainsbourg sees her musical abilities in a different light now. She doesn’t possess what she calls a “classic Billie Holiday voice” and, on the advice of her late father, has no plans to ever take singing lessons. Instead she’s come to understand the power of what she has to offer.
“I’m less embarrassed about what I’m capable of doing,” she admits. “I’m not judging myself as brutally as I used to. I never like what I do at first. When I have my picture taken, or when I see a film, I always hate the way I talk, the way I look. It’s always a painful step. But something makes me continue. Anyway, this time I feel that I have the same judgements about myself but it doesn’t stop me. That’s what changed. I won’t stop just because I don’t feel good enough.”
There’s still some nerves related to her upcoming live shows. But for now, she’s there’s a smile implied Gainsbourg’s her words as she describes how far she’s come. She struggled to find her voice. But from within Rest’s tangled disco and layers of sound, a musician has emerged.END
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