Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Rest was one of my favorite records of 2017; a gorgeously intimate exploration of grief, I find myself coming back to it on a regular basis. In 2019, Gainsbourg has begun to work on new material (though she admits there’s no way of knowing how quickly it will come), but before moving on from Rest completely, she decided to put out a limited edition companion book, which was released earlier this week. Just 1000 copies are available, and the combination of sketches, lyric drafts and more should help to paint a better picture of Gainsbourg’s creative process.
Aside from the book release, the main focus of the moment is tour – her North American dates are set to include DC’s 9:30 Club on April 8th, and NYC’s Brooklyn Steel on April 9th, and, having seen her play in Oslo this past summer, I can attest that you’ll want to grab tickets. I was able to catch a few minutes with Gainsbourg over the phone earlier this month to talk about songwriting, cancel culture and more, so check out our full conversation right here and now:
BYT: So now that Rest has had a minute to, well, rest, how has your relationship to performing the songs changed?
CG: It’s changed so much. I can still remember how scared and uncomfortable I was on the last record I did, the one I did with Beck, and then I did an album in between. Those were great experiences where I felt so much like a beginner, and I wasn’t comfortable with being a beginner at my age. So it made it a little tricky. I had the feeling that I was always trying to pretend. Anyway, it made touring hard. But that has changed. It doesn’t mean that I’m always comfortable and that every concert is great, no. But the wanting to go on stage has changed, because I feel that I can just be myself. The people who come to see me know what they’re getting a little bit, and that’s what reassures me, in a sense; having a crowd not expecting to see a huge performer. I love the musicians I’m with, too. I trust them. And so yes, my attitude has changed.
BYT: How do you feel the performance itself has evolved?
CG: I guess we’re more like friends and know the songs better, but there was never a lot of improvisation anyway. I needed to rehearse a lot before we started. I think as musicians, they already knew their parts a long, long time ago. I just needed reassurance. I think now, I guess I’m a little nervous because I’ve had such a big break. I don’t know if I’ll go back to something I was used to, or if we’ll change some things to make it a little new. That’s a surprise.
BYT: Exciting! And I know you’ve had to do plenty of press around Rest, and you’ve mentioned that you’d not initially anticipated how much you’d be asked to explain the lyrics of certain songs. How has that experience of having to break down very personal things influenced the book that you’ll be putting out?
CG: It was a bit of a surprise, because I was writing lyrics for the first time on this album, and I have the impression that I put a lot of my thoughts and very, very personal things out there. But to me, I thought that would be enough, to have written the lyrics. I didn’t realize that I would have to talk about it. So that might have been a little weird at the beginning of the promotion, when the album came out. Today, I’m okay with talking about it, because I’ve been wanting to release this book for a long, long time. For me, it goes with the album. It’s that voyage of my sister’s death, so there are a lot of cemetery photos, but at the same time, it’s about my discovery of New York…it’s a bit of everything. The writing process, joy…and I feel fine exposing that. I like that. It’s a bit more of myself in little pieces, and I’m fine talking about it. I don’t feel that it’s pushing me in a direction I don’t want to go.
BYT: You’ve also been quite vocal about the #MeToo movement and being skeptical of snap judgments, especially when those are made on platforms like Twitter. Do you find that there’s any overlap in terms of wanting to really think about things and not be too immediate when it comes to your own creative process?
CG: Well, yeah, it pulls you back for sure. It makes people very nervous, sometimes for the good, but I find it quite sad that people are so scared. And even myself…I realized I wanted to do an Instagram, which I’d never done before, so I thought of this and wondered if I had something to show, something I’d find amusing. And so I looked back at all my drawings and pictures, and of course I don’t want to put photographs of my children, but I’ve done so many drawings of them, especially my little one. She was always asleep, so I’d draw her when she was asleep. Recently, when I looked back, I thought, “Maybe people will think it’s weird that I drew my daughter naked.” You start thinking there’s wrong to be found everywhere, whereas this was totally innocent. So yes, I find it…the questioning is a bit tricky and a bit touchy. You don’t really know where to step. So yeah, it makes me a little uncomfortable, but at the same time I feel…I don’t know what my father would’ve done in this era, this time. I think he would’ve been banished. He couldn’t have done any music, he wouldn’t have gone on TV…he was a provocateur; that’s what he loved doing, was to shock people, and he did it very well. I knew him and I was never shocked by any of it, but I know that that was how he dealt with things himself. So I think my father was a great artist, and I believe that if he was censored…well, then we would’ve missed something.
BYT: Absolutely. And it’s such a fine line now, especially when things are visible to the whole world in an instant.
CG: Yeah. But I feel that it’s taking all our innocence away, even to children who start to flirt. It’s not the way we’ve done it, and I still believe that it was a little magical in our time. So I hope it doesn’t block every boy, every girl that would misinterpret something. I don’t know. I find it very scary, in fact. And sad.
BYT: Right. I grew up before all of this, too, so it’s interesting, because people didn’t even have the ability carry out some of the problematic behavior that’s facilitated by technology. It just wasn’t even an issue. So it’s crazy. It’s complicated.
CG: Yeah, because of course you want to protect women, because it’s more about women. So you want to protect women in danger when it’s a question of safety and is as serious as rape or things that you of course condemn. But it’s hard also to say that you don’t have an opinion that’s completely on one side or the other, because then, even that, people think, “She’s not shocked. Maybe she could have a tendency…” It’s like what Catherine Deneuve and what she said. Of course it wasn’t the right time to say it, but I do understand what she meant.
BYT: Alright, I know we just have a few more minutes here, so I’ll steer us back to songwriting. How has this record influenced your feelings on moving forward with songwriting? Obviously this was very personal, and a lot of the songs were written through a very specific lens. How do you feel about moving forward with that?
CG: You mean in terms of making a new album?
BYT: Yes, for sure.
CG: Well, I’m starting now. Exactly now. So I’m very nervous about it, because I don’t know how long it will take me. If it takes me another four years…I feel that I have to find a way to work quicker. Even for myself. The thing is, it’s tricky, because I have to combine films and music, so I have the impression that it doubles the time. But I hope that I’ll be able to work quickly, and to be inspired quickly. The only thing is, I know I don’t like working on my own. Music-wise I need to be inspired by someone else’s music.
BYT: Right. And finally, how does your multilingualism affect your lyric writing, if at all? For example, I know French tends to be less nuanced than English, but you use both in your songs, so how do you determine that?
CG: The gymnastic I find quite hard. French is my first language, but I find myself thinking of a word that’s easier to say in English than it is in French, and then you feel that people in France look at you like you’re a weirdo. It’s so ridiculous. And when I’m here, I need my French words. So it’s a mixture that I find a little hard to feel that I’m on top of things. I feel much slower in English; my brain…it demands more time. So in that sense it’s good; it’s a great gymnastic to have, and I feel I’ve made a lot of progress in English, of course, being here and speaking in English all the time. So that’s very positive. But as far as writing in English, I still feel that my references are in French. So writing in English, I have the impression that it’s a bit more like guessing. It’s not the accuracy that I can be sure of with French words.