This year, Charlotte Gainsbourg had a date with destiny. Fortune had promised that one day the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg would make a truly exceptional album, and it has now come to pass with her fifth opus, Rest. For the miracle to occur, she finally agreed to kiss her father’s legacy squarely on the mouth. For the first time she wrote all the lyrics herself (many of them in French), paying homage to her genitor not just with the emotional Lying With You, but above all musically, exalting a certain nostalgia in sweeping yet personal tracks cadenced by heady electronic refrains, at once 80s and baroque, and also sometimes a little bit disco. If she pulled it off, it’s of course partly thanks to her producer SebastiAn, the ultra-talented electro whizz who’s well known to fans of the label Ed Banger. But it’s also because it was a question of survival, of canalizing the pain she felt after the death of her sister, Kate Barry, in 2013. If loss and grief haunt this album, they’re expressed in a flamboyant gothic form that carries lyrics of pure emotion. It comes as little surprise to learn that Gainsbourg thought about calling the album Take One, for it seems like it’s the first time she’s really been herself.
Numéro: In this album you confront, without any false modesty, the deaths of both your father and your sister. Was making it a form of mourning for you?
Charlotte Gainsbourg: No, the album had nothing therapeutic about it. Even if writing it was sometimes painful, I actually took great pleasure in doing it. I needed to get it out of me. I had to be sincere and to say things straight up. There was no other way I could talk about my father [Lying With You] or my sister [Rest and Kate]. Perhaps I went too far, but I don’t regret it. I didn’t use the album to solve a problem and it didn’t diminish my pain. There’s nothing that could make it bearable; only distance has helped me. After my sister’s death, I couldn’t stay in Paris, I would have collapsed. It was a question of survival. New York was the obvious place.
“My childhood is the period of my life that marked me the most, and that I’m the most nostalgic for. Perhaps because it was the most mysterious. I’ve totally embroidered my memories though.”
Rest is haunted by death, but it’s also carried by a crazy, vital dynamism that mixes electronic beats, 80 s references and orchestra sequences.
That might surprise people because I’m calm – falsely so! [Smiles.] But I like the unexpected, I love to surprise and I love to surprise myself. It’s something I also like in my work as an actress. I like things that require an effort, I like brutality. Softness bores me, even if I can very quickly fall into complacency, a sort of morose delectation. But death, loss and regret can also express themselves through rage. And that’s the direction SebastiAn pushed me in. Of course it’s a direction that’s natural to him with his music…
What was it that made you choose a producer of electronic music such as SebastiAn for this album?
Nothing predestined us to work together. But I think that electro music is where you’ll find innovation. I’m also very into rap, Dr Dre, etc. And I was probably a little bored with Anglo rock. Anyway, I let it be known that I loved what SebastiAn was doing. My label set up a meeting at my place, and he came… completely drunk. At the time he was still drinking a lot, he was a bit trash. Nothing like today’s SebastiAn who smokes fake cigarettes. He was so arrogant! He wanted to show how much he knew exactly what I ought to do. [Smiles.]
The arrogance of the very shy?
Exactly. It’s what I saw in him and what I liked. So I was super patient and kept insisting. I went to his place. At the time he was working with Philippe Katerine [on the album Magnum]. Katerine came, we had a laugh, we listened to what they were doing… and we didn’t get much work done. It took my going to New York for him finally to swallow the bait. He felt that the album was crystallizing right there, that it was urgent. For the first time, I managed to write my own lyrics. I was in a lot of pain, but I’d left because I wanted to live. I was hungry to discover new things. And SebastiAn’s music had a power, a dynamism and a brutality that attracted me. I was very curious to see if it would work with my voice, which isn’t terribly… strong, I guess you could say. I found the contradiction exciting.
There’s something flamboyantly gothic about the result...
Yes, totally. Poe was definitely an inspiration, his poetry – gothic, romantic, sweeping. The ghostly side really resonates with me. I was also thinking of French film scores: Le Mépris and Camille by Georges Delerue, with his beautiful orchestrations… I wanted parts of the album to be a bit grandiose, with real strings. But above all it was the horror films of my childhood that inspired me. My mother took me to see Jaws when I was four, which traumatized me! I also remember very well The Night of the Hunter. That was kind of heavy. And let’s not get on to my father showing me Carrie… My mother kept all that up, she used to tell us that awful German fairy-tale about a guy with super-long nails who comes and cuts your thumb off. It both frightened me and made me laugh. My childhood wasn’t at all Care Bears. It’s stayed Amy Troost with me very strongly to the point where I’ve reproduced the same thing, showing films to my children when they were probably too young. I wanted to confront them with strong images.