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.
Childhood is also very present in this album.
My childhood is very present in my life. And I maintain that because it’s 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: they don’t match up with what actually happened. My sister Kate was there to remind me, since she lived through it too, even if she was four years older. She always used to say, “But it wasn’t at all fun! We never saw our parents! And all those holidays in Normandy – god we were bored!” But it wasn’t like that for me. I must have created a fantastic parallel world. I’m a false witness with respect to the past.
“Recently I asked my daughter about Kim Kardashian: ‘What is it that makes her so interesting?’ She replied, ‘You say that mummy but Kim Kardashian has millions of followers.’”
Is it true that you directed your own videos because Lars von Trier refused?
When it came to making a video, I wanted to begin with Rest, a track written with Guy-Manuel de HomemChristo [one half of Daft Punk]. I couldn’t stop myself sending it to Lars and then calling him. But he was in the middle of a film, it was impossible for him to take it on. But he nonetheless said, “I’ll explain exactly what you need to do,” and I took notes.
What did he tell you?
“Once you start singing, you’re going to illustrate the word you’re pronouncing with an image that you’ll either find in the archives or that you’ll shoot. But each word has to be illustrated. Since the track works like a loop that repeats itself, you’ll end up by creating your own language. And the moment you’re not singing, when you breathe, you’ll film in the studio. And it has to be as boring as possible.” [Laughs.]
Your children feature in two of your other videos. Weren’t you afraid of exposing them in the same way that you were by your father in Lemon Incest and Charlotte Forever?
I’m so happy that my father filmed me and that he didn’t censor himself, even if those images might shock some people. They’ve survived, they count. I’m extremely grateful to my parents for having let me do films so young. I was 12. I went on set with Élie Chouraqui [Paroles et Musique], then Jacques Doillon [La Tentation d’Isabelle] and Claude Miller [L’Effrontée]. I used to sing with my father – I’d do three takes and then dive into the pool. I was totally unbothered about it, insouciant. He was very benevolent towards me; he was so happy I could do it, despite all the false notes! He was touched, and there’s nothing more beautiful than that. I wanted to offer my children the same thing, even if I don’t think it’s quite as enchanted as it was with him.
At the risk of exposing them?
You know, people don’t really watch music videos any more. [Laughs.] I’m more worried about their understanding of images and their admiration for celebrities that I just don’t get. Recently I asked my daughter about Kim Kardashian: “What is it that makes her so interesting?” She replied, “You say that mummy but Kim Kardashian has millions of followers.” So is that how things are valued now? By having thousands of likes? It’s at this point that I no longer know whether I’ve missed something and I’m just an old fogey or if it’s merely a passing fashion. On the other hand, I perfectly understand the self-absorption of the selfie for adolescents. That was me at that age. But don’t you eventually get tired of yourself?