Charlotte Gainsbourg Searches for Answers in Death
The French actress overcame her fear of writing in her native language on her new album ‘Rest,’ on which she reckons with the death of her sister.
Photo by Amy Troost
When Charlotte Gainsbourg was 15 years old, she began keeping a journal at the request of a lover. “I would meet with him once a week,” she says with a smirk. “And we would start with the reading of my journal.” She doesn’t elaborate much on the content, but says that most of what she wrote was a fanciful invention, a novel for an audience of two. Wearing a vintage Boston Celtics T-shirt, its deep green melding with the seafoam leather of an unfussy restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village – a short walk from where she now lives – Gainsbourg explains that for some reason, the tradition stuck.
In the three decades since, she’s written in a notebook of some sort almost every day, documenting, first, the sad dissolution of that relationship (“It became a tragic diary, and a real diary”), and eventually, the births of her children, now aged 20, 15, and 6. A journal has been a constant companion, she tells me. “Something to evacuate all kinds of thoughts.”
With the exception of the writing Gainsbourg did for her lover, those little notes and poems have mostly just been for herself – the earliest notebooks were destroyed by mould in a trunk, which she says she’s pretty happy about. But over the last couple years, she’s decided to let some of that writing out into the world. On 17 November, she released her fourth studio album, Rest, a stark, horror-movie influenced statement that traces the many sides of grief, notably in relation to the emotional turmoil she experienced following the death of her father and sister. After years singing songs by some of the world’s great songwriters – including Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Beck, and her father Serge – it’s the first music she’s written the lyrics for herself. And many of those words started as private, half-formed thoughts she stored in those diaries.
Born in London in 1971 to Serge Gainsbourg and the British actress Jane Birkin, she says she had a very rigid musical upbringing. “My father had very specific tastes, and that’s what we listened to,” she says, beginning to count the few artists he truly loved on her fingers. “Chopin, Bach, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, David Bowie... I think that’s it.” She was gifted a “tiny” violin at the age of six, but after spending Christmas in London, returned to Paris to find that it had been disposed of. “I understood that my father had chucked it in the bin,” she says. “He didn’t want me to play violin! Now I know that it’s [because] it’s excruciating for the ears.”
According to Gainsbourg, her father at first also vetoed a plan for her to begin piano lessons, which she later learned was due to his own bad experiences being forced to play as a kid. “He had suffered so much from his very strict father teaching him the piano,” she says. “It was a nightmare for him. He had a box of Kleenex on the side, because he knew that he was in tears the whole lesson.”
Charlotte began learning the piano around the age of nine, once her parents divorced, and eventually he was proud. They’d go onto make songs together, including the controversial “Lemon Incest,” first recorded when Charlotte was 13. The lyrics hinged on a pun on the French term for “lemon zest” (“un zeste de citron”), and the video featured the pair on a bed together, the combination of which drew media backlash. For her part, Charlotte has since defended her decision to work on the song, saying, in a 2010 interview, that she "knew what I was talking about” when working on a song that had “incest” in the title and that she was “used to [Serge’s] excitement about provocation.” More recently, she was asked in an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 if she thought the song could be made today, to which she flatly replied, “No,” before explaining that these days, “We’re more scared, we have less humour.”
But aside from those few collaborations with her father, including the similarly controversial 1986 album and film Charlotte For Ever, she says she was mostly pulled toward her mother’s main profession. Birkin had set her up with an audition for a film when she was 12, and eventually, she says she was working one role, then another, often during her summers off from school. “It was like camp, and it was as fun as that,” she remembers. “It wasn’t work at all.”
At the age of 15, she won a César Award – France’s national film prize – for her starring role in L'Effrontée, a French adaptation of a Carson McCullers novel. A couple years later, she says she started taking the craft more seriously; but because she was “extremely shy” and because she feared that the work would eventually dry up, she was hesitant to commit to acting full time.
19 was an eventful year: her father passed away, and she met her longtime partner Yvan Attal, who she describes today as her “nearly husband.” But all of a sudden, she realised she had nothing to work on. “I hadn’t known how to really want things,” she says. “Go forward, meet directors, be pushy, be sort of ‘out there.’I was used to just being on my couch and waiting – a very nice privilege, but at the same time, it meant that I was very insecure when projects didn’t come.”
So she started battling her natural nervousness and doing auditions for films like Jane Eyre and 21 Grams, in which she’d end up being cast. “Those were films I really wanted, and pushed for, which made a whole world of difference,” she says.
Though already well known in France due to her parents, and among film nerd circles for her roles as a teen, she’d go on to receive international acclaim for her performances in Michel Gondry’s surreal rom-com The Science of Sleep, among other roles in the period. She’d win the prize for Best Actress prize at Cannes for her portrayal of grief and terror in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. (In last month’s Channel 4 interview, Gainsbourg addressed recent accusations of sexual harassment levelled against Von Trier, saying that "It's wonderful that women are speaking out,” but that “At the same time, I don't want it to become some... chasse aux sorcières [...] male witch hunt.” Gainsbourg explained that Von Trier had been “very respectful” of her, and that she would “believe what an actress has to say,” but that she wanted “to hear his defence too.")
But even as she took ownership of the idea of being an actress, she remained insecure about her musical side. For one thing, when her father died, she thought her interest in making music had as well. The elder Gainsbourg was regarded as one of the best songwriters of all-time in any language, but especially in her home country. “He was the one who made it possible, and who validated my work through music,” she remembers. “I didn’t think I cared to have a project without him, and then, I didn’t think I had the right.”
Around that time, Yvan introduced her to Radiohead’s music. Backstage at one of the band’s shows in Paris in the mid-00s, she met their producer Nigel Godrich, as well as the dreamy electronic producer duo Air, with whom she quickly hit it off. Record companies had called her in the past asking if she was interested in making music, but the answer was always no. With Air, that changed.
Soon, she started making demos with Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel. At first, she tried her hand at writing lyrics, but felt like there was no way that she could live up to the standard the elder Gainsbourg had set. “It was impossible to compete,” she says. “I didn’t have anything that was coming out of me.”
They eventually brought in Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker to help write. That solved two problems: it gave her poignant, often very funny lyrics to sing over Godin and Dunckel’s heady, retro-futurist instrumentals, and she since she was singing in English, she didn’t have to worry as much about comparing herself to her father. “It was a revelation—he’s a genius with his words,” Gainsbourg remembers of Cocker.
The songs they made together would end up becoming her 2006 album 5:55, a breezy record that first demonstrated Gainsbourg’s knack for wringing every bit of emotion out of just a few breathy words. In 2009, she released IRM—a stark, metallic-sounding collection of songs written and produced by Beck that chronicles the fallout of a life-threatening water-skiing accident she suffered in 2007. But on that record too, she was just singing, in addition to offering up a handful of song titles and general concepts. She says that Beck tried to convince her to write, but that she mostly deferred to him. “It was like watching the master work,” she says. “I loved every bit of it.”
Nearly eight years later, she’s finally given into Beck’s suggestion. The idea for Rest took root in 2013, when she set up a meeting at a Paris apartment with the producer SebastiAn, best known for his romantic electronic work, remixes for French dance music royalty Daft Punk and Justice, and production for Frank Ocean.
Via a Facetime call, SebastiAn shared a hazy recollection of arriving to the apartment “quite drunk, literally... drunk” and an hour late. During the meeting, he says, he suggested that Gainsbourg’s next album be sung in French and written by Gainsbourg herself, a drastic change from the other records she’d made. SebastiAn says Gainsbourg was put off by his directness, and very possibly his drunkenness. “I remember her [saying] when I left something like, “‘’I have never seen an asshole like this.’” (Gainsbourg, for what it’s worth, doesn’t mention any unpleasantness when recounting the story of their meeting.)
Shortly thereafter, they made some halting attempts at recording demos inspired by horror scores, pulling from the work of the French composer François de Roubaix, italo-prog masters Goblin, and Giorgio Moroder, but nothing really stuck. They didn’t really reconnect much until the following year, in part because Gainsbourg was still a bit unsure about singing in French and writing her own lyrics.
In December of 2013, tragedy struck: Gainsbourg’s half-sister, Kate Barry, with whom she shared a bedroom when she grew up and to whom she’d remained close throughout her life, died after falling from the window of her Paris apartment. Ultimately, the intense grief she felt would vest her with a new sense of purpose.
“I was completely obsessed with just talking about her, wanting to write about her,” she remembers. So Gainsbourg returned to her journals, unpacking the emotional tumult she experienced while mourning for her sister, and also her father. “When my father died, I stopped listening to music,” She remembers. “I really stopped everything.”
Gainsbourg was still living in France at the time of her sister’s death, and she soon wrote a song about that time called “Rest” with Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. It was the record’s first completed song, and remains its emotional centerpiece, a simple ballad that plays on its title’s various meanings: in French, a plea to stay; in English, “respite,” as well as an eternal sleep (“rest in peace”). The song’s chorus includes the line, “ Reste avec moi s’il te plaît / Ne me laisse pas t’oublier,”or in English, “Stay with me please / Don’t let me forget you.” It’s a song that can read as clever, morbid, or heartwarming, one of many testaments to her talents as a lyricist, despite her fears.
Soon after finishing “Rest,” she’d move to New York, then call upon SebastiAn to join her and help her write more of them. SebastiAn says that early on in the process, she brought him a thick notebook – widening his thumb and forefinger just about as far as they’ll go to illustrate its size – full of thoughts and quasi-poems she’d scrawled.
“She left me with very, very personal things and...and also some stuff I shouldn’t know,” he says. After staying up late making dreary demos and disco rave-ups, SebastiAn said he would work with Gainsbourg throughout the day, as she sat on the floor surrounded by countless sheets of lyrics.
Gainsbourg says she attempted to work with professional songwriters, who took her words and turned them into something more song-shaped, but it wasn’t quite right. “ They made my songs sound too nice,” she explains. “Everything was polished; it sounded good. But it had to have my imperfections in the end. I liked my accidents.”
Indeed, part of the charm of the record is its rough edges: the fragmented nature of the images, the slipshod moves between French and English. This effect was partly the product of them turning loose scraps from her writings into songs, an approach echoed in the collagist imagery of “Lying With You,” where she describes the death of her father in stark physical detail: “ Un visage de cire” (“a face of wax”), “ Ta jambe nue sortait du drap” (your bare leg jutting out from under a sheet”), “ Au coin de ta bouche / Une trainée tu n’aurais pas aimé” (“At the corner of your mouth, a streak / You would not have liked”). Moments like these drive home Gainsbourg’s obsessive attention to detail; SebastiAn says she would spend hours trying to pinpoint a single word.
One writer that she did allow to influence the record was one of her father’s favorite musicians, Paul McCartney, who sent over an early version of “Songbird in a Cage” when Rest was nearly finished. Sebastian found that it sounded a bit more retro than the rest of the record, so he decided to do some rejiggering, and sent back a lush version that he was “99%” sure McCartney would reject. Instead, according to SebastiAn, McCartney loved it, and told them to meet him in the studio the next day, where he added some instrumentation.
“He started to use all the instruments in the room,” SebastiAn recalls, clearly still mystified. “I never see something like this. He transformed himself into a five year old. He was enjoying everything.”
If it sounds strange that the sessions for an album as grave as Rest could be so fun, well, that was part of Gainsbourg’s design. Though much of the album revolves around grief, she says the seeds for some of the songs were planted before her sister’s death – there’s songs about her children and her own childhood. Looking back, she says the upbeat disco rhythms and cheery synthesisers also functioned as a “shield” against some of the harder emotions. “I wanted to express maybe sadness in the lyrics, but the opposite in music,” she says. “That gave me the distance I needed.”
“To me, there’s one hundred shades to bad feelings,” SebastiAn says when I ask him about this tonal split. “In Yugoslavia, where I grew up, sometimes when you’re very sad you dance on the table.”
Album closer “Les Oxalis,” for example, is one of the record’s most ebullient moments instrumentally, a nearly eight-minute space-club voyage with lyrics about staring at headstones and hearing ghosts (Gainsbourg calls it a “ballad in a graveyard”). SebastiAn says he was worried at first that the disconnect might be too extreme. “I was like ‘Oh, you want to talk about dead people on this disco track…’” he says. “But when I was shocked, she was sure.”
It’s taken a while to get there, but as she releases Rest, she finally does seem certain. “It was exactly what the album should be like,” she says, finally, with a smile. With this record, she’s also taken more visual ownership of her work, directing all of the videos that came with the album. There’s her deliberately static clip for the title track, which she says Von Trier told her she should shoot “as boring as possible,” and a fanciful one for “Deadly Valentine,” which co-stars her friend Dev Hynes in a time-warping romance.
As for her growing confidence, the way she talks about getting behind the camera is telling, especially when she’s asked if she has the ambition to work on longer-form film projects. “I hope I do,” she says. “It’s like a whole new language.” There’s all sorts of new words and grammars for her to play around with, but for now, there’s Rest.
Colin Joyce is on Twitter.