The Beauty and Humor in Heartbreak: Stream Daphne Guinness's Debut LP 'Optimist in Black'
She's known as the muse of McQueen and Lagerfeld but now Guinness is turning her hand at pop, her grief into art, with wink and a smile and a yacht full of fabulous attire.
If you don't know who Daphne Guinness is, don't worry. The world of popular music is not one she's set foot in before. But if you ever paid even the remotest bit of attention to fashion in the UK then you'll recognize her raven and white streaked hair. She's a frequently photographed face, her body trussed up in the most breathtaking, sculptural creations. Primarily she's known as a muse for the likes of the late, truly great Alexander McQueen, amongst many other designers (Lagerfeld, Gareth Pugh, Philip Treacy), a stylistic inspiration for Lady Gaga, and the best pal of legendary fashion mag editor (and muse) Isabella Blow.
Tragically she lost both Blow and McQueen to suicide brought on by crippling depression, and the raw emotion of this is evident in her debut album Optimist in Black, (particularly in the title track). Produced by Bowie's long-term collaborator Tony Visconti and Pat Donne, her songs are drama-pop with a gothic tinge. Note the plush strings powerful incantations of "Marionettes" ("Surrender to the kiss of the abyss," is her glowering final line). Her enunciation is clean and clipped, her lean towards 60s psych ("Fatal Flaw"), surprising. Check the "Fatal Flaw" video directed by Nick Knight here.
From an outsider's perspective it's a surprising move for a 48-year-old so steeped in fashion, but in fact singing was Guinness's first love: she had a place at London's prestigious Guildhall School of Music back in the 80s, but rebelled and ditched this opportunity to embark on a path of marriage and motherhood. And so now, decades later, after years on the fashion front row, she's reinventing herself again.
Citing everyone from Lou Reed to Marc Bolan to David Bowie to Iggy Pop, not to mention Wagner and Bach, it's the storytelling of Bob Dylan who's had the greatest impact on her.
"Also Jim Morrison, who like Dylan tells stories through his work," she explains. "Like those two in particular, I want my music to be full of narrative, of fantasy. With songwriting, I am trying to make something beautiful out of the mediocre, the heartbreak, the grey."
True to her intention her glacial tones deliver tales plucked from her own diaries, such as "Joke" which reflects on her tumultuous ongoing relationship with French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. The shattering weight of loss is also not shyed away from.
Unsurprisingly, the image entwined with Guinness's sonics is a meticulously thought out, which is never more evident in the David LaChapelle-directed video for "Evening in Space" (below), which see the singer decked out in the most fabulously fantastical of outfits, moving through LaChapelle's art-pop world of hyper color surrealism.
Below is the stream of the record, out this Friday, plus an interview with Guinness about LaChapelle, music, and catharsis.
Noisey: What made you decide to turn to music now and what was the song that kicked this project off?
Daphne Guinness: I wouldn’t say I suddenly turned to music, because in a funny way, I was always sort of facing it. Music was constantly there in the background. It was a fundamental part of my childhood and adolescence, then very nearly became a career (I had won a place to train as an opera singer before I fell in love and got married aged 19). As for this project, it was kicked off accidentally through the decision to record some Dylan covers for fun in Ireland. It snowballed when I had some more time on my hands than I had anticipated, waiting for a friend to arrive. Before I knew it, I had written a few songs. I was staying at a recording studio, so the road was clear. I never dreamed at that stage of releasing the songs.
LaChapelle rarely does music videos anymore so it's a real treat to see him creating so sumptuous to go with your otherworldly music. What was the experience like, working with an old friend in this capacity?
I’d done lots of shoots with David before and have known him a long time, so it was a natural progression for him to shoot the video. I was never emboldened to ask him, but he liked "Evening in Space" and was keen to work with it. I was delighted. It was an intense few days, but working with David always is. He is a perfectionist and will not rest until he is entirely happy. It meant a few sleepless nights, but I knew what I was getting into. I love working with him.
Can you tell me a bit about the styling of this video—the outfits are incredible.
The clothes in the video are mostly from my own collection, but there is an amazing Iris Van Herpen cat suit that she kindly lent me, and another mesmerizing piece by her: the Perspex collar worn that looks like frozen water mid-splash. It is a work of art.
What's the most personal song on the LP and can you tell me a bit about the inspiration behind it.
"Optimist in Black" is not necessarily my favorite song, but is the most personal. It was born out of catharsis, of trying to deal with the past without getting too dark. There have been various tragedies in my life over which I had no control: a period of friends and family dying in violent ways. I was trying to find a way to speak about it without actually saying it. I think those strange, almost Arabic tones crept into the song from some dark place deep within me.
Do you find songwriting cathartic? did you expunge any demons while working on this album and what did it help you process?
Yes, I do, and I did. I find it particularly helps me to see the funny side of things. Life can get hard, but finding the humor in grief or wretchedness is like finding a lifeboat. Songwriting is an intensely personal experience but is pulled back by the objectivity of condensing a given sentiment into a certain melody. You can only choose a certain number of words to fit a verse, and that makes the creative process a satisfying challenge: you say only what you absolutely need to say. It is cleansing and liberating to exorcise it onto paper and then sing it out loud.