Black's debut song has clocked up over half a million plays in five months. We talk to the singer about rock 'n' roll mythology, Fellini, Lana, and more.
“Oh my God, you’ve given me a song title,” Chløë Black pauses as she scribbles down a few words. "Room 100." We’ve just discussed the Chelsea Hotel, where guests can stay in the infamous room—number 100—in which Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed girlfriend Nancy Spungen before his own heroin overdose in 1979. The cruel, unnerving story of an iconic couple’s tragic demise, foreshadowed by bouts of domestic abuse and feverish drug binges, is characteristic fodder for Black, whose knack for turning the dark side of history into hauntingly soulful pop bangers, tinged with themes of death, landed her on everyone’s radar last year.
Inspired by the numerous musicians who died at the age of 27—Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse—Black’s debut song, “27 Club,” struck a nerve with today’s celebrity-obsessed youth, who share an aching nostalgia for a musical era they did not actually experience. The song’s wraithlike humming and ghostly choral backdrop create a soundscape straight from an old horror film, while the blockbuster chorus and Black’s finely textured voice make for a chart-bothering pop anthem.
Appearance-wise, Black—who is London-based via Australia, Paris, and America—seems to have been transplanted from another era. With thick eyeliner, black and white hair, and heavy red lips, she personifies elements of the sinister femme fatale of a 40’s film noir mixed with European movie stars of the 60s, like Jane Birkin or Brigitte Bardot. She physically embodies the way her music sounds, with her sonic and visual inspirations simultaneously stemming from classic films and literature, both in numerous languages. Like many of those lost in the 27 Club, she’s the type of girl music lovers would die to drink heavily with while discussing The Golden Era or the state of music today.
Premiering above is the video for “27 Club.” Directed by British director Calum Macdiarmid it has all of the elements that made us fall for Black in the first place, including killer goth style, goosebump-inducing gloom, and a flair for transforming desolate themes like death into romanticized dark art. We talked to the singer about her roots, inspirations, and rock 'n' roll mythology, and why she loves London (carbs).
Noisey: Where exactly are you from?
Chløë Black: I’m half-French, half-Australian. I was actually raised in Paris, Seattle, Washington, Sydney, and then I moved to LA after high school. So it’s pretty international. I speak fluent French. Like I said, I’m half and half, and that’s kind of an influence on what I like and who I am, like a crazy French woman who likes to drink too much and get naked. That’s part of my heritage.
How did you end up in London?
I realized that most of the music I liked was coming from the UK, so I packed up two suitcases, moved over here, and started working with British producers. For me, over here, it was a lot more freeing. I love LA, and I love America, but I also love how in England, when somebody asks you how you are, you can say, “Fucking terrible,” and that’s OK. And you can say things like “cunt,” and you can eat carbs and be a bit of a mess. That’s sort of part of the general culture. So for me, it was really nice. And then it yielded some much better songs that I’m actually proud of.
How has your singing experience in London differed from working in LA?
I mean, obviously there are amazing producers and amazing artists in the States, so it’s not at all to discount them or to discount this way of working. But because of the circles I was in, it was a situation where you would go in, you would get given a track, which was very pop and hip-hop, in my case. Often it had samples in it, and then you would have to write a topline to it, and for me that was kind of weird because I play piano, and I come from a singer-songwriter kind of thing where I idolize people like Fiona Apple. So working with super pop writers in a sort of Katy Perry/Jason Derulo kind of factory… it was tough for me. But, it did teach me how to write a pop song. It sort of engrained some formula deep in the back of my mind that I try not to listen to too much. Also in the States, you’ll be expected to go into the studio for an afternoon and write a song in a matter of hours, where here, I just came back from Wales where I was in the studio for an entire week. We’d spend like two days on a song.
What drew you to the infamous 27 Club as a source of lyrical inspiration?
I’m super neurotic and always beating myself up, and I think that’s part of what drives me to write. I’m like—like we all are—a little tortured ball of angst, sometimes. So I was thinking, “Do you have to be tortured to be great? Are those things intrinsically linked?” Because my heroes were tortured. Not even just the 27 Club. Diana Washington, Nina Simone, and everybody who I think is fabulous was drunk and miserable. So I was thinking, “Do I have to sacrifice my happiness as a human being, my health, my personal life, in order to achieve greatness, and is that worth it to me?”
And then I started thinking about the 27 Club. A lot of those people were my heroes. Amy Winehouse was a huge influence. Kurt Cobain… like, I grew up partly in Seattle. So it’s partly a social commentary but also me thinking out loud like, “Can I ever be great, and does that mean dying?”
Do you believe in the eerie mysticism that surrounds the 27 Club or do you think the deaths are coincidental?
Well, the list is huge. I’ve researched it in depth and it’s huge. There’s also a 32 list. Is there something about the number 27? Maybe you’re three years away from thirty, and society places a lot of expectations on young people. We sort of worship the prodigal child, and then we also are obsessed with aging. So maybe it’s something to do with that pressure. Maybe that’s jut the amount of time you can do a shit ton of drugs before your body gives out. I have no idea, but I find it fascinating. [The list] is really long and it’s really sad because there’s a lot of one hit wonders on there that I hadn’t even realized. They made songs that we all loved and they died. Music history in general is pretty sad. There’s a lot of people getting swindled and dying in opium dens.
What was the concept behind the video and its styling?
It was [director Calum Macdiarmid’s] vision. In terms of the styling, I wanted it to look very French Vogue and Helmut Newton. High Art Goth is what we were trying to go for. I love David Lynch and it sort of reminds me a bit of him. The whole flirting with death thing I think is really nice. It’s supposed to be kind of psychedelic and abstract.
What’s it like for you being in front of a camera? Obviously, it’s not the same as singing in a recording studio.
There are parallels, because when you record vocals, you do takes, and you have to switch yourself on. So it’s the same thing, except for instead of switching on my voice, I’m trying to switch on my face, which is highly challenging. It kind of gave me a little taste for acting. I would love to do that. I’m obsessed with films.
I love French films like Betty Blue. I spend a lot of time watching old movies. I watched Pink Flamingos on a train the other day in a quiet carriage. In England, they have a quiet carriage, and people are very well behaved. I’m surrounded by old ladies and I’m watching Pink Flamingos, and suddenly there’s a girl with a dick on the screen. I thought I was going to be kicked off. It was so obscene, but you know, fabulous. I like all the people that you would expect, like the Coen brothers, Tarantino, and Terry Gilliam. I love cult movies. So much stuff, man. Fellini is also an influence from the 60s.
What inspired the new hairdo in the beginning of the video, as well as some of the outfits?
I really like French New Wave and Jean-Luc Godard, and I kind of wanted to do a slight nod to Anna Karina with that. Also, it’s just fun to wear wigs. So that was supposed to be reality, where I’m wearing a wig, which is ironic because it’s not my real hair. And then we go into this sort of Death World, where I am myself. Seventies Saint Laurent was definitely an influence. Like, the polka dot top that I’m wearing in it is a Saint Laurent top. Also Chanel and Dior. I just like black tailored things. Also, Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, and all the 60s girls. Sophia Loren, Monica Bellucci, who I think is the hottest person ever.
And what about your actual hairstyle?
The hair is probably the only thing that I’ve thought about. The rest is all very natural and who I am, but the black and white hair was kind of a conscious decision to stand out…like if you look at Marilyn Monroe, she’s an archetype. If you look at early Madonna with the cone bra, she’s an archetype. Those things are interesting to me. Although, it’s not always very practical walking down the street with two-toned hair.
Do you turn heads because of it?
People look at me, but because it’s London, they’re very polite, so they don’t scream things.
Then thank God you’re in London!
Yeah well, in LA, I had a fantastic one. I had a guy drive past me and he had a shitty, beaten up car, so he had to wind down his window, physically. So he wound it down as fast as he could, he stuck his head out the window and he said, “Go back to the 90s you fucking bitch!” And I just about pissed myself laughing because it was so specific. It was hilarious.
As you come into the public eye, do you have anyone pressuring you about your image?
I don’t get told to be anything other than what I am, which is wonderful. In the UK, it’s been pretty fantastic so far. They’ve been like, “Yeah! You’re goth, you like this look, absolutely do it! You want to be naked in this thing? Go for it! It’s not a problem.” They’re definitely not shying away from letting me do what I want, which is fantastic. I have my own style that is not something that I conceptualized and thought about, really. It just is. I’ve always liked black and I’ve always been kind of goth-y, and I’ve always liked red lipstick, ever since I was three years old. It was very young for makeup. There was definitely a little Lolita thing going on.
How do you feel about the comparisons to singers like Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Rey?
They’re people that I like, and they’re big influences. I mean, especially Amy Winehouse. She’s really incredible. And Lana’s probably one of the greatest lyricists we’ve had in a long time. I guess what I share in common with those girls is that I’m very nostalgic and that I sort of romanticize any era except my own. The other times were so much more glamorous, and I’m kind of like a female drag queen. I love dressing up.
I also really like Rihanna and Kanye, so there are some things about our time that I enjoy. And obviously my freedom as a woman…there are parts of that that are cool. But I definitely pine for the Laurel Canyon drug days. I think that would have been fun.
Now that you have a growing fan base listening to your music, how do you choose what you’re willing to share with the world in terms of lyrics?
I am very precious about lyrics. I think they’re important, so I generally work on them by myself. Sometimes I’ll collaborate because someone will think of something I didn’t think of and it’ll be really cool. But usually, I will always have a concept before I get into the studio, and usually a title. Those things I come by through film, literature…just words I see. Like sometimes on a magazine or images. I look at Tumblr a lot for inspiration.
I write about my personal life, but in terms of the language that I use, that comes from things that spark my interest, and then make me think of other things. Like Wild at Heart is a David Lynch film title, but then it resonates with me in my personal life. I just try to keep my eyes and ears open all the time and just make notes like you would if you were a novelist.
Are you going to be touring in the States anytime soon?
I’m not very good at thinking ahead. I believe I have a US agent, so it will definitely happen at some stage, but right now I’m just doing some UK dates. I would love to come to New York. You know, I’ve only ever been over for showcases, which is not fun. You’re there for two days and you’re nervous, and then you have to play in front of some bald dude who doesn’t give a shit about you.
At the Chelsea Hotel, the room where the Sid and Nancy murder happened, you can actually rent that room out and stay there.
Oh my god, you’ve just given me a song title. No I think the room number is 100 right, I have to look it up. But room 100. Song title.
Mathias Rosenzweig hearts Ms. Black and he's on Twitter.