Lou Doillon on Fame, Family Angst, Cheating Boys, and the Importance of Being Fearless
Lou is known as an actress and model, the daughter of Jane Birkin, and the stepdaughter of Serge Gainsbourg. Now she's released an acclaimed LP and when she starts talking, no subject is out of bounds.
Lou Doillon. I mean, come on!
In Lou Doillon’s Paris apartment there’s a bookshelf filled with rows upon rows of diaries. Each is filled with scraps of songs and scratched out thoughts in Lou’s neat script, alongside doodles of her son, herself, and her friends. On a good year, when she’s happy, she fills a couple books; on a bad year she can make it up to five. Lou guestimates that over 18 years she’s scribbled in maybe 40 or 50 diaries, possibly more. Just below this shelf sits an open suitcase so that if a fire swept through her home, Lou could rescue her history with one sweep of the arm, grab her 11-year-old son Marlowe, and run out the door.
“I love finding my diaries when I was 16 or 17,” says Lou. “My friends and I read them and we roar with laughter. Back then you're so first degree about everything and when you have a bit of distance, it's genius.” Lou is sitting in the back bar at the Bowery Hotel in New York: bed-tousled hair, skinny black jeans and a battered baseball tee with a “L” ironed on her left breast. She's smoking and laughing, popping peanuts and talking about everything to do with her life in the most insanely candid way. This is surprising because her family is super famous, particularly in Europe. Her dad is controversial French film director Jacques Doillon, her mom is English actress/singer, style icon, muse and one-time wife of Serge Gainsbourg; actress Charlotte Gainsborg is her half sister.
Lou’s grown up in the public eye. She was acting in her father’s films before she was in double digits, which segued into modeling for Givenchy and Lee Jeans, and looking elegant, lithe, and nude in a Pirelli Calendar. She gave birth to her son Marlowe when she was just 19. This, combined with her heritage, meant that for a time she was anointed with the dubious title “It girl,” a status which anyone with a brain would feel uncomfortable with. Despite the acting career and modeling contracts, Lou was always searching for something that would give her creative gratification, something that would establish her beyond the media-constructed image, and her family ties.
Late last year she released her debut album, Places, which revealed Lou as a husky-toned, confessional songwriter, deeply romantic, and also unafraid to put a magnifying glass to emotions most would rather bury. Her disconsolate singspeak is backed by largely sparse compositions—part Gallic chanson, part folk, a little Leonard Cohen. Les Victoires de la Musique, France’s equivalent to the Grammy’s, was so enamored that they awarded her Best Female Performer of the Year and Places has since gone platinum. We sat down to talk jealousy, philandering boyfriends, being part of a family that never grows up, and songwriting as a means of survival, plus a ton of other stuff. Yes, this interview is long, but it’s worth it. Lou’s anecdotes, her experiences, and even her turn of phrase is fascinating. Get yourself a drink.
The public first heard inklings that you could sing back in 2006. What took you so long?
I’ve been surrounded by a family of women who sing very high, so I was convinced that to sing was to sing high. To me I had a man’s voice or a voice that didn’t really count. I was always singing in my house, but as soon as someone would come in, I would shut up. It was an American friend of mine, Chris Brennan, who was the first to say, “Come on, sing, sing, why don’t you sing?” I was like, “Why would I sing? It’s a weird question to ask.” Thank God life became so sullen and depressing that I didn’t have a choice. I was painting the pain and it wasn’t helping. I was writing the pain and it wasn’t helping. I was doing the diaries and it was just pages and pages, and I was becoming completely neurotic and it wasn’t enough. The guitar was there, because I’ve always lived with musicians. I’ve been a groupie for 30 years, so for me, they were the men with guitars. But I picked up the guitar, I asked to be shown two notes and suddenly, it came out and I thought, “This is genius, this is how I’m going to be able to survive!”
Did you then want your songs to be heard?
I never wanted them to be heard, they were just songs to make me calm down. My girlfriends would say, “Sing us that song about how your dog is better than your boyfriend.” And so I became this cheerleader for depressed girls. And then they asked me to record them so they could have the songs. My mum said, “Why don’t you do an album?” I would do it because of what? I’m the daughter of, I’m a sister of, I’m an “It girl.” I mean, whatever, I don’t even want to go there!
“It girl” is the worst!
Lou: Chilling in the long grass.
Do you feel like for the first time, having been an actress and a model and having to interpret other people’s art, that it’s a relief to be in control?
It’s lovely. I’ve done 24 movies that never worked; I did every campaign that didn’t work. You’re always in that thing where you work with a wonderful photographer, and it’s hit or miss, and my whole life was a hit or miss.
You really felt like that?
In a way. I’m full of other people’s projects and my mom was like, “Can you imagine that you spent 15 years doing what other people wanted you to do and it never works out and the first thing that you do for you is a success. That’s the most reassuring thing in the world.” And it’s true. Now in France, I’m a huge success for being me, and that’s divine!
Do you feel like now you can, not disassociate yourself from your family, but stand away from them and people’s preconceptions of you?
Yeah. I guess if I had a voice closer to my mum’s or Charlotte’s it would have been really complicated to start in the music industry. But what was fun was that they were muses, they were around guys who wrote songs for them and they sing like girls. I was lucky that I don’t sound anything like them and my music has nothing to do with them. I’ve spent so many years where everything in my character was a problem—I’ve got too much of a character, so you don’t get jobs because you’re not a blank canvas. Also, I always focus on personal things. I’m a great lover, so I’ve cancelled on movies because I’ve fallen in love, I’ve not shown up to meetings because I’ve fallen in love, and I’ve paid for that, very, very sourly and bitterly. With the music is that my life suddenly fits. I can go to sleep at 6 o’clock in the morning because I’m not demanded to work until 8 o’clock in the evening. I can fall in love for the rest of my life because I’ll write songs about it. I always fall in love with a**holes and now, thanks to them, I can write songs about them!
Do you ever wish that you weren’t attracted to musicians?
I’ve done the musician, the director; I haven’t done a photographer, thank God. I think it’s got to do with confidence and it’s got to do with your father, one way or another, and my father is a womanizer. You’ve got 50 guys in a room who are super into you, super kind, and you don’t even see them, and there’s one asshole who sits down with a sullen look and all of you just goes down.
I get why people are attracted to that, but personally I think I’ve only fallen for a real dickhead once.
It’s a little girl thing: I want that one who doesn’t want me. I’ll change that horrible man! I’ll make him a good man! Bulls**t! That never works! It happened again in September, I was in love with a stupid boy, who was actually quite kind, but a silly boy, and he left me the night before my first gig, which of course they do—before it’s your birthday, before it’s bloody Christmas, they know how to do it. And I was shattered. My producer called me up and said, “How are you?” And I was like, “He left me.” He very calmly said, “How many songs?” and I was like, “You a**hole. Three.” And then he said, “We like that man. They’re not a**holes, they’re your muses.” There you go, you’re just my muse, that’s all you are! When you’re not a victim anymore, everything tastes much nicer.
Do you worry that you need dysfunctional relationships as lyrical grist?
Ah, that’s the good question because, who knows? It’s very hard, I mean it’s the conversation that every girl has, and suddenly you meet the really kind guy, which has happened to me.
It’s happened to you now?
Yes and it’s super hard because it’s perfect and beautiful and it’s everything on the paper and you think, “Am I that f**ked up?” I don’t know, maybe I’m just a tiny, bit too young, I’m 30.” When I see my girlfriends—and I hope I’m wrong, but sadly I think I’m a bit right—90% of us go for the a**hole and 10% go for the good guy just because we’re fed up with the a**hole. So, is it better to settle down…
That phrase is awful.
Just to settle down with someone that’s good for them? I would rather love someone who’s an a**hole, but love him for real. It’s complicated.
Let’s talk about “Jealousy.” You really get into it.
It’s funny because, there was “Make A Sound” and “Jealousy.” My mum is obsessed with “Make A Sound,” which is, I wouldn’t say against her, but I’ve had a tough position in the sense that I’ve been 1 millimetre away from fame and money all my life, and I think I‘m a generous person, so I could deal with it for a long time. But suddenly it got to this point where to constantly see your mother doing something and everyone’s in awe, and your sister’s in a movie and she wins Best Actress in Cannes, and you get to this point where you think, you’re absolutely killing me, because I’m not living moments that are happy enough for me to be generous enough to give something back to you. There was this terrible thing where my mum was like, “You have to come to everyone’s premieres in my family," and my stepbrother is Yvan Attal, who is super successful and does movies, and my other stepbrother Cédric Klapisch, and everything he does is super successful, my sister Lola, it’s the same. It was just this mad thing where everything they touched turned to gold and everything I touched turned to rust and you think, “I don’t have a problem with you living a golden life, but it’s just too hard, it’s too close.” And so those two songs were songs to try to get it out. Like if I actually say it, I’ll be less of a bad person.
It is, hands down, the most destructive emotion.
Yes and jealousy makes you feel like shit. But if I get it out, maybe it will settle down a bit, which it has. It’s actually that same thing of thinking of, “You can’t change things, but you can change how you see them.” Which is the same as, “He’s not an a**hole, he’s your muse.” I’m super, super jealous with men. You have to calm down, because you fantasize that the guy is cheating on you and he’s not, and you’re going to break the relationship. Or he is cheating—which has happened to me—and it's not changing anything.
Is one of the cheaters on this record?
Yeah. We had been together for eight or nine months and I was crazy about him, and I learnt at the end of our relationship that he was knocking it off with two or three girls per day. And of course because I’m famous, every girl began to tell me. Girls in nightclubs would come up and say, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” Because they were famous girls too, a photographer would arrive and want picture of us both and I’m there putting my arm around them and I’d be like, “I think I might die at this point!” It’s just a f**ked up thing where girls towards girls are weird. You even want to tell the majority of guys, when you’re famous, women aren’t after you as a man; they’re after your boyfriend, that’s the whole bloody point. I told a boyfriend once, “Don’t you get it, when you go in a room, half the girls don’t look at you and as soon as I come in and kiss you, then all the girls are all over you.” Girls with girls are super strange about that.
So when you found out about all these girls, did you break up with him immediately?
Yeah and he had a wonderful sentence. I said, “Apparently you’re f**king a girl from Chanel, a girl of Dior, and a dancer.” And he said, in French, “En tout cas, personne de chez Chanel,” which means, “In any case, no one from Chanel.” I wrote it down and said, “One day I’m gonna look at this sentence and think it's the most exceptional sentence of all time.” And I do! It was four years ago and when I think of that sentence, I think, “You’re bonkers mate!”
Yes, bonkers is the word. Has he come back to you now that he’s heard the album?
No, I never ran into him again.
Well that’s a blessing. Okay, enough about boys. Change of subject. Do you think musicians should have a visual aesthetic which complements the music?
I’m happy and proud because I think I’m a fish swimming upstream. I was born in this industry, it’s like I’ve known the devil since I was born. I know everything that’s around it and all of the games between the movies and the fashion and all the women in my family. In a way, one of the reasons why my album has been so successful is I haven’t played any of those games. I go onstage without make-up, without my hair being done, and it’s bare. Everything is bare, every interview is bare and I like it that way.
What would you say is the one big lesson that your mom has taught you in life?
She’s taught me many big ones. My mother has never, ever been scared of anything. She was the first French person to arrive in Fukushima one week [after the nuclear disaster], she lived in Sarajevo during the war, I mean, she’s mad. She’s absolutely convinced nothing can happen to her. When I was a little girl my mother used to encourage me to speak to strangers. She used to abandon me in restaurants, she used to forget me in places—that’s why she made the Birkin Bag, she used to put me in the bag and then forget the bag and two hours later, and people would say, where’s the child? I’ve tried to raise my son the same way. I’m like, “Scared of what? The world is our home.” So I’ve never ever been scared and what goes with that is curiosity. My mum wants to know everything about everyone and it’s a lovely way of seeing the world.
Did her attitude affect your stance on having a kid at a relatively young age?
I had a kid when I was 19 and the father left and my mum was like, “Oh, its fine.” I had the baby and everything was fine. I didn’t have money, and I was going on movie sets without a nanny and my mum was like, “Well I didn’t have a nanny with you.” You just breastfeed, tell them to shut up, and they’ll get it. I never needed a ritual. I never had any. My mother would leave me to sleep wherever and Marlowe’s exactly the same. I’ve got my diary so he can always draw and we always travel light because we don’t need anything.
Did you ever find it a struggle to balance motherhood and a career and what you wanted to do?
Not at all, I guess the struggle is passion because passion is a dodgy one. When you’re very, very in love and very broken by someone, it’s the most dangerous thing because even your children don’t count anymore. That’s the scariest thing and I maybe women can relate to that. When you’re so down that you can’t even see them anymore. That’s the frightening thing. When I'm working I'm sad when he's not around.
Do you feel like an old soul?
Yes. I guess because my parents were crazy enough, because it was the 80s and they were kids who lived in the 70s, I’ve been like my parent’s parents since I was small. There weren’t rules or judgment—go to bed whenever you want and I would bring my mum back home when she was wasted. My mum is super fun and my family is great and we play catch and tickle. It’s this weird thing where we’re all children and at the same time, no one has a childhood and I love that.
Your family is pretty sprawling.
My mum’s been in love all her life and had a child with every man she loved and my father had one kid with the majority of girls he met. I have a little sister who’s not even two and my oldest sister is 49. People don’t understand, when you see us all. They think the youngest are my kids and my son is my brother, it’s a messed up thing and I love it.
How did you deal with the father of your son leaving?
I’m absolutely devoid of judgment and the same when the father of my son left. He was a good guy, but he was a crazy musician. Sometimes he would get wasted when he had my son and stuff and my American girlfriends would be like, “Sue him and he’s your son!” and I’d be like, “But why?” Technically he’s our child. I don’t see how I could be a cop. I don’t have any rights over the father. It’s this strange world where people are obsessed with judgment. You turn on the TV and you judge the best cook, the best look, the best, I don’t know what, best singer, best bulls**t. All the people I love wouldn’t even pass the first round. And if you judge for eight hours a day, then you start judging yourself and then you start feeling disappointed in yourself. Once again, this cycle of projection and disappointment, but that’s how the industry makes its money. The whole point is to make you feel insecure so that you buy lipstick to feel pretty, you buy a dress, you buy a car, you buy a house. We only live once and we shouldn’t justify it to anyone.
Do you still play rock music and dance around when you wake up in the morning?
Yeah, it’s our ritual. It’s my son who picks really funny music. We get into massive musical arguments.
What's he into?
Lately, he’s been really into Europe and “Final Countdown.” I have to wake up to that and I throw him all the stuff in the house and I’m like “F**k you,” and he just comes in my room singing it. I love it. [Laughs]
Lou Doillon Tour Dates:
10.11 - Los Angeles, CA - El Rey
10.13 - San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall
10.15 - Boston, MA - ICA Theatre
10.16 - New York, NY - Highline Ballroom (w/Au Revoir Simone)
10.18 - Quebec City, PQ - Imperial de Quebec
10.19 - Montreal, PQ - Olympia
10.20- Toronto, ON - Lee’s Palace
Kim wishes all musicians were this upfront. She's on Twitter - @theKTB.
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