Jehnny Beth: ‘When you’re scared it means you’re pushing in the right direction’

Former singer with Savages, Jehnny Beth releases her solo album To Love is to Live today. She spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Jehnny Beth. Picture: Ella Hermë

“Yes, life has changed,” says singer and songwriter Jehnny Beth with a rueful chuckle as she contemplates her much-altered circumstances since a family emergency brought her back to France, from London, shortly before the Covid-19 lockdown.

She’d scheduled a world tour to correspond with the release of To Love is to Live, her first solo album since her band Savages went into hiatus in 2016, but now all travel plans are on hold.

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“The biggest thing for me was the cancellation of the touring, and we have no idea when we are going to be able to go back,” says the 35-year-old, whose real name is Camille Berthomier. “We’re working to find different ways of maybe performing.

“It takes a moment to adjust, I think, because I had been preparing so much for this record. I’d spent six months working on the live set, it was exactly how I wanted it. It’s just trying to reschedule things.”

A useful channel for her energies has been boxing training, a hobby which Jehnny Beth took up when live work with Savages and Damon Albarn’s musical collective Gorillaz ceased. “I thank my boxing club really from the bottom of my heart for keeping us active,” she enthuses. “I’m still doing it from a distance. I wouldn’t have been able to survive without that, really. Boxing was the only thing that kept me sane. I didn’t realise but being on stage gave me an outlet for physical expression that I really needed. Boxing has the same way of working the body but also the mind. I highly recommend it.”

Ideas for the album began to formulate as Jehnny Beth and her partner Johnny Hostile repeatedly listened to David Bowie’s album Blackstar in the days after the singer’s death in January 2016.

Bowie, she says, inspired her to become a musician. “I remember being very young on school trips and having a ‘best of’ cassette of Bowie and being transformed by what I was hearing. He’s the father of us all, being able to transform and always follow his heart. Also artistically he was always an obsession, which is something similar to someone who was very influential to me, which was PJ Harvey. She gets a lot of credit for everything she’s done; but for also being versatile and able to reinvent herself in that same way that Bowie did, I think she’s very similar.

“Those artists are reminders that you just have to follow what you want to do, no matter how scary that sounds. When you’re scared it means you’re pushing in the right direction, in a way you haven’t explored before. I was definitely inspired by that for this record.”

Confronting mortality led Jehnny Beth to question many aspects of life. “Right now we’re probably all very conscious of what’s essential in our lives,” she says. “The album is where you need to regroup and think about what is essential. I think any art needs to be done out of necessity, you really carry on living if you can do that, and if you find that place, that’s where you need to go, it’s where you can create. If you have that urgency, you’re in the right place.”

The record, she says, reflects on the complexity of being human. “It’s quite layered, it’s how I wanted it to be. One of the first questions Atticus [Ross, Trent Reznor’s long-time collaborator who produced To Love is to Live alongside Flood] asked me before we started working together was if I wanted to do a collection of songs or an album. I always knew I wanted to make an album with a strong sense of suspense and narrative, with a multiplicity of voices that were very contrasted. That reflects what living is to me – it’s a mix of light and darkness and beauty and moments of violence, and I wanted to put all of that into the record.”

Questions of identity linger in many of the songs. It seems to be an area that Jehnny Beth has been further pondering in lockdown. Her fondness for Britain stemmed from childhood. “I first went on a trip to London when I was 15,” she says. “I knew some people there who were into music and every year I would go there for as long as a I could.

“Since a very young age I was really into English and I learned English at the age of eight when I started singing jazz standards with an incredible jazz pianist who was teaching me every Saturday. I would go to his house and he would play piano then we would swap seats and I would play piano and sing, so I learned English by singing all those jazz standards, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday.

“I studied English at school and I was really good at it. My teacher sent me to some people she knew in London. From the age of 15 I wanted to move to London, I had this obsession. Like a lot of teenagers, I needed to escape, I needed to find myself. And also speaking a different language gives you a lot of freedom because suddenly you can rebuild your whole identity. Language is your identity. It was an opportunity to shape and morph into whoever I wanted to be.

“I was fascinated by English culture. I come from France, it’s quite Latin and overemotional; what I found in Britain was a respect and distance. That national shyness is a beautiful thing. It sort of completed my education, I think. Obviously the music, the drum & bass, there was so much going on in London, I felt really excited.

“Since meeting Johnny Hostile and doing music, I said, ‘that’s fine but I don’t want to stay here [in France], I want to go to London’, so we moved. I was 20 years old when I jumped on that boat.”

Now 35, she feels more comfortable being back near her roots in Poitiers. “I do now, I didn’t for years,” she says. “I was even forgetting my French, it was really pathetic for a while, but I felt really fragmented at the end of the last tour with Savages. I felt unhappy. I wasn’t really sure who those different parts of me were, which one was right, which one was me. I think I needed to regroup, I needed to go back. It was kind of unintended. At the time I was working on instinct, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. And I miss London a lot. London is really my home, I know it like the back of my hand. I might go back at some point. I just felt that it was a good time to do it for me.”

The jazz influence, that was harder to define in the post-punk of Savages, is noticeable in the solo song The Rooms. “My first band was a girl jazz band and I was the singer,” Jehnny Beth says. “Then when I discovered rock ’n’ roll around 17 or 18 I thought that jazz was so old school and grinchy. I loved electric guitars, I thought ‘this is it for me’. But when I was unhappy it always came back. I just put on a Theolonius Monk record or Mingus and I felt instantly better. For me jazz is always connected to film noir of Melville or Cassavetes’ Shadows or Elevator to the Gallows (Lift To the Scaffold), that ambience is something that I wanted on the record.

“Part of making the record was giving no restrictions on ideas, we decided to try some improvisations with musicians...It was just the tip of the iceberg that we chose.”

Among Jehnny Beth’s many collaborators on To Love is to Live are Romy Madley Croft of The xx, Joe Talbot of Idles and the actor Cillian Murphy. The singer says she likes having people to bounce ideas off. “It’s hard for me to call it a solo record,” she says. “A solo record makes me think it’s written, produced and recorded by myself. I admire people who can do everything themselves, although sometimes I think it’s a bit detrimental to the music, not everybody’s Prince. But for me it’s definitely the group thing I sought the most, especially for this record. It was working with groups but also a very small amount of people each time. When I was working with Romy it was just me and her in a hotel room. It was separated in different cities as well.

“I really wanted to be opening the door for people to express themselves. There’s nothing worse than inviting someone in and then putting a leash on them. I like to hear real self-expression on records. All of them had complete free rein in what they wanted to do. There was a lot of conversations before; with Atticus we spoke for six months before we did any music, we wrote each other emails and we talked on the phone and then when me and Johnny Hostile went to LA for a few months and were working in the studio he would come every night and we would sit down and listen to music and then after all that, six months, he sat down and started making music.

“I love collaborations. The great thing about a solo record is you have the final word.”

In July Jehnny Beth is due to publish her first book, Crimes Against Love Memories, a collection of erotic short stories. “What I didn’t anticipate is to be labelled as someone who talks about sex, which can have some clichés around it, some preconceptions for some people,” she says. “The reason I started writing is it’s not really about sexuality, it’s about fantasies. It’s a great subject to write about because it’s the land of the imagination, it’s a place where anything can happen and you don’t have to stick to the facts, so writing becomes very fun. It was very natural for me to try to write about this. I wanted to suggest alternatives to the standards of romanticism that society imposes on us. A book is a place where you can say anything, more than a record. I think it’s a real place for freedom.”

As well as a radio show and TV presenting in recent months, Jehnny Beth has returned to acting in the soon-to-be released French film Kaamelott. “It was a cult comedy series that was on TV for a very long time,” she explains. “That stopped ten years ago. The main writer/director Alexandre Astier is one of the biggest and most famous and talented comedians in France. They asked me to be part of the film as one of the characters and I am the right-hand [woman] of Sting. It was an honour, it was completely bonkers,” she laughs. “The story is about King Arthur and the quest for the Grail and the Round Table. It was an amazing experience. I was dressed as a mercenary with a sword and a Mohican, it was fun. It was supposed to come out at the end of July but because of the world situation it’s going to come out at end of November.”

To Love is to Live is out on Friday June 12. www.jehnnybeth.com