The French icon and new New Yorker on family, grief, and what's next
Coffee with Charlotte Gainsbourg seems like it should take place in black and white. There’s something distinctly classical about the 47-year-old, almost as if she walked out of the frame of an old film and into the streets of contemporary New York. But when we meet a few blocks from her apartment in the West Village on an unseasonably warm day in March, those expectations fall away. Gainsbourg’s day is off to a rocky start; she “went out and drank a lot” the night before, woke up at 6:30AM to get her seven-year-old ready for school Uptown, and then had to come meet me, a stranger, at the Marlton Hotel’s cafe. As we sit down in a booth, she sends off a few texts and then looks up at me apologetically.
“My daughter,” she explains.
Gainsbourg is busy. She is an actress, a musician, and a mother of three. Over the course of the past year, she’s been touring intermittently on the heels of her critically-acclaimed 2017 album Rest. Starting Sunday, she will take her live show to a handful of cities in the US, and then to Coachella, and then Europe. She is beginning to work on a new album and just published her first book — a collection of photographs, self-portraits, and other ephemera — at the end of last month. Still, Gainsbourg doesn’t consider herself an artist, not really. The label is too loaded.
Gainsbourg is the daughter of the French pop musician Serge Gainsbourg and British actress and fashion icon Jane Birkin, both of whom helped shape the look and sound of popular culture in the 20th century. They raised their child in the public eye and, as a result, she began performing as a teenager. In 1986, Gainsbourg won a César Award for her performance in the French film L’effrontée and released her debut album, Charlotte Forever, produced by her father. The LP included their collaborative single “Lemon Incest,” which describes a father lusting after his teen daughter and inspired some controversy, which Gainsbourg has always shrugged off as provocation. After her father died in 1991, Gainsbourg retreated from the music world and focused on acting. She became a star of French cinema and her popularity grew in the US when she appeared in Michael Gondry’s The Science Of Sleep and a series of Lars von Trier films, including Antichrist and Nymphomaniac. (In 2017, Gainsbourg addressed Björk’s claim that the Danish director sexually harassed her on the set of Dancer In The Dark: “Maybe Lars von Trier is capable of that. But he didn’t do it with me.”)
When Gainsbourg returned to music in 2006, she did it in a big way, enlisting Jarvis Cocker, Nigel Godrich, and Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air to work on her first album in over a decade. 5:55 is an arid and somewhat quirky collection of pop songs sung entirely in English. The next year, Gainsbourg suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and the near-death experience informed her 2009 album IRM. Written and produced by Beck, IRM showcased Gainsbourg’s breathy, barely-there vocals in a new light; on the stand-out track “Me And Jane Doe,” she sings in a Nico-indebted deadpan. She followed the album up in 2010 with Stage Whisper, a collection of unreleased songs and live tracks.
It took Gainsbourg seven years to release a new album. She started working on it in France, where she’d spent most of her life and lived with her children and longtime partner, the Israeli-born French actor Yvan Attal. Then, on December 11, 2013, Gainsbourg’s sister Kate Barry died from falling out of her apartment window in an apparent suicide. Though they had different fathers, Gainsbourg and Barry grew up together and were close all their lives. Barry’s death shattered Gainsbourg’s perception of the world around her and she decided to uproot her family and move them to New York. Staying in Paris without Barry didn’t feel possible; it had become a haunted city.
The loss of her sister prompted Gainsbourg to radically revise the album she’d already started. She revisited her old journals and decided that, this time, she would write the album’s lyrics on her own. Her self-conscious approach to art-making had hindered the practice on previous albums, but working with SebastiAn (Sebastian Akchoté) in New York, far removed from her roots, Gainsbourg found the confidence to approach her craft differently. Rest is the first album Gainsbourg would release in French since collaborating with her father all those years ago. It is a collection of disco-infused pop songs that confront Gainsbourg’s family history head-on. She sings to her departed father and sister, her grief reflected in a mirror ball.
As heavy as the subject matter can be, Rest is a sleek collection of pop songs that sound good in pretty much any environment, at any time of year. It’s an album I’ve returned to over and over again since it was released in the winter of 2017. Over the past year, Gainsbourg has been busy promoting it, but she’s also been working on new songs. Though Gainsbourg is a bit of a renaissance woman, she’s unpretentious and is deeply concerned about coming off as smug and self-important. Over the course of our conversation, she speaks quietly and contemplatively about the things that have moved her throughout her long career. Though Gainsbourg’s mother is English, French is her native language and she occasionally pauses mid-sentence to ask me to translate a word.
Family has always been an important aspect of Gainsbourg’s identity-formation, as has her nationality. Living in New York has offered her a certain amount of respite from the demands of being a French icon. Living in the Village has allowed her to move a bit more freely, to make art for the sake of making it, untethered from the looming shadow of her family’s cultural cachet.
As she puts it: Here, “nobody gives a shit.”
STEREOGUM: You’re about to tour Rest in a few US cities and then you’re going to Coachella. That’s exciting.
CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: It is. I did Coachella I think 10 years [ago] — my first tour. I had never done any concerts and I remember at the time it was quite nerve-wracking and I [asked my manager], “How many concerts do you think I should do to feel ok at Coachella?” “I think five.” So I did five concerts before Coachella and then it was such a blast, this event was so over-the-top. It was wonderful. I was terrified, but in a good way. And [the audience] just carried me. You know I felt completely — it was really thanks to them. Being enveloped by the public and their response. It was really exciting.
STEREOGUM: Are you generally a shy performer?
GAINSBOURG: I’m better now but the first tour was quite difficult. I didn’t enjoy myself at all. I loved the fact that I was doing it but it was more of a challenge. I sort of didn’t like doing it. And on the second one I did with Connan Mockasin, who I love, and he toured with me with his band. So it was a little easier because I felt that we were sharing something on the stage. But still, it wasn’t my thing.
Now, for the first time I put together the band because with this album [I wrote my own] lyrics and I felt much more involved in the whole thing. I felt I was finally accepting the fact that I was only who I was. You know, not dreaming of being this incredible singer or performer. Now I find I’m sort of relaxed with the fact that I know what people are coming to see. Maybe not at Coachella because that’s the tricky thing with festivals: They’re not only there for you, so you have to convince them a little bit. But when it’s your own shows you feel that it’s OK, people are fine with the way you sound. I was very, um, how do you say … embarrassed about what I felt were — how do you say the opposite of quality?
GAINSBOURG: I had sort of become accustomed to my faults.
STEREOGUM: What did you perceive as your faults for so long?
GAINSBOURG: Maybe not being in control of my voice. I was so embarrassed when I hit a false note. I didn’t have a strong enough voice, so with my band [it felt] quite impossible to fight against drums and electric guitars. This time I still have the same problems but I feel that I don’t have to fight — I play the piano onstage which means that I’m part of the band. I have an instrument, which makes a big difference for me.
STEREOGUM: That’s so much pressure for a performer — to be standing up there with a microphone and nothing to hide behind.
GAINSBOURG: When I made records I always thought of how I wanted it to sound but never how I wanted to look performing it. In my mind I was always doing studio albums. It’s also the way I think my parents lived through their careers. When my father started performing, he was already 50. He had 20 years of music behind him. And it was never a question of touring — it wasn’t part of his thing. And my mother, the same thing. She started touring and performing when she was 40. That’s the way they did things. It took me 20 years to go back [to music]. To then feel like that meant that I needed to perform wasn’t logical for me. But now, I miss it, which is a very good sign for me.
STEREOGUM: I read somewhere that at first you said you weren’t going to tour the record. And then something —
GAINSBOURG: I thought it was always in the plans, but maybe not. The thing is, because [Rest] was so intimate and the lyrics are very introspective, maybe I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do it live.
STEREOGUM: You’ve done all of your records with different producers and they all have a unique atmosphere — you’re the only constant.
GAINSBOURG: I don’t think I’d love to work on my own, or maybe I’m not ready to, but I do love this idea of collaboration even if [SebastiAn] only does the music, for instance. I’m thinking about the next album. I already send him the lyrics to [get his] point of view. We bounce together.
I love that. I love being able to rely on someone else’s judgement and taste. I don’t trust myself enough to do things on my own. I ask people who I really admire and I was lucky enough to have [worked with] people who are very different. It was lovely to go from [working with Air] and Nigel [Godrich] also, to Beck on his own and have this dialogue going. That was really great. To be able to see him write and compose — I felt really lucky to have seen how he created a song.
Of course, I was collaborating and trying to give him ideas but I loved that time of just seeing how his mind was functioning, his methods. It was very inspiring and he was the one who said, “You’re making a big deal out of lyrics. It’s nothing really.” He would just very casually go into the garden with his notepad and 10 minutes later he would come back and he would say, “Try this!” And it was done. So of course, for him it was not difficult at all but then he said, “You should try and write the worst song ever. That’s your challenge: the worst song ever. Once you’ve done that, you’re in good hands.” I sort of took his piece of advice. I didn’t do exactly that but I got the idea that just daring is the biggest challenge. I think the fact that I moved [to New York] gave me the courage. No one was looking.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel more anonymous in New York?
GAINSBOURG: Oh yeah. There is a question of going back to Paris, maybe not next year but the year after, and I would very much miss this. I mean, people are not horrible in Paris. They just notice. I know how I’m dressed, I know how my hair is. It’s just a matter of not wanting to care.
STEREOGUM: New York is just so much more chaotic.
GAINSBOURG: Nobody gives a shit. [Laughs] It’s wonderful.
STEREOGUM: One thing I really love about Rest is knowing that it was made in New York but it’s your first contemporary music to be sung in French.
GAINSBOURG: I think the biggest challenge was to write in English because my first language is French even though my mother’s English. With English, I can’t really tell the true meaning. When I read a script I always go back to my agent to ask, “Was it funny? Because I thought it was funny.”
Maybe I don’t always get the tone right, so it’s always a little tricky. Writing in English meant that I had to sort of try and things would come out and I wasn’t really sure what they meant. Sometimes I would send things to my mother just asking, “Does this sound weird?” I dug into [my diaries], tried to find if some things resembled songs. I had tried [writing lyrics] on every album. I had tried on Air’s album and then Beck’s album. I could go back and look at what I had, which I was quite unhappy about, but it just meant it was a third try. In Paris, my record company tried to help. They made me meet with [songwriters] who looked into my lyrics. One guy who I really like, he started to assemble it in a different way. It looked like a piece of poetry, it didn’t seem like a song. So he tried to make it more like a song. And in fact, even if I love what he did for himself, I thought it wasn’t me anymore. It took a long time but made me realize that I liked my mistakes and that was what I wanted. I wanted something that resembled me.
I lost my sister which meant that my whole focus was only about her. I only wanted to talk about her, to think about her. I stopped the album when I was in Paris when [she passed] and started recording again here and the whole focus, of course, changed. Things started coming out both in French and English. In the end, I think the choruses were easier to write in English. Because it didn’t resonate as something very personal, the English. I was able to play and a chorus needs a bit of playfulness. It’s as if I didn’t dare to play with the French, it had to be honest and sincere and be true. The choruses could be a little lighter maybe.
I have little bits and pieces [for the next album] but I’m also waiting for the music. I don’t want to go too far with just poetry. I found that it was much too hard to put pieces of written lyrics inside music and trying to squish it in. I’d rather have a piece of music and be inspired and have the words come. I find that all much, much simpler.
STEREOGUM: Are you working with SebastiAn again?
GAINSBOURG: I hope so, yeah.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting that you wanted to put your grief out into the world on Rest. Some people have the opposite experience of grief — they want to tunnel into themselves and keep it private and personal.
GAINSBOURG: My father’s death was traumatic in a very different way. I was 19 he was like this national treasure. Suddenly, it was this massive explosion that was wonderful for him, I guess, but for me it was a nightmare. I didn’t want to talk about him, I didn’t want to listen to him. I mean, everything was really very tough. So I closed myself completely when I lost him.
When my sister died, suddenly I went through the exact opposite. In Paris, yes, I closed myself because people had been aware of what we’d gone through. It was public. But coming here, nobody knew, and suddenly I surprised myself speaking about her all the time, explaining that I came to New York because my sister had died. It was so natural. I wasn’t trying to make people uncomfortable — and it did make people very uncomfortable — but I needed people to understand where I was. And I don’t know, it felt like it made her exist, also. And the fact that I was in New York … New York was her city because her father lived in New York.
I was very nervous that carrying the songs live would mean that I would again dive into this sad place. It’s not the case. Certain songs, of course, are so obviously linked to her, but [singing them is] a moment that I treasure because the rest is sort of electronic music and there’s something very lively about it. Sometimes [it feels] dramatic, but it doesn’t pull me down. I take it as a real precious moment that I can still have with her. I realize that I’m quite lucky to be able to do this for a little bit still.
STEREOGUM: Because so much of the album is about family, I wondered how your family — especially your mom — reacted to it.
GAINSBOURG: I don’t really know. No, that’s not true. My mother was … I was scared that she would be hurt by the lyrics, by the fact that I was so openly talking about her daughter, that it would be hard for her. But I know that she loved it. She came every time I was rehearsing and was so positive. I think she knows exactly what I feel — the uncertainties of not feeling like I’m really a singer and having doubts. I’ve had that all my life about being an actress, everything. She doubts about herself, too. We’re sort of the same. I guess I was brought up with her judging herself and never being happy about what she had done. I think she understands that I need a lot of uplifting. And then the rest of my family, I don’t really know but I think they liked it. It’s hard for me and that’s why I’m so happy to be here — my father was a real genius with words. That’s what I try to do now: to write words and to try to not care about if I’m capable or not and how much of his shadow I’m in.
The fact that I had to put myself on a scale with him has always been very paralyzing. So I guess I didn’t want to — I didn’t want [my family] to be embarrassed by the fact that I wasn’t as good as my father. So I prefer not knowing what people think. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: The reviews were very positive.
GAINSBOURG: In France too! And I won this prize [for Female Artist Of The Year at Victoires de la Musique]! I was so, so proud. It sort of reassured me in the sense that I could do what I was doing, you know? That I have some kind of value.
Coming here, again, was very rejuvenating in a sense that you feel that everyone’s an artist in New York. And that it’s not such a big deal, you know, to try a bit of photography, try a bit of drawing, singing, music. Everybody does it. So it meant that I could try, you know? I didn’t feel judged at all here.
STEREOGUM: How do you feel it’s different in France?
GAINSBOURG: Maybe the thing is: I care too much in France. Here, I don’t care. New York gave me that distance of just wanting to do things and taking my time to judge. Whereas in France I want to judge myself before someone can even say something.
STEREOGUM: Do you think people in France take calling yourself an artist more seriously than they do here? It seems like everyone in New York is an artist.
GAINSBOURG: Yes! It is hard. Because I think we’re so much into this culture, the heavy culture of theatre, Molière and all these great authors, the painters. We’re surrounded by art, but “real” art. My father always said that he wasn’t an artist. He didn’t do “real” art, he did pop music, which was not classical music. It wasn’t a way of demeaning himself, it was a very sincere way of [contextualizing] his work. I find that great because I really don’t believe I’m an artist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do artistic stuff. It’s just that I always find it a little pretentious calling yourself an artist — I think that’s my French side. It’s true that we look up at our culture — it’s very paralyzing. America’s a young country, it’s wonderful for that.
STEREOGUM: It’s very true that everyone in this city is always working on something. Everyone has a “project.”
GAINSBOURG: Yes, a project! [Laughs] But it’s fun. I don’t know, I’ve done a lot of things here that I wouldn’t have done in Paris. I’m releasing a book. It’s completely unpretentious because it’s not an art book — I’d call it a coffee table book. It’s just a scrapbook of everything I’ve worked on during the album. So, a bit of drawing, a bit of photography, my lyrics and the way I tried to write them, all put together in sort of random order. Of course there are pictures of [my sister and father’s] graves and around New York, a lot of auto-portraits and drawings.
My very good friend who pushed me into writing my lyrics, who pushed me into directing my own videos, and taking pictures, said, “You have enough material to make a book. Just do it.” I’m really thankful because I think I needed that push. It is a little pretentious to, you know, to feel that you have a book to put out. It’s quite noble. A book is a little noble. [Laughs] I hope it’s not boring. It’s all in black-and-white. It does resemble the album — it should have come out with the album.
STEREOGUM: You reference the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid in the video for “Rest.” What is its significance for you?
GAINSBOURG: You know, I can’t really tell. I’ve never analyzed why. I have a quite a few [films] that really had an enormous impact on me but I think it’s just such a moving film for kids to watch. I watched it as a child but I can’t really remember when and where. I must have been nine — when I turned nine my parents split and my father’s house became this home I would go to on weekends and he made it such fun. [Laughs] My mother had the bad role [during the week] and he was like … Father Christmas. I don’t know, it was just the happiest of times. And he would put on a big screen in his bedroom, which was really like going to the movies. So I discovered there, I think, all the films that really marked me.
STEREOGUM: So much of the record, especially accompanied by the videos, feels like an homage to childhood.
GAINSBOURG: I think my role models, even though I didn’t know I wanted to become an actress, my role models were all kids. Jodie Foster in Bugsy Malone, The Kid … Los Olvidados [The Young And The Damned], it’s about boys and it’s so vivid and present. Tiger Bay with Hayley Mills. I wanted to be them. I treasure my own childhood. My childhood was the moment of grace, of innocence.
STEREOGUM: How has it been for you to raise your own children, having such an attachment to your own childhood?
GAINSBOURG: I find it very easy when they’re zero to five. Very obvious — they need something, you’re there. You know their needs and then it becomes so complicated just to trust your education. I have no certitude, do you say certitudes?
GAINSBOURG: Certainties. And I believe when you’re a parent you need certainties and I have none. So, it’s very hard for me to feel like I’m helping them. That I’m this rock that they need as a mother. I feel my parents were real solid rocks. Even if they were fragile and destructive and all that, I didn’t question the fact that they knew what they were doing. I have the impression that my children know that I have no idea what I’m doing.