Jehnny Beth: “Everybody does bad shit and I don’t want to pretend otherwise”
“I was on the phone with Joe Talbot from IDLES and he asked me, ‘What’s your best quality?’” Savages‘ Jehnny Beth tells NME from her home in Paris on lockdown. “I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t know how to answer that!’ He said, ‘Come on, you must – you can’t be a spokesperson without knowing your best quality’. He was right. He made me realise that I’m very good at pointing out my faults, but not my strengths.”
And what better exercise in self-analysis and discovery than putting together your debut solo album? On Friday, Beth arrives with ‘TO LOVE IS TO LIVE’, an assured collection of pummelling industrial rock and soaring cinematic sounds, which back the French punk provocateur’s most raw and personal lyrics to date. The last Savages’ record, 2016’s ‘Adore Life’, was adorned on its sleeve by a fist; a symbol of the defiant spirit of the record within – tackling sex, power, fluidity and freedom. ‘TO LOVE IS TO LIVE’ feels like a much more open gesture, inviting you to get to know who Jehnny Beth really is. The sleeve this time is a naked statue of the singer, exposed yet primed to face the world.
Born Camille Berthomier, the artist adopted the moniker of Jehnny Beth for her creative pursuits when she met her partner and collaborator Nicolas Congé, who also changed his name to Johnny Hostile, in 2004. Together they released two acclaimed albums as lo-fi indie pop duo John and Jehn, before Beth formed the post-punk agitators Savages in 2011. Their austere 2013 debut ‘Silence Yourself’, released via Matador Records and Beth and Hostile’s own Pop Noire label, rang out like a battle-cry and landed the band their first of two Mercury nominations.
Savages soon gained a reputation worldwide for their rabid and confrontational live shows, with Beth often drawing comparisons to the intensity of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis as a performer. You might have also witnessed this when she went on tour with Gorillaz a couple of years back after singing on ‘We Got The Power’ from 2017’s ‘Humanz’ alongside Noel Gallagher. Pained by being unable to step on stage for a while due to COVID, she’s found another outlet for her fighting spirit.
“The stage for me is where I can push the physical boundaries, be in the present and be absorbed by this total energy,” she says. “I do miss it a lot since I stopped touring with Gorillaz to work on the record. However, I’ve found the energy again at home through boxing. The boxing ring shares a lot of aspects with the stage. There’s an attitude you need to get. It makes you mentally as well as physically strong.”
Beth first had the epiphany to step away from Savages and touring to focus on her own music in 2016. Like many of us, she awoke in the early hours of January 10, opened her phone and was struck down by the news that David Bowie had died. As well as spending the day poring over his final album and parting gift ‘Blackstar’, she felt the pang that something was missing in her own life. “I realised that one day I’m gonna be gone, so in my core I felt that there was something that I hadn’t done yet,” she admits, “and that was this record.”
Asked if there was anything restrictive about Savages that drove her to go solo, she blurts out a playful “ha!” followed by a very pensive pause. “You know what? It’s all down to a life and death situation. I know it sounds quite dramatic, alright, but hear me out.”
“I know that I will die old,” she continues, “because I do what’s right for me. This album is part of that, and joining Savages was part of that as well. Kurt Cobain didn’t do what’s right. Ian Curtis didn’t do what’s right. At the end of the day, that’s what’s waiting if you don’t do what’s right for you: the rope, the gun. I think about what’s waiting for me at the end. There’s a moment where if you don’t regroup with yourself then you’re in danger.”
To escape keep herself on the right path, Beth chased her compulsion and set about creating something that she felt would be “absolutely real”. After months of letting her creative juices flow, she found out a lot more about herself than she’d anticipated. “We tend to forget that an album is a fiction in the same way that a book or a movie is,” she says. “It’s you, but it’s a representation of you. That representation is a truth in itself.
“Society is a fiction. Your name is a fiction. Religion is a fiction. Capitalism is a fiction. The real world is a fiction and the only way to fight the fiction is with fiction. When you think about that, you have the freedom to reinvent who you are – but it’s very scary. That freedom reminds you that you’re not entitled to everything and that there’s a price to pay for being the person you want to be. I was conscious of that when I decided to make this record and not another Savages record.”
“If you don’t regroup with yourself, you put yourself in danger.”
With the album written before the onset of COVID-19, and this interview taking place before the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent worldwide protests for racial equality, little did Beth know that reality in 2020 would continue to escalate.
Still, Beth admits that many aspects of ‘TO LOVE IS TO LIVE’ became “quite magic and premonitory” – not least for its title calling for connection and togetherness. “I used to be a human being, now I live on the web… take what’s left of me and my free time,” she sings on ‘Human’, seemingly predicting our days lost to Zoom calls, as well as our desensitization through an endless algorithm of shocking headlines. ‘Innocence’ meanwhile, takes us to a vast city where everyone feels disconnected, alone and riddled with self-doubt despite being surrounded.
“There’s rage piling up on these songs as you wonder where humanity has been and where it has gone,” Beth tells NME. “Those ideas felt quite scandalous and frightening, but then a song felt like the right place for them to exist.”
Another fiction she tackles is love, and how desires don’t always fit the shapes that love songs present you with. “She loves me and I love her, I’m not sure how to please her,” she pines on ‘Flower’, written for a dancer she fell for at Jumbo’s Clown Room, the raucous landmark Hollywood burlesque bar, frequented by the stars and where Courtney Love used to dance in the early ‘90s.
“That song is shouting about the unknown,” says Beth. “When you’re in love and not sure if you’re going to be loved back, that sensation is quite tender and exciting. It definitely makes you feel alive.”
Recounting her time at Jumbo’s, Beth expains: “At this club, the dancers are goddesses. When you’re there, you’re completely dominated by their performance. They’re really in charge. I have so much respect and admiration for them. I think that connects with a part of me from my childhood when I would feel attracted to people, men or women, and feel disarmed. You lose your self-control. I like that sensation.”
That curiosity for sensation and hatred of repression have been preoccupations throughout Beth’s work. Her rejection of the Catholic guilt she was raised with crop up several times on the album. On ‘Innocence’, she spits at the notion that religion once taught her that “it’s bad form to think man is a piece of shit”, while ‘We’ll Sin Together’ sees Beth surrender totally to once forbidden desires: “To love is to live, to live is to sin, I’ll take you down to me, hold my hand and swim, we are the damned.”
“If you break a sweat and participate in life, then there’s no living without being wrong,” Beth tells us of these themes. “It’s an invitation to do bad things together, and love is part of that. There’s no living without being wrong. Sometimes, especially in relationships, we hope for a sense of normality. We confine our feelings to what we’re told they should be.
“We think we know what a relationship requires and what makes them valuable, but we don’t imagine for an instance that love is something we can learn and model for ourselves. That’s the problem I have with so-called ‘pop music’ lyrically. It’s about the ancestral code of romanticism which generates so much frustration. We’re disappointed to see that our reality disagrees with the idea of ‘love’. We’ve been told to accept it and that thsere’s no alternative.”
Straying far from more traditional and ill-suited notions of love, this summer Beth will also be publishing Crimes Against Love Manifesto , a collection of 12 erotic short stories accompanied by Hostile’s photos. With tales of ritual humiliation, cannibalism and mourning for lovers past, Mills & Boon it ain’t.
“A book like CALM is to propose an alternative if you need one,” says Beth. “It’s not telling you what to do or how to think. I hate that. Let’s be honest, a book is not going to change a lifetime of experience and suffering. All we can do is share the complexity of what it is to be human. It’s definitely a call for freedom of imagination. Johnny and I take a lot of pictures, and these ones evoked the idea that we’re all animals and beautiful. It’s about exploring your body in the safety of your own home. That became my life, and I was just responding to it.”
Would it be fair to call it a companion piece to the album?
“They were written at the same time, but they were not written because they were connected. The book is very niche in terms of what it’s about. It’s about sexuality, it’s about freedom, fantasy, imagination, transgression. The record is much broader. It’s important for me to say that, because I’m often portrayed as an artist who can only talk about sexuality. That’s not true. The record is more about what makes us human, diverse and complex. There are parts of me in both of them, but they serve a different purpose.”
So Beth can now add author to her polymath resume. As well as her rocks tar life, she’s also acted in numerous French arthouse films over the years and won plaudits as a presenter for her Beats1 radio show Start Making Sense and new French TV music show Echoes, the latter a combination of chat and live music. “I’ve always been a great admirer of Henry Rollins,” she says in praise of the legendary Black Flag punk hero, who appeared on one episode. “He’s a frontman, a writer, a radio host, a TV host, a comedian. I always felt a similarity with that. Everyone is a multitude. We can be different people.”
“Life is an invitation to do bad things together, and love is part of that”
Both Start Making Sense and Echoes are driven by Beth’s joy in meticulously exploring why and how musicians do what they do. If she makes it seem effortless, this is because it just feels like an extension of what she usually does backstage anyway. She’s in her element. “I’m fascinated by the ‘how’. I love artists who really know how to write about their own art,” she says. “When I was growing up, my parents were in theatre so all these actors, writers and people from the creative world would come for dinner or to stay for a few days. As a child, I used to witness all these discussions about art, about process, about work. I’d just miss it if I didn’t have it because that’s where I feel at home.
“I do this naturally all the time. When I first met Romy Madley-Croft [of The xx] she came to talk to me at Coachella. We sat down and chatted, then met again at another festival and talked for hours with so many questions. ‘How come you never wrote about this?’ ‘When you wrote this, what did you mean?’ She’s a very inquisitive person so we bounced back a lot of questions. This is all just normal to me.”
Now Beth and Madley-Croft are very close friends, The xx singer playing an integral part in shaping ‘TO LOVE IS TO LIVE’.
“She was one of the first people who told me that there were sides of my personality that were not represented in Savages,” says Beth. “She said that she would love to be able to help me to show these unseen sides”. As well as taking Beth out of her comfort zone and introducing her to a more “pop” mentality, Romy once even spent the night in a club writing down everything she said before making her write a song out of it. (“It was funny because I was talking on my own and she was writing on her phone. We looked like a really bad date!”).
Beth admits that a real eureka moment came when Romy “strangled my neck with her hands to make me come out of my shell” when writing the track ‘Heroine’. “I had a song called ‘Heroism’ that wasn’t really about me at first. Then suddenly I had this line, ‘All I want, all I need, is to be a heroine’. Romy and [producer] Flood pushed me to that realisation. This was the song where suddenly I had to put myself in a positive outlook. Being the heroine is about standing strong, and suddenly I felt very weak like I didn’t have what it needed.”
Other collaborations on the record appear in the form of a powerful monologue from Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy on ‘I’m The Man’ (“his voice is fucking cool!,” says Beth, “and he’s a really great human being as well) and IDLES frontman Joe Talbot, who provides a paranoid bark along to ‘How Could You?’. “I was writing a song about jealousy and I thought that Joe would be perfect because he recognises his own mistakes and when he’s being a dick,” laughs Beth. “I really like that in human beings. Nobody is perfect, so you need to recognise your mistakes. For someone like me, it doesn’t work.”
“The record is what makes us human, diverse and complex”
It’s starting to make a lot more sense now as to why Beth couldn’t answer Talbot’s question about her best quality, as she’s far more fascinated by the chinks in the armour – especially her own. How else do we learn? How else do we know we’re human? You can be a hero, a heroine, a role model and spokesperson without being perfect.
“For this record, I wanted to wear the mask of ego,” she admits. “I wanted to face my own demons, to face what’s wrong with me and to face the bad stuff that I’ve done in my life. Everybody does shit that is bad, and I didn’t want to pretend that I was a good person who always does right and always has pure thoughts. I don’t. I’m struggling with that like every other fucking human being on Earth.”
Jehnny Beth releases ‘TO LOVE IS TO LIVE’ on Friday June 12.