Jehnny Beth on Branching Out From Savages, How Beyonce and Bowie Inspired Her Solo Debut
“How many of your favorite musicians have committed suicide?” Jehnny Beth asks out of the blue, during an interview about her solo debut, To Love Is to Live. “I don’t want to be too dark, but there is a fragility about being an artist. I think I’m very conscious of my limits. Making this record was necessary for me to survive. I don’t mean that in too serious a way, but I know that down the line, I would have suffocated if I didn’t do this.”
In the four years since Beth, age 35, last sang on an LP — as the frontwoman of noisy punks Savages, who paired dramatic, brutalist guitar lines with her lush vocals before going on indefinite hiatus in 2017 — she has challenged herself to get to know herself better so she could create a masterpiece. After learning that David Bowie created his final album, Blackstar, with the knowledge that it would be his last, she set out to make To Love Is to Live something that could serve as her defining statement.
She succeeded in realizing a work that reflects the many sides of her personality, from the vulnerability she’s always shielded to an inherent penchant for violence that she feels exists inside everyone. The music complements her moods, ranging from lush and symphonic to harsh and electronic — with contributions from Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross, producer Flood, the XX’s Romy Madley Croft, and Beth’s longtime partner Johnny Hostile — and the record sometimes sounds like an audio diary. In the span of 40 minutes, she explores her sexuality (“Flower”), feminism (“Innocence”), aggression (“I’m the Man”), and need for comfort (“French Countryside”). Sometimes it’s a tough listen — she’s just as blunt in her lyrics as she is bringing up suicide in conversation — but it’s the journey deep into her id that makes it one of the best albums so far this year.
Although the record suggests Beth would be a gloomy character, she’s positively cheery in conversation. It’s late May when she speaks with Rolling Stone, and Beth, who grew up in France before moving to England where she joined Savages, has been quarantined in one of Paris’ eastern arrondissements where she’s been working hard to stave off boredom. She was “infected,” to use her word, with the coronavirus early on when the pandemic hit but now feels healthy. She shadowboxes (her local boxing gym is closed due to the pandemic), she writes in her diary (focusing on the positive aspects of the day to help her state of mind), and she challenges herself to stay creative. She’s penned a book of erotic fiction, C.A.L.M., and she hosts a radio show for Apple Music, Start Making Sense, which focuses on new music.
This productive state of mind has helped her get over the disappointments of seeing the release of To Love Is to Live delayed (it was originally due in early May) along with most of her 2020 touring plans, which included a run with Nine Inch Nails. And she credits some of her perspective to an unexpected source.
“Michael Jordan has been an inspiration,” Beth says, citing the docuseries The Last Dance as one of the things that has helped her cope with staying home. “The way Johnny Hostile and I see the situation now is the way Michael Jordan would react at the end of a season when the Bulls would lose. Up to the last match, you would see him at the gym, training for the next season. So I think we need to have the mindset of athletes right now and just think, ‘OK, we’ve lost this battle. We’re probably not going to be touring in 2020. It’s going to be a different way to release a record, but everything we’re doing now is preparing for when we can be back on.’ So I feel much better now I’ve put all these things together.” It’s that mindset, too, that helped her create To Love Is to Live.
You’ve said that David Bowie’s Blackstar inspired To Love Is to Live, since Bowie made that album while appreciating the little time he had left. How are you seeing the world differently now that you’ve adopted a “live every day like it’s your last” mentality?
I still struggle. I still feel that there are some days where I haven’t really lived to the fullest. I still feel some days I should have been nicer; I should have been more present; I should have cared more. I always have those feelings of not being there. That’s what depression does. It just throws you inside of you and you’re not available for others.
How did that relate to the album?
I think a lot of the record is a promise about surviving: If I survive, I will do better; I will love better; I will give better. I wrote “French Countryside” on the plane when I thought we were going to crash. Obviously when we landed safe and sound, I forgot about it [laughs].
That’s what life is about. You just forget about death, otherwise you can’t live. I still wanted to feel the urgency, and for that urgency to be in the record. I was obsessed with the idea of my own death, to make this record before I die. I’m much more calm about it now I’ve done this record, actually until the next one. Once it was mixed and mastered, I remember exhaling and being like, “OK, I’ve done this. Anything else that comes after that will be a bonus.”
How did you come up with your vision for a Jehnny Beth solo album, after all those years with Savages?
When I decided to make the record, I didn’t know what I was going to make. At first, it was questioning myself about what kind of sound I wanted to make. Do I want to make a quiet record? Why or why not? I interviewed Brian Eno for my radio show Start Making Sense. I told him, “I don’t want to do a piano record.” He looked at me and he was like, “Why not?” It’s like, “Yeah. … Why not?”
There were four records that were inspirations to me at the time. There was Blackstar; Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly; Beyoncé’s album, called Beyoncé; and Low’s Double Negative. What I like in those records is the mixing of genres. There’s also the fact that it’s not just a collection of songs; they have a trajectory, a narrative. There is a real freedom in structure on some of those records. The Low record is one of the most daring records I’ve heard in a long time, production-wise.
What did you like about the Beyoncé album?
I have never ever, ever listened to Beyoncé before or after this record. But on that record, there were a lot of underground producers involved, and I especially liked [producer] Boots on a song like “Haunted,” where there was this song within a song. I thought it was liberating to hear someone on that mainstream level destroy and twist the neck of the pop song and de-structure things.
At the time, I felt very fragmented as a person. I was still living in London. I’d left my home country when I was 20 and I felt like I was completely disconnected with my first language and from my family. The artist I had become wasn’t connecting with the person I was when I was 20, and I felt all those parts were not communicating together. I felt quite unhappy about that. So when I heard the de-structured and fragmented songs, that’s where my mind was at.
What did you get from the other albums you mentioned?
With the Kendrick Lamar record, I liked how halfway through a song, another song starts and another voice comes in. I thought that multiplicity of voices was very important as well. And then Bowie, obviously, the sense of drama, the staging of death.
To Love Is to Live opens with the phrase “I am naked all the time,” which shows the vulnerability in the lyrics. How did you keep yourself from second-guessing your emotions?
From the beginning, I wanted to open up. In the past, I was very protective. I had a persona in Savages. I was frowning in pictures, channeling my inner Johnny Rotten. I wanted to express anger because nobody wanted me to express anger. They wanted me to smile. I felt that actually there were a lot of things I was angry about. I felt that it was serving more the project than the music for me to be that way. But there was also a lot of warmth in the band, in the live performances obviously and a song like “Adore” on the second record, which was opening up. The fragility is quite present in To Love Is to Live.
How did you allow yourself to be vulnerable?
The starting point for the record, lyrically, was to bring the demons that were haunting me on the page. I felt I was a very imperfect being when I finished the touring [with Savages] I felt I was often a bad person and prone to anger and violence. I felt I had some shit I needed to work out. My way of working it out, personally, was to go see a shrink. My other way was, in my art, to put them on the page. That’s why I wrote “I’m the Man,” because I wanted to say I am that violent person, too. It lives in me. It’s a bit like when you’re a kid and you play the bandit; playing the bad guy is fun, but also it’s quite cathartic.
We’re all prone to feeling sometimes frustrated and angry. We are violent beings. Where do we put it? What do we do with it? You can’t just ignore it. I have the tendencies as an artist to just draw a line on the ground and say I’m standing on the right side of the fence and here are the bad people. I’m having a hard time to do that, especially on this record. I feel I needed to wear the mask of evil in a way to exorcise it and also present a character that was flawed. That’s what I like in novels and books and films. I couldn’t just do a personal record and be just about love and peace and purity. It was impossible. I was too haunted with things I needed to sort out.
Well, as you sing on “We Will Sin Together,” the rest of the title, To Love Is to Live is …
To live is to sin. Yeah, exactly. I think the whole idea in that song is to say there’s no good and bad; there’s only in and out. If you decide to stand up from your couch and break a sweat and participate in life, there’s no living without being wrong.
You were supposed to tour with Nine Inch Nails this year. What did it mean to you to have Atticus Ross produce some songs on the album?
Atticus was actually the first producer I contacted. We had met before; he went to see Savages play. So I wrote to him, and for six months, it was a back-and-forth conversation between us. Eventually me and Johnny moved to L.A. for a few months and we rented a studio there. Atticus would come and see us after working with Trent in the day. When he started working on “I Am,” that’s when I understood, “OK, this album is going to go beyond my expectations.”
What was it that Atticus brought to your music that took it to another level?
It was depth of sound. He works like an architect. He develops these layers of sound and then builds some sort of volume with them. I always wanted to have volume on this record, but I didn’t want it to be the same as Savages with guitars, so he found a way to bring intensity with strings. Being a fan of his work with Trent on soundtracks, I was interested in him bringing that feeling of suspense to start the record.
You ended up making an album that feels like a full, 40-minute statement. How hard was it to make a record that was a complete thought?
It wasn’t obvious at the beginning that I was going to achieve that. My biggest fear was to be boring. I wanted to make a record where you never know what’s coming next. There are highs and lows and darknesses, moments of light, moments of beauty contrasted with violence. I knew I wanted that because I knew that was the best representation of life as I know it. I think being alive is a violent act, but it’s made of sort of moments of hope. When you juxtapose them then suddenly there’s this tension, and that’s what beauty is to me.
Between songs like “Adore Life” with Savages and your quest for meaning and being thankful for what you have on To Love Is to Live, it seems like your mission is to help people appreciate life. Is that your intention?
You’re right, I think it’s a mission. It’s hard to say I have a mission to help people be better, but I think it’s just a reminder to myself. When I was a kid, I think I was very close to some people who were not able to be present. They were eaten by the trauma, and I think it just stayed with me. You’ve got to be in the present. Anything I do, like being onstage, it’s so important to bring it to the here and now. Whenever there are moments that push the outside world away, all the noise, all the bullshit, all the fears, those are the moments we need to grab and keep as close as we can and try to recreate them. I think there’s not really much more to life than that and love.
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