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Cover Story: Jehnny Beth

| June 30, 2020

There are Renaissance women, dream-driven ladies who tirelessly toil their way to coveted career kudos like gaining elite EGOT status by winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. There is even a further achievement to shoot for once that title is secured — the PEGOT, via the added plaudit of a Peabody Award, a category currently shared by Barbra Streisand and Rita Moreno. And then, of course, there’s the unstoppable French force of nature Jehnny Beth, a human dynamo so constantly in motion that she’s practically a blur on the showbiz radar screen. We’re talking whirling-dervish, Tasmanian Devil velocity here. Minus all the unbecoming slobbery Taz drool.

 This Jill of all trades — born Camille Berthomier to theater-director parents — was something of a child prodigy, studying piano and voice with jazz instructors at age eight and appearing in her first Ibsen play by ten. After training in the thespian arts at the Conservatoire de Poitiers, she began appearing in films in 2005 while also assuming her chic sobriquet and forming the duo John and Jehn with her significant other, Johnny Hostile (nee Nicolas Conge), and moving to bustling London. The couple is still together today. That’s where she rose to prominence as feral frontwoman for the all-girl juggernaut, Savages, alongside guitarist/keyboardist Gemma Thompson. Acting soon fell by the wayside. “But I’ve always been seriously interested in doing a multiplicity of things,” she says. “And my hero for that is Henry Rollins because I always felt that he was so good at being a writer, a radio host, a comedian, a great punk singer, and a solo artist. So I like that vision of the artist — the record is not the only thing that I am interested in doing. It’s part of this whole world that gives me inspiration.” 

Savages might have gone on hiatus in 2017 after two Mercury-Prize-nominated records, but that’s when Jehnny Beth came alive, collaborating with Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream, The Gorillaz on “We Got the Power” from their album Humanz, and Romy Madley Croft from The xx onstage with that group and on her own stunning new solo set, To Love is to Live. In between? Enough projects to make Henry Rollins’ studious head spin, starting with her composing the film score for XY Chelsea, a recent documentary on the life of trans soldier Chelsea Manning. She then contributed music to the popular English-gangster period-piece TV show Peaky Blinders, whose star Cillian Murphy appears on “To Love” in the solemn 1:13 soliloquy “A Place Above.” In short order, Beth had launched her own Beats1 Radio show “Start Making Sense,” begun a music-themed TV program on art called Echoes With Jehnny Beth and returned to the silver screen in Catherine Corsini’s 2018 movie An Impossible Love, which earned her a Cesar nomination for Most Promising Actress. She also joined the cast of director Alexandre Astier’s upcoming Kaamelott, a continuation of a popular French Arthurian TV series in which she sports a monolithic Mohawk. And while she was carefully conceiving her solo outing, she penned her first book of erotic fiction, C.A.L.M. (Crimes Against Love Memories) that’s being published this month, with photography by Hostile. “It’s coming out on this new Hachette imprint called White Rabbit, and I’m very proud of it,” she says of the dozen stories. “And I wrote the book in parallel to the record, in fact — I wrote them together.” 

The album itself is arresting in almost every respect, starting with its cover shot — a 3-D computerized, simulated-marble nude sculpture of the artist in a Rodin-like thoughtful pose. She commissioned the work from red-hot British graphic designer Tom Hingston, who  — with Markus Lehtonen — then expanded the classical concept into a full video for her pulse-pounding single “We Will Sin Together,” which examines male/female identities through more animated statuary, including the Virgin Mary, Cupid and Psyche, Pluto and Proserpina, Michael and Lucifer, and Satyr and Hermaphroditus. And the team cobbled together the whole eerie, flickering footage during the last three months of lockdown. And that’s just the starting point, the intellectually-inviting welcome mat this singer places outside the door as a caveat for what you’ll hear inside. In short, lightweight fans of disposable committee-written IKEA pop need not request a ticket. This is a complex record, a challenging album, the kind of post-punk command performance that few performers are bothering to make anymore. Listeners might marvel at its intricacies and wonder, “Did she really put that much thought into this? Or am I just overthinking it?” Yes, she did. And no, you’re not. You’re privy to a real labor of love by an erudite genre-jumping composer who is quite happy to be still doing it Matin-Hannett-old school. Underestimate Jehnny Beth at your peril. 

The record opens on a declarative “I Am,” with Beth’s bass-vocodered voice murmuring,  “I’m the voice no one can hear/ I am drifting through the years…I’m burning inside,” as synthesizers undulate like crashing waves. “Innocence,” a thumper with more sweeping statements follows (“I don’t even care about sex no more/ I wanna do things with innocence”), which segues into the half-sung, half-spoken word “Flower,” with tick-tocking percussion, a huge keyboard-buttressed chorus, and further physical self-assessments (“Cold in the daylight/ Burning at night”). “We Will Sin Together” ensues, then the Murphy monologue. Then all hell breaks loose on “I’m the Man,” via a charging, dissonant mix that sounds like raccoons knocking trashcans over by the chorus, over which Beth snarls — in her Gitanes-cool French/English accent — “I’m the man! I’m the man! Not a pooossy!” And her pronunciation of pussy is at once humorous, macho-satirical, and downright terrifying. It’s one of the most striking truly rock and roll moments in recent memory, believe it or not. She’s not kidding around here. She means every venomous word. 

“I’m the Man” precedes a gentle piano reprise called “The Rooms,” which then gives way to the rattlesnake-threatening “Heroine,” which runs down a Santa-size wish list of everything honorable that Beth would like to be — or more correctly, is programmed by society into THINKING she should be.  “How Could You” follows, featuring Joe Talbot. The disc then slows to a close on “The French Countryside” (in which she mournfully observes, “If I ever see the French countryside again/ out of this aeroplane,” a question many of her countrymen are probably asking these days), and the six-minute coda “Human” ends the proceedings in a whirlpool of dissonance and Beth’s somber conclusion, “I used to be a human being.” Hey — we all did, right? Until Covid-19 turned us all into veal calves, boxed up and waiting for the end, or perhaps a reprieve from the governor. 

“I really wanted to make a record that called for several listens,” explains Beth, 35. “And I think it’s quite layered, built up around the nature of being human, and that’s what I want the record to reflect. And it reminded me that that’s what I used to love about an album — the fact that it was rich and with more people’s voices merged together, with a great sense of narrative from start to finish, but also very classic and contrasted. I love those kinds of records. So I wanted to make a record like a collection of songs, but to make it cyclical, as well, like a spiral, so when it stops, you can start again.” That was the first question co-producer Atticus Ross asked her, she says — just how deep did she want to go? She chose the sonic rabbit hole. “In pop culture, there is this tendency to simplify and have a very clear message. But I like things that are not just one thing — I like to have several meanings in one, while — I hope — still being able to be entertaining, nonetheless. That was my intention, at least.” 

You truly have to admire a songwriter who has such reach-for-the-stars ambition. Where did the singer muster such solo-set courage? It all started with her return to Paris three years ago, she says, after 12 years spent living in London and working on Savages. She wanted to be near her family, and she was feeling fractured, out of sorts, at odds with the entertainment industry. “There were parts of me that I felt were not connected together,” she elaborates. “So basically, I went into therapy because I needed to regroup — there were parts of myself that I felt were preventing me from moving forward. And that also worked for my art in a way, which I also felt was evolving and not just staying where I’d left it.” Hence her song “Innocence,” she adds, which describes her frustration and isolation in feeling separated from the human race. A weirdly prophetic sentiment, given the coronavirus constrictions that now encircle us. 

But there was some heavy Catholic guilt involved in said sentiment, as well, Beth points out. “I was not feeling empathy with my peers, and I felt like I needed to be honest with myself about these feelings. So the whole of the record is about admitting those flaws and not hiding them away and just being honest about what it means to be human. Because I am a complex human being, and I have contradictory flaws, so “Innocence” is expressing a feeling of disgust with humanity.” She pauses, sensing a need to go into greater detail. “You know when you live in cities, and it’s very crowded, people are not necessarily very nice, and it smells bad,” she continues. “Especially Paris. You think of Paris as this very beautiful city, but actually, it’s quite dirty as well. And sometimes, I’m just fed up. I’m fed up with the world and with people’s minds and their closed-mindedness. And sometimes, I just want to shout out that I’m not responsible, I can’t save the world, I just don’t have enough room in my heart. So there are those things that were shameful. But it’s like writing a novel — you take the most shameful thought as the core and then work from there. And obviously this record is not just about that. But I wanted to put moments of lightness in contact with moments of despair because that’s how I know life is.” 

What other revelations occurred through Beth’s therapy sessions? They don’t hit like lightning overnight, she says — she’s been going for three years, and true Aha moments take a while. It takes work to sort through a lifetime of conflicted memories, feelings, and beliefs. “But I had one of those moments recently that was very personal, something about my family,” she admits. “And I don’t think I would be the same person if I hadn’t chosen to start doing this. Sometimes, I feel like you’re just rambling about, rambling on about stuff. But it was important for me to have a place where I can say anything and not be afraid and there’s’ no consequence at all about what I’m going to say. And when you think about it, there are not many places like that in the world. And you really need to talk about your thoughts without judgment. I think the whole record is about that — liberating the mind, liberating the thoughts, and not having them be judged. And if you can liberate the mind from having all these contradictory thoughts — like sometimes you can love someone and hate them at the same time — then that’s okay. But if you’re repressing that? That’s when real, real bad shit can happen, in my opinion.”

Was it therapy that freed Beth to get back to her first love, acting? And then pursue parallel careers in radio, television, and literature? She’s not sure. “But they’re all fuel for me,” she notes. “When I started doing the radio show, for instance, I was still on tour with Savages. And then I went on tour with Gorillaz, so I ended up being showered with new music in a way that I had never been before, because every week, I was doing a radio show about new music. So they would prepare playlists for me with music that was just out that week, and as an experience, it was quite intense for tow years to do that.” At first, she thought she’d despise all the nifty new artists. Instead, she says, “It made me really happy, really hopeful and connected to my time, and it made me feel like, ‘Yeah! We can do this! This is an awesome generation, real things are being expressed, and I love it!’” Ditto for her TV talk show, which reminded her of her childhood spent sitting rapt at the dinner table, while her theatrical parents entertained various members of a visiting troupe. “There were always creative people in the house as a kid, and I was sitting at that table listening to all this exciting conversation, and I think it’s now just part of my DNA, in a sense,” she says. 

Also embedded in her genes: That sleek aesthetic appreciation for all things artistic that can only be described as Gallic. The French have the young, intellectual Macron as their leader. They can claim some of the world’s most brilliant writers, painters, composers, and cinematographers, from Baudelaire to Jacques Brel, and all points in between. Beth loves discussing her homeland visionaries, like Jean Cocteau and his definitive masterpiece “Beauty and the Beast.” “That’s one of my favorite films, and I actually thought about it recently, how much it was scary and beautiful at the same time,” she says. “But I kept watching it as a kid, and it was so good for the imagination. I remember the arms holding the torches, and back then, something like that would obsess me for weeks, months. And nowadays, there are so many CGI images going on, which is great. But back then, it was all handmade, and sometimes limited strictures like that can create the best thoughts, the best imagination.” 

And where else but France could something such as this happen, she asked rhetorically, describing an incident on her first day on the set filming her comeback epic, An Impossible Love. “I was totally taken by surprise by the (role) offer, but I accepted it — I thought it was a good time to try something I hadn’t done in ten years,” Beth recalls. “So it was my first scene, and we were shooting at the Museo de Rodin in Paris, and I was a bit nervous. And then suddenly, just before they said ‘Action!,’ the actress I was working with said, “Oh, my God! I just received a text — Jeanne Moreau died!” And everything stopped. And it was so strange, because Jeanne Moreau was an idol of mine in childhood, a role model, and someone I really wanted to be — I wanted to be her when I got old. So it wasn’t a sign, exactly. But it was a very strange sort of coincidence.” 

Jehnny Beth stands a good chance of achieving that classy goal, if not a PEGOT. If we ever wrestle free from this deadly pandemic. “And it’s an imposed isolation, so it’s a bit weird to do the good thing, the natural thing that everybody else is doing,” is how she rationalizes it. “Because as an artist, we like to do the opposite. I like to stay in bed while everyone else is going to work. I like to have sex for hours while everybody else is demonstrating in the streets. I like to do things that are the opposite of what the crowd is doing. I think it gives a unique perspective on my work.” 

-Tom Lanham

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