“A lot of artists fall into the trap of being too controlling. Serving your ego is not serving the music…” - hmv.com talks to Jehnny Beth
As singer in post-punks Savages, Camille Berthomier, better known as Jehnny Beth, is used to working fast.
Their debut LP Silence Yourself was recorded in three weeks, its follow-up Adore Life in four, so, when she decided to step away to pursue a solo LP, she wanted to take her time.
The result is To Love Is To Live. Recorded over a year-long period, the album features production from super-producers Flood and Atticus Ross as well a longtime co-creator and the singer's partner Johnny Hostile. There are also guest appearances from The xx’s Romy Madley Croft, actor Cillian Murphy, and IDLES’ Joe Talbot.
To go with the record, she has written Crimes Against Love Memories, a collection of erotic short stories, which will be published in the summer.
We spoke to the singer about why she decided this was a project just for her…
Why did you decide that you’d make an album away from Savages?
“It was a succession of things. More of a feeling than a defined desire. When I decided to make this record, I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was a feeling, wanting to jump in the unknown. I didn’t know what I wanted to say or who I was going to work with. I hadn’t been planning this for years.”
Do you write in concentrated bursts or are you always writing?
“I do it constantly. I had material from the past couple of years and bits from touring. I had some things. The impulsion led me to do more exploring.”
Once you’d decided to follow the impulsion, did the songs come quickly?
“The songs came quite quickly, but I knew that this record had to be different. I didn’t want to make it in a hurry. I wanted to allow time. We rush everything nowadays and I knew I had time. I was stable financially and I had that luxury of taking my time. I didn’t want to record in three weeks and it be done. I wanted time to reflect between sessions and to not conclude wrap too soon. I wanted to explore a lot of ideas.”
Did that mean you ended up with a lot of songs?
“It did and a lot of versions of the same songs. Me and Johnny Hostile would try a lot of different styles with the same lyrics, we found a lot of sounds we wouldn’t have done otherwise.”
You recorded at home in Paris and in London and Los Angeles, was that a case of going to where producers were?
“My studio is in Paris and a lot of the first demos were done here, as well as some bits at the end. Me and Johnny moved to Los Angeles for a few months and that’s when we could come and work with Atticus Ross. He’d come after a day with Trent (Reznor, Ross’ co-composer of film scores like The Social Network and Gone Girl) and work with us in the evening. We’d spent a lot of time talking with him over email and we had a good sense of each other from that.”
“London was where I did my sessions with Romy. I also wrote with her in Berlin. I recorded a few songs with Flood in Assault and Battery, that was also in London.”
Did you enjoy having a range of studios and collaborators? It’s not the way you’ve worked in the past?
“I’ve worked fast all my life when it comes to making records. I wanted to change that. I just wanted to not repeat myself. I like records where there’s space for producers and collaborators. This album isn’t me being a control freak. I wanted everyone to own a bit of it who I worked with. It’s not a solo record, it’s a personal record. So many solo albums are recorded, produced and written by one person. I knew that wasn’t going to serve the music.”
But it’s the opposite of why lots of people make solo albums. They haven’t got total control in their day jobs so they seize it…
“It’s my record, I have final say, but I’ve never worried about losing my identity. I’ve worked with Gorillaz, I’ve collaborated with other people a lot, I’m quite self-assured. It was more about me being curious. I wanted people to express themselves and not arrive with the idea that they had to please me. A lot of artists fall into the trap of being too controlling and thinking they know best. Serving your ego is not serving the music.”
Your live plans must be up in the air...
“I really hope I can tour as soon as I can. Confinement doesn’t actually change much for my day to day life. I always isolate myself. When I wrote my book ‘Crimes Against Love Memories’, I travelled to different cities to write. I’d write four or five hours a day and just go out for food. I know the feeling. I think artists should be detached to a certain extent. It won’t be a shock for me, I just wish it wasn’t happening right when I’m supposed to be moving a lot.”
How was assembling a live band?
“We started practising in August last year. It’s the first time I made a record without thinking about how I would do it live. I’ve found a great band, they were very caring and they all said yes to the project without hearing the record, that meant a lot to me.”
Did you make a conscious choice to not think about playing the songs live?
“I’m not going to repeat myself. It was such a reflex, to think about how you’d present a song on stage. It was such a habit and it felt very uncomfortable to change that, but I got used to it. The only problem was having enough music to fill an hour, so we wrote more music and we extended parts. Me and Johnny spent a lot of time doing that and I was so happy with the show when we’d finished.”