As the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg has had a lot to live up to in her creative endeavors and she’s met the challenge head on. As an accomplished actress, Charlotte has starred in arty films like Todd Haynes‘ I’m Not There-inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan–Michel Gondry‘s The Science of Sleep and, most recently, Lars von Trier‘s controversial Antichrist.
Musically, Charlotte has released three albums: Charlotte for Ever, which was produced by her late father and came out when she was just 13; 5:55, her first adult offering, on which she worked with Nigel Godrich and Jarvis Cocker; and her most recent effort, IRM, produced by Beck. Named after the French equivalent of an MRI, IRM was inspired, in part, by Charlotte’s frightening experience with a cerebral hemorrhage, the result of a water-skiing accident. Here, Charlotte tells RadarOnline.com how making the album was cathartic.
RadarOnline: Was it daunting to follow up your last album, 5:55, being that it was such a critical success?
Gainsbourg: Yes, I must’ve thought about that. But at the same time I was continuing doing film. I think my record company was more aware of that. They just told me to be quick or you might get stuck in the apprehension of trying to do better or saying this will be the last one. So I just thought about who I’d love to work with but then I never thought about it again. Yes, I did think sometimes you feel the second album tends to be more difficult but I could always say it’s my third album, which is true.
RadarOnline: You went through a lot with your accident and surgery; how did that affect the theme of the album?
Gainsbourg: That was really just the first idea. The concept was big of course to me, but the idea was small. It was just to put the MRI sounds in a song and that was it. I experienced the MRI sounds myself, I had a big accident and it was quite terrifying. But going through those MRIs, the first ones were terrifying and then gradually-to say I got to like them is maybe too extreme-but I did imagine stuff thanks to those sounds. To be able to imagine something artistic on top of what I was experiencing was maybe a way of escaping what I had to face.
RadarOnline: And how did you and Beck work together in creating your vision for the album?
Gainsbourg: After all that experience, I met Beck and I didn’t talk to him about all that I had lived through, and we started working on other things. The funny thing is in his lyrics in “Master’s Hands” he wrote ‘drill my brain all full of holes’ and he didn’t know that I actually had a hole in my head. It was incredible. I didn’t even acknowledge it when I saw the lyrics. I sang them and I felt completely normal. I didn’t think it was something strange and then when I saw him, I think three months later, he said I’m sorry ‘I didn’t know, and the guys you were working with told me you had gone through surgery and I didn’t know.’ He wasn’t embarrassed, I think it’s a big word, but he felt strange and then I did understand. And yes, it was a very strange coincidence, but I didn’t talk to Beck about the clinical aspect, my frights about the memory, and all my troubles until the second session and then I asked him if he would consider putting an MRI sound in a song and he got quite excited and it was great. And then gradually, I think the subjects were very much to do with the memory and loss and death. It all came together I think, but not with a lot of effort. I didn’t push to try and focus on something in particular it just I don’t know, it just happened.
RadarOnline: If this album were a chapter in the story of your life what would it be?
Gainsbourg: For me it’s me it’s all the moods you can experience in a day. It’s stupid, I didn’t really think about what I’m saying now, but what I enjoyed during that process was to be able to go to the studio, having experienced a film, then another film, and being with my family. Everything that everybody experiences in their life but just not to hide your moods, and try out different styles that went with those moods. It’s difficult to express really what an album is about. It was very eclectic and we didn’t try to make each song look alike, or in the same mold. On the contrary, when Beck asked me at the beginning what sound do you want, what sort of album do you want, I didn’t know and I wanted, thanks to him, to experience all kinds of styles and rhythms, of course, so that’s what we did. I went from a blues song to a rock song to even a rap song-that was quite bad because its’ me-but we tried a bit of everything.
RadarOnline: What was it about Beck’s artistry that made you want to work with him initially?
Gainsbourg: It was very obvious for me. I just admired him very, very much and I’d met him, but so briefly that I didn’t really think anything was possible. I met [producer] Nigel Godrich when he was working with Beck in Los Angeles and so we just said hello, and I understood he knew about my father, but it was very shy. I mean, I was shy and he seemed shy too, so we didn’t really talk. And then we saw each other again at concerts. Again, we didn’t really talk, and then I just thought about him in a very obvious way, once I started thinking about making a new album.
RadarOnline: Your father was a huge influence on Beck’s music. Did he feel any intimidation initially, or second-guess himself, ensuring he preserved your legacy?
Gainsbourg: I don’t think so. We never talked about it. He understood how it’s a difficult subject to me because I’m still very, very attached to my father and it’s a tough subject, and I think that he can guess that and I think that he’s got the subtlety to know that I didn’t want to talk about him. And everything was so obvious-of course I wanted references to my father but I didn’t want too many and I didn’t want them in the words. I just love Beck’s way of writing. Also, I didn’t want to sing in French because of that. The less references I have in the words the freer I’ll feel, and he could understand that it wasn’t easy so we didn’t really need to talk it through.
RadarOnline: So it was understood but went unspoken?
Gainsbourg: Yeah. But at the same time it wasn’t as if the thought of my father was present all through the recording. Sometimes I could hear a lot of references in the percussions-I know that he knew what song I was thinking about-and that’s it. We didn’t really need to establish more or make it more obvious.
RadarOnline: Beck’s father, David Campbell, did the string arrangements on the album. What was it like to see their relationship?
Gainsbourg: I was very touched by their relationship, very touched by the dialogue they had, the proximity, the understanding they had was wonderful I loved that moment. I saw them establish what the strings were going to be, so I didn’t have much to say really, but I was just letting my ear just listen to what they were thinking of. And then just as a spectator I watched them work. I watched Beck’s father just conduct. I love that, it’s quite peaceful to watch. There’s also the fact that we went to Capitol Records to record the strings. It was just lovely. Also, he had done the strings on 5:55, my previous album, and I missed that because I was in Paris, and I couldn’t go to Los Angeles while he was recording the strings. And I felt dreadful not being there because I knew what an experience it could have been.
RadarOnline: You have always lived in Paris. What is it about the city that inspires you so?
Gainsbourg: I did think of moving quite often. With [my husband, actor and director] Yvan [Attal], we’re still considering going to New York just for a little bit to try, but we thought about that before and just when we were about to move we suddenly realized how fine a life it is here. It’s just so easy. I’ve grown here, I’ve even grown in the neighborhood I live in, and it’s reassuring because I think we move a lot with films, and now with the music, and it’s lovely to be grounded, to have a house just to know where you belong. But there’s something also quite boring about that. And it’s lovely to be bored in that way. I often hear people saying that French people argue all the time and they’re never happy and I think that’s where I am. I’m a part of that.
RadarOnline: Tell us a little about the difference in making a film versus an album.
Gainsbourg: It’s the same idea of trying to let go, trying to make accidents happen in the way you control it. And there’s something uncontrollable that you were hoping for, little accidents that will make it more lively. With music you don’t have to prepare, you don’t have to concentrate on something that’s about to happen. It’s very immediate. Where with films the concentration and the fear is just approaching one moment. And the crowd is different, having a crew facing you, and then being in a music studio with only Beck. There was an intimacy that was great, but it was different. Making a film in front of one person wouldn’t feel right.
RadarOnline: What’s coming up for you next?
Gainsbourg: I’ll try to play some shows in Europe in March, and then come to America in April. I know that there’s the Coachella festival at the end of April, and then I’ll be off doing a film, I hope, in May/June, and then back on tour in July. I’m trying to understand what I’m doing, but without knowing too much. If not I might freak out.
RadarOnline: Have you conquered your stage fright?
Gainsbourg: I really want to try to have the experience and gradually get better. Also, to be at a starting point is quite exciting. And it’s lovely to be able to experience something new. But I have a lot of stage fright still. It isn’t something I do very easily.
RadarOnline: Are you working on any other projects you can tell us about?
Gainsbourg: I’m hoping to do a film with Yvan, my partner. He’s been trying to do the film for many years and it should be ready to go in September. I’m really looking forward to that. It’s lovely [to work together]. It’s harder because you are harder toward the other, because you want to please the other person too much, but then there’s a mcomplicity that you can’t find with anyone else. And then he has a talent that I admire very much. So it’s a wonderful thing to be able to work together.
RadarOnline: What new music have you been listening to lately?
Gainsbourg: I’ve discovered Grizzly Bear-that I love. And I’m waiting to hear the Gorillaz, that new album. I’ve enjoyed Dead Weather a lot. Animal Collective, yes, I’ve listened to that a lot. That’s thanks to Beck. He introduced me to a lot of new things.