After very successful records with Savages as well as detours as a radio and TV presenter, Jehnny Beth is ready to establish herself as a solo artist. The decision of releasing a solo album came as an epiphany on the night of Bowie’s death. The French artist wanted to create an album with a narrative from start to finish.
Four years later, To Love Is To Live is seeing the light of day midst a global pandemic. The record was pushed back a few weeks later alongside a digital-only campaign. For the last stint of French quarantine, Beth moved to the French countryside (the residents of Franc were only allowed to travel 100km from their homes). Like for any touring musician, the lockdown interfered heavily with her European solo tour and a big supporting tour for Nine Inch Nails. However, the artist is already gearing up for the time after the pandemic, whenever that might be:
“I was very much looking forward to going on tour because I haven’t been touring for a couple of years now. Obviously, everyone that knows me knows how important touring is to me. Performing is where I can shine a light on the record and the place where I feel I can express myself the most. Going on tour with Nine In Nails in America was a dream I was amazed to have accomplished. But its also teaching me patience, teaching me how to release a record in a different way, how to be resilient no matter what. It put me back in the mental state of my beginnings, the DIY mentality, that was not the plan but I enjoyed it and I love the idea of having to fall back on your resources and learn new things in order to grow. What we need right now is to take examples of the athletes, how they always have a really strong mind. Everything now is just about preparing for the next season (laughs).”
Loyal fans of Beth might have noticed that she has created a unique format during quarantine: her erotic poetry readings. Together with guests such as IDLES’ Joe Talbot (who also featured on track How Could You) she has read extracts from her upcoming art book C.A.L.M. It features ‚graphic photographs ‘ by her long-time partner Johnny Hostile and erotic fiction written by Beth. Naturally, I wanted to ask how she split the creative process between those projects.
“The book is not a subtext of the record and vice versa. They were written at the same time, in parallel. The first thing I finished on the record were the lyrics. I was pretty much there where I wanted to say lyrically soon. After that point, except when I changed a few things or co-wrote with some people, I got fed up with lyrics. I’ve been writing lyrics for a decade, but it suddenly felt very constricted, I felt like I couldn’t write any lyrics. Everything I wrote felt shallow and empty of meaning. I felt a bit lost, the frame was gone. I didn’t really know what to do with lyrics anymore. When I started writing prose, I felt really liberated. I often say it felt like moving from a studio flat to a two-bedroom flat, it felt like I suddenly had a lot of space to express myself. I chose fiction because I had written essays in the past for the Guardian, Huffington Post, or my own blog. But I felt like the essays were not the way you could change people’s consciousness. I love the structure of an essay, I even read books only with essays or manifestos. But in fiction, you have time for people who can take time to read it. I think you have more time to go deeper into people’s own core and that’s where the emotion arrives. In fiction, you really have time to get attached or get lost in a story. Emotionally, it’s stronger and has more of an impact on seeing things you maybe haven’t seen before. There’s power in the imagination.”
Humans are flawed … and that’s a good thing
However, there are still similarities between writing fiction and lyrics. While listening to To Love Is To Live, you will directly sense that there is a structure connecting the different songs. Beth thematizes love, death, innocence, and violence within the record. Not only through singing, but through a pretty cinematic soundscape that involves spoken word features by Peaky Blinders’ Cillian Murphy. For the artist, it was important to portray a lyrical diversity within her songs, yet it was as important to connect them:
“The record is very contrasted, it got a narrative structure. And I wanted that. With the first track ‘I Am’ it was clear that we were at the start of a journey. Musically, it was creating a sense of suspense and you’re wondering what’s coming next. So it raises questions and I felt that was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t just want a collection of songs, I wanted a record that referenced itself in different songs and all the genres are very different from one song to another, there’s a link between them in terms of what they say. Even though there’s a multiplicity of voices, it has that unity and it never ends. For me, the record is in spirals. It stops and it can start where it stops. It’s an endless loop and the spiral is the best representation of life, our galaxy is a spiral as well.”
What’s astonishing about To Love Is To Live is, that Beth sings about innocence and violence in the same breath. The need to sing about these issues came from her own claim, to be honest with the listeners, she tells me:
“I think the violence is important to portray to me because it’s important for me to say that I was violent. There was a violence that leaked inside of me and I didn’t know how to address it. It’s not just about the evil exists outside of me, I draw a line and I’m standing on the pure side of things and I only have pure thought and thinking.”
If I did this record, I needed to come clean a little bit about my own imperfections.
“Sometimes I felt disconnected, with the rest of the human race. I felt isolated as well and felt that I couldn’t feel anything really more. I don’t know if it was from tiredness or anything. You’re so bombed out with information that its hard to grab something that is meaningful that is happening on the other side of the world. Sometimes it felt very difficult to do that. The amount of guilt I felt was huge and I felt so guilty about this. I was about to hide that away and then I thought that I need to put it in the front. That’s why ‘Innocence’ is the second song on the record. It’s the starting point: I don’t feel any fucking thing. I don’t feel anything. How is that possible? That’s not how I was raced. How do I reconnect? The journey starts there but again it’s quite an analogy of the decisions that made this record. Starting from scratch, laying the foundations again.”
Admitting that you don’t feel anything to your listener seems brave to me. To Beth, revealing one’s flawless is a necessity:
“By admitting we are flawed – we see that in the current crisis and after the murder of George Floyd, everyone is thinking about their wrongdoing at different levels – admitting that you’re flawed, that your own imperfections are the best way to start walking towards the bettering of humanity. Sometimes we forget about that, how much we will never far from doing something wrong.”
In these days, both Covid-19 and the racist police brutality are burning topics. Within a few months of 2020, topics such as mortality and the fear of death were adjusted with a whole new meaning. But life itself has gotten a whole new meaning. So, what are the learnings about death from an artist who named their album To Love Is To Live?
“It’s weird, because there’s a lot of things on the record that is now taking a different echo. I obviously didn’t plan it. It just means that they have universal value and questions that are brought to light in moments of crisis.
My whole reflection on mortality was very personal, at the beginning, it was the idea of thinking about my own mortality every day. I can’t really explain why maybe because I hadn’t done a record like this and I was too afraid to disappear before I had the chance to do it. When the record was finished, I felt a bit calmer about the idea of dying (laughs). But mortality, I recently have been close to that idea with things happening in my family (pauses) … It’s subtle, the idea of death can shine a light on life in a different way.”
‘It’s words that feel the soul’
Speaking of her family, Beth was raised in a catholic household in Poitiers. Having been the first person in the family to not be baptized, she must have already been a rebel back in her teenage years. Singing not only violence, by singing about sins and same-sex attraction she isn’t exactly following the religious footsteps of her ancestors. Yet, the Parisian found another form of religion, she tells me:
“The need for spirituality in the last months was very intense. I really wanted to pray but didn’t know how, to who. Creativity is a form of relationship to god. But not god as god or anything, god or nature. God or the universe or whatever your god is. I can see that with religious people, its a real help. So in a way you want to think, whatever helps. My grandmother bought me a bible and a cross, took me to church and told me how to pray. When I was a kid for a while I used to do that a lot because I loved the ritual, there was something very comforting about it. What’s replaced that for me is poetry, it’s writing. The way you mumble the poetry that you’re reading and you repeat it again and again. It’s like that with prayer, it’s similar to that. It’s words that feel the soul, that make you go another day.”
So what’s the artist’s takeaway from releasing such a multi-layered and thematically intense record within the current state of the world? Again, it’s not that simple:
“With Covid-19 and what happens in America, we realize that we took things for granted and we shouldn’t. I think It’s interesting because all I wanted to say with this record was that we’re not impervious to evil. You constantly need to check yourself, you can’t just be thinking that you’re on the right side of the fence, I think it’s it’s dangerous to point out that the evil characters are bad. I think it’s just dangerous because I think it’s so much more layered and complicated than that. And that’s really what I wanted to say on the record and I don’t know why now, it turns. It turns out it’s such a meaning for me that that also shows up into the world and I didn’t expect that. I’m very I’m still thinking about what that means.”
It will certainly be interesting to see how these global trouble spots will develop in the next months and years to come. Until then, it will be important to refocus on ourselves and the community around us. With To Love Is To Live, Beth explores our darkest inner sides into a soundtrack that celebrates the god-damn variety that comes with living. Although this variety feels limited at times within our new normality, it’s enough reason to push forward and keep going.
To Love Is To Live is out now via Caroline Records.