Jehnny Beth is the Savage gone solo
The singer on filling Savages’ break with a solo album, a French music-and-chat TV show, an erotic book and a lot of love from Hedi Slimane.
With a roar of noise and starkly monochromatic style, Savages brought a blast of punkish, rock‘n’roll attitude over four years and two Mercury-nominated albums, Silence Yourself (2013) and Adore Life (2016). The all-female London-based four piece were led by Jehnny Beth, an occasionally snarling, always daring frontwoman.
But while it’s been quiet on the Savages front since they wrapped up touring in summer 2017, the French singer and songwriter is back with a solo album, To Love is to Live.
I’m The Man, the raw, shouty first single, was first aired on the soundtrack of the last series of Peaky Blinders (the show’s star, Cillian Murphy, makes an appearance, introducing the song with a reading of a Beth poem). It precedes an album that has a familiar savage roar but, equally, shows a softer side. Other contributions come from Beth’s long term partner and collaborator Johnny Hostile, her friend Romy Madley Croft of The xx (who co-wrote two tracks), IDLES frontman Joe Talbot and producers Atticus Ross (Trent Reznor’s regular soundtrack wingman) and Flood (U2, Depeche Mode).
To Love is to Live is only one strand of Jehnny Beth’s 2020. She’s also about to begin hosting Echoes, a French music-and-chat TV show, has shot a film with Sting, and is publishing C.A.L.M., a book of erotic, English-language short stories – the latter creative turn partly inspired by another musician friend, PJ Harvey, telling the Frenchwoman that her poetry was “awful”.
Meeting during a trip back to the UK from her new home in Paris, the 35-year-old’s arrival doesn’t disappoint: black sweater, black jeans, black hair gelled back. You can see why Hedi Slimane at Celine loves her.
Some things – colour preferences – don’t change, even with a new chapter. On a cold evening in a busy cafe in east London, the forthright and whip-smart Jehnny Beth talks fashion, music, performing and how going back to your roots can be something of a process.
To Love is to Live feels different to Savages.
Well, Savages was three or four years ago and I don’t know if you were the same person four years ago? It might feel like a surprise but that was the point – otherwise we would have done another Savages record, I suppose. I was writing songs and I felt they were demanding a different sound. So I went on a search for it.
What was that period like for you?
I would do six weeks work and then just leave it alone for a while and have my life, have experiences, meet people. Then I started writing prose because I didn’t want to write lyrics. That led to the book that is coming out in June. Then I would come back to the music after that break. It’s a solo record, but not in the sense of someone who recorded, wrote, produced everything. It’s very collaborative.
Is it more accepted now to work on lots of different projects at once?
It feels like [that], from what people tell me and from my own feeling. I have always been a big fan of Henry Rollins and I love his stand-up comedy – that’s something I haven’t done yet! He had a TV show I love, he does radio, he’s an actor, he does music. He’s kind of my role model on that thing.
Tell us more about the book.
I didn’t plan it, it was because I needed something to do – I can’t really do nothing. I was a bit sick of lyrics because I had done that for five years intensely in Savages. Every time I had a long sentence I had to cut it. I thought: “Fuck that.” I travelled, I went to Spain, I went to Greece. I just found a place, where I would have a routine, four or five hours of writing a day. That was such a happy time. I recommend it.
And what about the film?
Kammalot is a cult French TV series which finished 10 years ago and the director [Alexandre Astier] said he was going to do a film and everyone has been waiting. I play an Anglo-Saxon mercenary who kills people for money. It’s great! I am the right-hand of Sting. He was lovely – we discussed music, life and family.
In the middle of all that, you have time to do a TV show, too?
I had a radio show on Beats 1 for two years called Start Making Sense. I always had it in my mind to try TV. I don’t feel like my community is well represented on the TV. Artists of my generation are not cliché‑y. I was just talking to Joe Talbot about this on the phone two hours ago. We were saying that we support each other. It’s not Oasis vs Blur. It’s not what this generation is about. I have experienced a lot of inspiring backstage conversations with musicians. That’s what I want to bring for people to see. It’s like a mini festival, with a live audience watching 20 minute sets from each artist. We have a beautiful venue with Brutalist architecture at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
How important are aesthetics to what you do?
I do it naturally… [Laughs] That sounded really bad. What I mean is, if I want to dress up, I am the kind of person who does it five minutes before the event. As a front person, you have to present well. I think there’s something Johnny Cash said in his autobiography, like: “Don’t go on stage if you’re not beautiful.”
Did you enjoy wearing Celine at the César Awards last year?
Hedi [Slimane] was one of the first to photograph Savages and I was part of his exhibition… So I like him, he gets musicians. I also worked with Gucci and Alessandro Michele, for the Cruise show in 2017. I was in a sequin gold cape. You become a character; that’s what I like about [Alessandro].
What are your first memories of the stage?
I started very, very young because my father was a theatre director and when I was three I was acting in his play. We went to Russia, I was the daughter of the king.
So acting isn’t entirely new then?
That was what I was “supposed” to do. I did a movie when I was 17, then I ran away to London. I moved here when I was 20, but I first came here when I was 15 and I was in love. I am from a small city, Poitiers. I didn’t want to go to Paris because I didn’t like the music there, I didn’t feel a connection. But London was so exciting.
How has the recent move back to Paris been?
Going back, I started therapy and it was a way for me to reconnect with my roots. Mentally, I left when I was 15. Then I left actually, and didn’t go back. When I did, it was a way for me to try and understand where I was coming from. I thought I could live my whole life without connecting to where I was from. I was rejecting it completely. I spent all my twenties finding my own voice and own identity and Savages was the pinnacle of that, the loudest expression of that. Then I felt that one doesn’t exclude the other, actually. You have to uproot yourself to find yourself. I’m still trying to reconnect but it’s been good. What saved me was finding a boxing club that I love. I found a community there that I didn’t know I needed.
Has the process of reconnecting with your past influenced the new record?
There’s jazz influence, especially in the song The Rooms. My first bands were jazz bands – I learnt piano at the age of eight and did 10 years of piano jazz training. That’s how I learnt English. The songs were in English. My teacher would tell me I sounded like Chet Baker because I was so quiet. That’s also why I never sang in French. I tried and I can’t.
How has your life changed since Savages?
When I stopped Savages, I couldn’t see another band without crying. I talked to Bobby Gillespie about it. At one of his shows I was side of stage, I had to leave for a while because I was so emotional. I came back and it was a great show. I saw him after and he asked me if I was OK. I was like: “I loved your show but it really made me cry.” He said to me this beautiful thing: “I know, it’s like seeing an old love.” It’s exactly that. It wasn’t jealousy. It was the beauty of the act, him and the crowd and that communion. I was overwhelmed and missing it very very much.
How has your look evolved over the years?
I was very boyish as a kid. I had a short bob, I would have blue jeans, a blue shirt and a cap. I stood out – too much. I got bullied, it was quite traumatic. I was about 10, it was weird. Then [my style] went really bad for a while, hippy… Then in Savages it became important to go back to the essentials.
Was the stripped-back idea a conscious decision?
It was, because we were a band of women and didn’t want any conversation about clothes. All dressed in black, the clothes wouldn’t be what you noticed on stage. No feathers, no colours because we wanted people to talk about the music. I still have that [idea], I can’t go with feathers [for example]. I feel like the stylist is taking over the performance. I like to be always moving. I prefer my body in movement than my body still. Movement will do what feathers do.
Do you think Savages would have been different if you started the band now?
I can’t tell you if it would be different because I am not starting Savages now. But I would say no because I would say it’s not really a social critique. I don’t mean it in a feminist way, it’s just what it is. There are a lot of female artists who are very styled and still are very respected. I don’t think any of the women who put feathers on are doing it because they feel pressured to.
To Love is to Live is released on 8th May. Jehnny Beth plays the BBC 6 Music Festival in London on 8th March