40 And Furtive Charlotte Gainsbourg baby-steps to whispers before writing Charlotte Gainsbourg arrives at New
York City’s tony Bowery Hotel with her twomonth-old daughter swaddled to her stomach, the baby’s tiny legs protruding bizarrely from just above Gainsbourg’s narrow hips. She’s the daughter of France’s iconic singer/ songwriter/actor Serge Gainsbourg and ravishing English-born actress/singer Jane Birkin, but Charlotte has an understated grace that betrays her own mega-star status in the indie-film world. She doesn’t fill the room like some big shot. Her humility is pronounced, a bit disarming, even. During her interview with MAGNET, Gainsbourg spends a good deal of time explaining why she doesn’t consider herself a singer (though she’s on album number four) or an actress (though she won best actress at Cannes in 2009 for Lars von Trier’s Antichrist) or an artist (see: previous two examples). She enjoys referring to herself as “unprofessional.” “I like using other people’s words, and I don’t find that artistic,” she says. “I love working intensely, so it really doesn’t mean that the work is less strong—I really put myself there—but I like to be someone else’s instrument and to be used.” Clearly. In addition to her work on 30-plus films, Gainsbourg has three full-length studio albums under her belt. Her father composed almost all of her first album, 1986’s Charlotte For Ever; Air, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon were responsible for 2006’s 5:55; and Beck wrote 2009’s IRM. Fine, Gainsbourg’s not a songwriter, but when her ethereal, stirring singing voice enters the fray, she’s the immediate focal point. Nowhere is that more evident than on her latest release, Stage Whisper (Because/Elektra). Comprised of live recordings, plus a handful of new tracks written by Beck, Conor O’Brien (Villagers), Noah And The Whale, Connan Mockasin and Asa Taccone (the composer/producer who wrote “Dick In A Box” for Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake; yes, really), the album is Gainsbourg at her most sure-footed, which is ironic because she purposely went into it with a devil-maycare attitude. “(On IRM), Beck pushed me quite a lot,” she says. “It was different (this time) because I
wasn’t writing. I wasn’t trying. (The songwriters) wrote lyrics, and I made them mine by singing them. It worked in a weird way.” Since Gainsbourg didn’t consider Stage Whisper to be a proper LP, the pressure was off. “There was no logic,” she says of the amalgamation of songs. “This album for me was like a rehearsal. It was accidental and little experiences.” It also gave her a great excuse to indulge in something she’s always wanted to try: a choreographed group-dance routine. The video for first single “Terrible Angels” features Gainsbourg busting out some poor man’s Britney Spears moves with a score of doppelgängers in a parking garage. “I don’t want to take myself too seriously with the dancing,” says Gainsbourg, cracking up. “I was so bad, but it was really fun! And the fact that it’s a bit awkward works, I think. The thing is, I was five months pregnant, so it was really hard. The director had to digitally erase my stomach!” The funniest part? When a car plows into Gainsbourg (her stunt double, that is) at the end of the video and she goes tumbling over the roof. Hilarious. This loosey-goosey approach is something new for Gainsbourg. “Little details annoy me when they’re not right,” she says, noting that her father was obsessive in a similar way. That Stage Whisper includes live versions of her songs is a wonder in and of itself. Gainsbourg doesn’t like live recordings. (She only listens to one: a very old album by British blues singer John Mayall.) “It’s always a pale version of the studio album,” she says. “I like the perfection of a studio album.” Surprise, surprise. Gainsbourg never sang live prior to her 2009 outing to support IRM. She had wanted to tour for 5:55, but fear got in the way. Two years ago, she finally built up the nerve for a brief jaunt around the world. That the new album is called Stage Whisper indicates how Gainsbourg sees herself as a performer. In fact, when I ask her what it was like to lead a band for the first time, she looks at me like I’m yanking her chain. “I wasn’t the lead,” she says with a giggle. “No, thank God. (Musical director) Brian LeBarton was there. He had worked with Beck, so I was very reassured that he would be faith-
ful to what Beck had done on the album. He was the lead!” Regardless of this safety net of sorts, “I was petrified of losing my lines,” says Gainsbourg. “I talked to Beck about it, and he said, ‘It happens all the time. You just invent words.’ But, I mean, he could do it. I can’t invent words. I went blank. It was horrible. But in the end, you manage. It’s knowing that—it’s easy to say that here—you can overcome anything.” Gainsbourg tilts her head to the side when recounting her performance at Coachella, like the fact she even possesses this memory is completely bonkers. “I don’t know what I did, if it was good or not, but it didn’t matter,” she says. “The audience was just incredible, and that made me understand the pleasure you get out of that experience. It’s worth it because the people are there. They make it worth it. I hadn’t thought of that before.” The joy and confidence Gainsbourg received as a result of gigging helped her to get out of her own way so life could proceed unfettered. One of Stage Whisper’s standout songs is “Got To Let Go,” written by and performed with Charlie Fink of Noah And The Whale. It’s a break-up song, but it’s the essence of Gainsbourg’s experiences in the art and entertainment world—she sounds like she’s singing the song to herself. “That idea of letting go is for me so important because it has a lot to do with the acting,” she says. “The real goal for me is letting go. If you’re too much in control, it’s not interesting. Nothing really happens. If you plan everything ahead, it’s not worth it. I imagine it’s the same for everything. I have to fight against that.” She’s throwing one determined punch at a time, hoping to knock some sense into herself. “Before the (IRM) tour, I took singing lessons,” she says. “I was so scared about having a sore throat; I stopped smoking … all that good intentions to try and be this good pupil. And I’m fed up with trying too much. Trying too hard is not a good thing, I find. Because I’ll never be like (Maria) Callas.” She laughs. “I’ll never have a wonderful voice, so I’m just who I am. Maybe it was good to have those lessons and to warm up my voice, but you can also do without it.” —Jeanne Fury
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