Jehnny Beth:
comfort in the chaos

The former Savages front woman talks about her debut solo album and new book of erotic fiction

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Jehnny Beth speaks down the phone line from France, days after lockdown conditions there have been eased. She’s been able to see her family for the first time in months. “Like for everyone, it’s been a difficult period – especially as I decided to keep releasing my record,” she says. “It’s been challenging on a personal level, but I’ve seen crises before. I know difficult. I’m comfortable with chaos.”

“What I know of life is that it’s made of light and darkness, stark beauty and moments of violence”

As frontwoman of the ferocious monochrome punk band Savages, Beth was a fiercely take-no-prisoners performer. Today, she’s warm company. Her debut solo album, To Love Is To Live, finds her moving beyond Savages’ feral post-punk palette to encompass textured electronics, haunting gothic balladry, and monologues from Irish actor Cillian Murphy. Though she had considered recording a solo album when touring with Savages, her now-or-never instinct was ignited by the death of her idol, David Bowie, in January 2016. Listening to his final album, Blackstar, she realised she had to create a record that would define Jehnny Beth as an artist. If not now, when?

“It gave me impetus to do this,” she reflects. “For a couple of years, there were a lot of my heroes who died and the density of that made it feel even more urgent that I do this. I wrote this like it was my last album.”

Another formative role model – and now close friend – PJ Harvey also helped spur Beth into action by inviting her to open for her at an Eden Project gig in 2016.

“She’s always pushing me further and I appreciate that. She challenged me to support her at a gig in 10 days time – and that was the first show under my own name. You could hear a pin drop in the audience. It felt like a big step for me,” says Beth, perpetually an artist with a do-or-die mentality. “Every five years, I feel the need to shake things up.”

Born Camille Berthomier, she grew up in Poitiers, in west-central France. Although hailing from a creative background – her parents are both theatre directors – her wider family is Catholic, and she fled to London with partner and musical collaborator Johnny Hostile (civilian name Nicolas Congé) to forge her own identity, far away from religious and sexual repression. They performed in a goth-indie duo, John and Jehn, but her breakthrough arrived when she formed the quartet Savages in 2012. After two Mercury Prize-nominated albums, the band played their last gig in 2017, before going on hiatus. Despite being immensely proud of the work she did with the group, it was time for a new chapter.

“Working with Savages again isn’t on the cards right now,” she says. “I speak to the girls a lot and we really respect each other and there’s a lot of love there, but we haven’t made any plans right now with the band.”

Now aged 35, for the past three years she’s been attempting to connect the dots between who she is now and the upbringing she tried to dissociate herself from. After 12 years in London, she moved to Paris in 2017. “I thought it would be a good place for me to reconnect with my French roots,” she says. “I left France when I was 20 and didn’t look back – I didn’t even think of myself as French particularly. I embraced English culture because I needed an escape, and learning a new language is a great way to become someone not conditioned by where you came from. I needed that freedom.

“But I felt fragmented and needed to join up those unconnected parts of me, although London still feels much more like home than Paris – musically, friendship-wise, on every level,” she says, her accent a hybrid of French and Cockney.

She felt isolated in Paris at first, until she found a community in boxing, which she took up to train for a part in an action film, but found it therapeutic.

“The action movie is something I refused to do because I didn’t like the way it came out and I didn’t believe in it,” she says. “But my trainer – who trained Daniel Craig for the James Bond movies – told me I had a talent for it and should carry on.”

Inspired by knotty, sprawling albums like Kendrick Lamar’s game-changing To Pimp A Butterfly, she sought to ensure To Love Is To Live wasn’t merely a collection of songs.

“I wanted a sense of narrative, a big diversity of sound and eclecticism. I wanted a sense of journey throughout the record. To Love Is To Live is built like a spiral – the end of the record takes you back to the beginning again, so it feels like a never-ending loop. I needed it to be layered and survive multiple listens,” she says, adding that the record is intended to represent the gamut of life. “What I know about life is that it’s made of light and darkness, stark beauty and moments of violence – and that’s what I wanted it to sound like.”

To ensure the production was as important as the songwriting, she teamed up with a number of collaborators, including U2 producer Flood, Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross, and the xx’s Romy Madley Croft. It was the latter who helped her shed some of the protective armour she’d built up over the years onstage – where she cut a thrillingly confrontational figure with flamethrower eyes – to reveal shards of fear and self-doubt.

“Romy said to me that there were sides of my personality she was discovering from being friends with me that were not represented in Savages. She launched me on a path to try to find a way to express the things I was afraid to. Hence a song like French Countryside, which shows a more vulnerable side.”

To Love Is To Live’s fierce first single, I’m The Man, opens with a rendition of Beth’s poem A Place Above by Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy, before attacking you like an aural battering ram. Murphy agreed to be on the record before hearing any music – he was a fan of Savages and the feeling is mutual.

“He makes the text feel very personal,” she says. “He makes it feel like you’re hearing someone’s unfiltered thoughts.” While it boasts lyrics like “There’s no bitch in town who doesn’t understand how hard my dick can be”, toxic masculinity isn’t in her crosshairs (as some critics have suggested): it’s a song about the universal capacity for perfidy.
“It’s an acceptance that evil exists – and maybe in 2020 we shouldn’t be surprised it does,” she notes wryly.

Another track, Innocence, touches on her religious roots. “I wasn’t baptised,” she says. “But my whole family is Catholic and I went to church with my grandmother. She bought me a Bible and taught me how to pray. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with praying and it was a great sense of comfort, wonder and imagination.

“Obviously that passed and I was left with Catholic guilt – the idea that thoughts can be sins. Church tries to put rules in certain areas of your mind, and it took me years to pull them down.”

Now having learned to quell her Catholic guilt (therapy helped), she colours outside of society’s lines, prioritising freedom and sexuality – she and Hostile are in an open relationship and although she wrote about her sexual fluidity on the Savages song Mechanics, To Love Is To Live’s Flower is a horny ode to a performer at famous LA pole-dancing club Jumbo’s, where Courtney Love once worked. Has its subject heard it?

“No, I don’t think she has,” laughs Beth. “I wanted to break down the cliché of a woman doing that sort of thing – they’re totally in power and control. They give me a sense of power watching them be so irresistibly confident and domineering. It’s a real talent and these women deserve our respect.

“When I watch those dancers, there’s an obvious distance in that you’re not allowed to touch. There’s sexual tension in that distance – which obviously right now is highly relevant. We know all about that during this pandemic.”

Religion may have hindered the fantasy life of young Beth but now she’s written an anthology of erotic fiction – CALM: Crimes Against Love Memories – exploring fantasies and partly inspired by Hostile’s photographic work. “He started taking pictures of me and my friends. The subject was sexuality and freedom. As the pictures are anonymous, people honestly shared their experiences and memories – which was inspiring to me.

Photo by Johnny Hostile taken from Jehnny Beth’s CALM: Crime Against Love Memories

“What I wanted to do was present an alternative to monogamy, to family, to things that society presents to you as the only alternative. I wanted to show there were other options and ways of living. I’m inspired by any human being who insists on perverting themselves entirely – there’s something so beautiful about that.”

With stories tackling taboo fetishes like cannibalism, her characters break the bonds of acceptability. “What happens in your head shouldn’t be censored,” she says.

“If you try to bring fantasies back into society’s morals it doesn’t work. It’s just a book, but I hope it makes people think about their sexuality in a more imaginative way.”

Did writing about sex not feel exposing? “It wasn’t terrifying for me because it’s not about me. I had license to imagine anything I wanted to. It’s not me writing about my fantasies which would be terribly self-centred – and maybe boring!”

For an album that was partly motivated by an encroaching sense of mortality and a reminder of the capacity for a musician’s art to outlive them, it’s perhaps darkly appropriate that To Love Is To Live is being released during Covid-19. And while a French comedy film she stars in, Kaamelott, has been delayed from July to November (“I have a massive mohican for it – and I’m playing a role next to Sting. The whole thing is completely insane”), the virus hasn’t otherwise hindered her creatively. The book and the album have gone ahead and Beth is filming a lockdown video for her single Heroine and writing new material.

“Limitations can be creative fuel,” she asserts. “And I create better art when I’m in a place where I don’t necessarily feel comfortable.”

To Love Is To Live is out now on Rough Trade. CALM: Crimes Against Love Memories is published by White Rabbit 

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