Featuring contributions from Flood and Atticus Ross, The xx’s Romy Madley-Croft, IDLES’ Joe Talbot and Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE saw Jehnny Beth deliberately abandon everything she’d previously learnt about making songs in order to forge herself a new musical identity: one fuelled by the fear of the unknown.
Free from the need to shape her ideas into songs for the stage, the French-born multi-disciplinary artist embraced the recording studio as a creative tool in a way she’d never done before, taking the time to craft the sprawling effort over two years with a range of guests around the world. Melding obscene industrial freak-outs with tender piano ballads, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE escapes the confines of genre to offer a project imbued with the freedom of time and creativity, with Jehnny Beth’s trademark vocals helping to elevate the record to sensational new heights.
Prior to the album’s release, we spoke with Jehnny Beth to gauge an insight into her artistic process, working with Atticus Ross and Flood, and the duality of poetry and meaning to present a snapshot of the creation of TO LOVE IS TO LIVE.
TO LOVE IS TO LIVE marks your first fully-fledged solo effort, and it really is something quite special. How does it feel to step out from the shadows of your previous groups and carve out your own distinct identity now as a solo artist?
Jehnny Beth: “I don’t know! It wasn’t like I woke up one morning and wanted to change everything, it was just a slow process. I think it was a slow realisation of wanting to do this record and having the ability to it as well, because I wanted to make sure I gave myself the opportunity to do it properly. A lot of it also came from the excitement and fear of starting something new, because when I decided to make the record, I had no idea what I was going to do.
“I had finished touring with Savages in 2017 and then I went on tour with Gorillaz, and after that was done was when I started writing. I made sure I included a lot of people in the process, because I like working in groups – I like the energy of other people when I’m working on music for that feeling of group excitement. At that time in my life, I just felt like I needed a change. I had spent five or six year in a band, which I was really proud of, but I felt exhausted on many different levels, and felt that I needed to find a new space to express myself.”
Every artist has a vision in one way or another. Did you formulate what you wanted to do with this project when you were touring and recording with other artists, or had you been conceptualising everything about the album for a while?
JB: “Not really. When I said ‘Okay, I’m going to stop Savages, I want to make this record’ and moved to Paris after spending twelve years in London, there was a lot of things changing in my life. The only thing I knew is – because I knew nothing, I didn’t know what the album sounded like or what I would talk about – was that I wanted to work with time, and uncertainty. I didn’t want to find answers too soon, and I wanted to work in that space. I was interested in the space where thinking occurs, where you’re still questioning things and there’s a great doubt about what you’re doing.
“In a way, for this record, it was important for me to actually not know what it was I was creating, which was creating a lot of anxiety, but it made me think ‘if I’m uncomfortable, it means I’m in the right place’, because I was trying to shift and not repeat how I had made records before. I decided to forget about the aspect of live performance, which was the prime core of Savages, and allow a lot of people to see early work in progress and work with different people in different cities around the world. I’m going to work on the record and then not work on the record for a few months, and then go back to it. I wrote all those things down on a piece of paper that I would do differently, and I tried to keep at it as long as I could.”
Was it quite liberating to purposefully remove yourself from everything you knew about making music, and then put yourself in unknown situations where you were so open to new experiences?
JB: “Yes! It also came through working with other people outside of Savages like Trentemøller or Damon Albarn – different artist who were writing and working differently than me. That made me realise my voice could work with different music that wasn’t just punk music, and I thought that was really interesting,
“I also started hosting a radio show on Apple Music in 2016, and every week, I started the show by playing an hour of new music. For two years, I was bathed in new music constantly. That in itself was quite new to me; I’d never done that before to that extent. It allowed me to change my perception of my place in time and the output of my generation, as well as my connection with the world. I felt happier and more hopeful, in a way. All those things shaped the way I was approaching the record, because I wanted it all to be contrasted and very eclectic. I didn’t want people to know what was coming next.”
I think you definitely achieved that. You also managed to pin down some pretty huge names for the album – for instance, Atticus Ross (Nine Inch Nails) and Flood (U2, Foals, Smashing Pumpkins). What was it like working with them? How did they make their mark on the album?
JB: “They were both very different. I worked with Flood in London and Atticus in LA. If I had to see a common simalrity in them, they believed in the project in a way that had me so amazed. Even when I didnt believe in it anymore, they did. It was a huge support that was beyond music, it was almost like this belief – or faith – in the music, and I was so honoured by that to have their support and talent.
“Atticus Ross was the first producer to work on the project. For the first six months it was all about talking: we just spoke over email and on the phone, and when I moved to LA for a few months to work, he would come to the studio at night after our sessions to listen to what I had done, and we’d discuss it and just sit and talk. Once he really was aware of what I wanted to do, that’s when he started to really work, and the first song he did was ‘I Am’. When he did ‘I Am’, it was like a revelation that the record was going to go beyond any expectation that I had. I literally jumped in the studio he stood when I head it: I was just in tears.
“Flood had the same effect for me. When I started working with him six months later in London, for the first three days we worked together, we worked on ‘Innocence’. He was… I would say Flood has got this insanity about him the studio, which is very odd at first. He’s the master of chaos. He’s able to create an environment where mistakes can happen, and because music should be about accidents, and he reminded me of that.
“When you pay for a really expensive studio in the west of London, as an artist, you do think about the money you’re spending, and somehow, you want to have a very productive day. But Flood doesn’t give a shit. He would remind me that no matter what you have be to keep being creative. Being creative sometimes means feeling that you’re completely lost, and being afraid of going in a direction that doesn’t seem clear at first.
“That was the case for ‘Innocence’. After three days I started to mad, because I was like ‘Where is the song! What are we doing, I don’t get it!’. So, he kicked me out of the studio, and asked me to come back two hours later. When I came back and sat down, he had done a mix right there on the studio desk, and it was ‘Innocence’ as we know it now, and I just cried again. It was incredible.
“There’s something really amazing about how those people cared so much about what I wanted to say, and listened to be so much, and asked me a million questions to get me where I wanted to be musically, as well as support what I wanted to say and do. I felt incredibly touched by that. It felt like a Eureka moment for me, both times, because I felt that in a way, no matter whether people liked this record or not, I’ve still accomplished something and learnt something about myself.”
You also had Romy Madley-Croft (The xx) on the record, who I think is probably one of the most underrated songwriters of our time. What was your process like working together?
JB: “I don’t think she’s underrated! She’s written for quite a lot of pop stars, and her lyrics are amazing. I do agree with you though, she’s an incredible songwriter. We first met after she came to see me after Savages played at Coachella, and I love The xx and had no idea she was into punk music, so we bonded immediately. We straight away had very intense conversations, and we always very interested about each others songwriting process.
“In terms of songwriting, she was so funny, because she just wanted to have fun. She’d take me to see films and discuss things that could be a song. One time, she was writing everything I would say – we’d go out to a club and she was writing everything I would say – and the next morning we would sit down and try to write a song out of them. It was really playful.
“Although she wouldn’t want the title, I think she had a producer’s ear on some of the songs. She’s very good at structure, and getting you to come across with exactly what you want to say. Sometimes, I think poetry can get in the way of meaning, so when you’re writing a song, you get distracted by words. Words never really describe reality very well, and sometimes they trick you and make you think you’re saying something when in actuality, they’re not a clear presentation of the truth you want to convey. Romy helped remind me of what I actually wanted to say, and not be distracted by poetry or style.”
That’s a really interesting point you bring up. You’ve previously spoken about how the public often take the lyrics you write away from their context and perceive them differently. Given everything that you’re covering on TO LOVE IS TO LIVE, is there anything that you’re worried about?
JB: “Not anymore. I’m not worried about that, because I don’t have control over that. I’m happy with people finding their own meanings in the songs to get through with whatever they’re going through at the time. I also do that with my own lyrics. Sometimes I write and I mishear myself, and I go back and change the words because the mishearing is better than what I heard originally.
“Some things should be open to interpretation when they’re concerning feelings about life, or relationships, or self doubt, or feelings of connection and isolation – that’s part of being human. I tried to make an album that was complex enough, so hopefully there are different layers to it, and everyone can pick on it the way they want to, you know?”
Jehnny Beth’s debut album TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is out now via Caroline Records. Listen to the album here.
(Photo Credit: Johnny Hostile)