“Women Have That Power” Jehnny Beth’s Solo Vision

Superlative songwriter on her new album, writing a book, and the Bowie legacy...

Jehnny Beth is back. Known for the incendiary swagger she brought to the twice Mercury-nominated, stiletto-sharp Savages, this time she’s communicating her vision solo. 

‘To Love is to Live’, her debut record, is a single-minded study of relationships, power and self-realisation. Though very much an individual expression, it wasn’t tackled alone. With close friend Romy Madley Scott from The xx on occasional co-writing duties, Joe Talbot from Idles and Cillian Murphy stepped to the mic for ‘How Could You’ and ‘A Place Above’. Producers Atticus Ross, Flood, and her long-term partner/producer/creative collaborator Johnny Hostile left distinct sonic fingerprints from studios in London, LA and Paris.

This sense of environment runs through a record that strays into realms both real and imagined. Calling from her home in France, she speaks with precision and intent, but without a trace of the sharpness you’d expect from her stage presence. No warrior queen here.

It’s a quicksilver quality she shares with hero David Bowie, whose death (and her revisiting of his sacred swansong 'Black Star') sparked an “awakened sense of urgency” that propelled her to start this record. The idea that she was taking the “privilege of existence” for granted rattled her to the core. She refocused her energies, and brought herself back to herself.

We got right to it.

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How does it feel to communicate your own vision on record for the first time?

Now the record is out, I feel relieved, And inspired! Instantly, when it came out, it gave me great joy. I didn’t know how I would react, but the reviews have been so positive. There’s never been a shadow of doubt hat it’s a good record. People are embracing it, and for that reason, I feel happy. I’m happy to move on, as well. Do you know what I mean? The record can exist on its own now.

I mean, I’m supposed to be on tour now, in America and Europe. That’ll have to be next year. It’s a bit away from how I imagined it, but I quite like this idea of releasing a record without a tour. It’s the first time in my life that this has happened. In the end, it works really well with this record. The first thing I decided when making this was not to think about the live aspect of it. I want to do things differently – to change the way I write, and think of making records.

I had been very influenced by the idea of ‘records’, y’know? Start to finish, a piece of work. That was about wiping out all of the images of me performing live. I forced myself not to think of that, and just to focus on making a record. I talked a lot about 'Black Star', which is a masterpiece. There’s a real sense of narrative there. A real way of writing. Such a purpose, and message. I love records. They’re important, still.

Do you think it’s a dying art, the appreciation of a record?

Well, it is. And it’s not. Mainstream and pop artists have been doing records. Beyonce, she’s been doing RECORDS. In 2013, when her eponymous record came out. It was, from start to finish, a piece of work. Made by different producers, but you could feel there was an intent to the production and shit. She didn’t precede it with singles. It was just boom…RECORD. Y’know? Very important. That idea came in from the pop world and was very important.

Could you talk about the influence of 'Blackstar'?

For any sort of artist, to do that with his work, is to the extreme. Connecting it to your own death.. with such a level of artistry, and cleverness. It was just beyond. The passing of David Bowie had a profound effect on me. I felt a peak of adrenaline. The sort of thing that you need when you’re embarking on any kind of project. It revived the teenage self of me, if you like. Who always wanted to make my own record.

The urgency of it, almost?

Yeah! The urgency of living. The urgency of the imminence of death, and of wanting to live, and to love, and to see. I think that’s something that’s really driven me, all my life. I like change. I embrace it and purposely stop before everything collapses. When things are good, I just want to switch. Because I know things don’t last. Savages had such a purity of intent. It’s very fragile and hard to maintain. I didn’t know how to have the energy to maintain it any longer. It would come to the detriment of the music and the project.

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You’ve said before that “if you don’t regroup with yourself, you’re in danger.” Was that something that propelled you?

That sounds a bit dramatic. But if you don’t follow that inner voice, you’re in danger when you’re a creative person. You’re in danger of waking up one day thinking that you have wasted yourself – like I say in the book (CALM), “wasting the wonderful fact of your own existence”. The idea of waking up and feeling you’ve not taken the right turns, y’know? You need to enquire within and ask yourself: who am I, and what do I have to express? Invest in who you are. I think that the world would be a better place if the world invested in themselves.

Did you have anything you needed to express with this? Or a manifesto when you set out?

Yeah, I had manifestos. I think I did have an intent: accepting it’s in the not knowing. To not know is maybe to be an explorer going into dark rooms with no torch, trying to find their way around a new world.

Sonically, I wanted to make a record, with a sense of narrative and suspense. My taste is eclectic, and I wanted the record to reflect that. And almost every song to be a ‘room’ in the house. To be like a new world, a tapestry, a different kind of life. Different people in the corner. But it’s all part of the same house. You’re never in real danger when you’re creating, but you feel a sense of it, which is the strangest feeling.

That must be an interesting space to inhabit, creatively?

Yeah, because the brain and the body don’t like what they don’t know. They hate not knowing, and that’s why people have vertigo. When you’re not sure where the floor is. When you’re creating something, you constantly second-guess yourself. You have to shut down that part of yourself, and embrace the fact that you don’t know. That’s fucking scary. We constantly want closure. We want fiction. We want to tell ourselves stories to live, every day, and not go insane. But there are moments of exposure where we actually see ourselves. It’s not closure. It’s more like a vast, open, contradictory space – and I don’t think that people like that.

Could you tell us a little bit about the book? (Her just-released first collection of erotic fiction, the delightfully transgressive CALM: Crimes Against Love Memories – published by White Rabbit)

I live with someone who’s very creative – Johnny Hostile – and he picked up a camera and started taking pictures. In those pictures, he created the context where I could start writing the stories of C.A.L.M. The pictures are about the body, the self, sexuality: the anonymous body, and the world of intimacy. You don’t know who those people are, but they liberated themselves by doing photo sessions with us.

We became friends, talked a lot, and it became very natural, joyful. Those stories were fertile for me writing my stories. What I wanted to do at the beginning was to write about me and Johnny, what we have found out about love and relationships for ourselves. I felt that – to change consciousness, the most powerful weapon that you can use is fiction. You connect on a different level through the imagination.

There are a lot of collaborations on the album – Romy from the xx, Joe from Idles, Cillian Murphy. What did working with those different energies bring to the album?

It was important for me not to record this on my own. I decided early on that I would allow people to see me at quite a vulnerable stage. I have a tendency to be overprotective about my work, and don’t show anyone it until it’s finished. I wanted to find flexibility with it. To be able to play a demo without feeling like you’re giving away a part of yourself.

Trying to be a little bit more at ease with that, and trust people. I chose people who were good thinkers, who really want the best, and support the project. With [producer] Flood’s studio in London, we’d have different rooms in the building where we’d work on different parts of songs. It was like a whole factory, working on a verse in one place, the chorus in another.

That sort of energy – I love that. When you create all this input, you hear something new that you wouldn’t have if you’d been working on your own.

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I wanted to talk about environment. ‘Innocence’ deals with the corrupting, cynicising effect of the city while ‘French Countryside’ is restorative, and sleepy. If you see your songs as little fictions, is it even more important to evoke a sense of place with them?

‘French Countryside’ was written in the actual French countryside. It’s a place that I’ve used as a sanctuary around tours. I always came back, and felt like there was a part of me here. I think about it in-between shows, when I feel disconnected from my root. My mind goes there – it’s almost idyllic. It’s not real.

Your imagination creates the spaces where you can take refuge. I’m a great believer in imagination. What you imagine is as real to your brain as what you’re doing. And that’s why it’s very powerful. People who have great imaginations are often wiser.

In the spoken word part, ‘A Place About’ by Cillian Murphy, there’s a line that really caught me: “There’s a place that I go to in my head, where I know how to see”…

Well done. You’re the first one to have got that!

I wanted the record to be a collection of thoughts, as well. What Cillian did is made it so personal. You can hear someone thinking. Sometimes we have contradictory thoughts, and we can feel quite ashamed of them. With intelligence, you can understand all these complexities.

How did it feel to explore your sexuality, as someone who was raised Catholic, in such an uncompromising way?

I want to say that I don’t necessarily see myself as someone who writes about sexuality. Which might sound odd, as someone who’s just released an erotic novel. The record is about being human and being alive, and sex is part of life. And that’s how I see it within the record.

The book is more niche, and truly is about sexuality. It’s like you have to be sexy if you talk about sexuality, and people have really strong images over what they think it is. And sometimes, it’s like they think we’re telling them what to be. What sex should be. Which is definitely not what I’m trying to do. And yes, sex sells, but also – it drives people away. Because it can be something that feels so personal that it’s not something you speak out in public. I’m conscious of that. But I’m standing behind my work.

Does it frustrate you that talking about sexuality can mean that you’re somehow defined by that?

Rappers about sex all the time, but they don’t have headlines saying ‘such and such talks about sexuality’. It’s just seen as part of their work. Maybe it’s a gender thing as well. There’s sort of a label put on. I make the work that I make, and I understand that. With the book, the last thing I want is to tell people what to do. It’s just a book. It’s not going to change a lifetime of experience. It’s a place of exploration – why can’t we do that?

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‘Flower’ was written for a dancer at Jumbos, a pole-dancing club that Courtney Love used to dance in. It’s very tender, almost a love song. How did that come about?

It is more tender, as you say. I’m expressing the fear of getting closer to someone. It’s the same feeling you have with your first love, when you’re afraid you’ll end up rejected. In that way, distance is somehow sexier than the touch. That’s what I wanted to express. Humility.

This idea of adoring so much, with the fire in you about touching or being close to them, but actually being afraid and fascinated. Ending up doing and saying all the wrong things, and acting completely weird. You don’t know if it’s happening or not. She loves me and I love her – is that all in my head? Women have that power. And especially the dancers at Jumbos. There is this sort of domination in the way that they are so confident and powerful with their bodies. They’re totally in control, and you’re just gob-smacked, bewildered and frozen and powerless.

I love that sensation. I think that only women can do that.

Their ownership of their sexuality is such a powerful thing.

And their body, and their confidence. They truly take life by the balls. There’s no hiding away – it’s a show. On stage, you create that. And I know that feeling well. It’s a place to empower yourself and feel stronger and bigger than you are. Performance is very transformative.

On ‘Heroine’, there’s the lyric about ‘trying to become the woman that no-one sees’. Were you consciously trying to communicate that to yourself?

It wasn’t a straight road though. I had difficulties writing this, and I remember Romy getting a bit frustrated with me because I was taking so long. I wasn’t owning the character, I was shying away. I was afraid to be this powerful person myself. In lyrics, it felt too exposing. When the whole thing was written, it became a part of me and I feel good everytime I sing it. It gives me that. Songs are also a place where you can create a world that then becomes reality. Almost premonitory.

How does it feel, as someone who’s supposed to be on tour right now, in terms of this uncertainty that we live in? Do you see yourself moving into another medium?

Isolation hasn’t stopped me from writing. Whether it’s music, or prose, or whatever. And with the album released, I feel very inspired and I’ve been writing new music.

New medium? For sure, yeah. I’m hosting a TV show, called ‘Echoes with Jehnny Beth’ and a radio show, “Start Making Sense”. What nourishes me is hearing the relationship with the artist, and asking them questions. It’s also being part of a culture, and giving back. 

Are you missing performing live?

After I toured with Savages, I toured with Gorillaz all around the world. When I stopped, that was horrible. I really missed the stage, and I didn’t realise how much it was part of me. But I started boxing, and it’s changed my life. It’s really brought back the physical energy that I could express live, which is completely paliating to my balance. It’s helped me be able to wait for the time.

We had worked on the live performance for six months already. Invested all the money, we had all the musicians. Now it’s ready, I can go whenever. The world will be ready.

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Words: Marianne Gallagher

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