Charlotte Gainsbourg on “Rest”

Breaking From Comparison

Apr 26, 2018 Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett Photography by Amy Troost Bookmark and Share


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"I'm not naive: I knew what I had done," says Charlotte Gainsbourg of Rest, her fifth album, her first in six years, and first as a lyricist. Rest is an album fuelled by grief even in its most beautiful moments, something Gainsbourg has had to repeatedly explain. "I have been talking so much about my sister's death and my father's death," she says, though not tirelessly. "It's a pleasure to talk about them, but at the same time it's so intimate that by the end of the day, I feel so vulnerable."

For a long time, the actor and daughter of French music hero Serge Gainsbourg and British fashion icon Jane Birkin had hesitated about releasing another record with which she felt comfortable. She was cautious about writing songs herself, and, more so, about writing lyrics in French. Her 1986 debut album, Charlotte for Ever, was written by her father in French and released when she was 15. But on her three solo albums as an adult2006's 5:55, 2009's IRM, and 2011's outtakes and live album Stage WhisperGainsbourg had sung in English, with lyrics written by the likes of Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, Air, The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, and Beck. "My father died when I was 19, and that meant I couldn't think about music without him. I put the music aside for 20 years, and then very gradually understood that I wanted another experience with music. But I was really tip-toeing, and the idea of writing in French was for me impossible just because of the comparison to my father. I put him on a pedestal."

But the death of her sister, fashion photographer Kate Barry, left Gainsbourg craving to write about her childhood. This was always going to be an album of intimacies, and for that, she needed the French language. "I felt that it was easier to write verses in French because I wasn't trying to be musical, I was just pleasing myself with the words and the meaning. Sometimes it felt crude."

When it came to the choruses, Gainsbourg had to turn back to English. "There I understood that it was more of a game. For me, French is the language of the truth. The English has more distance and is playful. It made sense because that's exactly how I felt: to play and be dead serious in the same song."

While Gainsbourg's voice is husky, detailing the nearest of grievances, the beats over which she sings are club-appropriate and pulsating. She describes the sound of her record as a "small voice with very brutal music," one of the contradictions which drew her to French DJ and Rest producer SebastiAn. "He would say 'Are you sure you want to say this, on top of a disco beat?' And that's when I understood that that was the only way for me to say itto hide behind his music. It was a shield."

Nowhere is this more evident than on "Les Oxalis," the album closer, which depicts her sister's grave and ends with an eerie child's voice singing the alphabet song over gnarly beats. "There is a very thin line between horror songs and nursery rhymes," explains Gainsbourg. "It was a nice way for me to make it something quite dangerous-sounding." It's an intelligentif uncomfortableending for a record that regularly harks back to the unnerving peculiarities of memories of childhood and lost loved ones.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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Erin
May 3rd 2018
2:10pm

Love this interview, thanks!

Raleigh Handyman
June 3rd 2018
8:30am

Love this interview and Charlotte, her album Rest was amazing!!

Sam
July 23rd 2018
5:49am

Very unique music! Hard to find stuff like this in TX!

radarmag
August 21st 2018
8:22am

nice piece

Pool cleaning company
August 21st 2018
8:23am

Great contribution to the art scene