In Conversation: Charlotte Gainsbourg Is Far from Home
Originally planned to be released without a tour, Rest is now getting the full live treatment at festivals around the world. Ahead of a rare solo show in LA, we talked with Gainsbourg about Trump, Hollywood, and keeping things mysterious.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s fourth studio album, Rest, is a masterclass in writing through grief. Cinematic string arrangements, Euro-disco synthesizers, and intimate words sung in French and English meet for a lush study in memory, fantasy, anger, and mourning—a soundscape that doesn’t so much describe her feelings of loss and longing as evoke them through sound and inflection.
In 2014, the French musician, actor, and style icon relocated to New York to escape the claustrophobia that accompanied her in Paris after the death of her sister, Kate Barry. There, she hunkered down with producer SebastiAn and select collaborators, including Paul McCartney and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk, for what would become Rest, one of the most celebrated albums of 2017 worldwide. In the album she not only reflects on the deaths of her sister and famous father before that, but also on the joy of remaining very much alive through such losses. This summer she’s touring select festivals in support of Rest. FLOOD caught up with Gainsbourg ahead of her special July 20 solo show at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles.
Is New York starting to feel like home for you, or does it still feel like an in-between?
I don’t think it can feel like home because I feel very Parisian and I’ve lived there all my life. The purpose of New York was to feel like I wasn’t at home. It’s still the case, and in that sense I love it. I love feeling like a foreigner.
I wonder how you feel being a person from France living in an America where Donald Trump is president.
“When Macron won, I was proud of France—that we were able to exclude the extreme.”
When I moved to New York, Obama was still the president, and that was all wonderful. In that sense it has changed drastically. You can feel that New Yorkers are really embarrassed. I don’t know if the whole country is embarrassed, but New York certainly is. The people that I tend to see, anyway. I don’t know what to say, because people have voted for him, and I still don’t understand this way of voting. It puzzles me. People have explained it to me, and I’m not stupid. But I don’t understand why you don’t change the system.
The Electoral College is a strange concept.
It’s true. We almost had an extreme situation in France with Marine Le Pen. We were all terrified. So it’s not only America. It’s a scare we can all have. When [Emmanuel] Macron won it was such a relief. I was proud of France—that we were able to exclude the extreme.
Did you vote remotely from New York?
No, no. I went to Paris to vote.
What was that like?
It was scary, because everyone was saying that she could win. Not that my vote means a lot, but I felt it was an important duty to go and express what I could.
We’re speaking because you’re doing a rare solo show at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles. I’m curious about your relationship with LA, because your film career doesn’t seem to center on Hollywood.
No, not at all. I used to visit Los Angeles and it felt so different from what we know in Europe. It was all sort of a fantasy. Then when I started to work with Beck [on the album IRM], it made the place much more real. I became close to someone who was born and raised there and who was part of the city. Through him, I started to like Los Angeles quite a lot. I loved the musical scene. It was quite distant from the movie scene—what I thought Los Angeles was only about.
So you feel different coming to LA as a musician, rather than an actor?
I do. Because as an actor I’m nothing in America. When I come as an actor I’m hoping for work, you know? I’m hoping to meet the right people. Whereas with music I’m very much who I am, and I have nothing to ask. I feel much freer. With music I know where I stand, and with the cinema it’s much more uncomfortable.
I read that you’re actually uncomfortable in the role of an entertainer or performer. Given that, how are you translating your new album for the stage?
“The way Rest was done, it’s not a mourning album. On the contrary, it’s very much about life and about the fact that I’m still living.”
I feel that I’m more at peace with the fact that I’m not a performer, and in that sense I do it the way I am. I’m not trying very hard to be someone else, or to suddenly break out dancing. That’s not who I am. I understand now that the people who come to see me know that I have the voice that I have, and I have my personality, and that’s all I have to offer. Rest is a very intimate album and I wanted the whole stage to be very minimal and possibly a little mysterious. To not be completely obvious. I needed some shade, because the lyrics are so intimate. With the story behind the album, I had to keep it modest in a way.
I also read that you originally didn’t want to tour Rest. Why did you change your mind?
It was a real question. I didn’t know, because a lot of the songs are about my sister who died and my father and very much the idea of loss and grief. I didn’t know if I could tour with it—if it was going to be a nightmare to think about it all the time. But the songs aren’t all about them and about that, and it’s a very precious moment for me to be able to focus on them again. The way that the album was done, it’s not a mourning album. On the contrary, it’s very much about life and about the fact that I’m still living.
Have the songs taken on a new meaning at all since you’ve been performing them live?
With the festivals and the shows, I tend to look at the songs with a real tenderness. It’s not an emotional show, but it’s a precious moment and I know it’ll end.
What do you think your father would say about the album, if he was still alive?
I have no idea. I think as a father he would be proud of anything, but it doesn’t mean it’s good [laughs]. FL