In Conversation: Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth on Uniting for “Utopian Ashes”
The vocalists from Primal Scream and Savages discuss the joys of collaborating on their heartbreaking new duets album.
They make an unusual pair, Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth. Gillespie’s the 59-year-old frontman of long-running Scottish dance-rock reprobates Primal Scream, whose Glaswegian burr remains thick enough to short circuit any transcription software you might throw it at. Nearly a quarter century his junior, Beth (best known in the U.S. as the vocalist of the acclaimed post-punk group Savages) is a French musician, writer, and actress who speaks English with a diction precise enough to cut glass. Though sober now for over a decade, Gillespie still exudes the laid-back charisma of the classic rock and roll hedonist, while Beth burns with a confrontational intensity. In other words, they would hardly be the first twosome you’d think of putting together for an album of duets.
And yet, Gillespie and Beth’s new Utopian Ashes is a phenomenal piece of work. Recorded in 2018 (with Andrew Innes, Martin Duffy and Darrin Mooney of Primal Scream on guitar, piano, and drums, and Beth’s longtime collaborator Johnny Hostile on bass), but only recently released in the U.S. by Third Man Records, the nine-song album dissects the end of a marriage with both brutal frankness and deep humanity. Though many reviewers seem intent on comparing the album to the work of such legendary country male-female duet partners as Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Utopian Ashes is more a 21st century update of the organic singer-songwriter sound of early 1970s Los Angeles with some Muscle Shoals soul thrown in for good measure. The songs also derive much of their power from the marked dissimilarity of Gillespie and Beth’s respective vocal approaches, as opposed to any sort of close-harmony country singing.
Gillespie and Beth called in together—he from London, she from Paris—to speak about their new album, as well as Gillespie’s forthcoming memoir Tenement Kid, which will be released in the U.S. this fall via Third Man Books. The massive respect the pair (who first appeared onstage together in 2015, when they joined in on a London performance by groundbreaking electro-punk duo Suicide) have for each other as artists is clearly palpable; and for all the darkness of Utopian Ashes, it’s evident that they both enjoyed their cross-Channel collaboration immensely.
When you started work on this record, was this the kind of sound and concept that you originally had in mind?
Bobby Gillespie: I had no idea, to be honest. It was originally the idea of our guitar player, Andrew Innes, to make a song with Jehnny. Andrew and I went over to Paris for a five-day session in March 2017, and we came up with a few ideas there that were really interesting and exciting. Everything was electronic-based at that point, but Andrew and I felt that the best thing about it was that when Jehnny and I sang together, our voices really went together. Not just when we were harmonizing or singing that unison, but when the voices were apart, they just seemed to fit, you know?
I began writing lyrics, and while I’m writing I’m playing an acoustic guitar, and I just started envisaging five or six people playing it live, very much a John Lennon “Jealous Guy” kind of thing. And then “Stones of Silence” was the second song I worked up, and Jehnny had a really great verse and melody for it, and again I just imagined it with a live band playing. I was writing lyrics and going over some of the ideas with Andrew and we thought that maybe trying to record these as rock songs would be a good way to go, because there was such a good feel to them with the guitars and piano and stuff. I preferred that to the electronic soundscapes that we’d come up with in Paris.
But as we developed the demos, there seemed to be a sound emerging that was more acoustic-based, more singer-songwriter, early-’70s type of thing with piano, acoustic guitars, bass and drums, and two voices, male and female. I was really interested in taking this path, because I really wanted to make a record with a real human feel to it. With the Primals, there’s been a lot of electronics, especially in the last 20 years; I just wanted to go back to guitar, bass, drums, and vocals live in the studio, record it the old way and get some feel on it, you know?
“I really wanted to make a record with a real human feel to it. With the Primals, there’s been a lot of electronics, especially in the last 20 years; I just wanted to go back to guitar, bass, drums, and vocals live in the studio, record it the old way and get some feel on it.” — Bobby Gillespie
Jehnny, were you immediately on board with that?
Jehnny Beth: Well, the first lyrics of Bobby’s that I heard were for “Remember” and “Chase It Down”—and the first time I heard “Chase It Down” I cried, so there you go! [Laughs.] When you start a collaboration, you just throw things at the wall, and someone has to have a vision about things. The music has to guide you. I felt that Bobby had seen and heard something and he was chasing this idea, and that’s all you need to make a record. So it felt like we were onto something, and all I had to do was just provide my own ideas in that landscape, which is an easier job in a way.
I think originally the electronic ideas came from us playing the electronic instruments and drum machines we had in the studio in Paris; me and Bobby had played together with Suicide, so maybe that was sort of an unconscious thing, and also Primal Scream has done so much with electronics behind the band. But I had no idea Bobby wanted to do something different than that, and it’s great that it emerged there. It’s all about intuition, I guess.
Lyrically, all the songs deal with a relationship that’s on the rocks. How did that emerge from the music?
JB: I wrote the first lyrics for the record and they were quite abstract, which I think gave Bobby a lot of room for interpretation. What Bobby did, I think, was sort of connect the dots and try to tell the story of these characters more in real, concrete terms, coming from the inspiration of folk music. It’s great that Bobby had that role, because he really has that capacity as a writer. I had my role in the record, but it was kind of a different sort of point of view—which I think works, in a way. It’s interesting, though, because on “Living a Lie,” for example, Bobby really insisted on me singing about having children and about how “we don’t have sex anymore,” you know, all of these lines that were really brutal and really concrete and real, and they were the hardest for me to sing.
BG: As I was writing the lyrics for the songs, this is just what came out. I never questioned that. “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” I just sat down in my living room one day and picked up a guitar and the whole song came out; and the same exact thing happened with “Chase It Down.” With that one, what Andrew and I were doing was a Neil Young/Skip Spence kind of dirge, and then when Jehnny came up to our studio, we played it for her and she really reacted to it emotionally. She asked for the microphone, told Andrew to record it, and she started writing the chorus on the spot, reacting to my words in the verse. We had this dynamic between my behind-the-beat, bluesy, rock-and-roll style of singing, and Jehnny coming in on the chorus with this icy-cold, European, on-the-beat, Gothic thing. It’s like two people having a conversation—or maybe they’re not in the conversation, maybe it’s an inner monologue that they’re both having at the same time, but it’s definitely two distinctly different personalities.
“I felt that Bobby had seen and heard something and he was chasing this idea, and that’s all you need to make a record. So it felt like we were onto something, and all I had to do was just provide my own ideas in that landscape.” — Jehnny Beth
JB: You go from one voice to the other and I think it makes it breathe. So often on folk records, you have both singers doing the same sort of thing, which works really well—but I think we’ve invented something here. And I’m very proud of my vocal takes; there were probably one, two, three takes max. It was so raw, the emotions, and very fresh in a way. It’s like the way you sing when you’re discovering something.
BG: It was very loose in the studio. I’ve been in studio sessions where it’s so fucking tense, you think your head’s going to explode; all you can think about is how you’re going to go and have a drink straight after. We did a record in Memphis in the ’90s and we were getting hammered every night; it was just too much! Obviously I’m more experienced now, but recording Utopian Ashes was just so relaxed; everybody was just grooving, and that’s how it should be. And you can hear that on the record.
Speaking of the ’90s, Bobby—your forthcoming book Tenement Kid is basically your autobiography, right?
BG: Yeah, unless I’ve gone full Philip K. Dick and written an autobiography of somebody else [laughs.] Which, you know, is quite possible knowing my former use of amphetamines and crystal meth and stuff. But the last time I looked at it, it’s definitely my story.
JB: At least, as much as you can remember.
BG: Well, I’ve got a really good memory. But in saying that, there was one recording session I was writing about where something quite funny happened, and I remembered it in a certain way. But I wanted to check up with the guy who engineered the session; I emailed him and he told me a different story. And then I asked Andrew Innes, and he told me a different story, right? He thought we’d recorded in a different studio, in a different part of the city! And then I asked the gospel singer Nicky Brown, who was one of the singers on the track “Come Together,” and he told me a completely different story.
JB: So did you write four stories?
BG: No, people remembered the years and names and studios wrong, but somewhere in there everyone agreed that the situation I’ve described in my book did happen. But anyway, to me, the book is just impressions of things I remember—or partly remember—and I can color them in with my imagination.
“So often on folk records, you have both singers doing the same sort of thing, which works really well—but I think we’ve invented something here. And I’m very proud of my vocal takes…it was so raw, the emotions, and very fresh in a way. It’s like the way you sing when you’re discovering something.” — J.B.
Was it challenging to write? Both this album and book seem like real departures for you.
BG: It was, yeah. I wanted to challenge myself and do something creative that I had never done before. And I chose to write a book—and if it failed, then it failed. I didn’t sign my contract with the publisher for a long time, because at the end of the day I thought I might not want to release the book. But I’m really pleased that I did it; I think it was a very worthwhile experience. Some days I came home really emotionally exhausted; I had to reflect upon a lot of things, like, how do I take a position when I’m writing about certain people and certain situations? But I think it’s a joyous book. You read some of these memoirs of people in bands and they’re sniping at people and putting people down, and this isn’t that kind of book. It’s joyous, because I love being in a band and I love playing music, and I wanted the book to reflect that.
Jehnny, your book came out last year. Did Bobby hit you up for any writing tips?
JB: He doesn’t need me. We have the same publisher in the U.K., actually—Lee Brackstone at White Rabbit—so I knew about it. Not that I had any influence, but every time I met him I’d ask, “So, are you doing the book?” Because I was in touch with Lee, and I knew there might be that possibility and I was excited by that. And Bobby was always, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
BG: Yeah, Jehnny was very supportive of me writing the book. She kept saying, “You’ve gotta do it, you’ve gotta do it!” So that was nice. FL