CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG is full of nervous energy, switching from sitting on the sofa to the floor, pouring streams of green tea. It has been nearly eight years since the release of her last studio album, the critically acclaimed “IRM”, and her long hair has since been lopped off into a bob. She will release “Rest”, her new album, on November 17th, and is starring in two upcoming films—“The Snowman”, an English-language crime drama, and “Promise at Dawn”, a French adaptation of a novel by Romain Gary.Notoriously shy, she is still no stranger to exposure. Her parents—Serge Gainsbourg, France’s most revered musician, and Jane Birkin, an English actress and singer—courted the tabloid obsession with their scandalously chic family. Ms Gainsbourg began her music career aged 12 with “Lemon Incest”, a duet with her father (the sort of thing which would make less avant-garde tweenagers combust with embarrassment). Even now, at 46, she appreciates her father’s attentions as an artistic collaborator. “I like touchy subjects and things that make you uncomfortable,” she says. She remembers being in the spotlight with him fondly. “The way for my father to tell me that he loved me was through the media. He wasn’t very outgoing in private; he disguised his feelings much more.”
His imposing musical legacy meant that she waited 20 years to follow up on “Charlotte Forever” (1986), the album he wrote for her. Struggling to find the confidence to write her own lyrics, she worked with English lyricist Jarvis Cocker on “5:55”, her 2006 record, and Beck, an American musician, on “IRM”. She didn’t shy away from taboo subject matter, yet it was always through the words of others. “[My previous albums] were personal, but not intimate,” she says. “IRM” was written after a life-threatening brain haemorrhage, “but it was Beck’s view of what I had gone through, and not mine.”
Ms Gainsbourg began working on “Rest” four years ago with Sebastian Akchoté (known as SebastiAn), a French producer. They sought to develop a harder, electronic sound that contrasted with her whispered vocals. Going back and forth over which author they thought should write her lyrics, the album stalled.
Then Kate Barry, her sister, died, having fallen from her fourth-story apartment in Paris. Stricken with grief, Ms Gainsbourg uprooted herself from Paris, a city now soaked in painful memories. She started afresh in New York, and called up Mr Akchoté and told him to fly over to record the album. She gave him a list of horror-film soundtracks with the sort of aggressive energy she wanted to harness, including “Jaws”, which she had watched with Kate as a terrified four-year-old. “The album took a different direction,” she says. “I wanted to express [my grief] not only with sadness but with anger.”
As a result, “Rest” is ruthlessly, explicitly personal. Kate’s death shocked Ms Gainsbourg out of her writer’s block, and she wrote the lyrics in English and in French. “I didn’t feel like I had that talent of playing with words or being witty. It had to be as intimate, not embarrassing but,” she pauses, “on the verge of being embarrassing”. On the album, she reflects directly on Kate’s death and alcohol addiction: “It’s a way for me to make her still a part of my life.”
Other memories surface too. In “Lying with You”, she remembers herself as a 19-year-old, crawling next to the dead body of her father. “Your bare leg jutting out from the sheet / Without shame and in cold blood…My mouth is whispering in raptures / Celebrating you,” she sings, continuing the exploration of their devoted father-daughter relationship that “Lemon Incest” started.
It is not just the lyrics which explore the jarring surreality of losing a loved one. Mr Akchoté’s production creates a throbbing, urgent drive, which sometimes bursts—almost inappropriately—into fully-fledged pop bangers. Mr Akchoté also peppers the albums with homages to Serge, stealing the slinky bassline of his biggest hit, “Je t’aime… Moi non plus” almost wholesale on opener “Ring-A-Ring O’Roses”. “Les Oxailles”, the album’s final track, has a disco feel, despite the lyrics about Charlotte visiting her sister’s grave. “[Mr Akchoté] said: ‘Are you sure you want to say these words on this music, this rhythm?’ For me, it totally made sense.”
Her personal life is on display in self-directed music videos too, which feature her three children, Ben, Alice and Jo. “I realised that I wanted to film the people I love,” she says. “I wanted to protect them for ages, but because I started when I was 12, I have images of myself growing up. I’m so thankful that they let me do this from so early on. I think it’s a great experience.” She notes, however, that she wouldn’t necessarily push them as far as her father once pushed her.
Ms Gainsbourg has a promotional tour for “Rest” ahead of her, flying to New York and Berlin. Will it be draining to keep talking about such a personal album? “I didn’t think of the promotion which is a bit stupid of me,” she says. “I was spontaneous with whatever I felt like writing, and being personal didn’t scare me. It still doesn’t scare me because I needed to say those things for myself.” She looks calm, but defiant. “It’s not something I’m embarrassed about at all.”