By Bethany Davison
Following the release of her debut album, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE, Jehnny Beth discusses finding inspiration in the loss of an idol and exploring the darker pools of the human experience
TO LOVE IS TO LIVE marks Jehnny Beth’s first solo-venture following the hiatus of Savages in 2017. While marking a change in direction, the record shares a continuity with previous projects, as Beth continues to work with longtime collaborator and partner, Johnny Hostile, as well as producers Atticus Ross and Flood.
TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is a record fielded with contradiction – where elements of noise and heavy bass play off against brassy notes of jazz. With Beth’s vocals flitting between delicate notes and biting punk, offset by a series of spoken word monologues, it is a wonder the record runs as well as it does. Exploring sex and sexuality, gender politics, and the darker feats of human emotion, Beth has created a rich tapestry of caveats such that even her own self becomes distorted. Almost as if she is performing as herself, she sets her voice under such heavy distortion that it becomes almost ‘another’ – the aggressor, she is at once in the forefront of the record, yet marginally removed. Combining that too with the collaborative nature of the record, citing features from Cillian Murphy and IDLES’ Joe Talbot, and with its varying lyrical narrative that becomes as expansive as the soundscape, TO LOVE IS TO LIVE looks both within and without, addressing the depth and messiness of the human experience. This duality of the self is best embodied in her own words, where in addressing the record she tells us ‘all of it is part of me, but I’m not just one thing.’ Through our conversation her responses are filled with meditative reflection that deliver the same rawness of humanity and genuity as transits through the record.
TO LOVE IS TO LIVE is an urgent record; its pacing and lyrical pleading, the way it sows dissension between soft and hard, its surprising bursts of energy, all playing into this sense of urgency that holds apart the closing walls of its run time. The need for a solo project was birthed at the passing of David Bowie. A hero for Beth and so many others, she describes hearing the news of Bowie’s death as ‘this reminder of mortality, of our mortalities, that artists die, and also the relation to the work in connection to that, and the relation between music and death, and the message that we leave through our records.’ This urgency, then, comes as a feeling of accepting the finitude of life, but also as a means to ensure there is something meaningful left behind, to live on. ‘I felt that it’s just a reminder that we are not infinite,’ Beth continues, ‘living is about forgetting about death all the time, so moments like that you remind yourself of that finality and that life is short. I tried to keep that feeling of urgency, and of density of living, which death brings into life, and tried to keep that alive through the creative process. It gave me energy throughout the project, weirdly, it gave me life.’
Despite this sense of urgency though, from conception in 2016 to its recent delivery, the depth of time and work put into the record is clear. Learning new processes pointed Beth in a new direction, insisting on a kind of patience and growth before the record could be finalised. ‘It’s important to take time to learn these things, and explore new ways of working,’ she explains, ‘and it was a change, it was wonderful, but something I had to work at. It was a big learning experience, but I’m very thankful for it.’
Working collaboratively with other established artists played a large role in this learning experience, as Beth talks fondly of her sporadic methods of working with The xx’s Romy Madley Croft. ‘I would meet [Croft] during a tour, we’d fly to Berlin and spend an afternoon with her in a hotel room and write together, or meet her and have a pint in London, and just do writing sessions with no purpose, just trying things out.’ The importance of this as a learning process is clear, as Beth goes on to describe how she and Croft would teach each other, as she learned to ‘let other people influence me, and let them in.’ These all important elements of learning, of time and collaboration, carried through to production and mixing, as Beth describes working with Atticus Ross and Flood as ‘a never-ending playful research’, going on to describe Flood as ‘a master of chaos, a genius really, of creating a climate where time and constraints of money disappear’. On working with Ross, she discusses how ‘six months of talking’ preceded any arrangements of production, underscoring not only the depth of thought and theory behind the record, but the extent to which others play such a driving role through it. ‘I am amazed now,’ she admits, ‘of the level of involvement of the people on the record, because there was always a moment where it belonged to them completely, and I wanted that.’
Shifting from the group dynamic to a solo project, one might assume some sense of change with performance, with delivering music much more self reflective and independent. For Beth, though, this was not the case. Rather, she speaks of her relationship with the stage as one grounded in spiritualism – ‘I think the stage is just where I feel very comfortable, and I feel at home,’ she tells. Returning back to the stage at the BBC Radio 6 Festival earlier this year, Beth describes the feeling as if she had never stopped. ‘I didn’t feel rusty or different; I felt very happy and in control. And also losing control, I needed that, because I’ve been sober for six and a half years, and the stage is a place where suddenly the constraints of modern or normal life just stop. You give your complete attention to something, and there’s no observer at all, there is only the state of attention.’ Continuing, she explains the spirituality of this attentive state, ‘I think that is kind of the highest form of intelligence – when you are in that state, it’s just total energy. Even if the brain is not in control anymore, it is a form of intelligence, and I really like to catch on to that state.’
Our conversation seems to return to that sense of urgency – of needing music, art, to live. Again, this translates best through her connection to performing. Not having performed since joining Gorillaz on tour in 2018, Beth speaks with a romantic passion on how much she has missed it. ‘I remember going to see Primal Scream in Paris, and I remember feeling very emotional when I saw the great connection between the audience and the band,’ she explains. ‘I shared with Bobby [Gillespie, of Primal Scream] my thoughts on that – that I felt very emotional. He said, ‘Oh yeah yeah, it’s like seeing an old love isn’t it, when you haven’t been on stage for a while.’ And I thought that was a very beautiful way to say it, it was exactly how it felt.’ There is a very authentic, grounded poeticism to this anecdote when reflecting on the album title, though it seems even now too cliche to force that forward.
One thing that does feel prevalent in other interviews with Beth, is this need to interpret and force subjectivity on the topics covered on TO LOVE IS TO LIVE. ‘I can’t really resent that,’ Beth tells us, seemingly already quite sure of her answer, aware of the problem. ‘I’m fine with people having their own interpretations of the songs. What I don’t like is when people now try to force on me, on the license of my own songs, or to look at my songs through the prism of today’s morals of politics, and expect me to have a strong stand that is hopefully the same as theirs.’
‘I feel sometimes uncomfortable, when a line is drawn on the ground and I am supposedly standing on the right side of the fence,’ she continues. ‘I feel that I am human, and humanity is evil and full of loathing. It’s not because I am defending evil, but artistically I am interested in embodying both sides. I’m not necessarily portraying myself as this perfect being who is right all the time, like, How Could You is a song about jealousy and I have difficulties with jealousy as a feeling because I feel that the jealous person thinks that they are right, and jealousy gives them credibility or that feeling that overpowers everybody else’s feeling. There is a brilliant song by Marianne Faithfull called Why D’ya Do It, which talks about that. It’s about that violence of jealousy, the jealous woman says she has been cheated on and says these horrid horrid things, and becomes worse than the actual act. It’s sort of rude evil.’
Considering her worldview approach to songwriting and exploration, as well as the layers of narrative threads voiced through the record, it feels natural to wonder just how much of the record is directly autobiographical, and how much is part of this objective extension of the general human experience. ‘I think it’s both to be honest,’ Beth responds. ‘Innocence talks about the sickness of being human, or the sickness of humanity, and that doesn’t define me completely. But it would be a part of me sometimes, and something that I have experienced.’ Continuing, Beth’s relationship with her work returns to this essence of spirituality, of deep connection. ‘I don’t say this record is me or it will be me forever, it is just transient things that go through me, and also that are passing from other people through me,’ she explains. ‘In a way fiction is interesting, because fiction is powerful. Sometimes telling stories has more impact than writing an essay about things, because it is part of the land of the imagination. Like how dreams can change our perceptions, imaginations play a very important role in the change of our consciousness, so sometimes I feel that fiction needs to be taught. You have to bring fiction so you can conflict, or bring an alternative to the common narrative, to bring another narrative.’
Linking this idea of the importance of fiction to the higher intelligence she earlier attributes to performance, Beth agrees, stating ‘I think it belongs to the same thing, because they’re not about analysing, they’re about feeling light. I try to never start with a postular or an idea, I try to start with an impulsion of feeling or an experience.’ The last sentiment rings true through the album. The death of a hero led to an impulsion of urgency, a feeling gripped tightly by Beth, that became the driving force of such a powerful record.
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