Caturday with Jehnny Beth

India Hendrikse

The leap of faith from band member to solo artist can be trying for any musician. Will it empower reconnection with their innermost self? Or will the constant pressure of a perfection-obsessed industry swallow them whole? Its a precipice not many of us would feel brave enough to confront, and yet some of historys greatest solo artists have emerged from the successes of their band beginnings. Jehnny Beth was met with that very decision when she felt creatively stifled by the busy success post-punk London-based band Savages had brought her. As the bands lead singer for nine years, Jehnny was an adrogynous antithesis to the music industrys knack for pigeonholing women; and yet, she felt caged. So, after a period of introspection and returning to her native France, Jehnny has created a solo project album To Love Is To Live. Its deeply honest, cathartic and sonically rich. As an artist, shes quite literally had to deep-dive into her innermost confidence, putting her desire for true self-love on the line in the vulnerable but empowered single Heroine. Her ability to present herself as multi-faceted is refreshing in an industry built on manufactured meaning. Here, we spoke to her about love, sexuality, and the state of the world.

Photo by Ella Hermë

IH: After nine years in Savages, has pursuing a solo album been a massive creative release for you?
JB: It came as a necessity. At the end of the last Savages tour I felt fragmented and unhappy and started to ask myself why. I came to the realisation that if I carried on working in the same way I always had, it would eventually shut me down, creatively and personally. I needed to regroup and I moved to Paris after 12 years living in London. I started therapy in my own native language, connected with parts of myself I had abandoned when I left France at 20 years old. Creatively I reconnected with that place of not knowingthat I felt intensely when I was younger. Everything was new, the city I was living in, the people I was hanging out with… all along my work on the album I tried to stay focus on doing everything the opposite way I had done them before. I didnt want to repeat myself.
IH: To Love Is To Live is the name of your new album… What does love mean to you?
JB: Love is everything. Theres no humanity without love, but not any kind of love. I think too often we have strangled the idea of love with the ancestral codes of romanticism. The way we value relationships and the frustrations generated by seeing our reality disagree with the idea of love that we have been made to believe was the only alternative. We fall in love and yet, we are unhappy! I like to believe that in 2020 we should now enter a post-romantic era, where love is something we can learn and shape for ourselves. In my art I always try to represent alternatives that can work in parallel to the norm, to monogamy, to family, jealousy…

Photo by Steve Gullick

IH: Its such a tumultuous time in the world to be releasing an album. Has the meaning of the lyrics throughout the songs changed/evolved at all for you lately?
JB: Yes it has, a lot of the things I tried to convey in the album resonate strongly today, sometimes as if premonitory. I think this album coming out at this moment will feel important, maybe even comforting. With the recent racist events happening in America we were reminded of our own dysfunction as a human race. I wrote the song Im The Manwhere I portray a male character prone to violence, because I wanted to show that the root of evil isnt just on the other side, it lives inside each of us. Its been implanted in our core by generations of parents and grand-parents, and society. We must fight against the aggressive powers that control us, our education, our conditioning. I try in my art to show what I know to be true about human kind, how ambivalent we are, how never safe from doing the wrong thing. Im The Manis about admitting responsibility for the violence that lives inside of me, Innocenceis about facing the sad feeling of disconnection regarding others. Everything starts with the admittance of our own imperfection, our own violence and darkness, so we can walk from there towards self-betterment.
IH: What was the process of creating the album like? What helped creatively/what inspired you?
JB: I had never been a fan of Beyoncé’s music but when the album Beyoncé’ came out in 2013 it really interested me. It is the only album of Beyoncé I have listened to extensively. It involved underground producers and there was a real freedom in the songwriting, it felt like a new kind of pop, the songs were fragmented which I thought was a real expression of our time. I got interested in this idea of mixing genres, having a song within a song. This album weirdly freed me from the codes of what one can do or cannot do. To Pimp a Butterflyby Kendrick Lamar had the same effect on me, especially for its sense of narrative and its urgency. Then there was the Low album that came out Double Negativewhich was so brave, the production even went as far as destroying the beautiful songs. And again there was something about that saturation that was so evocative of our times, as if beauty had to be seen from behind a veil of dirt, beautified by its inaccessibility, filtered, but still retaining elements of its beauty that you could guess through all the layers of bullshit. For me that record is as important as a painting of Rembrandt, or Egon Shield. Finally, I weirdly found myself listening to a lot posthumous albums at the time. Skeleton Treeby Nick Cave, You want it Darkerby Leonard Cohen and of course Black Star, which had a huge waking-call effect on me.

Photo by Steve Gullick

Photo by Ella Hermë

Photo by Xavier Arias

Photo by Andreas Neumann

IH: You met Nicolas Congé 16 years ago, and during these years, youve both created together and been a couple. Longetivity can be rare in the creative world whats your secret to nourishing your own passions whilst being in a relationship?
JB: It was never a plan for me to have a long relationship with anyone, but it happened, which makes me think that maybe its not entirely within our control? I was lucky to find someone who loved me enough and who I loved enough to keep it going all these years. What works is that we have the same passion for art and music, we are both creatives and we enjoy being each others muses. Johnny inspires me everyday and gives me the strength to do what I do. Above all, he gives me freedom, which is for me the ingredient sine qua non of any relationships. But nothing comes easy and maybe the reason we are still together is because we have worked hard at our relationship. The secret to longevity in marriage is never to get divorced!
IH: Also, your sexual liberation is refreshing. What do you wish was more normalised for women, sexually?
JB: I think one of the last taboos is the couple. Sexual exclusivity is still tied up with notions of love. We know by now that love and sex dont necessarily go hand in hand, otherwise we wouldnt admit to the value of casual sex. What I wish is for us to rethink how feelings of possession and jealousy control our behaviours, for us to make a better use of our creativity regarding our own sexuality, with the exploration of fantasies, and to understand that our imagination is our best ally.
IH: Are you still into boxing? What are three of your other non-music-related hobbies/passions?
JB: Boxing is definitely one of my passions outside of music. I train very regularly and it has been a lifesaver during confinement. It has become the best replacement to stage performance, which I miss a lot. Other than boxing, I write. My first book is coming out on July 9. Its called C.A.L.M (Crimes Against Love Memories) and its a book of short erotic fiction.
IH: Youve been in the music industry for a long time now. What have you noticed has changed significantly compared to when you started out?
JB: I started music professionally in London right in the middle of the industry crisis in 2007/2008. Everyone was saying that there was never going to be any money for anyone. When I started Savages I was determined not to listen to the older generation who had known the golden days, because the industry had changed and the old system didn’t work anymore. Now the industry has stabilised and labels get funded by streaming platforms. Record sales dont really mean much anymore, they are not the primary way to judge an artists success. An album has become only a part of a bigger brand, which is the artist. Rappers understood this a long time ago. The artists who survive I think are those who are able to diversify.
IH: And finally, can you tell us a few words about the playlist youve shared with us?
JB: I chose to select songs written and performed by Black people that address the problem of racism. I didnt include contemporary songs on purpose. Following the recent assassination of George Floyd in America it seems important to remind ourselves that those issues have been going on for over 200 years. Jazz musicians such as Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, Coltrane, they all helped fuel the Civil Right movement of the 60s. They played for each other and for their communities, invented new languages to carry the message forward on their own terms. Black people have been singing and writing about racism for too long, and nothing changes? Listen to Strange Fruitand tell me we haven’t come face to face with our own failure as a human race. Its our responsibility as white people to not stay silent.

Listen to Jehnny Beth’s playlist here