Jehnny Beth is all fired up
Jehnny Beth leans in conspiratorially, flask of hot water in hand. “What’s happening in your mind in your darkest, strangest or most erotic hours is very fascinating to me,” the French performer half-smirks, dark, large eyes close to mine. “Because the mind goes much further out than reality. I like that. Sexuality deals with what makes us so strange as human beings.”
Dressed in all black with hair as iridescent as an oil slick, Beth – real name Camille Berthomier – has spent the afternoon adjusting her gracile, angular frame for the camera. Importantly, she checks every pose first in a full-length mirror near the photographer, observing herself being observed. She’s deep in concentration as she pulls boxer-like poses, fists raised confrontationally to the camera – and to the would-be viewer. After a few hours of this, her gaze turns to me.
“You’ve been quiet over here all day,” she says sweetly, as if I were a child. But as soon she sits next to me on the cracked leather sofa, the intensity in her face dials up. We’re here, in an east London warehouse, to discuss Beth’s debut solo album, To Love Is to Live. Experimental and provocative, the project is an exploration of what life can look like when you prioritise freedom and sexuality. Within the first five minutes of our interview, talk turns to Beth’s bisexuality, which she first experienced at eight years old through a crush on a girl, but claimed much later.
During Beth’s childhood, in Poitiers, France, there were few openly bi artists to relate to, she explains. “I didn’t know what bisexuality was and I didn’t have many role models,” she remembers. Her parents were intellectual, artistic, but her wider family was traditional and Catholic. “It created a lot of anxiety for me. I left home because I wanted to understand where all that anxiety was coming from.”
Home was first her parents’ house in Poitiers and then her sister’s nearby, but it wasn’t until 2006, when she was in her early 20s, that she fully escaped her conservative upbringing by moving to London with her longtime partner Nicolas Congé. Starting over in a new city, he became Johnny Hostile and she Jehnny Beth. They performed as a Kills-inspired duo called John and Jehn, but her breakthrough came in 2012 when she joined guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton to form Savages.
Jewellery: Hanna Martin
Shoes: Silhou Archive
© Michelle Helena Janssen
The band, like their music, were serious and austere, their messages direct. Together, they perfected a bracing strain of post-punk that scrutinised gender roles – as on the still stinging breakthrough single, Husbands – and remained ambivalent towards our overstimulated era. It was Savages who famously told gig-goers in 2013 to put away their phones and experience life. Some may have levelled accusations of earnestness or humourlessness towards them, but they seemed unmoved.
By their second album, 2016’s Adore Life, the band seemed to adopt a more emotionally open state: they talked about love and Beth sang overtly of her sexual fluidity on Mechanics (“When I take a man/ Or a woman/ They’re both the same/ They’re both human”). The same year, some five years after they formed, the band announced they were going on hiatus.
Jehnny Beth, the solo project, feels both a natural progression of her art post-Savages and a necessary clean break. While Beth doesn’t dismiss the idea of Savages returning one day, she does have strict caveats. She describes her old band as a “pure project” (she doesn’t like “wobbly things”) and believes good art must have defined characteristics. “Rarely things stay pure in this world,” she declares. “If – if – Savages were to come back again I would think seriously about it. I would preserve what it is.” There’s a real sense that being in Savages took its toll on Beth. Upon announcing the band’s hiatus, and after 12 years of living in London, she moved to Paris where she could reconnect with old friends and start a course of therapy. She was burnt out: “I felt I had given a lot and I needed to find myself again.”
It was around this time that Beth took up boxing – an activity she also regards as therapeutic. She tells me she craved some form of exercise in the wake of Savages’ hiatus (“I like when my body is very active, it fights depression and you feel much better”) and to her, boxing is the closest rush she could get to being on stage. It’s all strategy, attitude, physicality. At first, she tried lessons in clubs all over the city but found them too macho. Eventually, she found a club that held mixed classes, female classes, Sunday brunches and places a heavy emphasis on the social aspect of the sport. “There’s a sense of community there that I didn’t think I needed,” she says. Even on the shoot, she wears boxing wraps underneath the statement jewellery on her delicate hands.
Beth is more open than I’d expected. She’ll speak candidly about anything, from what makes her horny (porn, her own writing) to what she gets up to at home (she finds baking cakes with the radio on relaxing, as well as reading). If she doesn’t want to answer a question, she simply chuckles and declines. It’s a marked contrast to how Beth came across in interviews during Savages’ first album cycle, where she was gruff and tight-lipped. She tells me this protectiveness was a strategy to force critics and would-be fans to focus on their artistic merit instead. “Even though I didn’t give a fuck that we were women – it didn’t mean anything to me – I was conscious of that context and how it was perceived.” She had seen an all-women post-punk band called Ipso Facto fall into the trap she feared for Savages: with their 60s bowl haircuts and mod-slash-babydoll dresses, they frequently did editorialised photoshoots and were subsequently asked questions about fashion, despite being highly talented musicians. “I witnessed that and then the band eventually died,” she says solemnly. “We wanted to be taken seriously for our music and that meant saying no to a lot of things. We tried to bring a certain austerity into the look so that there was nothing else they could talk about but the music.” That, she says, coupled with the skittish interviews, likely gave people the misconception that she and the other members of Savages are difficult. “But that’s fine,” she adds, confidently. “I think it paid off.”
Coat: Michael Browne
Jewellery: Hanna Martin
© Michelle Helena Janssen
It was the death of David Bowie in 2016 that prompted Beth to write her own album. Playing his final album, the transcendent Blackstar late into the night with Hostile, she knew she had to make work of her own that stood the test of time. It also had to define Jehnny Beth as an artist in her own right, beyond Savages. But how? “I tend to work well when I’m on the edge of the cliff. When I’m like, ‘Am I ruining everything?’” she reveals. “I like the tension of not knowing where I’m going. She knew what she wanted to say in To Love Is to Live before she began work on it, but initially found herself unable to write. “I had written lyrics for the past five years with Savages, and I felt dead bored, I was dry,” she admits.
A surge of inspiration thankfully arrived when she started work on a second project. Crimes Against Love Memories is an anthology of erotic fiction for Orion’s new music publishing imprint, White Rabbit. It features sexualised, strange and absurdist stories, told through different voices, fragmented but clear. Intriguingly, the book grew directly out of her personal life: Hostile had been taking erotic photographs of Beth and their friends. To accompany the photographs, she began piecing together sexual stories from the perspectives of different characters in between writing sessions for the album. She immersed herself in the work of Philip Roth, Anaïs Nin and Goethe, but was especially taken by Argentine surrealist Jorge Luis Borges. The latter was particularly relevant to her work because the effect of his strange, dreamlike writing is, in her words, “close to what fantasies do”. She relocated to Greece alone to finish the book, breakfasting by the sea, spending whole days with her phone off. It’s a period of creativity Beth calls the “happiest time of her life”.
Likewise, To Love Is to Live is fascinated by the tangle of complexities that comes with being human: disconnection, violence, loss, sexuality. The record is sprawling and knotty, moving through spoken word, courtesy of a reading from Irish actor Cillian Murphy, jazz, lithe post-punk and straight-up noise music. At the heart of it is Beth, who evokes stark vignettes, embodying different characters. On Innocence, Beth imagines herself as a flaneur, denouncing the city life that’s turned her heart so cold. Flower is a love song to a stripper who dances at LA club Jumbo’s Clown Room (“I’m not sure how to reach her/ Touch her”), vocals half-whispered over down-tempo minimalistic music that’s as inscrutable as its subject.
Beth’s solo work arrives at an interesting time in culture. There’s been a surge in female creators and artists who have embraced female sexuality, from authors like Melissa Broder and Lisa Taddeo to filmmakers Anna Biller and Céline Sciamma. What Beth outlines in the book certainly feels like part of that movement. It’s a manifesto for freedom, for a pansexual, non-monogamous liberation – for not having to live with the anxiety of needing to make a choice. “If you choose one ‘side’, it never completes you. You feel like you are making a choice and you have this feeling that your life is a lie. Whatever you choose, it’s very complicated… which I’m liberated from now.”
This, she explains, is down to her non-monogamous long-term relationship. While she may have searched for sexual role models when she was younger – naming the pornstars Belladonna, the muse for Savages song Hit Me, and Vanessa del Rio, as inspirations – her liberation ultimately resulted from following her own path. “When you’re older you know what you need, you know yourself better,” she says, adding that rather than an epiphany about monogamy, this knowing was “more inner and mainly through my relationship with Johnny Hostile.” If she wants to do something, anything, in life, it is an open discussion between the couple.
For someone clearly resistant to assigning limitations to experience, Beth naturally doesn’t want her art to be read as “Women’s Work”. In early Savages interviews, Beth was often asked if she was a feminist artist. The press was beginning to use celebrity, musicians in particular, as a lens to view a particular brand of feminism that was mainstreaming and, in fairness, their manner in interviews seemed to indicate feminist intentions. The singer denied all charges, expressing some confusion as to why she would be asked about it at all. She claims this dissonance in her own listening habits. As a teenager she listened to feminist electropunks Le Tigre but she tells me that their political message didn’t matter to her. The messages of strength and personal empowerment translated instead. “There’s so much in music that makes you more aware of yourself,” she says. She now understands why journalists may have conflated Savages’ messages with feminism but is still adamant that she is not a political artist. “Not all artists have to be activists. I know activists who do a wonderful job,” she states. “That’s not my job. If I wanted to do that, I’d do it full time. I’m an artist, ask me about art.”
You can see why, then, that Beth was frustrated when her first solo single I’m the Man was received as a simple takedown of men and toxic masculinity. In the video she strides through the streets, tossing one woman’s chips into her face and swaggering up to grope the next. For Beth, the truth is more nuanced; none of us are immune from adopting destructive qualities – being rude, aggressive, hyper-sexual. She smiles gingerly up at me as though she’s testing the waters. “We spend a lot of time thinking we’re on the right side of the fence and actually: are we?”
The answer is obvious, at least to Beth. “We’re not just one thing, we’re all layered and hopefully I’m trying to revive the idea of that being cool,” she says, tossing her head back to laugh and exhale with one breath. “Or people are going to be like, ‘This is too complicated’. The world is getting simpler and simpler, so I’ll bring you layers and layers. I’m trying to keep you occupied on a Saturday night.”
Far from that standoffish frontwoman she was once portrayed as, in person Beth frequently switches between defiance and playful provocativism. At the end of our interview, for example, she asks if I can come to either of her first two official solo shows that weekend. I can make Sunday: a festival at London’s Roundhouse for International Women’s Day with Kim Gordon, Nadine Shah and others performing. “The Only Women Show,” she says, with an ironic grin.
Two nights later, I find Beth joined on stage by musicians on either side, two men, two women; a symbolic choice of sorts. Her whole performance is instinctual, uncomplicated. She sings the chorus for I’m the Man whilst wearing pink stilettos and standing on the shoulders of a man in the crowd. Her chest is puffed out, her arms spread wide. As she screams into two mics – one in each hand – a sexual charge is palpable. When she dives off the man’s shoulders to get swallowed by a crowd, I’m reminded of something she told me when we met. “Sexuality is a way to put your mark on the world, to have proof that you exist. That’s what the enacting of fantasties does, it gives you confidence. This sort of belief that you belong.”
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To Love Is to Live is out 12 June via Caroline Records