Origins is a recurring new music feature in which an artist charts the influence of their latest hit single.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s voice is a lullaby. Words as simple as “hello” ring sweetly, at once a whisper and loud enough to resonate with an incessant depth and strength. Sentences tumble out in wisps of smoke, slithering into any crevice in conversation and infiltrating every crack in the heart, filling it up with honest self-assessment. She extended that same inquisitive nature and close, personal attention to her new album, Rest, an achievement that although star-studded (Sir Paul McCartney, Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, SebastiAn, Owen Pallett, and others) shines because it marks Gainsbourg’s first time writing her own lyrics and truly taking control of her art.
As always, her legendary father, Serge Gainsbourg, acts as an essential touchstone, an inspiration and unavoidable figurehead always loomed large in her creative process. The tragic passing of her sister, photographer Kate Barry, made an equally important impact, and inspired careful consideration of mortality and the fleeting beauty of life. In both cases, Gainsbourg returned to her roots to develop new ways to express her inner most self, and came away stronger in her fragility.
That duality and connection deepens on the newly released video for album track “Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses”, in which Gainsbourg’s son, Ben Attal, stars. The song’s interpolation of a childhood rhyme, combination of French and English, and Attal’s resemblance to Gainsbourg all tie together the album’s analysis of the cyclical nature of life. Check out the new song and video via Apple Music below.
In this edition of Origins, Gainsbourg details those familial connections to Consequence of Sound as well as the other influences upon both “Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses” and Rest, including her favorite horror films, moving to America, and Edgar Allan Poe.
The Spirit of My Father, Serge Gainsbourg
My father lingers behind all of my songs, all the time. As soon as there’s a bass, as soon as there’s a violin. For me he’s done it all before, he’s made every kind of note in my head. I can always hear him. I was also turning to classical music when I was making this album, because that’s always something that I lived with, and it’s like listening to my father. I don’t listen to my father at all, but it’s so present in my mind that it’s like an ongoing murmur. “Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses” was always the first song on the album, and it made sense entering a story. SebastiAn and I were completely convinced that that was the starting point. We recorded it quite early on, and it’s the first time — I feel quite stupid about this — that the melody of the verses was my input. It’s a simple melody, there’s nothing I can really boast about, but that was my input.
I think New York is wonderful; experiencing a change over the last three years and discovering a new city has been a real revelation for me. It’s a very special city, and I feel really lucky to be in a lovely neighborhood. But the thing is, I was escaping France. I was escaping everything that I knew, so I wanted to feel like a foreigner, to feel like I wasn’t at home. And I don’t feel at home, still. But that’s what I enjoy.
The Joy of Contradictions
The whole starting point for me was to be able to have my voice that’s not a strong voice, not a big voice, aligned with that style of music. I enjoy contradiction. The whole album is about the idea of going extreme with the music and being very energetic, but sometimes it’s quite brutal, and sometimes it’s quite spacious. And then the other thing is, I was being so personal with the lyrics on most of the songs that I needed some distance, and I think the distance I got is through the music. That was a wonderful way of being able to be very true, very honest, and very intimate with my words and to have a defense mechanism with the music.
Grief and Living Again
I was of course going through my sister’s death, as well. The album had started when she was alive, so that wasn’t part of the subject; but then when it happened, I think that SebastiAn tried to push forward the idea of grieving as not only sadness, but also anger, and understanding, and brutal, all at the same time. I would never have done an album that was only sad songs with sad music.
I was sort of compelled and also completely obsessed. I didn’t ask myself, “Do I have the right to talk about it? Is it too personal?” It was natural to just write what I felt. I didn’t want to write about anything else. In a way, I was just talking to myself a lot. If it resonates with other people’s feelings, then I couldn’t be happier, because I feel very selfish in the process of having done the album. Even toward my own family, I realized that an album is coming out and I’m talking about my sister. I don’t think it will harm them, but I did everything by just thinking about myself. Also moving to New York was a very selfish move, but it was for my children and Yvan to be able to just continue to live again.
The other thing that has always been very important to me are first times. I always try to make them last longer. For instance, for music, my first single was “Lemon Incest” with my father. My first album was Charlotte for Ever, and then I did my first album without my father, the album with Air [2006’s 5:55]. Each time I try to make those first times continue, or have a new frame. So, with the album, it’s true that it’s my first time writing. I was also able to direct videos for the first time. During the song, “Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses”, I speak about my first primal call, my first maternal kiss, my first heartache, and my first child. It’s a wonderful thing.
Childhood and the Circle of Life
The song “Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses” is about the circle of life and it resonates throughout the album. Being inspired by horror films also meant revisiting my childhood, and with that came a nursery rhyme that can have a very terrifying aspect. The song for me was just a lovely song that we used to sing with my grandmother and my sister. It was easier to sing these memories: “Round and round a circle, like a teddy bear,” you know, that little thing. It had a sentimental touch and color. But then someone told me the song came from a disease that people had at the time. And of course, now I understand it’s a terrifying song! But it’s great because it makes such perfect sense, and I do believe in a lot of things happening at strange times; sometimes coincidences have a strange resonance. And so, that’s one part of the song: it was meant to be about my childhood but it resonates with death.
It’s somber in the sense that we’re all going to die. That’s somber enough, but it’s not scary. There’s this circle, and we all know about it. We don’t have to address it, but we just have to go ‘round and ‘round in circles and bow down to it. It was a contrast between being very down to earth and at the same time having this childish approach to life. It’s another contradiction that I quite like.
Isolation and Influence
Recently, I was wondering why I wasn’t listening to more music, and how only now have I discovered so many new artists that are not new, but I’ve just discovered them. I realized that I need to isolate myself. When I was in the process of making the album — and that lasted for four years, so it’s a pretty long time — I needed to isolate myself from what other people do. I know that I’m so influenceable that I want to control my influences. For this, I turned to film scores that had a real impact on me.
I kept asking SebastiAn, “Please give me a playlist.” Beck gave me a playlist, as did one of the guys from Air. I love discovering what other people listen to, because I don’t have a huge education musically so I’m always longing for other people to introduce things to me. And SebastiAn is still owing me this playlist after four years! He will never give it to me!
Poe, Plath, Judaism, and Marriage
There are two authors that I really looked into by accident during this album. Edgar Allan Poe was one of them, especially a poem called “Lenore”; I pinched bits and pieces for a song that didn’t make the album, but will be released at one point. Poe is one of the first authors my father introduced me to, so that was important. Those are very spooky, terrifying short stories. Sylvia Plath was a real discovery because I know that the poem I took the words from is not at all in that same vibe. I used it because it resonated with a new life as a reader, whereas when you read her poem it’s sort of a desperation. Her tragedy made sense for me. I was also very attracted, and always have been, to my father’s religion. He was Jewish. I’ve been listening to chants, religious songs, because I love little boys’ voices, the very high-pitched voices, and very often that’s religious music.
That of course took me to vows and the idea of marriage. I have a superstitious relation to marriage. I’ve never wanted to be married; we’ve been together for 26 years and it’s something that I fantasize about, and at the same time it can be quite perverse. So I wanted to address both sides of this concept of vows — love and promises. Again it talks about life and death, and so it all makes sense.
The Horror, The Horror
I was very inspired by horror films and that whole spirit and atmosphere — think Psycho or The Shining, and not just the music, but really the atmosphere. When I first met SebastiAn, he was very interested by that, because it’s completely in his realm.
I have a few favorites. My mother took us to see Jaws. I looked up the release date of the film and realized that it was released in 1975, so I was only four years old. She didn’t even know what it was about. [Laughs]. It was the most traumatic thing that I could have ever put myself through, and then of course going swimming in the sea is something that was forever banned. Jaws is a big one. But also The Shining, Carrie, and, even if it’s not a really scary film, The Night of the Hunter. That one had something that really struck me, because again I saw it when I was quite young. My father was really into horror films and anxiety films, more psychological things. Rosemary’s Baby is also something that resonates. That entire era of scary films was a big influence and still is.
Even though my parents had split up when I was nine, I used to go see my father over the weekend, and that was the beginning of VHS, the beginning of being able to choose a film and see it at home. He had this big screen in his house, so there were really magical moments that were both scary and exhilarating. I don’t think I’ve gone through other experiences that were that strong. All these films have really marked me because I was able to see them in his house, with him; the excitement you get when you’re a child and you know you’ll be scared… I don’t enjoy watching horror films anymore, but those memories will stick with me forever.