JEHNNY BETH – ” To Love Is To Live “

Posted: February 7, 2020 in CLASSIC ALBUMS, MUSIC
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For the past nine years, Jehnny Beth has been known as the frontwoman of the ferocious post-punk band Savages  a live wire with a slick pixie cut and arresting onstage persona. When she made the decision to make a solo album in 2016, she was warned it was “a big mistake.” It proved to be exactly the encouragement she needed.

“When people are telling you that you’re making a mistake, it’s usually because you’re seeing something that they haven’t seen yet,” she said following her workout at a boxing club in West Hollywood.

Minutes earlier, sweat poured from her short, black hair as she cursed a final set of burpees. Although she’s based in her native France, Jehnny Beth discovered boxing in 2018 while working in Los Angeles on what turned into her solo debut, “To Love Is to Live,” due May 8th, and toying with a role in an action movie, which she eventually turned down.

“Boxing is the closest thing I have to the stage,” she explained, as she slid a collection of spiky silver rings back on her fingers. “It’s the closest I am to the physical intensity, the adrenaline, the fear.”

Jehnny Beth (real name: Camille Berthomier), 35, has performed live only twice since July 2017, when Savages concluded a world tour in support of their second album, “Adore Life.” As the band’s lead singer, she was as tender and angry as a bruise, delivering songs with an alluring intensity that earned comparisons to Ian Curtis and P.J. Harvey. She called Savages — which features the guitarist Gemma Thompson, the bassist Ayse Hassan and the drummer Fay Milton — “a gang against the world.”

Romy Madley Croft of the English indie-pop trio the xx, was a close friend, recalled the power of seeing Savages for the first time at Coachella in 2013. “Jehnny transported me,” Madley Croft said in a interview. “I was in the desert in the middle of the afternoon, but I felt like I was in a dark club.”

“I never really wanted to give a statement about Savages and if we’re coming back,” Jehnny Beth said, her accent a mellifluous blend of French and British. “If I feel like I want to do a punk record again, I’ll probably do it with Savages. It’s a great band with a soul, and that’s quite rare.”

Jehnny Beth hadn’t planned to branch out on her own. She was startled into action in January 2016, when she woke up in the middle of the night and learned that David Bowie had died. She stirred her longtime partner and producer, Johnny Hostile, and the pair stayed up until morning listening to Bowie’s final studio album, “Blackstar.”

“‘Blackstar’ had a huge influence in terms of reminding me how an album can be a testament, an imprint of your vision of the world, and it will last longer than you will,” she said. It inspired her to work on the solo album “as if I was going to die.”

“To Love Is to Live” is an eerie, almost cinematic experience, partially inspired by Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” and French noir films, and helped along by Johnny Hostile, who projected scenes from movies, including “Dunkirk,” on the walls of the studio as they wrote — a technique he employed while helming both Savages albums.

Jehnny Beth also tapped the producer Flood (U2, New Order) and Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross to give the album an intriguing sonic dissonance. Its first single, “I’m the Man,” opens with a gentle recitation of Jehnny Beth’s poem “A Place Above” by the “Peaky Blinders” star Cillian Murphy (“See the most powerful man raise his hand to tell us a lie/No, no, not another lie”) before exploding into a full-blown electronic assault.

Madley Croft, who helped write two of the album’s songs and served as a sounding board, praised Jehnny Beth’s genre experiments, which include android vocal stylings, melancholic saxophones and a piano ballad. “You get to know her a lot more on this album,” Madley Croft said. “I’m really glad she’s harnessed that energy from Savages, but I could see that there was so much stuff in her mind that she wanted to get out.”

The night after her boxing workout, Jehnny Beth drove us in her rented black Mustang to join her friend and sometimes-collaborator Nick Zinner, of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, at their favorite haunt, Jumbo’s Clown Room, a no-nudity bikini bar in Hollywood where a prestardom Courtney Love used to pole dance. The two musicians frowned at a group of guys flicking balled-up dollar bills at one of the women, and over a glass of seltzer (she no longer drinks alcohol), Jehnny Beth explained that the album’s centerpiece “Flower” was written for one of the bar’s regular performers. The track’s lyrical agony is worthy of Anne Sexton, and the sultry thrum of the chorus — “She loves me and I love her/I’m not sure how to please her” — recalls Portishead’s 1994 masterpiece “Dummy.”

“I really wanted to do a love song for a woman,” said Jehnny Beth, who is bisexual and said she had difficulty expressing her desires when she was younger. “To me, women were in the distance,” she added, “so it’s been liberating to write about them.”

Growing up in Poitiers, a city in western France, Jehnny Beth learned English by singing jazz standards performed by Billie Holiday and Jane Baker. At 10, she introduced more contemporary music into the household, becoming an ardent fan of the band Placebo. Once, at a concert, she threw a treasured copy of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” at its frontman, Brian Molko, accidentally hitting his guitar. He chastised her from the stage, a detail that made it into several newspaper articles, all of which she saved.

Jehnny Beth met Johnny Hostile in her early 20s, through mutual friends. The unorthodox “h” in Jehnny is intended as a mirror reflection of Johnny (real name: Nicolas Congé). She moved to London with him, despite her parents’ warning that she was making a mistake, and the pair have been writing music together ever since, beginning in 2006 with their lo-fi indie collaboration John & Jehn.

Jehnny Beth even came to Savages via Johnny Hostile, who had been invited to start a band by Gemma Thompson. With the group on an unspecified hiatus, she has continued to evolve into a multi-hyphenate talent. “I was Jehnny Beth before Savages,” she added. “I always knew I was going to do other things.”

In February, she will host a TV talk show called “Echoes With Jehnny Beth” for a European channel that will expand the idea of her Beats 1 radio program, “Start Making Sense,” by prompting conversations between musical guests. In June, she will release a book of erotic short stories that began as a poetry collection before she made the rare decision to heed a critic. “Polly Jean Harvey told me my poetry was awful,” she said and laughed.

“I like doing things that are scary,” she added, and credited boxing for helping her make brave career choices. “Once you take a step, in spite of your fear, you realize: This is not how I imagined it would be, but it’s exactly how I want it to be.”

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