Despite famous parents and a life lived in the public eye, Charlotte Gainsbourg is very much her own woman. With successful careers in music and movies, and a growing family to keep her sweet, she nevertheless would like impossible dreams, less boredom and perhaps a time machine.
Charlotte Gainsbourg has just one request. She asks if it’s possible to have a quiet room, and when one is found, she’s happy. In a studio in an eastern suburb of Paris, the actress-singer, or vice-versa, is comfortable in her natural state. It’s only when the camera starts to flash that the smile on her lips starts to wane. Little by little, she relaxes again. “I’m slow,” she says, in a quiet voice, which in some ways is to be expected.
From L’Effrontée, the 1985 movie for which she won a César, the French film industry award, to Stage Whisper, her new record, a double album of live versions of existing songs, and studio versions of new ones (and, in the special edition, a DVD of concert footage from her 2010 world tour), Gainsbourg has maintained a gentleness. She has certainly always looked that way; in appearance she is very much the child of her mother, the English actress Jane Birkin, and her father, the French singer-songwriter and national treasure Serge Gainsbourg. She is also capable of fireworks, as with her incredible turn in the controversial film Antichrist, for which she won Best Actress at Cannes in 2009. Gainsbourg, now 40, is mother to three children, including Joe, born in July last year, who falls asleep with clenched fists, upstairs from the quiet room, just as the interview begins.
The Red Bulletin: Stage Whisper is clearly a labour of love for you.
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Yes, it is very close to my heart, because the tour was a big deal for me, and this record is a good way to finish the story. I wanted there to be visuals and sounds, which is why there’s a DVD. To me, the two are as important as each other. I also wanted there to be new tracks, not just live recordings. I needed to bring in some new ideas, to have doors opening onto something unpredictable.
Your half-brother Lulu covers your father’s songs on record, but you only occasionally do them live.
People talk about my father’s songs as if somehow I’m obliged to use them. I don’t go there. It’s normal for me not to. I’m taking my own path.
In your case, that path is about walking the line between a very public and vocal side of you, and a very private side.
Yes, an important part of my identity comes out when it has to. I feel it’s something that weighs very heavily, but on the other hand, I need to protect myself. I still do. The main thing is that I’m managing to do what I’ve always dreamt of. I hope that will continue. But that’s all the exposure I need.
There’s a great live version of IRM on Stage Whisper, the title song from your 2009 album. Why did you write a song about a piece of medical equipment?
It goes back to an accident I had [following a water-skiing accident in 2007, Gainsbourg had emergency surgery on a cerebral haemorrhage; ‘IRM’ is French for MRI]. I’ve had a lot of MRI scans and I wanted them to be part of the album – at the time, they were
part of my daily life. I wanted the sounds that had made an impression on me to be there. I asked Beck – he produced and wrote most of the album – if he liked the idea, and he did, so we went for it. We spent five days exploring different options in the studio.
There’s a Bob Dylan cover, Just Like A Woman, on Stage Whisper, which you also performed in the Dylan biopic, I’m Not There.
It was written and sung by him, and the whole song takes quite a cruel view of women. I really like the idea of it being sung by a woman. There’s an ambiguity, something absurd about a woman singing it. I really like the shift. I like it in this case because it’s not that straightforward.
Are you more attracted to something the more challenging it is?
I don’t put difficulty up there where others might. It’s often unpredictable. It’s more a question of trying to surprise myself, trying not to do something that would be too easy, which would bore me. It’s not that I aim to do difficult things. I’m not that kind of person and it would be pretentious to say that I was. Going from film work to performing on stage is a really brilliant exercise, for example.
So are you more actress than singer?
I don’t want to choose. I love being both. I enjoy both so much.
Are you completely satisfied?
It would be terrible to think I was. I don’t think any of us are ever truly satisfied and think I make a lot of mistakes. I’m not content with who I am.
Read the full interview with Charlotte Gainsbourg in the march issue of The Red Bulletin.