Pin It
Jehnny Beth, 2020
Jehnny BethPhotography Ella Hermë

Jehnny Beth on the power of the personal

To Love is to Live is the Savages frontwoman’s first album under her own name – but don’t call it a ‘solo’ record

Jehnny Beth knows the value of being stuck in a room. “I do isolate myself. There are times in the writing process where I could not go out for two, three days, easy,” she says. “I just stay in and do the work. I do miss the shows, though.” While Beth may have spent a faux-quarantine in the early stages of writing her new album, To Love is to Livethis new round of isolation hangs heavier. After she and members of her team started showing symptoms of what could be coronavirus, Beth was facing down the postponed release of her record and the accompanying tour dates in addition to the pandemic.

That intimate understanding of mortality is not new territory for Beth. Across two albums with Savages, the ‘John & Jehn’ project with her partner Johnny Hostile, her smoldering live shows, and even in her acting roles, Beth has built a universe exposing the pains and pleasures of life lived fully and without fear. Her artistic intensity draws into those depths, Beth as guide, ready with a laugh and a sneer. Now, four years after the last Savages record, she shares her first album under her name. Though ostensibly a solo album, To Love is to Live finds Beth casting a wide net of collaborators, including producers Flood and Atticus Ross, Hostile, The xx’s Romy Madley Croft, actor Cillian Murphy, and IDLES’ Joe Talbot. And though Beth encouraged each to make their mark on the record, her vital, propulsive energy pervades every corner of the mix.

Following the record’s release date, Beth spoke with Dazed about her preference of the term ‘personal’ album rather than ‘solo’ album, the importance of knowing your body in motion, her upcoming book on sexuality and freedom of expression, and how her collaborative process with The xx’s Romy Madley Croft looked like a series of bad dates.

When you’re stuck within your writing process, how much do you push that creativity to make it happen?

Jehnny Beth: You can’t push it. That’s the thing. The harder the knock, the less guarantee the door’s gonna open. It is actually something I’ve asked myself in the process of making this record. Working with Flood, for instance, he didn’t give a shit about the price of a studio or time flying away. He would impose an atmosphere where everything was up in the air. As an artist, but also as a person, your anxiety level rises because suddenly there’s no land to step on. There’s nothing that’s not movable. We spent a lot of time trying to finish things. A lot of musicians spend a day in the studio and want to go home with the feeling of having accomplished something, but the danger is that you conclude too soon. You have your safe feeling of satisfaction. You’ve satisfied your ego. But, actually, it’s not serving the purpose of music and of creativity. It’s not gonna take you to a place you don’t know.

That pressure certainly works for certain artists, but what is the reason why you create to begin with?

Jehnny Beth: I don’t know. I was trying to find a clever answer, but I don’t know. In my 20s, if you asked me what came first, art or life, I would always tell you art. If you ask me now, I will tell you life. But I would also tell you that I can’t live without art. One doesn’t exclude the other. They’re actually the same thing. 

Why was it so important to involve other artists on your first record under your own name?

Jehnny Beth: I didn’t want to make a solo record. I don’t even like the term ‘solo record’. I call it a personal record. I’ve noticed artists who do personal records that have to be written, recorded, and produced by them. And I’m like, “So what? Is that really where the integrity of the music is, or the quality?” In a very paradoxical way, doing a personal record meant not being a control freak and not trying to control everybody that comes in. It meant the opposite, getting completely lost in their talent and letting them claim ownership of their part of the record.

I always felt my expression in Savages was the expression of an individual. I didn’t feel like I was expressing collectively, which I think is a gift for a singer in a band. It’s a freedom of expression, and I think singular expressions are often the most sharp. They’re the ones that I have found the most interesting. But in terms of the process, there was always constant back and forth. There was good conversation. It was like a mirror effect. People around you send signals and then you send it back, and there’s this constant back and forth.

How did you make sure that you were learning as much in the process as everyone else around you?

Jehnny Beth: Whether with Johnny Hostile, Romy Madley Croft, or Flood, a lot of the work that we’ve done didn’t make it. There was this freedom and necessity to be able to get rid of ideas, to simplify things. Nobody was too precious, which enabled a lot of exploration and learning. Not everything needs to have a goal. Not everything needs to have a place. 

Johnny Hostile would be like, “Tomorrow I want you to come to the studio and read things you’ve written over the years.” So I brought 20 notebooks from over the years and opened them randomly, reading whatever, and then he would change the pitch of my voice. With Romy, I would travel to meet her to write, because she was on tour. We’d go to Berlin, meet in a hotel room, and spend an afternoon writing. Then we’d go out to a club, and she’d write down everything I said in her phone. We looked like a really, really bad date. (Laughs) I’d be blabbering about shit and she’d be on her phone. And then the next morning she would take all those notes and be like, “Right, I want to write a song with all of this.” And I had to just shrug. Why not? What did I have to lose?

From now on, whenever I see a couple and one person is on their phone, I’ll just assume they’re writing an album.

Jehnny Beth: Yeah, exactly! Another example of that process was what Flood did for the intro of “The Rooms”. He sent his assistant to record every man he could meet in the street at night around the studio reading my lyrics for “I’m the Man”. And then the assistant came back and spent a whole night creating an abstract contemporary art piece, 20 minutes of street noises put on a loop with different sounds and filters and all of these voices saying, “I’m the man... I’m the man... Fuck you motherfucker... Fuck your sister.” Those were all lyrics that I had in my notebook that didn’t make it into “I’m the Man”. In the song, I used to sing “I’m a man,” and he was so against that. He was like, “You need to say ‘I’m the man.’” And he was right. He wanted to just have the men express themselves and not just take their voice without them having a say, which I thought was very clever.

“In my 20s, if you asked me what came first, art or life, I would always tell you art. If you ask me now, I will tell you life” – Jehnny Beth

That fits in line with your concept of everyone on the album owning their part, while also pushing your artistic growth.

Jehnny Beth: Yeah. Romy was very determined to say, “I’ve gotten to know you as a friend and there are definitely parts of your personality that I don’t see in Savages. So if you’re doing a personal record, I want to see those things in the record.” She helped me. She found resistance in me. I was not always compliant. Sometimes I was like, “No, fuck that. I don’t want to say that, I don’t want to sing that.” And she was like, “No, you’re going to sing this.” I think I have a picture of her trying to strangle me.

Oh my God. The picture of this couple is getting darker!

Jehnny Beth: Yeah, exactly! A really bad couple.

When you create, do you know when it’s effective, even if you’re feeling that resistance?

Jehnny Beth: Resistance is the best. When there’s resistance, it’s not just your brain, it’s your whole being, your soul saying no. And when that happened, I remember Flood pointing a finger at me and being like, “I like this.” At that point you have to have a bit of humility, sigh, and be like, “Yeah, I’m being a dick. I wanted to stay comfortable. The whole of my being wanted to stay comfortable.” 

It’s so strange how we as humans don’t want to change. And when there is change, everything’s resisting it. Relationships are difficult, and that’s why we have monogamy. That’s why we have family. We stay in a place where we don’t need to think too much and everything is concluded, certain. We know how to name it, we know what colour it is. And then as soon as there’s uncertainty, we’re like, “Why? Why? How?” It’s like an alert system within us – and creation puts you in front of that. Either you decide you’re gonna stay in the comfort zone, or you’re going to accept that it’s painful.

Even just looking at the album cover, you push from that comfort zone. How do resistance and ownership relate to that image?

Jehnny Beth: I definitely felt uncomfortable with the image. I had a lot of doubts, initially – not because of the aesthetic of it. I knew it was beautiful and I knew there was nothing apologetic about it. But it was my body. And even during the actual making of the artwork, the 3D scanning of my body, for a whole day I was completely naked, surrounded by 10 people and more than 400 cameras. 

The night before, I was in bed, not sleeping, thinking, “Am I crazy? Am I too old to do this? Why did I think this was a good idea? I’m going to be completely exposed.” But at the same time, it was done with really professional people and we had loads of fun. I was working with a choreographer who was there to help me with the poses. All the poses we did were very hard to keep. Even though you don’t see it in the final picture, I’m contracting all of my muscles for more than a minute – but my face needed to look relaxed, even with all of my muscles trembling from tension. It was quite exhausting as a process.

Have you always been connected to your body in a way where you can see what it needs and you feel confident about it? 

Jehnny Beth: Yeah. I’m very, very conscious of my body, especially for singing. For instance, the way I sing in the studio is really weird. I use this microphone I use to record my radio shows. It’s quite long and covered with this foam. I can grab it in two hands, and as soon as Flood saw that, he was like, “You’re not singing with anything else. We don’t need posh mics.” And the way I sing is folded in half, my face down to the floor, with my two hands on the microphone and my belly on the top of my thighs. It’s almost like a seated fetal position. It’s very strange. I’m becoming this shell animal. It’s a sense of protection and also it gives me power. Because of the position of my diaphragm, I have more air to hold notes longer.

I started boxing because that reminded me of the stage. If I don’t feel my body, I go depressed. That’s something I got from my father who is very sporty. I think he raised me like I was going to be an athlete.

Whether it’s the way that you move around the stage or the pose on the cover, there’s athleticism in it.

Jehnny Beth: I always think you need to look at your body in movement. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you should look at yourself moving. Nobody really looks at you standing still. And some people look very good in pictures, but when they start moving there’s no charisma. It’s quite interesting.

You also have your book C.A.L.M.: Crimes Against Love Memories coming up. How does it relate in process and in theme to the album?

Jehnny Beth: The writing process of the book was much more of an isolated process, but the starting point wasn’t. Three years ago, when me and Johnny Hostile moved to Paris, Johnny bought a camera and started taking pictures of myself, friends at home, and people we would meet around the world. All the photos were anonymous, but they were about sexuality and the naked body. And all these people who were involved in these really extraordinary sessions were doing it in such a free way because of their anonymity in the pictures. Suddenly the body could reveal itself without any fear of repression and judgment from the outside world. 

There was this joyful, almost childish, liberated moment. People would start to speak about their fantasies, about their sexuality. That inspired me to start writing about it. At the time, I had finished all the lyrics for the record. I was fed up with lyric writing. I was really uninspired and suddenly having the ability to write a whole sentence, a whole paragraph, felt free. It was a Eureka moment. It felt like suddenly I was running free into a new world. But the writing itself became very lonely. I traveled to places like Spain, Portugal, and Greece, just to go into a city where I knew nobody and to have my own routine and write four, five hours a day. I would speak to no one and meet no one, just go out for food and come back and write. It was quite amazing.

I was also struck by the song “Flower”, which was written about a pole dancer, exploring that desire and that performance. How do the themes of that song overlap with the book, or are they completely different?

Jehnny Beth: “Flower” is standing at a distance from the desired person, and there’s attraction and fear at the same time. It’s similar to the kind of feelings you can have in your first love, or when you’re not very sure of yourself yet. Shyness and distance are creating the sexual tension. In the book, it’s a massive dive in. It’s less shy and it’s more about the magical realism of South American authors like Borges. 

Fantasies have this ability to trigger our imagination and introduce imagination within sexuality, which I think is something we rarely do, or don’t do enough. In the book, I hope to instigate some sort of exploration. There are also very scary stories and more dark stories, which you might hate or you might love. But it’s a safe place. You can close the book and it’s finished.

Why do you think it’s important to open up that conversation?

Jehnny Beth: It’s important to have alternatives. We’re always presented with the same patterns and the same scenarios. Diversity is very important. I believe I’m presenting something that is a little bit different from what’s out there. I try very hard to choose the path less taken. I constantly reroute myself and sometimes even sacrifice my own self-comfort or desire to feel part of something. That’s the same reason why I believed in Savages when I joined the band: I wasn’t seeing this band anywhere and I needed it, so I was going to do it. It’s a matter of always putting yourself in an alternative place for more complexity.