An MRI scanner isn’t the most obvious influence for an album – unless you’re French singer/songwriter Charlotte Gainsbourg
Although perhaps still best known as the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, actress/singer/model Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of France’s most beloved cultural icons. She released her solo debut, 5.55, in 2006 and, a year later, suffered a brain haemorrhage that almost killed her. Her new album, IRM (that’s French for MRI, linguistics fans), was inspired by the haphazard bleeps of the machine that monitored her bleeding brain. Written and recorded with the help of alternative music hero Beck, it’s a predictably unpredictable collection of wayward pop songs with a sample of the surgical scanner making a guest appearance in the title track.
The new album has a fragmented quality that makes it sound like a collection of half-remembered memories… Exactly. That’s the direction I wanted to take – I think that’s the direction Beck wanted to take as well. When he asked what I wanted at the beginning, I hadn’t decided anything. What I most wanted was to explore things with him and for it to be very eclectic. I think that’s what we did. I had this thing about the MRI that I wanted to use, but just as a sample. That took us in this direction of memories and the brain and surgery and all of that, which was a proper subject.
Were there resonances with any of your own memories? Well, it was mostly to do with my father. The way that Beck’s father [composer Duncan Campbell, who appears on this and 5.55] wrote the violins, it was my father’s resonance. Also, I had resonances of my father’s songs like ‘Couleur Café’ and ‘New York USA’ in the African beats and rhythms. I think that’s maybe why I was so excited by that each time: Beck started with a rhythm and we sort of agreed on a beat and got excited about that. But as soon as I heard the African resonances, maybe it was to do with my memory, maybe it was a more basic attraction, but I could hear the choruses of those songs. I don’t know how to express it, but he has girls’ choruses that are very open, and I think they inspired me to try to sing in a different way, in a more open and frank way, if I could.
Did you find it easy to work with Beck? We did have some kind of strange communication, because we didn’t talk that much. We did spend a lot of time together so we did get to know each other, but either he guessed a lot of things that were very personal to me or we seemed very alike. We didn’t discuss it in detail – I thought everything was a coincidence and how funny it was that I could relate to everything he was writing.
Did you learn anything revealing from your brush with death? I was terrified afterwards. I felt [nervous laugh] that I was going to die every minute. It made me much more of a coward, and that’s what I hated about myself. That I had been so scared – I didn’t imagine that about myself. That was a not a nice discovery. But the record didn’t really have to do with that. The MRI sound had really inspired me when I was in that machine. Just in a musical way. The rhythms were so weird and chaotic, I thought I’d just love to do something with that.
How has your attitude to music changed over the years? I was involved first in a song with my father when I was 12, and then an album. And then when my father died I became very distant to music, and just rejected all of it. Even for my own pleasure. And then very gradually I came back and was attracted by an idea of being involved again in music, and that took me a very, very long time. So I have a weird relationship: I’m attracted and then rejected and then attracted again. I have an inferiority complex with music – it’s so important that I still don’t know how to deal with it. I play the piano but I don’t feel I’m a musician, I sing but I don’t feel I’m a singer. I haven’t dealt with it yet – it’s okay because it’s not that problematic, but it still feels weird. IRM is available now online.