We’re only a few blocks from Charlotte Gainsbourg’s apartment in the West Village and she’s already turned around, not quite sure how to get to Washington Square Park. One is inclined to forgive her, as she’s only lived in New York City a few years, not nearly enough time to even consider herself a New Yorker. In fact, she might be more forthcoming about her personal life than almost any native you encounter on the street.
“As soon as someone asks, ‘Why did you move here,’ I have to say: ‘My sister died,’” the 46-year-old British-French actress, singer, and icon says as we double back and turn another direction, the park revealed to be just a block south of us. “I have to say everything instead of keeping things for myself. And people are very uncomfortable with that here, and I don’t care.” Not only does she say everything, but Charlotte Gainsbourg also sings everything on her fourth album, Rest. From the death of her half-sister (British fashion photographer Kate Barry) to the death of her father (the famous French singer Serge Gainsbourg), from songs about childhood wonderment and nightmares, to her own superstitions about marriage (though she’s been with her partner, filmmaker Yvan Attal, since she was 17), Gainsbourg looks unflinchingly in the mirror on her first album of her own songs (plus one penned by Sir Paul McCartney).
It’s been eight years since Gainsbourg’s last album, 2009’s Beck-assisted IRM, an album that detailed Gainsbourg’s slow recovery from a near-fatal head injury (the title is the French initials for an MRI scan). And while it’s hard to conceive of something more intrusive and intimate than singing about brain scans and the trauma of a near-death experience, Gainsbourg readily agrees that Rest is her most personal album. “All of the album is very selfish and personal,” she says, as we find a bench in the shade. “But I never thought I was being too personal or asking would I be embarrassed? I’m not more embarrassed than when I’m naked in a film.”
It’s an unseasonably warm autumn day in the park, but Gainsbourg blends right in with her black leather coat, plain white top, and light jeans, a small diamond just visible on a pendant. She pauses before Ai Weiwei’s birdcage-like installation within the Washington Square Arch, then at the small figure in its shade deliberately painting his entire body white so as to be a living statue. An international film star thanks to a trilogy of controversial roles with director Lars Von Trier, an unconventional singer who has collaborated with the likes of Beck, Jarvis Cocker, and Air, an icon in her home country of France, she seems to fit right in to New York life, strolling in public without much notice. Though not even ten minutes on, a French couple pauses to ask for a photo.
“I don’t know if they are famous in U.S., but in France, Serge and Jane Birkin are very famous,” said Sebastian Akchoté, who records as SebastiAn for Ed Banger and who worked closely with Gainsbourg to produce the album. “It’s a royalty, but with a ’70s feel, but it’s the opposite of the traditional family. [Charlotte’s] a Kate Middleton. She’s not just a singer. She’s a muse, she’s an actress. It’s difficult to see her just as a singer, she’s a personality.”
And while SebastiAn played a crucial role in getting Gainsbourg to trust in her own voice and her own writing, their collaboration almost didn’t happen. “The first encounter was not good,” Gainsbourg says. “He came to my place totally drunk and two hours late and he had a whole speech about what I should do, an album in French in the style of my father. And in the end, he was right, that’s what we did. But he was without tact that first meeting.”
It was only when Gainsbourg came to New York that the writing process began to open up for her. “I fit in here, because I’m a foreigner and that’s what I love about the city — every foreigner seems to be welcomed.” She pauses after making such a statement about her new country of residence. “I’m not sure it’s representative of America and it might be naïve that that’s what the city is about.”
So does the city feel like home?
“No,” she says immediately. “That’s what I like. It’s not home and I don’t want to be at home. I started writing without even bothering if it was good or not: I was drawing again, I took pictures again. I realized everybody does everything here and they don’t care; it’s a possibility.”
Charlotte Gainsbourg is much like any European or American who finds themselves increasingly estranged from their home and gravitates to Gotham, to escape their past, to craft a new future and a new sense of self. And to get some much-needed distance.
“I crystallized the pain in Paris,” she says of the death of Barry, who plunged from the fourth floor of her apartment in the 16th arrondissement of Paris nearly four years ago, her death ruled a suicide, though Charlotte confesses they might never know the truth. “As soon as I go back, it comes back, it’s very much alive, and it’s about her being dead.” One realization she had after relocating to NYC is that while she herself had no connection to the city, she realized that Kate would often come to the city to visit her father, famed film composer John Barry. “Here, it’s more my childhood with her, it’s something less real here. I was able to think about it all the time, but there was some kind of a weird distance of thinking about it as if it was a dream.”
That distance allowed her to write songs about the two most catastrophic deaths in her lifetime. “Lying With You” unpacks the long-buried feelings of her father Serge’s death from a heart attack in 1991, when she was just 19 years old. “It was a love declaration but at the same time, it was what traumatized me when it happened,” she says of the song, the title itself touching upon Charlotte’s infamous duet with her father, “Lemon Incest” (its infamous 1984 video showing daughter in a pajama top and father in the pajama bottom in a shared bed). “I was 19 and seeing him dead was as important as all the memories I had of him alive,” she says of revisiting the trauma, the lyrics unearthing both a sweetness and a heartache that’s still acute some 26 years later: “Where did my kiss go / When the coffin closed?”
Just as poignant is “Kate,” where ominous synth throbs and chest-heaving orchestral strings strike a balance with Gainsbourg’s half-whispered delivery. “So alone waiting for you / Here’s my heart to break / What did you do with it,” she asks at the song’s pinnacle. At song’s end, SebastiAn captures the audible exhales of Ms. Gainsbourg after an emotionally exhausting take. He says he was surprised by Gainsbourg’s resoluteness during the recording process, “not falling into this obtuse feeling you have when you’re sad, not making sad music when you’re sad.”
Instead, Rest strikes a balance of both emotional and sonic extremes. Taking inspiration from dread-inducing horror-movie soundtracks and SebastiAn’s own bludgeoning synth productions, visions of death and its lingering pall get counterbalanced by songs of innocence and allusions to children’s music. That clash of contrasts allowed Gainsbourg’s vision for the album to come into focus: “Heavy music over the small voice, having sad words with dynamic disco energy. For me it makes sense to have oppositions.” She recorded her vocals closely mic’d so that they come as an intimate whisper, a stylistic choice that brings to mind her father’s own classic album, 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson.
“Rest” is where the album began to come together. The looping lullaby of the track, produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, was so beguiling in its simplicity that it forced Gainsbourg to pare her lyrics down. “I showed him all the pages I had to do with my sister,” she says, saying that Guy-Man’s suggestion was curt. “Too many words. Reduce everything to two-word sentences.” In addition to finally writing her own songs, “Rest” also compelled Gainsbourg to try out a new skill, directing the song’s collagelike video herself.
She reached out to Lars Von Trier, who had directed her in her most famous films, for some tips. Recently, Von Trier has come up in the news as being abusive and cruel to his Dancer in the Dark actress, Björk, and, as we walk out of the park, Gainsbourg tries to reconcile this news with the man she worked with over the past few years. “It’s a difficult time and it’s a good thing that everything comes out like that,” Gainsbourg says, though she insists that her relationship with the firebrand director in no way resembled the situation that Björk described in her statement. “I felt an equal. He certainly never did anything to me.”
Back on the city streets, Gainsbourg’s thoughts again return to her sister. “Kate used to say to me that we didn’t have this great beautiful childhood that you think you remember,” Gainsbourg says of the half-sisters’ very different outlooks on their lives. “She had a different reading. I’m very much a fan of my childhood and very nostalgic about it, and I’ve always been that way. For me, it was magical. I had a world of my own. I had dreams. I had nightmares. But I treasure everything about it.” With Rest, Gainsbourg lovingly sings of both the wonders and ills in that world.