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In these ever-changing times, the world at large is still ready to embrace new music that dares to express a different sensibility and challenge its audience’s preconceptions. Such is the case with the new album by Charlotte Gainsbourg. For her third venture into record making, the much-loved actress enlisted the aid of one of America’s most prolific and multi-gifted natural talents, Beck.
Both individuals have stayed at the very summit of their respective professions ever since they first came under public scrutiny.
Charlotte’s own debut record occurred back in 1986 when at the tender age of thirteen, she sang for her father Serge Gainsbourg throughout the album Charlotte Forever. That same year, she won the “Most Promising Actress” Cesar for her role in L’EffrontÃ©e and has gone on to receive other equally prestigious awards for her subsequent acting choices. In 2006 her second album 5 :55 reached the top position in the French album charts.
Beck meanwhile was 24 before he became a rising star with the commercial lift-off of his single, “Loser” and accompanying album, “Mellow Gold” in 1994 but wasted no time in establishing himself as that decade’s most ingenious musical path-finder. His output over
the past 15 years has been as mercural and playfully eclectic as it has been stunningly prolific.
Together they have come up with something unique. At times it’s bright and alluring, at others dark and disorientating – it’s a hypnotic journey into a complicated psyche that will haunt and bewitch anyone who takes the time to really listen to it. “I don’t see myself as
mainstream or underground,” maintains Charlotte in reference to her musical career and I.R.M. is situated in neither camp.
Rather, it creates a musical world all of its own – one where primitive North African drum patterns can co-exist harmoniously alongside edgy electro technology, where la chanson FranÃ§aise and American roots music can gainfully cross-pollinate. Call it a new kind of
‘world music’ if you want. More precisely, it’s a penetrating voyage into the inner universe of Charlotte Gainsbourg as brought to life by a true American original – Beck- at the peak of his musical powers. This – in the words of its two protagonists- is how “I.R.M.” came to be created.
CHARLOTTE : “After my last album 5 :55, I wanted to go in a different direction. I wanted to surprise myself. I’ve been wanting to work with Beck for a very long time. And together we formed a real working chemistry.”
BECK : “My friends Nigel Godrich and Air asked me to be involved in Charlotte’s last record but I had too many other projects going on at the time and had to say ‘No.’ But when it came time to do a follow-up, she called me and I immediately said ‘Yeah!'”
CHARLOTTE : “We started with a five-day session to see if we could work together and what might happen if we did. Three songs that are on the finished record came from these first sessions and I really loved the whole experience. I loved working with him and became confident that it was what I wanted to do. But it was a step-by-step process.”
BECK : “I met her several times – the first time was five or six years ago- and I got to know her a little bit. And during our sessions together, I just started making music. I think I came up with ten songs in four days. The initial process was to try and feel my way
through the dark until we both found something that had a resonance to it. I’d talk to her about what she was thinking until there was an osmosis between us. Just being in her presence and feeling her personality would influence the way I wrote the songs for her. The
whole idea was that I would be a ‘conduct’ trying to make something that felt like her.”
CHARLOTTE : “I didn’t want (Beck) to write songs on his side and just give me the lyrics and melodies to sing. I wanted to be involved in the creative process too. So he ended up creating everything from scratch with me being there. He always progressed according to
how I reacted and what I had to say.
The first session lasted five days and then we stopped for a long time because I had to go to Germany and work on a film with Lars von Trier. (Antichrist, for which she won the ‘Prix d’interprÃ©tation fÃ©minine’ at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.’) When I came back, we re-
grouped in Los Angeles for three weeks – and then we had two other sessions that were ten days long.
Beck is very, very prolific and I was amazed at the amount of work he could do. Because he was doing practically everything on his own, he would also write the lyrics very, very quickly and I was there to show him bits and pieces of what I’d written which he would
always take so much further. My own input was important in the sense that I was there when he did it. He was channelling my personality in a sense. One bizarre coincidence occurred on the very first song we worked on – ‘Master’s Hand.'”
BECK : “I was very tired at the session and just started scribbling the lyrics (to ‘Master’s Hand’) down. One of the lines I came up with was, ‘Drill my head full of holes/To let the memories out.’ It was a metaphorical image but afterwards the engineer said to me, ‘You
know, that’s what actually happened to her last year.’ And I had no idea she’d had this accident. We’d never even talked about it. (In 2007, Charlotte underwent an emergency operation after having suffered a cerebral haemorrhage). That was the real beginning for me.”
CHARLOTTE : “Little mysterious things like that – I liked the coincidence. It had a lot to do with spontaneity and coincidence.”
BECK : “From that point on, some sort of weird chemistry kept passing between us. I wrote the songs and played almost the instruments but my real goal was to achieve some kind of transparency where I became virtually invisible and all you’re focusing on is her.”
CHARLOTTE : “My father’s presence is still very heavy around me and I’m sure Beck noticed this – I didn’t have to tell him. We didn’t really talk about it. I didn’t need to know how much Beck knew about my father. It was better kept secret.”
BECK : “I’ve been deeply influenced by Gainsbourg and the whole era of French music that he came from ever since I was a child. But when it came to Charlotte, I found myself trying to avoid referencing that too much. We didn’t want to do anything that sounded too
‘retro.’ The one exception is the cover ‘Le chat du cafÃ© des Artistes,’ -a French-Canadian song recorded back in the 60’s and probably influenced by Serge. It was such an outstanding piece of music and Charlotte got the humour of the lyrics right away. Most of the time I was trying to come up with sounds that would be her own. Which is difficult – because her father covered so much ground. There was no genre of music that we could touch on that he hadn’t already investigated. He did reggae, orchestral rock, jazz, African percussion: so many definitive recordings. Charlotte and I adopted a lot of Serge’s North African percussion ideas for our own record.”
CHARLOTTE : “I wanted my voice on the record to sound very naked because it literally had something that was much clearer to impart. More open, more frank. I kept hearing in my mind the way the chorus girls on my father’s record, ‘Gainsbourg Percussions’ sounded: Open voices. So I tried to sing without thinking about it. At the same time, Beck didn’t ‘direct’ me. The sessions were more like a workshop with things happening all the time and we were reacting spontaneously to them. He was so enthusiastic he immediately made me feel more confident about myself. He’d just come up with an idea and wait for my reaction. It wasn’t like a film where’s there’s a fixed pattern and the director shows you what’s what and leads you there. It was my world he was entering and
BECK : “She’s finding her own voice now and learning more about the whole process of making music. For the first time, she’s going to start performing live. I’ve helped her get a band together. I think she’s really got a lot to offer the music world. There’s a lot going on
inside her head. There are all kinds of layers to any person – but definitely to Charlotte Gainsbourg. She’s very intelligent, very strong, extremely kind and very open to things even though she knows what she likes. She’s very rare.”
The same can be said for the album that represents the fruit of their labour. Not since the bygone days when David Bowie collaborated with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed wrote songs for Nico have two artists colluded together in a recording studio with such daring results.
I.R.M. is prefaced by the release of its first single, ‘Heaven Can Wait’ featuring a special vocal duet between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck.
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