French actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg released her fifth studio album Rest in 2017. Outwardly, its timing and themes appear to be the processing of Gainsbourg’s grief; she lost her sister, photographer Kate Barry, in 2013 and her father Serge in 1991. But it also marked a new era of the artist looking inward to grow through these experiences, and not despite them. While her previous work had been primarily written and composed by collaborators, Rest saw Gainsbourg taking control of the songwriting process, adding more significance to the album among the rest of her discography.
“It made me much more responsible in a way, but it meant that I was judging what I was doing and not being tolerant [of] myself,” she notes of the songwriting process.
Fellow musician Beck offered her sage advice as she tried her hand at new aspects of the album’s creation.
“I remember Beck telling me that it wasn’t such a big deal to write lyrics,” she says. “The thing that did it for me was, you try and write the worst song ever and that’s your starting point. [You] just let go and authorize yourself to be just who you are. That may be mediocre, but that’s all you can do – just keep going. It’s easy to say now, [but] it wasn’t easy when I was recording. I needed affirmation on every song. I couldn’t do it on my own.”
Beyond the advice of fellow artists including album collaborator Sebastian Akchoté, best known as SebastiAn, a change of scenery also allowed Gainsbourg the freedom she required to create Rest. She and her family traded their home in Paris for the bustling streets and relative anonymity of New York four years ago where she felt empowered to express her feelings through other forms of art, too.
While she’s no stranger to the silver screen, starring in films like controversial director Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, she returned to other outlets of expression.
“I tried a little bit of everything,” she says of the time she took to record Rest, also spanning about four years. “I used to develop my own film but I wasn’t very good, so I didn’t continue. Drawing I did all my life. I love drawing. So, I was in New York and suddenly I felt like I was completely free to try and be unpretentious about it. You feel that everybody is an artist in New York. You don’t feel like it’s a big deal.”
As a companion to the album, Gainsbourg released a book of photos, notes, lyrics and more. She notes that Rest is an album that “doesn’t explain much,” and that she wanted to better convey the atmosphere she was in while making it.
“I would have been quite worried [about] sounding pretentious in wanting to release a book of everything that I had done during the making of the album, but a friend validated what she saw and said it would accompany the album quite well. I’m not taking myself seriously as a photographer or a painter, but at the same time it was lovely to be able to put all of that together to accompany the album.”
Overcoming stress and learning not to judge oneself while attempting the unfamiliar are common themes for Gainsbourg in her creative projects. She says after trying for years to break through internal barriers and write her own material, she brushed it aside because she felt like she wasn’t good enough. While trying to write in French, which she says carries a lot of weight for her, she removed some of the pressure by writing in English as well. This ultimately resulted in the bilingual element throughout Rest.
“It was funny to not really know where I was going and to be much less in control,” she says of bilingual songwriting. “That helped me have fun with the writing. I felt that with the French, I was being very sincere and honest and that that was the only way I could do it. And when I switched to English, it was more musical and finalized the songs.”
And while she never intended to hit the road with Rest, she had a change of heart and decided to recreate the magic of the album live as best she can on her 2019 tour. SebastiAn aided in the process, but in the end, she says it was up to her to strike a balance. Her hesitation around touring has been assuaged by the band she’s bringing along with her.
“I feel like I’m really part of a team for the first time,” she says, and you can almost hear any previous doubts melt as she speaks. “All of it is so much fun because they’re great musicians and great people.”
Gainsbourg will play the 9:30 Club on Monday, April 8. Doors are at 7 p.m. and tickets are $40. For more on the chanteuse, visit www.charlottegainsbourg.com.
9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com