We are in cozy, wood-paneled room at the Soho Hotel in central London. Charlotte Gainsbourg ignores the invitingly plush sofa and instead folds herself delicately in to the space between it and the large coffee table that holds her teapot and packet of cigarettes. She is slight and beguiling, awkward and elegant. We are here to discuss her new album, 5:55, the first she’s made in 20 years. Tales from the recording studio suggest the album was not easily born. Gainsbourg’s chronic shyness had led to her early vocals being delivered from behind a sheet. She’s been known to be a brittle and cagey interviewee, especially when questioned about her late father, France’s greatest pop musician and arch-provocateur, Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she recorded her only previous album. Yet today she is relaxed and disarmingly open. “Before recording the album I needed to talk about my father a lot because it was painful for me to be so close to him. It was very emotional for me to make the new album, because of course it reminded me of the experience I had with him, but also watching my parents. When I was a child I used to go in their studio and see them work.” Her mother, Jane Birkin, recorded several records with Serge, including the scandalous “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus.”
Thanks to her parents’ notoriety Gainsbourg has had a lifelong and somewhat uneasy relationship with fame. “I feel better about it now, but I was very, very shy before. I was in newspapers all my life,” she says. “I remember when my son first realized that people were watching us in the street. I saw that it was something so strange in his mind. But I could not relate to it. For me it is such a natural thing. I never became aware of it because it was always there.”
“In the 1970s we did photo sessions every week at our house. It was part of our lives. But it was never a problem until I started working.” Gainsbourg is an actress by trade, a very good one. She won a Cesar at age 13 for her performance in L’Effrontée and has since made more than 30 films. She was affecting in 21 Grams, and simultaneously sweet and disquieting in last year’s Lemming, and she appears in Michel Gondry’s freewheeling new film The Science of Sleep.
Her blossoming acting career meant she was in demand at an early age. But it was not only the acting. At 14 she sang with her father on the notorious “Lemon Incest,” a song that made her an icon for Humbert Humberts across the globe. “People were very curious about my childhood and the way I was brought up,” she says. “In acting I’d just found my angle, this way of expressing myself, and so all these other things I would be asked made me feel very uncomfortable.” Gainsbourg speaks of her parents with great affection. It was, she insists, pressures from outside the family that caused her retreat into herself, pressures that time has eased.
Married to actor Yvan Attal, she is now a famous parent herself, but hopes her two young children will face less of an ordeal. “I am very aware of bullying, but I hope it’s different for them. My parents shocked people. We had to deal with a provocative side of their life that was maybe difficult at times. My own children won’t have to deal with that because we have a very private life.”
Gainsbourg says she is proud of her new album. “For me, the fact that I can listen to it and that I want to listen to it and that I like talking about it is wonderful.” Her pride is well deserved. The album is richly cinematic, paying great tribute to her father’s own sumptuous productions. The songs are witty and dramatic, and she inhabits them with aplomb. Of the album’s cascading highlight, “Everything I Cannot Say,” she explains, “It wasn’t the easiest to sing, but it was the easiest to step in to. It’s like doing a violent scene in a film; you don’t have to think about anything, you just dive in to it.” Always on stage, Gainsbourg sings as she speaks. Her voice is high and light and full of youth but also caution.
Charlotte harbored plans to make the album for more than a decade and had assembled a dream cast including—Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicola Godin of Air and producer Nigel Godrich—but still approached the recording with trepidation. “We talked and talked, but finally they said you just have to go in the studio and see if things work out. And I trusted them.”
It is not surprising, then, that Gainsbourg viewed 5:55 through a cineaste’s lens. “It can sound so pretentious to talk about a concept album, but I wanted there to be storylines,” she says. “From the beginning we spoke about Histoire de Melody Nelson,” arguably her father’s most influential work, which featured her mother on vocals. To this end she screened a trio of films for her collaborators: The Night of the Hunter, Los Olvidados and The Wizard of Oz. The themes she hoped to capture? “Dream sequences. Isolation. Something quite scary and ominous.”
From here sprung the idea of insomnia and the shifting dreamscapes that swathe the album. The recording was, she insists, an enjoyable experience, though not without its problems. “Those first takes were, I felt, very bad. I felt very intimidated. It took a long time to get accustomed to the people I was working with, but not only that, to feel I was comfortable with my own voice.” Slowly the album began to take shape but the songs were incomplete. Dunckel and Godin felt the lyrics were a minor part of the project, and Gainsbourg felt ill equipped to write them. Godrich called his friend, Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon, to the Paris studio. Hannon spent a day with them writing two songs for the album, including the single “The Songs That We Sing.” But Hannon’s visit was fleeting.
“It was great having an author with us,” Gainsbourg says, “but the next day he had to leave and I was again so frustrated.” The project was put on hold for five months while she shot a film in Buenos Aries. When the quartet reconvened, a new writer, Jarvis Cocker, from Pulp, joined them. “Once he was there everything made sense. The music was already there. The whole climate of the album was already there. But to have words—it was perfect. As a team of five we were perfect.” One of the songs Cocker contributed to, “Jamais,” tellingly contains the line, “your leading lady needs direction.”
Later this month Gainsbourg will join director Todd Haynes on the set of his much anticipated film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. Then she must decide whether to tour behind her album. “Of course I’d love to but it was such an intimate album. I felt I was in a cocoon.” She laughs a shy laugh. Perhaps she’s thinking of the sheet. “Just the idea of being on stage singing. I don’t know if I’m capable of it.”