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An Interview with Musician Jehnny Beth

An Interview with Musician Jehnny Beth

This interview originally appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the spring of 2019.

Interview by Ella Guthrie Photography by Jonny Kaye Styling by Nathan Henry. Hair: Fabio Vivan using Modern Hairspray by Hair by Sam McKnight. Makeup: Maria Comparetto using Nars. Set design: Bobby Dazzler. Set-design assistant: Natalia Stevenson.

Jehnny Beth and her discography are easily seen as a staple in British music culture, even though she was born and raised in France. After a year at university and a role in a film, she made the bold move to London with her lifelong collaborative partner Johnny Hostile, with whom she started John & Jehn, a lo-fi indie rock duo that was born at the peak of the genre. However, she’s more recognized for her role front and center of the post-punk rock band Savages, which flipped archaic thinking and stormed the castle of traditional rock music. But though she is seen as a trailblazer, she would tend to disagree. For Jehnny it’s about the human core and the creative passion, which has led her to return to acting, make music with Gorillaz, and even pen the score for the soon-to-be-released Chelsea Manning documentary, XY Chelsea.

Now, though, Jehnny has rekindled her love for her home country and splits her time between Paris and London. Today, it’s London, and we are shooting on a stereotypically British gray day. She has a calming presence about her, the strong and silent type, which feels easy and natural. We find a cozy corner of the studio while photographers, stylists, and hair and makeup are setting up, as she’s adamant that we’ll be better able to have a proper conversation away from the hustle and bustle.

Ella Guthrie: I wanted to first talk about you and how you got into music and what your origins are. Was it from a young age?

Jehnny Beth: I think I was always attracted to instruments in general. We had a piano in my home and I would just play. From the age of eight my parents got me a jazz-piano teacher. He was sort of a hero for me, he was a maestro.

All by CELINE by Hedi Slimane

I think I was just drawn to it naturally. I grew up in an artistic environment, my father was a drama teacher and director. He would direct plays and so, from the age of three, I was on stage playing the kid, and we would travel to Russia for tours. I was comfortable on stage, it was kind of my favorite place. I was really attracted to it, to the point that I didn’t know when it was rehearsals and when the audience was there. I just loved being on stage.

Regarding music, this genius teacher would teach me an hour of piano per week, and then we would switch and I would sing—jazz standards mostly. I did that until I was 18 and then I stopped, because I got into rock music. Jazz at that point didn’t feel so relevant anymore.

EG: What were the main influences that got you into rock?

JB: From the age of 10—that’s when you change school in France—I started being a
bit of a goth, I suppose. But not a goth with makeup, just long woolly coats and Dr. Martens and short hair. I was listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Placebo, the first record I really loved, and constantly listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars and all that NYC scene from the early 2000s. And PJ Harvey. That was sort of my introduction.

EG: And then when you got to 18 you pursued your rock side. So what happened then?

JB: Yeah, I didn’t feel that I wanted to carry on having piano lessons. It didn’t feel right. And I got to that point where my teacher was thinking, “You’ve got to get serious about this now,” and I didn’t want to be a jazz pianist. I had friends who were doing that and I didn’t feel that was for me. But I did things like I recorded a jazz standard for my sister’s high-school film.

Then I went to university to study English and I went to drama school, and I was trying to enter a bigger drama school in Paris or Strasbourg, but to get in you have juries and different levels, and I never got in, I was always last. But a film director who saw me there when I was about 17 or 18 really liked me—he called me back a week later and wrote a film for me. Then I was preselected for a César, and I was really, really young for that. Then I met Johnny and decided to make music with him, and then we moved to London.

EG: Why did you decide on London?

JB: Because Paris was never attractive to me in terms of music. I didn’t feel there was a scene there. From the age of 15, I went to London every year, I had friends here, I was obsessed with learning the language. I came from a small city, I didn’t come from Paris—it was a university town, but it wasn’t big enough for me, I always felt like I wanted to leave. I wanted to be an artist, and Paris just never felt like the musical city for me.

EG: London definitely has that feel. When you moved to London, was it everything you wanted it to be? How did the music scene inspire you?

JB: Well, when we moved, it was quite challenging at the time. We did everything ourselves, we did the loading of gear late at night, we wrote letters to venues asking for gigs, we had bad experiences and ended up having really good ones. We realized there were a lot of shit bands, too, so that was a revelation. But also, we had so much determination. I don’t know why, it’s a bit crazy when you think about it. We started from nothing—we would literally hand out our Myspace name over the counter to bartenders, asking them to give it to the promoters, and then we’d get a call back saying, “Do you want to play this show?” Then you meet people, and the first venue to welcome us was The Luminaire in Kilburn [in north London], which is gone now, it’s not there anymore. We grew from there.

EG: Do you feel that part of the London music scene is gone now?

JB: Nothing’s ever really dying. If it’s dying it’s going to be reborn somewhere else. I think also it’s the nature of music to die and be born again. That’s how it should be. You want music to feel like a renaissance. You want to feel like music is breaking boundaries, so for that to be true you have to break molds and create new ones.

EG: That’s really true. People like to hang on to elements of the past when it comes to music and maybe hold on to tradition too much. And then you went on to be in Savages—what instigated that?

JB: So we did two records with John & Jehn, signed really rubbish record deals, got really fed up with the record companies at that time, or disillusioned—let’s not say fed up, which I’m not anymore, but I think at that point we were. We started making music in 2007 and that was when every year in the music industry was worse than the one before. We [John & Jehn] signed quite an archaic deal back in France and after that experience we started our own record company, Pop Noire records, because we thought, “Let’s do it completely DIY. Let’s try to learn by ourselves and make our own mistakes. If they can do it, we can do it.”

ants by HAIDER ACKERMANN gloves by ATSUKO KUDO shoes by GRENSON

EG: And what happened then?

JB: We then decided that John & Jehn was over. Then, Gemma Thompson, who had been the guitarist for John & Jehn, talked to me about a band she wanted to start with her bassist friend Ayse Hassan, and she wanted to call it Savages. Initially, she asked Johnny to be the singer. He said no because he was busy working on another project, and then I said I wanted to try. So we did, and that’s how it started.

EG: Tell me a bit more about when you started to make music with Savages—the lyrics, the writing, and the performance. It was quite a fresh style.

JB: Savages just wanted to smack you in the face as an element of surprise. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but there was so much determination. We arrived angry as hell. We demanded to be noticed That took people by surprise—the best kind of attack is always surprise, and we won that battle.

EG: I imagine, because of the element of surprise and the nature of the music, a lot of people were surprised to see a mostly all-girl band doing this “fuck you” rock’n’roll. What kind of feedback were you getting?

JB: Well, I think there was a very positive response, but people very early on want to pigeonhole you. People tend to do that, and that’s fine, but I rejected that quite strongly, and that got us good and bad press. They handle you like meat in this country. We were determined not to be classified, not even as feminists. We were here for the art and the music—it was a very rebellious act. We were a gang against the world and we were going to do it our own way.

EG: Do you get annoyed or angry if you see the words “female fronted” thrown around? That annoys me and feels like a pigeonhole.

JB: Well, no I don’t get angry. I understand, but I don’t think I notice as much because I’m interested in music for the music. When I started Savages with the girls, journalists would straight away ask me about feminism, as if I was representing women, as if I was now speaking on behalf of all of them. I felt very uncomfortable with that. I want justice for all and I’m sensitive to all sorts of discrimination and I want equality, of course, but it wasn’t my initial battle. I didn’t want to become a flag carrier.

In general, I’m allergic to any sort of -isms or chapels—they have a way of separating you from others. Even saying, “I am French,” or “I am English”—they’re just labels. For me, it’s a way of putting people in places where suddenly there are boundaries. It didn’t feel right, I didn’t have any strong knowledge of feminism at that time. I listened to female-fronted bands—as you say—or all-girl bands for years, but I didn’t relate them to feminism necessarily. But I think that’s a good thing. If you’re trying to say to people, “Be like this, think this way,“ you’re probably not playing the long game as an artist and maybe you’ll end up not having the strongest impact.

Nothing’s ever really dying. If it’s dying it’s going to be reborn somewhere else. It’s the nature of music to die and be born again. That’s how it should be. You want music to feel like a renaissance. You want to feel like music is breaking boundaries, so for that to be true you have to break molds and create new ones.”

I think human beings change when they’re being personally touched by something, it’s the emotions or the sensitivity that will really make a difference. You can say you’re feeling something about poverty in the world, but unless you really experience it… That’s why art is so important, because it can give you real experiences. You don’t just wake up one day and think, “All right, I’m going to change today.” Sadly it doesn’t work like that!

Life changes moment—performing on stage, performing in the studio, rehearsing or performing in the movie, what it really comes down to is having something to say. That’s why you’re doing it—you have an intention, whether unknown or known. I don’t think I could do it if I didn’t have something to carry myself. Also, I just want to work. The past two years I’ve spent quite out of sight, but I’ve been working so hard.

I have three albums on the way that just need to be released now, but now I’m working on what’s going to come after that. I’m just interested in getting more work and finding happy collaborations with people, trying to find people who are tuned in to the same mindset as me, so that we can trust each other and exchange. I’m really lucky to have worked with some really amazing people over the past couple of years. That feels really good.

EG: One thing I want to ask, especially because writing is a big creative outlet for me, creating collaborative projects is one of the best feelings, but one of the downsides of creativity is the feeling of not getting it right. Do you still experience those highs and lows that come with making art?

JB: Of course—I’m not impervious to the lack of inspiration, as we call it, but the trick is to never stop. Even when you think you’re not inspired. The trick is not to work only when you’re inspired, but also when you’re not inspired. Every day, all the time. To se hours, to be disciplined.

EG: Are you always disciplined with it?

JB: I am, I try to be. Whether it’s journals or prose work, I write every day. I listen to new music every day, too. I think it’s just trying to be disciplined and getting knowledge and not giving up—never. Because if you’re waiting for the gods to come and show up at your door and give you the perfect poem, or the perfect song, or whatever… I think the gods will come if you don’t stop. You never know when they’re going to come, so you better be there when they do.

top and dress by ANN DEMEULEMEESTER

EG: In terms of you and your style, you’re very distinctive, very you. How does fashion influence you as an art form?

JB: In the beginning, when we started Savages, being an all-girl band, for me—and I think the girls would agree—it was very important that we didn’t do any fashion shoots or anything like that because we had this ambition to be taken seriously, and we knew we had to work 10 times harder than anyone else for that to happen. We didn’t need our stage outfits to be taking over the music. That was a stand, you know, dressing all in black, simple clothing—there’s nothing you can look at, so you look at the person, not the clothes, and you listen to the music.

I started being interested in fashion when I met fashion designers I felt were really interesting and creative, and then I started to see it as an art form. Like Hedi Slimane. I met him as a photographer first and I had no idea who he was—he was in our home in London, taking pictures of me and Johnny, and we were sort of, “So, what do you do?” We had no idea!

EG: I love that, though, because it’s so authentic.

JB: Yeah, I think he liked that. It was sort of, “Oh, you work in fashion?” And then meeting Alessandro Michele from Gucci, because he asked me to walk for him, and that was great. He’s different from what I imagined a fashion director to be. I respect the art, the craft of it, and I watched the documentary about Alexander McQueen—that’s the kind of person who makes you realize how much it’s an art form. He was so inspiring, such a genius.

EG: What influences your style now?

JB: It’s funny, because when I look at fashion today, I see it as a new standard of beauty. I call it the contaminated beauty. It’s not beauty that we saw before, it’s not about purity, it has to be contaminated by something. Either by its opposite—ugly—or by the poles of the feminine/masculine. You see big brands’ ads and magazines where
a model guy is wearing an earring or very female jewelry, and that’s the contamination that I think is interesting. For me, it’s linked to the romantics, the idea of death and beauty being connected.

EG: You formed Savages as an anarchic “fuck you” to the system and it even led you to start your own label. I know you had your doubts about the music industry then, but how do you feel about it today?

“If you’re waiting for the gods to come and show up at your door and give you the perfect poem, or the perfect song, or whatever… I think the gods will come if you don’t stop. You never know when they’re going to come, so you better be there when they do.”

JB: I think it’s much better. I think with Savages we were one o the first to do a deal that was actually fair and artist-friendly, and I’m very proud of that, because I really fought for that. We had to change management and really protect ourselves. Ten years go by really quickly, and when you get your rights back after that, it’s massive. But when I compare it to the book industry, the music industry is so far ahead when it comes to protecting the artists and artists’ rights.

What I like, not really in the music industry but in general, is that there’s a fluidity now in music. It’s not the idea of us against the world anymore, it’s that we want to regroup as a community and have conversations. When a young band starts out, they should talk to other artists instead of just their manager. Information should be accessible.

Talk about your deal with other bands! Protect yourself by knowledge, get to know what’s going on and don’t just assume an older dude is going to take care of you. That’s why I did my radio show on Beats 1 [Start Making Sense], because I wanted other artists to talk about their experiences, so we could share that information among ourselves. Available information like that is vital.

EG: Is that the main advice you would give to younger bands starting out? To talk to each other more?

JB: Well, I know when you start out as a musician you always say it’s about the music, it’s all about the music, but it’s not. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ill-intentioned people out there, so you can get unlucky—but you can also get lucky. You can get information and still make your own mistakes—that’s humanity.

EG: With the growth of DIY culture, with the wealth of technology, a lot of people are releasing their own music. The culture around it is definitely changing. Do you think that’s reflecting the wider music culture?

JB: Technology and the fact that people can make music really easily now has changed the way we make music. It has given the means to people who maybe wouldn’t have had them before. Whether that makes good music or not is another question.

EG: Do you think it plays with authenticity?

JB: Yeah, I do actually. For instance, when you’re used to singing in a rehearsal room or on stage, and then suddenly you’re asked to sing in a studio, in a dead space, into a very expensive microphone, with no emotional connection to what’s around you. It can be very hard. I was speaking to Annie Clark about this, she was giving me advice about recording vocals on my own. Buy some equipment for your bedroom, because that’s a space where intimacy is strongest.

I think what touches people is music that makes them feel as opposed to think. I don’t care if you sing about carrots, but if there is something in there that is authentic and makes me feel something, people will want to play it again. That’s it.

EG: What things are you feeling and writing about now?

JB: For the book I’m writing I wrote a collection of short erotic stories, which I’m quite proud of and hope will come out one day. I wrote for my record, but after that I stopped writing songs. I also stopped writing poetry, because I realized my poetry was really bad.

EG: No way, I don’t believe you. What made it really bad?

JB: Bukowski made it really bad! Well, all my favorite poets made it really bad, but mainly Bukowski. He can take you from the edge of a needle to the deepest of space in a single line. I can’t do that with poetry, but I do that somewhere else, and you need to know where your strength is.

EG: You are not Charles Bukowski, you’re Jehnny Beth. You have your own art, which is equally as good! Finally, I want to end on this—what’s the best impression you could make on someone?

JB: I’m entering a new chapter, I spent the last two years preparing for it. I’ve got a lot of work I want to show. I really worked on myself not to judge my work, but to just be as true as I could about it. Other people can judge it, but I’m working on what’s happening next, so I’m not going to stop. When all those things see the light of day, I hope they can see, I don’t know… Maybe that I have some baggage—I guess that’s it.

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