The indelible energy of Jehnny Beth

The indelible energy of Jehnny Beth

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I remember seeing Savages set at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2016. It was a muggy day and they played in the middle of it. Their bassist starting rumbling off the riff to “Adore” and I’m not sure how it happened, but by the middle of the song, Jehnny Beth, dresses in all black, hair slicked back, was 30 feet into the crowd. Held up in the heat she flexed her arm into a clenched fist and belted a surprisingly gentle statement for such a dark moment, she repeated again and again, “I adore life.”

That is the energy that captured me with Savages. Jehnny Beth has an energy that few people have. Maybe more people have it, but few people have harnessed it and handled it like she has. Jenny Beth has an album, and a book of erotica coming out this summer. She called me from her apartment in Paris.

Andreas Neumann

How is Paris?

Paris is, you know, like everywhere, it’s locked down. So we’re not allowed to go out without a paper. It is very uncertain how the future will evolve. Paris in itself is very quiet and very nice. It’s been lovely weather and there’s been no cars and no people in the streets. So it’s been quite quiet and nice. Paris itself is fine. 

Do you have a timeline on the restrictions? 

They said that the government restriction will go away on the 11th of May, but I doubt it. Tonight they’re supposed to make an announcement about reopening schools at that date though. It’s kind of like everywhere. It’s very unsure, uncertain, you know? 

What have you been doing to fill your time?

I’ve been working a lot. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews. I’ve been doing a lot of editing, a lot of writing, a lot of filming, taking pictures. Whether it’s for magazines and just for ourselves with Johnny Hostile. We’re confined in Paris and we take this opportunity.

We like to be creative together or separately, but it’s kind of natural.

It’s the way we lead our life, so not going out on Saturday night doesn’t really impact our life at all. For me like a Saturday night filming my hand is usually how I would spend the night anyway with Johnny. So it’s not really changed our way of life. The thing that has changed is obviously the planning of the release of the record, which had to be moved. But also the touring is completely uncertain, when we’ll be able to go back. And obviously touring is part of putting out a record and going out and playing it live. And I was very excited about that.

I think if I have, one negative, it would be that the touring, it’s definitely what’s breaking my heart, but I tried to not think of it and I try to just think that it will come back and I’ve got a wonderful team. They’ll get me back on track whenever they can. So I just think I just tried to concentrate on the details of the work I’m doing, whether it’s writing or editing.

Yeah. What’s a thing that you’re doing that has been giving you the most joy? 

Boxing. It’s definitely helped a lot. So when I moved to Paris three years ago, I was 12 years in London before I moved to Paris, we have a studio here. So it’s good, new life. I don’t know anyone here, so I’m sort of isolated, and that’s how I wrote the song “Innocence” actually, on the record. I was sort of not really feeling connected with the rest of the world. 

Why did you move to Paris?

We had a studio there. We had the opportunity to get a studio. Me and Johnny Hostile. I felt I needed a change. I knew I wanted to make a solo record. I had the studio in Paris. Me and Johnny Ho had been living in different cities for years. I was still in London. And he was in Paris. So I felt that after 12 years in London, it felt needed to change.

I wanted to reconnect with my family.

I left London when I was 20 and I didn’t really spend time with my family. I really went away, ran away. And all I did was music and art and everything I was doing in my life was surrounded by that or evolving around that. And I thought that it was time to go to therapy. I started seeing a therapist in my native language because I started to forget about my French. Not forget, obviously, but like I started to speak really badly in French and use English words all the time. And I felt a bit like a dick.

I had spent a decade developing my artist identity, obviously Savages being the loudest expression of that. I felt that I’d left behind my, my childhood identity or my roots, you know. And I feel a bit fragmented. I think I needed to reconnect those parts. I felt quite happy, to be honest. Part of the journey of making the record was to reconnect with myself, but also with my past self. I remember admiring artists who could talk about their parents. My dad, my mother, and being proud of their roots and I was completely unable to do that. It was like if you asked me something about my roots, I’m like, that’s not important. It’s not who I am. In my twenties, I was completely obsessed with the idea of escaping my conditioning, escaping my education. Thinking that where you come from doesn’t have to define who you are. And trying to find my own identity, my own voice, because there’s truth in both. I think it’s important to say “no” in order to find out what you want, what belongs to you. I was very much in that energy when I was younger. 

Do you feel that you came back because you had found that identity in Savages and now you’re comfortable with that?

I don’t know if I felt comfortable. I don’t think I did. Nothing felt comfortable about going back to France. Even making this record. I promised myself I was going to do this record, but it was definitely not that because I had found out why or how I was going to do it. It was all uncertainty. I had no idea. It was just an impulse and the gut feeling and intuition that this is what I need to do. It’s like a survival mode. Musicians, and artists in general, are very fragile, sensitive people, let’s say. Like you are, I’m sure like a lot of people are. But I think when you are an artist, there’s always, this is going to sound very dramatic, but at the end of the day, if you’re not connecting with yourself, you’re in danger. Why do you think there’s a lot of musicians committing suicide? I have to feel I have to be sincere and say that this is what I try to escape. This is why I try to avoid, I try to do what’s right for me because I know that at the end of the day, to feel fake is very dangerous. Life is too short to not do what you want to do, and at the end of the day, you risk a lot, I think, to not listen to that inner voice. If that makes sense.

Yeah, let’s bring that back to boxing, that’s where we departed. How does that connect to boxing? 

So I moved to Paris and I don’t know many people and then I do this sort of filming for a film. Like we shoot a trailer for an action movie that I was supposed to act in. And I am trained for weeks by these guys who usually do the James Bond training. They’re amazing guys and they tell me I’ve got an ability for boxing. They say, you should really try to find a boxing club. So in the end I don’t do the movie because I didn’t like the trailer, but I had all these amazing experiences, and I was trying to remember the advice. And so I tried to find a boxing club. So I first go to clubs and I don’t like the vibe. I don’t like the people who train, the coaches, nothing there. It’s a natural vibe and it’s not really what I’m looking for. And then I found this amazing club called Le Hall boxing, like five minutes from where I live. And suddenly, I find a community that I didn’t know I needed. I found amazing people, women, men and children even sometimes. They train children as well. And it’s becoming my home and I go all the time and I just start to feel that what I needed from the stage, I was so missing from not touring. And boxing was bringing it to me. It was giving me that physicality, that energy, that building up, also sense attitude that boxing has. The frights as well. It’s a bit scary. I get into this and then now that I’m in confinement, and you ask me what I do that is saving me or whatever, I started free online boxing classes. So I can still do it and do my training like four or five times a week and I wouldn’t be able to survive without it. Being completely honest. It’s good for mental health.

What are you getting out in boxing? Because I feel like, in listening to the album and Savages and seeing you live, it doesn’t seem too far of a stretch to say that you’re releasing something in both of those. 

Well, it’s separate self-expression isn’t it? I’m glad you feel that because that’s how I wanted the record to sound like, an expression, you know. Even from the people who participated in it. Because it’s quite a collaborative record and it was my desire to bring people in but not be controlling. Like I really left the space for them to express themselves and for the record to belong to them for a while, completely. Whether it was Atticus or Flood, John Hostile or Romy Madley Croft, they had ownership of the record for a while and I wasn’t really feeling scared. I mean, I would sometimes, but in general I felt I have the last word anyway. I’m the artist. I did want the album to be quite emphatic and quite contrasted with a very strong release of energy but also sort of stark, quiet simplicity. But it has to be composed of light and darkness. Because that’s what life is.

As a musician and as an artist, you can express that in any way and your album has a sound that has that release of energy. You could release that in a way that is quiet or some artists do it in a way that is soft but yours is a loud expression of that. Why do you think that when you go to make sounds that that is the sound? 

Because I think energy is my best quality. If I’m honest, and I’ve been told that since I’m a kid that I have an energy and I’d say that’s probably my best quality.

I think that that is why, when I am listening to you or seeing you, that’s the thing that comes through. Where it’s like, this person is something different. I think that you really are using your special gifts. You are shining a light on that. You found that and you’re expressing it. I think that’s kind of where an artist becomes themselves, when you find that and you don’t make it up or you don’t try to have it be something else, but it is there. 

It’s funny you said that cause I do believe that everyone has a light. Everyone has a light. And I think when I was a kid, I used to see that light in people. In people my age, I used to see that in my siblings my and, and whenever I would see that they would give up on it. I think nothing would make me more sad, you know, give up on their talent and it can come back and you can revive it, but it’s so much waste. I think society and schooling, it destroys the energy and that light that we all have. 

I think so too. And I think that when you go to the right things and they push that or you hit that and it makes that develop. I think everyone has that light and sometimes you’d go to a place that shuts out that light and then you will become a different person, but if you go to a place that encourages that. That pushing really brings it out stronger than ever. And if you can find a way to constantly be bringing that out, that is the greatest expression. 

But it means you have to make hard choices sometimes because we’re talking about freedom really. This sort of ability to choose what’s right for you, to know that even if you don’t know it from intuition, but it doesn’t come for free. There’s a price to pay for that and sometimes you have to say goodbye to a part of your life or even some people. Freedom teaches you that you’re not entitled to everything, which is a paradox. 

What is a song that’s been speaking to you right now? 

There is one. It’s absolutely amazing, it’s a gem. It’s 10 minutes. So the music I’ve been listening to, weirdly is instrumental, in this time of confinement because I think it’s easier to feel like I’m in a dystopian movie, and it helps. I know a lot of people might want to play a lot of music to cheer them up at the moment because of the situation and I tend to want to go the other way. I tend to try to feel that mood even more. I found the perfect music to do that. At the beginning of the confinement, Nine Inch Nails have released two hours and a half of music, in the names of ghosts. And so there’s Ghosts VI: Locusts and then there’s Ghosts V: Together. And I’ve been obsessed with these two records. It’s literally some of the best music. I mean what Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor have been doing in film, music and otherwise in Nine Inch Nails is just incredible to my taste. Really, really spot on to me. But this is just like the soundtrack of confinement basically. I’m not kidding. It’s like in total maybe two, three hours of instrumental music and it goes to different moods. But I think one particular track stood out for me and it’s 10 minutes, 52. But it’s the track “Around Every Corner.” And for me, that’s exactly like being in a film noir. You know, I feel like I’m in a Melville movie or something and I just put it on in my little white headphones and just walking around the streets whenever I’d go to my office, from my office to my house. Or just writing some things and doing that. And it’s great for if you’re taking pictures and you want to be in the mood, it’s just really incredible. So that would be my recommendation for confinement to feel it even more. Let the confinement sink in. 

I find myself doing the same thing where I see some of my friends are like, I want to listen to something that’s going to take me out of this. And I’m like, we need to honor what this is like. That’s just as important as saying let’s recognize this and feel this feeling. 

In the spirit of what you just said, I’ve been writing every night, one page, like a diary. Because I felt that’s like a historical moment and I need to be the historian right now and just write down what’s going on and what it is like to feel and to be in this moment and just keep a trace of it. I think it’s important. 

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