Far Out Meets: Jehnny Beth, a nonconformist creative who forges art from ‘the other side of the fence’
Jehnny Beth is a maverick. A risk-taking open-minded individual who dares to create art out of subjects and from different perspectives, an area that others would normally shy away from. Instead, Beth thrives on the thrill of creating magic out of uncharted territories and, on her debut solo effort TO LOVE IS TOO LIVE, Beth has followed the same left-field path into the unknown as did with her previous outfit Savages.
Savages, Beth’s swashbuckling group, have been on a break since 2017 and Beth has spent that time fruitfully working on her solo material with intermittent breaks in-between. Carving out an album which sits firmly in its own lane, a hard fete to conquer in a world when music seems to be becoming more formulaic than ever The uncompromising French singer has gained longevity by being the antithesis of this.
Before the world turned upside down, before music venues closed their doors and tour dates were cancelled, Beth was setting herself up for a long run into an invigorating album release. However, much like most working within a creative industry, the coronavirus pandemic delayed Beth’s foray into the solo world. Now though, it is here. The record offers a candid look at humanity from perspectives less travelled, one that questions humankind on a nuanced level rather than seeking simple answers on such a complex topic.
With the album dealing with a broad subject, I initially pondered to the singer what thoughts she would like her listeners to take-away from the album which, in many ways, deals in such intricacies of human nature. “I tried to make a record that was showing the complexities of the realities that we live in,” the affable Beth told me while speaking over the phone. “We live in a world that tends to simplify things and what we are as human beings, I think it’s a habit of mine to take the road less travelled and try to go the other way when everyone’s going one way, I go this way, the opposite way.”
Beth continued: “For instance, I feel like standing on the right side of the fence makes me feel very uncomfortable and I tend to want to wear the mask of evil, for the sake of understanding of what that feels like.”
Given Beth’s intrinsic desire to create art on a different playing field, I wanted to explore what was on the other side of the fence. It’s clear, even from the first moments of our conversation, that Beth finds something irresistibly inviting about working on ‘the other side’, to which Beth responded with the same level of sincerity which is omnipresent in her music, stating: “I think it’s because of the music I love, the books I love and the films I love they portray ambivalent characters because I don’t think we can make any progress if we only represent human beings with just one side.”
The engaging artist then elegantly added: “It’s either always positive or completely dark, we need more contradictions because we can accept more of failings and it makes it more bearable whilst still hurting for the detriment of humanity in general, we have to accept that evil exists and we are imperfect beings and sometimes do horrible things but share the same humanity.”
It may have been three years since Savages entered their hiatus—a period of time that Beth has had to pour her whole heart into a new project—but she deliberately meandered through her process to create the type of record that she wanted to make, one which saw her collaborate with the likes of The xx’s Romy Madley Croft who brought fresh ideas to the fold which resulted in in a captivating debut effort.
“I wanted to take time with this record, I didn’t want to rush things so I took time in between sessions as well where I wouldn’t listen to the record,” Beth disclosed when discussing the reasoning for taking her time, ensuring that she got the record right. “I remember working with FLOOD in the studio and him telling me ‘Don’t think, I don’t care how you think, just tell me how you feel’. There’s nothing worse than music that has been digested, so it was a challenge to keep that balance between saying what I wanted to say and what I wanted to say exactly but still keeping it vibrant.”
The first single which aired from the record was the valiant ‘I’m The Man’, a track which appeared on the Peaky Blinders soundtrack and welcomed the director of the series, Anthony Byrne, to create the poignant visuals for the track. The whole collaboration with Byrne was described as being a “happy accident” which arrived after a chance meeting backstage at a concert.
“With ‘I’m The Man’, that came out when it came out was all a happy accident, I met Anthony Byrne, the director of Peaky Blinders randomly backstage at the IDLES show, they were playing four shows in the row at the Electric Ballroom,” Beth explained. “Me and Johnny Hostile went to all four shows and one night Anthony was backstage and we met. He said he was directing the new series of Peaky and I said how I’ve been watching it while I make my record, he said: ‘Oh my god, you’re making a record, I’d love to hear it, I’m choosing record for the new season if there was something fitting’.
“Then he came back a few weeks later with a clip of Polly sitting on a pile of shit,” she added amid spits of laughter. “And I just couldn’t resist but to give ‘I’m The Man’ to him because I felt like that was brilliant and so on point. A big part of this record is to embrace collaboration and embrace the chaos, really.”
The art of collaboration is an aspect of which Jehnny Beth is the ultimate master. The musician is able to successfully indulge on the suggestions of her peers while remaining true to her own individual artistic direction, of which this is a shining example of: “I trust Anthony a lot and I think part of the collaboration became easy as we became friends and we have this kind of mutual respect and trust so conversations are very easy,” Beth explained. “We say if there’s something we don’t like and are not hiding anything, there’s no agenda it’s just we enjoy working together.”
There is one particular moment on the record that stands out, one of which that is especially personal to the 35-year-old singer. The penultimate track, ‘French Countryside‘, sees Beth reflect on her upbringing with typically cutting sincerity, a life that she left behind when she set sail to London aged 20 and has seldom looked back since. “I went to London for the first time when I was 15, then I left and went to live there when I was 20, I lived there for like 12 years and didn’t really look back,” Beth explained. “I disconnected with my family, my teenage self as I went on a journey to make a new identity which I think was necessary.”
The singer divulged: “I tried to do things as if I had no mother and no father. I love my mother and my father dearly but I felt like I needed to acquit myself to be free, to be free from my conditioning and to be free from education. I feel like education is part of who you are but it’s not all you are and it’s important to go on a journey to get other experiences to find who you are and at that point, I felt quite unhappy at that junction. It would compromise the artist I am if I didn’t reconnect with my past, my roots and my youth. ‘French Countryside’ is a song that I’ve struggled with for a long time because it felt too vulnerable and exposed.”
This brutal openness that Beth discloses on the track puts her in a vulnerable position. Arguably one of the most independent, strong and unrelenting women of contemporary music, Beth has opened up on the journey that has hardened her. A clear sign of being a risk-taker, one who touches upon subjects that are raw and personal and leaves her unguarded—something she believes is exactly what art should do. “I think if you’re uncomfortable or uncertain about something then I think you’re at the right place,” she added. “So I tried to keep that level of uncertainty as high as I could all the way through I was making choices with that in mind, if I don’t know what it is then I’m going to keep it.”
Beth then resolutely added with am unnerving sense of self-belief: “If I know what it is then I’m going to get rid of it because it’s not why I’m doing this record, I tried to never get closure for as long as I could, which creates a lot of anxiety, which any artist will say is frightening because you feel like you’re never going get there but it’s necessary I think.”
Jehnny Beth’s impeccable debut TO LOVE IS TOO LIVE is out now, listen to it below.