Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Chansons Macabres

By her own admission, she's not a musician, an actor, a director, or a photographer. So what's left?

Charlottte Gainsbourg has released five albums but doesn’t think of herself as a musician. She’s acted in art films (Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia) and mass-cult schlock (Independence Day: Resurgence) but she doesn’t think of herself as an actor, either. She helms her own videos, although in her opinion, she’s not a director. And she published a book of photographs and lyrics to accompany her 2017 album of the same name, Rest, but she doesn’t see herself as a photographer. So what is she, then?

“Exactly!” she laughs. “It makes me very nervous if I feel I have to prove the professionalism of being an artist. I don’t belive in any of that. I don’t believe I have much to say to the world. I find it really very pretentious every time I hear it, but I believe that some people are artists, [and] the way I was brought up was ‘You can’t take yourself seriously. You’re not Van Gogh. You’re not Chopin.’ ”

To fall into armchair Freudianism, it would be all too easy to experience self-doubt — even of an invigorating, reality-checking type — if your parents were the French songwriter and polymath Serge Gainsbourg and the English model and actress Jane Birkin. But this goes beyond a simple derivative of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence. It might be surprising for someone who’s been so fearlessly transgressive throughout her career, ever since that monocle-shattering “Lemon Incest” duet with her ribald, pun-adoring father at the age of 12, but Gainsbourg seems to recoil from identifying as anything she hasn’t mastered to her own satisfaction. To call yourself a musician is already to delimit your possibilities a little, by redirecting the doubt toward any other endeavors you might undertake.

On Rest and on its follow-up, the 2018 EP Take 2, Gainsbourg conclusively proves that she is indeed a musician — and one with an 18th- and 19th-century bent. Some of her songs have an orchestrally supported macabre quality, too sophisticated to be nursery rhymes and too subtle to be goth anthems, but sort of the sonic equivalent of the little-girl-in-a-bloodstained-party-dress that populates the horror-film imaginary. (And who among us doesn’t love a harpsichord, which pops up on Rest’s “Lying with You” and again on Take 2’s “Such a Remarkable Day.”)

“I’m more comfortable with the piano because I did a bit of classical music growing up, so it’s more my instrument,” she says, admitting that her guitar-playing and her drumming are “very, very basic.”

Gainsbourg credits the producer SebastiAn with the preponderance of her arrangements, which endow her songs with a ghostly heft. She’s too worldly to be Emily Dickinson, but there are references to Edgar Allen Poe amid the synths and the Kanye West covers. It’s all about mood, and in fact, horror films are what she’s aiming for on tracks like “Deadly Valentine” or “Lost Lenore.” That hat will be the atmosphere when Gainsbourg and her band arrive at the Regency Ballroom on Monday, April 15.

“I needed to be very true to myself, so it was quite moody, but I had gone through a big drama so I wanted to express all of that without censoring myself and I guess what I hope comes across is a very sincere tone,” she says, referring in a very circumspect way to the death of her half-sister, Kate Barry, who fell out the window of her Paris apartment in 2013.

For years, Gainsbourg had kept a daily journal, although once she became a mother her exhaustiveness slowly dissipated. And the labor of combing through it to find usable material for songs became onerous.

“I guess when you write a journal, sometimes you’re not yourself,” she says. So “there’s a bit of pretense.”

She was also writing in English, not French, and the decision of what language to work in and when has been quite complicated. On her latest work, it’s hard to glean an underlying pattern to her choices.

“It goes with the flow, really,” she says. “It’s really half-and-half. On the album, I started writing a lot of it in French, maybe all in French — but it resembled little poetry, not songs. When I moved to New York, I tried to make them more into songs and then I switched to English quite a lot for the chorus bits. That was easier for me because, I can play with the English in a lighter way than I can with the French — which, for me, is much heavier.”

The switching is fun, she says, a way to keep things alive. It also jibed with the playful anonymity of her life in New York.

There, “you feel that everyone is a little artistic and you don’t take yourself too seriously, whereas in France I would never have done this,” she says. “There’s some part of French culture that makes it hard. Here, I have no attachments!”

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Monday, April 15, 9 p.m., at the Regency Ballroom, 1300 Van Ness Ave. $39.50-$45;


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