Top image: photography by Johnny Hostile
“It had haunted me for quite a few years, the idea of disappearing and the idea of the need to make a piece of work that I would feel more comfortable about dying if I had made it. So my fear of dying has sort of calmed down since the release of To Love Is to Live,” shares Jehnny Beth from Paris of her solo debut album.
Stepping out on her own for the first time, Jehnny saw this as an opportunity to delve deeper than with her band, chipping at her own psyche to reveal the prismatic nature of creative perception, desire, and identity that has long defined her craft. Lead singer of post-punk outfit Savages, here the provocative artist has birthed a collection of songs that unapologetically lays herself bare: with an unflinching vulnerability that reveals intricate and uncomfortable parts of the self.
The album artwork is as defiantly vulnerable as the music it wraps. Made in collaboration with Hingston Studio in London, Jehnny literally stripped herself bare. Created using 3D scans of her nude body, the cover image is unwavering in its poeticism and boldness – an unapologetic stance, capturing naked fearlessness and intimacy. “I didn’t know this, but it takes ages to finalise a sculpture like this and to get into all the tiny details, up to the eyelashes,” Jehnny explains of the intricacy behind the 3D sculpture. “Once you take it off the first time, the robe, you can take it off many times, it doesn’t become weird.”
Speaking to Jehnny here, we share an exclusive Making of the Artwork video, revealing the creative process between the artist and London’s Hingston Studio.
J.L. Sirisuk: To Love Is to Live begins with the declaration: I am naked all the time/I am burning inside/I am the voice no one can hear. It’s a highly personal record where you reveal different parts of the self, was it a challenge to present yourself so bare?
Jehnny Beth: It wasn’t really a challenge because it was a necessity. It’s not like I had a choice. Sometimes I feel like I’m compelled to do things – I just don’t really know why and I don’t really want to know. I think this declaration as you said… it’s a declaration to feel, to not shy away from feelings and to make a promise to yourself that you’re gonna keep burning inside because sometimes a little bit of pain is necessary, and you feel more alive. We can do with a little pain, and the imagination needs that intensity. I need it, so I think the record was trying to capture that intensity, that density of life.
In the end, it makes quite a challenging record because a lot of people have told me they need a few listens to kind of understand what this is about. I think that is what I was trying to do: create a really hard-to-grasp record. I wanted to make something that wasn’t easy on the first listen because, for me, that’s the kind of record that stays the longest and that’s the challenge I put to myself. I wanted to make a record that would last long and isn’t necessarily something that you grab and let go of. It’s more a record that grabs you and never lets you go.
JLS: It reflects the complexity of people – the more time you spend with them, the more you understand. With the record, the more listens, the more nuances are revealed.
JB: Yeah, and its kind of the relationships that lasts, isn’t it? The relationships where you see the folds, and you see the things that you don’t like as much but you’re committed to it, obviously as long as it’s not poisonous for you. But you kind of have to take it all and accept the ups and downs.
“…I think the record was trying to capture that intensity, that density of life.”
JLS: This leads to the baring of the self, captured in your album artwork. At what point during the process of making the record did you even start to consider the artwork?
JB: From the very beginning. When I started working on the music with Johnny Hostile, we started writing songs and thinking of who we could work with. We instantly started to take pictures because we thought that if we’re doing demos of the music, we want to do demos of the image as well. I had this idea of showing the body very muscley, the way bodybuilders do. I liked the idea of a representation of me that wouldn’t be a picture of me, wouldn’t be literal, so a statue was a very good idea. We started taking pictures of me oiled up, the way bodybuilders do, with this sort of shiny blue or even grey, silver skin. We thought that was a good start to show vulnerability in the eye, but strength with the muscles. It was a good contrast.
The same with the music, we started working with different producers, Atticus Ross, Flood and Romy Madley Croft. Then with the artwork, we met the ‘Hingstons’, I call them – Hingston Studio. We started talking more than working and when I exposed this idea of the body, of the muscles, he [Tom] immediately talked to me about the 3D statues and it took me a while to understand what it was about because it’s weird at first to think of this statue that doesn’t physically exist.
JLS: How did you know Tom Hingston was the one to trust for this project?
JB: We first met because he asked me and Johnny Hostile to be part of an exhibition and he loved the pictures that Johnny was taking, which ended up being a book called C.A.L.M.: Crimes Against Love Memories that we co-wrote. I wrote the stories, he took the pictures, and we made a book together which came out about the same time as the record. Before that, Tom Hingston was interested in our work so he offered us a room in his exhibition in London. We had a dark corridor room which was a recreation of our corridor in Paris, which is all painted black where we shoot most of our pictures with different models. It’s a work about sexuality, about intimacy, about finding freedom behind closed doors amongst people who share the same ethos, the same way of living outside of society. Sort of a punk, erotic manifesto. That was the start. When we worked with Tom on that, we felt that he was so open-minded, really on the same level, so it just made sense to carry on working with him with the artwork when that came about.
JLS: How would you describe your relationship with your body and did it shift at all during the making of the artwork?
JB: We started with Tom [Hingston] exchanging references and there was a lot about sculptural bodies in photography. I was really into the work of Frederik Heyman who does 3D digital sculptures. Then there were a lot of sculptures by Antony Gormley, there was a photographer called George Platt Lynes I really loved, and a different sort of old-fashioned bodybuilder, Tony Sansone. He was the first bodybuilder in America and was not really doing competitions. He was doing a lot of photography and the way the body is presented is very sculptured, dramatic and intense, but also vulnerable and romantic. That was the fine line that we were trying to find.
I have a pretty good relationship with my body – I like to feel with my body. I’m a born performer in the sense that I love feeing alive through movement. I love watching dancers and I love to express the music. My job as a front singer in Savages, for instance, was to be a translator of the music with my body. I gave people the recipe: this is how you move on this music, this is how you enjoy this music. So the body was like a transmitter. It’s a tool of communication, and in that way I always love to use it. [For the album artwork] I trained for days with a choreographer. We’d do 48 poses and then we made selections, looked at different angles. The day before we did the shooting, I panicked because I’m over 30 and I’m going to be entirely naked for a whole day in front of a team of ten people who are lovely, but still, there are days where you feel better than others. There was not necessarily a day where I was feeling the best, but there was going to be 400 cameras on my ass. That was a bit crazy but then you do it for art’s sake, you do it for everybody as well. The body is a tool, so I did it. You just have to get rid of your fears.
“I had this idea of showing the body very muscley, the way bodybuilders do. I liked the idea of a representation of me that wouldn’t be a picture of me, wouldn’t be literal, so a statue was a very good idea.”
JLS: How did you get past these psychological challenges involved in the process?
JB: There was definitely a psychological challenge: the fear of being ugly, the fear of not being up to the task physically, but also mentally, for sure. But also physically, it was very tiring. For the cover, we did thirteen poses, I think, and I had to hold them for a long time and some of them are very hard to hold so it was a challenge. But then again, it was very playful. I’m the kind of person who gets bored if I don’t have a challenge.
JLS: In the Making of the Artwork film (premiered here) you mention Grace Jones, can you take us through her influence on your work?
JB: She means a lot to me. I saw her perform at a festival a few years back. I was allowed on the side of the stage and we were waiting for Grace. She wasn’t showing up and it was twenty minutes in, musicians were onstage and still no sign of Grace, and it was pouring down rain. The festival-goers were waiting under umbrellas, it was kind of dramatic and then suddenly I smelled coconut and vanilla, a very intense smell and I was like, “Do you smell that?” I smelled Grace Jones before I saw her. Then I saw this naked woman. She [Jones] was right here, like three metres away from me, completely naked except a thong. She was going to put on her first costume and she was bare naked and it felt absolutely normal. It didn’t feel like she was naked. She has this body that looks like its made of iron so it doesn’t necessarily look like skin, it looks like she’s already dressed with skin. I love that strength, and I think if you’re able to bare that much and not look like you’re naked, there’s real power in that and there’s also a wildness to it, which is so inspiring. I kept thinking of her for that reason, to give me strength. I admire her as an icon.
JLS: Looking at your cover pose, my first impression is defiance, when you look at the image, what does the pose encapsulate for you?
JB: I think it just made sense by looking at it, trying different ones and choosing this one because it was the simplest pose in the end. Sometimes one needs to go on a journey to go back to something very simple. But it looked like a pose I would do on stage, with the fists, and there’s certainly a defiant nature to it. But also you can really see the nakedness because some poses were more hidden. This one was sort of chest open. I felt it’s very unapologetic, and that’s how I want this record to be received.
JLS: The title of the record, To Love Is to Live, is a strong sentiment that you really feel within the music. What is your philosophy of this title, and has it changed during these uncertain times?
JB: This time has changed our perceptions of all things, and especially our relationship to things we love. When the title came, what happened in my life after that sort of confirmed it. When I announced my album in January, my dad got really ill and it was before confinement. It was in January and suddenly he was in hospital in intensive care in a coma. I just didn’t expect this to happen in my life, so I stopped everything for that even though I’d just announced my album.
I was making this record with the idea of death in the back of my mind all the way through. I can’t really explain why. I think in life, there are different moments where you think about death more intensely than others. I don’t know if it’s for the best or not, but I was definitely motivated by the idea of mortality. To love Is to live is something that’s been said many times and will be said again. It’s not something that I’ve invented, but it’s something that we desperately need to be reminded of, or I needed to be reminded of. And you’re right, the events from my dad’s accident to being confined, releasing a record in the middle of all this, having my touring cancelled, having to mourn all of these things – I think To Love Is to Live has sort of resonated even more. But that’s why it’s good we have creativity. We have art to keep us going.
Jehnny Beth’s debut solo record To Love Is to Live is out now via 20L07 Music.