Utopian Ashes

Jehnny Beth and Bobby Gillespie scale the highs and lows of intoxicating love
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 20 December 2021
This article is part of HERO Vault – Gems from back in time

An ability to traverse the euphoric peaks, brutal crags and crushing drops of the emotional landscape has long permeated Jehnny Beth’s musical craft. Attuned so sensitively to the rhythms of feeling, the French musician’s power of conviction beckons listeners to the deep-end: making them feel utterly immortal at times, and ready to surrender everything at others.

Fronting transcendent four-piece Savages for six years, Beth empowered listeners to seize desire. Pursuing new forms of expression, in 2020 she went solo with To Love Is to Live, an uncompromising record of gutsy intimacy followed by C. A. L. M.: Crimes Against Love Memories, a book of eroticism and lustful vignettes created with longtime partner Johnny Hostile. Beth’s latest record – a collaborative work crafted with Bobby Gillespie – spans new ground. Cast in decadent textures and swooning instrumentation, a fictional relationship unfolds and unhinges as vagaries of love and loss are stripped bare – saluted in their nakedness. Where many records are set to the incendiary burn of young love, this work cradles the trembling flickers of scorched malaise.

In conversation, black leather becomes a recurring symbol of Beth and Gillespie’s relationship: Beth’s all-leather ensemble at the Hedi Slimane Saint Laurent show in Paris where the duo first met; Martin Rev’s PVC outfit worn at Suicide’s final gig at London’s Barbican in 2015 where the duo first dueted; and Gillespie wrapped in a leather trenchcoat on a monochrome Dorset beach visualising their lead track, Remember We Were Lovers.

jumpsuit by GIVENCHY FW21.

Bobby Gillespie: Hey Jehnny, how’re you doing?
Jehnny Beth: Hey, yeah I’m OK, you?

BG: I’m good. I’m in my studio because my house is a building site, there are blokes knocking down walls and stuff.
JB: Oh shit…

BG: Well they’re not but there’s a lot of brickwork and a lot of [makes drill noise].
JB: [laughs] Have you had a good morning so far?

BG: I had a great day yesterday. I popped by the record store today, Sounds of the Universe. Bought a few albums: Charlie Rich, a country singer, and Billie Holiday and a dub reggae record.
JB: Sounds like a normal life! [laughs]

Alex James Taylor: You first met at a Barbican performance by Suicide in 2015, what’re your memories from that day?

BG: We can talk about Martin Rev’s black vinyl outfit. He was in his seventies and wearing these tight black PVC jeans and I think he had a matching PVC vest and shirt.
JB: You know what’s amazing, you always remember what people were wearing at the time you met them [laughs].

BG: He was about to go on stage and someone said, “You look really cool, Martin.” And he goes, “I know.” Really self-assured. I thought that was great, it was really cool.
JB: It’s something you could’ve said [laughs].

BG: It is. You know, part of his craft is his look, so when I was a teenager in the 70s I saw Suicide open for The Clash and the music… it wasn’t really music. If you listen to bootleg tapes of Suicide, especially in the 70s, the music doesn’t bear resemblance to the records. Maybe sometimes Vega [Alan Vega, Suicide frontman] might sing Ghost Rider or Cheree, but the music’s different and most of the lyrics are different. What I remembered the most about that gig – other than The Clash audience, 3,000 kids screaming “Get t’ fuck” at them, nobody liked it – was their look. Especially Martin Rev’s look, he had these huge shades that were maybe skiers, but they reminded me of the Marvel X-Men. I used to buy Marvel comics as a child and I thought, “That guy looks like one of the X-Men,” because the shades were big, big wraparounds. His eyes were totally blacked out but they had a white ‘X’ in the middle. He had long hair and I think he had a tight leather jacket on. But really I remember the shades.
JB: Do you think you remember style before music when you see a band, do you look at style first?

BG: For me, clothes are just as important as music, and maybe even more important in some ways.
JB: Why more important?

BG: Malcolm McLaren had a term for it, he called it sartorial correctness. Because image is everything. The way you look, the way you dress. It informs the way you think or feel. So you project into the world what you stand for, who you are. Even before someone opens their mouth, sings a song or plays guitar, I kind of make a judgement on them. I look at people’s shoes and I think, “I don’t wanna talk to them.”
JB: It’s funny you say that because when I started Savages, because we were a band of women, I didn’t want people to talk about the clothes, I wanted them to talk about the music. So what we decided as a group was to go on stage in outfits you could barely say anything about. They were just black or white, very simple, nothing would stand out and we would be a unit – which became a style. We saw a lot of bands of women performing at the time in London who would only do fashion magazines, and I have nothing against fashion magazines but never would people speak about their craft or songwriting. So we wanted to avoid that and be taken seriously, like a band of men, where you don’t start with, “She was wearing a nice gown” [laughs]. One day I decided to wear pink shoes, still black everything else, and all the articles started with my pink shoes [laughs].

BG: [shakes head]
JB: In a way it was about controlling that gaze and the eye of the journalist. You direct it there so boom, they have to talk about the shoes, but there’s nothing to say so they have to talk about the music [laughs].

BG: There’s a word for that style you had: utilitarian.
JB: Exactly, like a work outfit.

dress by HERMES FW21.

“What’s great working with Bobby is that you can talk about style the same way as music, there’s that lightness and seriousness about it, it’s something you play with and that’s fun and interesting.”

BG: In a way that proves my point. I think I saw some images and I thought, “They look like they’ve got their message disciplined together.” Like you’ve all agreed to dress a certain way with a certain message. So right away I was interested. I bought the first album and realised that it’s very reductive and very austere. When I was a kid I was attracted to bands like The Clash and the Pistols because of image as much as the music. Paul Simonon, bassist from The Clash, told me that their manager Bernard Rhodes would sit and chat to the band when they first started rehearsing about how important image was. He said to Paul, “If you go see a band and the audience are better dressed, why would you wanna listen to what the band have got to say?” And he was right. Bernie presented The Clash in such a way that a teenager like myself was instantly like, “Oh my god, this is so glamorous.” They looked like urban gorillas. Paul said to me, “What I wanted to do was make the Left sexy” [Jehnny laughs]. Well I think you did that, Paul. I do think that image is very important. When we began Primal Scream, when you look at what passed for independent music in Britain, apart from The Smiths, I think Morrissey and Johnny Marr both had a strong image. I was more in favour of Johnny Marr’s image than Morrissey’s, but I could see that he thought a lot about how he looked. Other than The Smiths, most indie bands, for want of a better term, dressed terribly. Like 80s students with Dr Martens and baggy, ill-fitting clothes. There was nobody with any style. I knew how I wanted to look and the guys I started the band with, Jim [Beattie] and Robert [Young], we developed a band look that was very influenced by both 60s psychedelia and punk, but also early 50s rock ‘n’ roll with the leather trousers and stuff. People noticed us because we looked different from other bands. Then with The Jesus and Mary Chain, their band image was even more focused. I think it’s very important.
JB: You first met me at this Saint Laurent catwalk and a few weeks ago when we were doing interviews you mentioned my outfit from that day we met. I’d forgotten what I was wearing but you remembered and said you basically talked to me because I was wearing leather [laughs].

BG: That’s not the reason I wanted to talk to you.
JB: [laughs] I know but I like that idea.

BG: It was more that I thought, “Oh that’s the girl from Savages.” But because you were dressed in black leather, I’d never seen you dressed like that before. It was more the slight… not shock, but surprise. Because like I said, before you dressed more utilitarian and not glam. But at the Saint Laurent show it was more glam and sexy, so I found that interesting.
JB: You always dress really well. Even at rehearsals, I remember you had a really nice jumper.

BG: [laughs] My father’s a very well dressed guy. I saw a photo of him in the early 60s when I was like four or five and he’s wearing jeans. But other than that I don’t remember him wearing jeans, he always wore suits, shirts, ties, loafers. I think that must have had an influence on how I dress. My mother has her own strong style as well. That influences you as a child, you pick up on it, learned behaviour.

culotte and gloves both stylist’s own.

The disease in this album is love. That problem has always been and always will be, like Shakespeare’s sonnets.”

AJT: Did you consider a joint style and image when making Utopian Ashes?

JB: We spoke about it in the sense of Bobby saying that we’d have Katy [England] help us on style and I was like, “She has green light” [laughs]. She actually proposed that I wear a dress for the Chase It Down video, which I thought was super cool because I rarely do that but I thought because of the contrast between Bobby and me was the perfect place for it. The video is very beautifully shot in this rundown, gothic hotel, and I think it suited the setting perfectly. We spoke early on about matching suits, we didn’t do it but could still. What’s great working with Bobby is that you can talk about style the same way as music, there’s that lightness and seriousness about it, it’s something you play with and that’s fun and interesting.

BG: I think with the videos, we obviously wanted them to be very stylistic and have outfits that were sharp and stood out but in a very understated way. Because the music is not… especially the first song, Remember We Were Lovers, it’s quite a stately song, it moves at a stately pace, funerial almost, like a funeral cortege. That video, it was winter, we shot it on the Dorset coast. We had a lovely day to shoot, but it was still a bit cold and then the day after there were thunder and lightning storms. We dressed accordingly for the elements. I feel there’s a good contrast with a leather trench coat on the beach because normally you see somebody on the beach wearing shorts and a bikini…
JB: Not in England [both laugh].

BG: I think we wanted to keep it grown-up in both videos. Jehnny’s a lot younger than me but we weren’t trying to look like trendy young things.
JB: Classicism.

BG: Exactly, that’s it. Because the music on this album, it’s very traditional and it has that classicism to it. I think the styling for the videos had to have that traditional sharp tailoring. The style, visuals and music all compliment each other and it works as a piece.
JB: Totally. Actually Bobby, I had an email from Atticus Ross last night complimenting the video.

BG: Good, are we going to get an Oscar? [both laugh] He certainly did. And I got a message from Lydia Lunch, it was just a crossed swords emoji.
JB: Aw, good. Our friends enjoy it so that’s good.

AJT: Utopian Ashes is very much defined by this wonderful harmony between the two of you, was that something you had to work on during rehearsals or did you find that your voices had a natural consonance?

JB: That was the initial discovery we made from doing the first sessions in Paris together, it was super easy to harmonise together. Bobby wouldn’t work with lyrics at first, he wrote those after the sessions, but I started with lyrics as I always do. Actually I’ve learnt to not necessarily do that after working on this record, which was interesting for me. Bobby would sing and I’d just be able to pick another note quite easily and sing along. It just came easily.

BG: It was natural.
JB: Exactly. It was good because harmonising with someone is connecting with someone. When you’re in the same room and can sing together but not the same note, it has a very particular feeling that’s matching emotion.

top by SANDA SIMONA; skirt by DE PINO; underwear by ELLISS.

BG: It’s chemical. It’s like [makes sound of electricity], like a buzz.
JB: It’s animalist as well, very tribal. And it’s an elevation, it really lifts you up, lifts your mood. Basically if you’re feeling down just harmonise with someone, you’ll feel better. So I think the pleasure of singing along was there naturally. I was just coming out of five years in Savages harmonising with nobody – we had a rule to never double vocals – but I did it in the project before, John & Jehn, and even when I was younger and learning to sing jazz. This record has really reopened that love for me, I was relearning that skill and now that’s all I’m doing, harmonising the hell out of everything.

BG: The human voice is a vibration. If you sing in unison with someone, it’s the same note at the same time, whereas if you sing in harmony it means one person sings a slightly different melody. With both unison and harmony you’re merging your vibration with someone else’s to create an even bigger vibration. That’s why huge gospel choirs or Welsh male choirs, when people listen it lifts their spirit. For us it’s only two people, but like Jehnny said, when we sing together it creates a new sound. My voice and Jehnny’s on their own are distinctive, but put them together and it becomes a third voice. I guess then in some ways the songs become a third mind. I might be singing a verse I’ve written and Jehnny sings a chorus she’s written, or the other way, or maybe in the chorus the voices come together, it just creates this lovely effect, which is emotional and I find it moving. For me, this is one of the victories of the record, that we were able to achieve this sensation and tell a story.

“[harmonising is] animalist as well, very tribal. And it’s an elevation, it really lifts you up, lifts your mood.”

AJT: Did the album stem from those initial Paris sessions?

BG: Jehnny had books of lyrics. I had one line for Your Heart Will Always Be Broken, but I also had the melody for Remember We Were Lovers and I had chords, so I kind of cheated a little. I just started singing one day. Jehnny started singing the chorus, I played different chords and suddenly we had the chorus. The music at that point was like Kraftwerk, it was electronic, drum machines and string machines. But when we came back to London I felt that the song could go somewhere else. So I spent a lot of time with the lyrics and I wrote three verses, started playing it on acoustic guitar and felt that it should be recorded with a live rock band and not electronic. Some of the songs developed and there were a couple that Andrew Innes and myself… we had a song called Living a Lie we’d been working on separately that we presented to Jehnny and she liked it. Another song called Chase It Down was the same and again she came up with a bunch of great ideas, the chorus for Chase It Down and a spoken word part for Living a Lie, which we would’ve never thought of doing. So the partnership was very excitingly creative and it just felt that we had something very special. We spent ten days in Paris and I’d say they were preliminary, experimental excursions and exercises. We got bits out of those ten days that we could take away and work on. We never got full arrangements but we had strong ideas.
JB: At that point I’d only performed with you on stage and when we were in Paris it was the first time I’d seen you in a recording studio environment. It was a very creative moment. I saw you sing melodies without words, but the way you’d do it behind the mic would be as if you did. It was full flow, full confidence, no hesitation, no doubt, full presence. I was really like, “Wow.” I remember me and Johnny [Hostile] looking at each other like, “Oh my god” [laughs]. As a singer, there’s not a bad take, you know? There are just ones better than others. That was great, it was very energising for me. It makes it all about having fun. I loved the way it was relaxing as well, it’s a sacred moment because it’s a creative moment but it’s not like, “Shhh, everyone shush he’s going to do a vocal take.” No, someone’s doing that but there are two guys over there laughing about something else and they’ll hear it and be like, “Oh that’s great.” There’s a flow, it’s not heavy.

BG: That only works if you know that everybody can deliver. That’s the only way you can be relaxed. In the past I’ve been in studios and not been relaxed, you need good players. It’s like being in a football team, if you go on the pitch and you think that one or two guys in the team aren’t up for it, you can’t go out confidently.
JB: That’s interesting.

BG: On stage, if you think one of the members is going to drop notes, that means you don’t feel confident and you can’t be in the moment, you’re always listening for the mistake. That’s why I was relaxed in the sessions, because you and Johnny were very accomplished, it felt good. It wasn’t like, “Amateurs,” you know? Like, “Fuck.” We would’ve gone straight home. [Jehnny laughs] I wouldn’t have lasted five days if it was amateurs.
JB: I have a question for you actually. You’ve been doing this for a long time and have always been doing it, for you and the creative side of your life, how have you always kept that flame? Or have there been moments when that flame was completely gone? How have you protected that?

BG: I think because I’m curious. Curious about the world, literature, politics, music. I still have a sense of wonder about things. I always have a drive to express myself and I enjoy making things. I also feel that I still have something left to say and that my life as an artist is a work-in-progress. It’s a great way to live, to be a creative artist, if I can describe myself as such. I have joy. I have so much satisfaction around this Utopian Ashes record. Every time I make a record, over the years, some are better than others, but I always learn from them. I look back and can see how I make certain songs and lyrics better… Even the mistakes are helpful because they’ve helped sharpen my creative sensibility and define what I want to say and how I want to present it. To me, it’s an ongoing experiment.
JB: It’s never-ending.

dress by VITELLI.

“My voice and Jehnny’s on their own are distinctive, but put them together and it becomes a third voice. I guess then in some ways the songs become a third mind.”

top and skirt both by SAINT LAURENT by ATHONY VACCARELLO FW21.

BG: I think that’s what keeps me going. Also, I don’t want to work a normal job [both laugh]. I never wanted a straight life, I wanted to live a creative life. That’s a big driving force as well.

AJT: Throughout Utopian Ashes there are underlying themes of self- reflection, redemption and a sort of insular perspective. I was wondering if you saw these traits mirroring what a lot of people were going through during lockdown – normality was frozen and we had more time to contemplate.

JB: Pandemic aside, I think me and Bobby had strong reactions to the lyrics and the fact they speak about something quite universal, which Bobby describes as “emotional inarticulacy.” It’s always a paradox for me, that idea, because… in the record the characters are actually talking a lot about their emotions. If you talk about love it’s usually young love and the heartbreaks of that, which are valid, but also different from what we talk about in this record. It’s more matured. You have things to lose, you have to take responsibility, you’ve committed yourself but something is missing and there’s a meaning of life that you have to revive. For me, the record is telling those moments where you’ve reached a point of no return, where you have to communicate and make that effort towards the other, or towards yourself, in order to express yourself. You can’t save yourself unless you say it how it is. That moment in life, in humans, is very touching, it’s a moment of vulnerability where you put on the table who you are, and the person in front of you can either smash it and destroy you with it, or take it, try to nurture it and take it forwards. That’s what the record is for me and the reaction to it has been strong. Bobby took that direction clearly when he called me and said, “I want to talk about this.” It was very inspiring and I took it on board. I thought it was very clever because it’s something you rarely hear in records at the minute. In terms of the pandemic, it probably had an effect because people have been more at home. We’ve heard that couples have been brought together more in the past year than ever before, and maybe they’ve also had to examine their relationships, in that sense maybe it came at an apt moment.

BG: The disease in this album is love. That problem has always been and always will be, like Shakespeare’s sonnets.
JB: It’s funny you say that, I remember a Savages lyric I wrote: “Love is a disease, the strongest addiction I know.” Because I read an article about love being more of an addiction than cocaine. When people are trying to get off a relationship or have their heartbroken, in the brain, the chemicals and reaction is stronger than if you’re trying to get off cocaine.

BG: If you actually fall in love with someone, you devote your life to them, you marry them, start a family, buy a house with them, you invest so much of your being, your soul, your life. Then to lose that, it destroys people. If you’re addicted to drugs, heroin or cocaine, you don’t really give anything to those, you give yourself but…
JB: And your money.

BG: Yeah, but you don’t have that emotional… It goes back to that Alain Badiou thing of there being no such thing as risk-free love. You need to take that leap and say to someone, “OK, take my hand, let’s jump over the fucking cliff into the unknown and see where it takes us.”

culotte and gloves both stylist’s own.

Interview originally published in HEROINE 15.
Utopian Ashes is out now via Third Man. 

hair and make-up THOMAS LORENZ; photography assistant THOMAS VINCENT; fashion assistants BRIAN PLACIDE and ELIE MERVEILLE.

 


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