Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth goes solo after two highly-rated albums

It was on the night of David Bowie’s death in January 2016 that Jehnny Beth decided to start work on her debut solo album.

Jehnny Beth. Picture credit: Johnny Hostile
Jehnny Beth. Picture credit: Johnny Hostile

Moved by Blackstar, the jazz-inflected album Bowie released without warning days before slipping away aged 69, the former Savages frontwoman made a promise to herself.

She would make a record as musically diverse and meaningful as her hero.

“Blackstar is one of the most important records of this past decade,” she explains from her apartment in Paris during lockdown.

“It changed my perspective and reminded me of the things I love in music.

“For one, it was a real record, from start to finish, with a narrative and a message.

“It was strong and coherent in its own diversity. It was multiple but also unique.

“I felt that was the type of record I love and wanted to make.”

After two Mercury Prize-nominated albums with Savages and two under-rated ones as one-half of John and Jehn (alongside long-term partner Johnny Hostile) Beth has finally struck out on her own.

To Love Is To Live melds the 35-year-old’s musical upbringing in Poitiers, western France, to Catholic theatre-director parents, with her career as punk provocateur, writer and artist. “When I was eight I was singing jazz standards and learning to play the piano,” she recalls.

“I was listening to Chet Baker, to Charles Mingus, to Thelonious Monk, to Miles Davis, to Billie Holiday – those are my roots.

“I felt liberated by Darkstar because it was rooted in those sounds. It was talking to me. It was a major work in musical history. I felt like I was part of history.”

To Love Is To Live may be a solo album but it features a menagerie of guests: producer Flood and Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross, and guest turns from The XX’s Romy Madley Croft, Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy and Idles frontman Joe Talbot.

Murphy delivers a spoken word introduction to Beth’s track I’m The Man, which also features a slick, aggressive video directed by Peaky Blinders series writer-director Anthony Byrne.

The collaboration came about after Beth heard the music-obsessed Irish actor play a Savages record on his BBC Radio 6 Music show. “I noticed him playing our music and I knew he was a fan,” she says. with delight.

“I was in the studio in LA with Johnny Hostile and we were working on different things.

“I knew I wanted the record to be diverse, for it to be contrasted.

“I love those hip hop records where there are different people coming in and out on verses, different voices and pitches. I thought that was really inspiring.”

Prompted by Hostile, she sent an email (“rather formal,” she admits) to Murphy asking if he was interested in lending his voice to a track.

“He said yes just after reading the text,” she laughs

“He hadn’t even heard any music by that point.

“He showed his trust and he was very nice. He suggested straight away to do the text in a very calm way.

“He said ‘This is big stuff so I have got to do it very personally and not declamatory’ and I thought that was clever.”

Savages released their second album, Adore Life, the same month of Bowie’s death.

The band went on tour to promote the record before making the decision to go on hiatus on July 2017, with each member focussing on their own projects.

Beth has certainly been busy.

She has hosted her own radio show on Apple’s Beats 1, called Start Making Sense, and worked with artists including Gorillaz, PJ Harvey, and Strokes front man Julian Casablancas.

The past three years have been freeing, she admits.

“Every record or project has its own challenges,” she offers when quizzed about her fears.

“The only thing I didn’t want to do was repeat myself, otherwise I wouldn’t have done this.”

Inspired by arthouse cinema and grinding post-punk, Savages made headlines for both their music and hardline approach to filming at gigs.

Yes, they were among the first acts to ban the use of mobile phones.

Famously, Savages put up signs at the their shows, reading: “Our goal is to discover better ways of living and experiencing music.

“We believe that the use of phones to film and take pictures during a gig prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves.

“Let’s make this evening special. Silence your phones.”

In the intervening years, Beth says her art has become more about expressing the human instinct and less about making a point.

“I was always in a band,” she recounts.

“It was always three weeks in the studio then done.

“I wanted to allow time into the process, to leave months where I wouldn’t touch the material - I wouldn’t even listen to it.

“I would be creative in other ways.

“I would write prose, I would take pictures, I would do other things and come back.

“I wanted the songs to come to this effortless place. I didn’t want to force them into any directions.

“I wanted to wait for the right people to work with, and if that meant waiting for their agendas to be clear, I would wait.

“I just felt there was no pressure and I could take my time.”

After three years working on To Love Is To Live, Beth played a single show before the music industry ground to a halt under the cosh of Covid-19.

The intervening months have given her time to reflect.

“You’ve been gearing up for something important - an album that you have been working on for years,” she muses.

“And in the end it’s a lesson in humility because it is everything for you but at the same time it is nothing.

“What is more important, life or art? I think both.

“But in instances like this you reconsider your prerogatives.”

Boxing has also become an integral part of Beth’s life in recent years.

She trains at least once every two days at a mixed-gender gym in Paris and has taken to online classes during the lockdown.

The sport is a fine metaphor for her music - artful, elegant, violent.

“I’m realising more and more how important it is for me to keep my body active in order to keep my mind sane, especially right now in confinement.

“Boxing is palliative. It gives me what I was missing from the stage.

“It’s not just physical exercise. You have to be mentally strong, you have to push yourself and you have to have an attitude.

“A ring is like a stage. It is my stage”

To Love Is To Live is out now.

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