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Jehnny Beth interview: Sex, love and videotape

A press shot of Jehnny Beth
(Image credit: Steve Gullick)

“And there’s guilt of course
‘Cause I was raised Catholic
And they teach you it's bad form to think
Man is a piece of shit”

There’s a theatricality to Jehnny Beth’s lyrics. Defiant but vulnerable, her words follow years of introspective uncertainty, many of which she spent honing her craft as vocalist with Savages and as one half of lo-fi duo John & Jehn – where she was joined by her longtime creative and romantic partner Johnny Hostile. These projects have defined her public life to this point, but recent solo debut To Love Is To Live has put Jehnny Beth in a spotlight all her own. 

The videos that preceded the album's release – particularly those directed by Peaky Blinders’ head honcho Anthony Byrne – show an artist unafraid to play with sexuality. She prowls around in Flower dressed like a sapphic Thin White Duke, while a bondage-clad model writhes seductively for her consumption. I’m The Man explores similar androgynous themes, stylistically echoing Byrne's show, where it eventually landed on the soundtrack. Jehnny Beth remains the doe-eyed star of an erotically-charged universe in which sex flows freely, love is unchained (though the body may not be), and rigid norms give way to artistic enlightenment.

When we talk, the delicacy with which Jehnny Beth articulates herself marks a stark comparison to the heroically confident persona she presents through her music. But she is also passionate and interested in thorough self-examination. The chance to talk to someone who is, like myself, an openly bisexual woman in music was not only a rare opportunity but a fun one. According to Jehnny Beth, she's fulfilling, "a duty to [her] young self to be able to express" her queerness, as well as a general curiosity about what more might be out there beyond societal norms and expectations.

Our chat sparked a fascinating journey into the mind of a uniquely talented voice in alternative music. Jehnny Beth is a fully actualised artist in her own right, and she wants you to know all about it.

LOUDER: The first thing I’d like to talk about is how this is your solo debut, and how that transition from 'front-person' to 'solo artist' illuminated parts of your creativity you didn’t know existed before. What have you discovered about yourself and the way you create with this project?

Jehnny Beth: Well, first I discovered I could do it – it’s as simple as that. When I decided to make this record, I had no idea how I was going to make it and if I could make one like this. It’s the first time I was making one in the context [of being solo]. I didn’t know who I was going to work with. 

It was a decision based on a moment in my life where I needed to feel like I was starting from scratch again, jumping into the unknown a little bit, and feeling like I was taking a risk. It came from that impulse, and then the journey was started step-by-step. I allowed myself moments where I would be doing something completely different, and I allowed myself to have a life – to do photography with [her partner] Johnny Hostile, to start writing a book… to not just be about the record. 

So the record, by becoming a part of the whole group of other things I was doing, in a way gained value. 

Your two Anthony Byrne-directed videos feel like a celebration of queer sexuality in many forms. Can you talk about your relationship with Anthony and how you two chose to explore these themes visually?

I met Anthony Byrne backstage after an Idles show. We got introduced, and he told me he was working on the new season of Peaky Blinders. I told him that was funny because I was working with Cillian [Murphy, Irish actor and musician who stars in the series] on my record. He was like, “Oh, I’d love to hear that – I’m looking for music for the new season and it seems like it could be a good fit.” 

So I was mixing the record in London at the time and sent it to him, and he chose I’m The Man for the scene in Peaky Blinders and asked, “Why don’t we put Cillian’s poem before I’m The Man and do a music video together?” I thought it was brilliant. The Cillian poem was going to be in another place on the record at that point, and then when we put it in front of I’m The Man, I was immediately shocked by how great an idea it was. I was just like, “Yeah, of course, it’s exactly where it should be!”

Then he came up with the script for the video. The script was written exactly like a script for a movie – “Jehnny walks there, takes this…” – and it echoed the lyrics. It was very well constructed and obviously he had an epiphany of an image of something that he could do. I didn’t touch any line on that script. I took it on board completely and it was the perfect collaboration where he had his own interpretation and I had mine. 

The Flower video came out the same day we announced the book, and that was St. Valentine’s Day. The book is a collaboration with my partner, Johnny Hostile, and his photography. His photography is about sexuality and freedom – they’re all anonymous which enabled more liberation. We wanted to make the video for Flower because Flower is the link between the record and the book, if I have to make one, because it's sort of the sexy song on the record. So this is Anthony’s take on Johnny’s photography, which I really love. 

Flower is kind of a fragile feeling and not just about [Jehnny takes on a gruff, aggressive voice]: “Awww, sex!” and that kind of confidence. It’s more about that worry when you’re attracted to someone, over if that person is going to love you back. Or the tension of distance being sexier than the touch, which is kind of relevant today, isn’t it?

You recently posted that “creativity is context" – what kind of context were you using when you were writing the songs on this record, and how do you feel they altered the final outcome?

It's true that it was a record that was made in various contexts – different cities with different people. I wanted to change the way I had worked before, so it was new for me to do this that way. The challenge was always to get lost on the way, and to never fall back on my feet and to have a record that doesn’t make sense as a whole. 

I love movement, and I love change. I think traveling sets my mind in a right space, or I’ll start to think right when I’m walking. When I wrote the book, I would travel to cities where I didn’t know anybody. I would stay there for weeks and write and just go out to eat and never speak to anybody. You know, if you kill a routine, you might hear words that you hadn’t heard before that might make a sentence that unlocks a whole paragraph you wanted to write. You might hear someone say something on the train or on TV or passing by, and I think grabbing things in passing is something that I use a lot.

You chose to delay the record’s release in order to have your digital and physical copies make their debut on the same day, which you attributed to your love of indie record stores. Do you have a specific store in mind that pushed you in the direction you’ve taken?

Yeah, I grew up in a city called Poitiers in France. When I was a teenager, there was probably two or three record stores in the city but there was only one where the guy selling them was really into rock music and independent music. The other stores were more like mainstream or classical music.

So I used go there and just chat him, and just ask him what’s new, what’s coming out, what are they doing. This guy was really into all the Washington, D.C. bands like Minor Threat, Fugazi, Henry Rollins… you know, all that scene. Then from Washington it moved to New York with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, then to Beastie Boys, then it was the Doors from LA, so it was very American, actually. And then from the U.K. there was Joy Division, David Bowie, Bauhaus – all from that guy.

The record store is where I’d go when I’d save all my money and have enough to buy a record a week, on every Saturday. Sometimes there were gigs in my city, and I saw Ian MacKaye, I saw Blonde Redhead… every time a new band was gonna come, I would buy their record, but it was so daunting! I could only afford one. The cover was so important because it was like, “Oh I like this cover, but the music is better on this cover I thought was less good.” It was sort of luck, but then people would give you tapes.

Then when I moved to London, my first tourist trip was to go to Rough Trade. Rough Trade at that time was in Covent Garden in West London, and the first EP with Johnny – we had a project called John & Jehn – that first demo got into Rough Trade and got a review on their website, which at the time was MySpace. We read this review and they’re saying something so nice – something like we were a French Joy Division or whatever – and we were so proud, and then we got our first gig. In Malta. 

You know, it was MySpace times, so someone called and said “Yeah, we want to book you here,” and they actually offered money and trip accommodations, everything! And it was our first show. We never told anybody it was our first show, but we arrived and it was packed. We had no idea! It was so funny. So we were so scared to go onstage that we didn’t tell anybody we were going to start playing, and the sound engineer was in the toilet. He had to rush out. We were so nervous and unprofessional, we just thought we would go and play!

Flood and Atticus Ross produced your album. Does this feel like the natural progression you expected, or do you just look around sometimes and think, “Holy shit, a member of Nine Inch Nails is producing my album”?

It takes time! I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years now, and it started with lifting gear up narrow staircases in London that smell like piss and alcohol, so I know where I come from. I’ve played gigs in front of two people and they left after the first song, so I know that feeling, and I know how it feels to start from nothing. 

Atticus came to a Savages show – that’s how I met him. So when he sent me this email and asked me to come to his studio between two Savages records, me and Johnny went there and talked. I asked him a million questions, we both were very inquisitive, and he was so open. In the end it becomes natural because you share the same passion. You have to stop thinking “Oh my god, this is insane,” otherwise you can’t have that conversation. 

That doesn’t stop me from being extremely grateful. I mean, Atticus Ross has never ever produced anybody outside of like, his wife Claudia – which is really, really good – which is how he started. Now for years, he’s only been working with Trent [Reznor]. It’s amazing. I’m really honoured, so honoured, and I tell him that. 

Flood has obviously produced some of the major records in history that I’ve listened to back and forth: while sleeping, making love, whatever! So he’s been a part of my life for so long, and meeting him was a surprise. He was not how I expected him to be, and it was great that he arrived at the end of making the record so he could finish the cycle. 

If I had to just state one quality of Flood, it’s the gift that he gives to artists. It’s why I think he’s an amazing producer. The journey you go on with him to finish the tracks and to finish the record, you go through so many ups and downs, so many eureka moments, and the gift is that you’re ready to go outside and defend that record. You’ve been through everything and you know it’s your record. It’s an amazing gift, and I owe him so much for that. 

I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years now, and it started with lifting gear up narrow staircases in London that smell like piss and alcohol, so I know where I come from.

The manifesto of your book seemed to spell out very clearly that it’s about sexual and romantic transgression, and accepting the tendency toward those transgressions in yourself. Can you expand on what people can expect to find in the short stories throughout?

The book was first inspired by the Johnny's photography and the people I was meeting through those sessions, who were inspiring, liberating and fun. And so I started writing about sexuality, but more specifically about fantasies. Why I enjoy writing about fantasy as a subject is because it gives you a lot of space to go off-page and to not have to stick to real facts and reality. 

I think in general the idea of the book is to present alternatives. I think we are so bombarded with one way of seeing relationships and the way we should be, and we create so much anxiety in that scenario with monogamy, family... all this can feel sometimes like imprisonment. The book is about maybe opening up different types of scenarios that don’t exist often. We might imagine things like this and be free. If not in our intimate life, then at least in our minds. 

I’m quite obsessed with that frame of mind and, not to sound pretentious, but being brought up a Catholic, you can have a sin just by thinking. The idea of something like religion or society or any kind of institution changing things by putting rules in there, it freaks me out. That’s why therapy is amazing. Therapy is about telling you you can have contradictory thoughts. You can love someone and hate them at the same time. We’re full of contradictions. Human beings are complex, and I think arts and creativity are there to remind us of that, and to show the layers.

There’s one point in there where you mention the generations of parents, grandparents, and all the people who fall in love but are so unhappy. It really challenges the notion that longterm love has to look a certain. Do you feel like you've always been disenfranchised from that vision, or do you think that it was a slow evolution to accepting your own path in love and sex and relationships?

It was definitely a journey. I mean, I also have an amazing partner, Johnny, who's opened my mind in so many ways. He is an incredible person who has helped me in so many stages of my life to understand myself and accept myself, and for me that’s true love. I am so lucky. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t met him. It’s luck, I feel I’m not responsible, it’s just luck.

For me it was a long journey. I grew up bisexual and not really sure what to do with that and not even knowing it existed. I think I was eight when I first fell in love with a girl, and I was bullied at school for that. You just sort of repress those feelings and there’s no role models around. I felt like no matter what I chose, I was living a lie, and that gave me anxiety. That’s why I talk about it. It’s not because I want to share my private life – I would like to keep it private – but it's a duty to my young self to be able to express that. I would have loved to read about it in more interviews with artists and musicians I loved.

Jehnny Beth's new album, To Love Is To Live, is available now via Universal Music