Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth isn’t hurting for work these days. Last year, the erudite Parisian returned to her first love of acting with a role in Catherine Corsini’s “An Impossible Love,” which earned her a French Cesar nomination for most promising actress, and — sporting a monstrous Mohawk — she just wrapped Alexandre Astier’s upcoming “Kaamelott,” a feature-film continuation of a popular old television series. She also had her own TV show, “Echoes with Jehnny Beth,” a Beats1 radio broadcast “Start Making Sense,” and her first book of erotic short stories, “CALM” (“Crimes Against Love Memories”) will be published in July. Somehow she found the time to track “To Love Is to Live,” her ambitious solo debut, the most intricately plotted record of the year so far. It opens on the undulating synth and sinister vocoder of “I Am,” segues into a thumping, blurt-voiced “Innocence,” a trash-can-dissonant “I’m the Man,” the rattlesnake-cadenced single “Heroine,” and closes on the six-minute epic “Human.” “I’ve always been seriously interested in doing a multiplicity of things,” says Beth, 35, born Camille Berthomier. “My hero for that is Henry Rollins. I always felt that he was so good at being a writer, a radio host, a comedian, a great punk singer, and a solo artist. So the record isn’t the only thing that I’m interested in doing. It’s part of this whole world that gives me inspiration.”
Your album is very challenging, the kind few artists dare to make anymore.
I really wanted to make a complex record that called for several listens. And I think it’s quite layered, built up around the nature of being human. And it reminded me that was what I used to love about a record — the fact that it was rich with more people’s voices merged together with a great sense of narrative from start to finish, but also very classic and contrasted. I wanted to make a collection of songs, but to make the record cyclical, as well, like a spiral, so when it stops you can start again. Sometimes in pop culture, I feel there is a tendency to simplify and have a very clear message. But I like things that are not just one thing — I like to hide several meanings in one, while — I hope — still being able to be entertaining, nonetheless. That was my intention, at least.
What is “Innocence” about?
Well, I lived for 12 years in London, and I moved to Paris three years ago. I wanted to reconnect with my roots and be a bit closer to my family, because I felt a bit fragmented and maybe a little unhappy, as well. So basically, I went into therapy and I needed to regroup. And “Innocence” is about frustration and isolation, and feeling disconnected from the rest of the human race, not feeling empathy with my peers. It’s expressing a feeling of disgust with humanity. You know when you live in cities and it’s very crowded, people are not necessarily very nice and it smells bad. You think of Paris as this very beautiful city, but it’s actually quite dirty, as well. And sometimes, I’m just fed up — I can’t save the world, there’s not enough room in my heart. So I wanted to put moments of lightness in contact with moments of despair, because that’s how I know life is.
So you probably enjoyed keeping to yourself during the shelter-in-place mandate.
Yeah. It’s true. And I thought that at the beginning. It’s an imposed isolation, so it’s a bit weird to do the good thing, the normal thing that everybody else is doing, because as an artist, we like to do the opposite. I like to stay in bed while everybody is going to work. I like to have sex for hours while everybody is demonstrating in the streets. I like to do things that are the opposite of what the crowd is doing. I think it gives me a great perspective on my work.