interview by Michael McCarthy
Although my readers in the States might not be familiar with her, Lou Doillon is a household name in France and has been practically since she was born, being the daughter of Jane Birkin, who’s famous as an actress, solo artist and longtime collaborator with Serge Gainsbourg. Meanwhile, her father is Jacques Doillon, a famous French filmmaker in whose films Lou started acting at a young age.
Lou spent nearly half of her life so far as an actress and a model, but roughly five years ago she decided she had something of her own to say and she started turning her journal entries into songs, which wound up becoming her debut album Places (2012), which sold incredibly well and won the French equivalent of a Grammy. Following that, she got right back to writing songs until she had over 30 of them then she brought on Taylor Kirk, aka Timber Timbre, as a co-producer and set about making her new album, Lay Low, which has been getting one positive review after another, even here in the States. I was fortunate enough that she had a small window of time to do interviews while in the U.S. recently and that I was one of those lucky few who were given the opportunity to speak with her. As you’ll see below, we discussed her music in-depth and she gave some of the most interesting answers we’ve ever received to our random questions at the end.
MM: So, when did you arrive here in the States? Are you just getting in today?
LD: I’ve been here a few days. I’m leaving in a couple of hours.
MM: So, you’re going back to France before you perform live here?
LD: Yes. Absolutely. I am going back to France, performing in London, and then back here.
MM: You’re hugely popular in France but here you’re not as well known. Is it nice to come here and get away from the French paparazzi?
LD: Yes. Even in France I think I’m too much out of the system in a way to be thrilling for the paparazzi. I’m famous in the street for the people. But thank God I haven’t got a thrilling personal life. At least I hide it well enough not to be bothered by that side of things. But, sure, it’s lovely to be in New York because the energy is great and I’ve got many friends here. I lived here for a year a couple of years back. It’s a very generous city that makes you believe you’re a New Yorker when you’ve just stayed a couple of months. So, I’m happy to be back.
MM: Is the tour you’re about to do here your first time touring in the States?
LD: I’ve performed here before for the first album. We performed in New York, Los Angeles and a third one, I think it was Boston. I’m doing five dates this time and I’m very excited.
MM: I was wishing you’d come to Boston because that’s where I am. I didn’t know you were here before.
LD: Well, hopefully next time.
MM: You probably get asked this a lot, but why is it you chose to sing in English instead of French?
LD: Um, I guess it’s for a combination of reasons. The first one being that that’s always naturally how the songs come. They always come in English. I think because I have a real love of not just the words but the sounds. There’s something very musical for me about English. Words are shorter and they kind of bounce and resonate in a way where you can have more fun singing them than in French, which is quite hard to sing. Most of the French singers kind of talk sing more than they actually sing because it is hard. It’s really only the French Canadians who can sing it and that’s because they put English intonations on the words in a way. So, that would be the kind of most technical side. Then on a personal side, it’s my mother tongue and it’s always been a very private language for me because it was the language of my mum, of all my cousins who are English, and most of them are musicians, so all the kinds of music influence was always English. I rarely listen to French music. I’ve been very influenced by American, Canadian and English music. And I write my diary in English because in France people are so bad at languages it’s like a hidden language to them. [Laughs]
MM: You know what’s funny? I write my journals in French for the same reason.
LD: Well, there you go. [Laughs]
MM: So, do you still start with journal entries when you write songs?
LD: It depends. It’s funny lately I’ve been writing the last couple songs that I’ve written in the name of someone else. It was a very new exercise for me. I’ve been on tour for so long and it’s gonna end in a couple of months. I wanted to start writing again, not find myself when everything stops kind of frightened. So, I got very moved by a correspondence of two poets and so I decided as an exercise – just to get back to it – to write in the name of this woman and at the moment it’s fun to try to write in the name of other people. For other people, in a way. Even if, obviously, you relate to them. That’s why you’re moved by them and so one way or another it comes back to your feelings but there’s something refreshing in that exercise that I’m enjoying right now.
MM: I guess it’s similar to acting because you’re like playing a character almost.
LD: Mmm, hmm.
MM: Which songs on Lay Low are the most personal? Or are they all very personal?
LD: They all come from a very personal place but what’s fun are the ones that I wrote for one specific reason and then a couple of months later when I record them suddenly it’s for another reason. Or I could read it in a different way. Now, performing with them, I can read them on another kind of level. Those are the funnest songs for me, the ones where I find myself understanding them much later on. Because writing has so much to do with your unconscious that it takes some time, and it takes a little distance, to be able to actually understand what you’ve written. And, also, performing live is funny because it’s not the same songs that you enjoyed recording. Or not often the same. So, suddenly, you’ve got your favorites when you write them then you’ve got your favorites when you produce them then you’ve got your favorites that you perform. And it’s rarely the same. When they are the same it’s pretty good, it’s a good thing, but otherwise it moves. So, on the last album I loved writing many different songs. “Weekender Baby” was a song that I loved writing and I had a terrible time producing because it was impossible to actually add stuff to it, so it was a real fight during production, and I decided to go back to the demo and actually put the demo on the album where there’s something at least honest and somewhat brutal about it that I love. And on stage right now I’m loving “Worth Saying,” which is funny enough a very exciting one to do on stage.
MM: I was wondering if when you wrote “ICU” if you knew those letters meant the intensive care unit of a hospital here?
LD: [Laughs] I did not know it at first but when a very funny friend of mine, who’s American, when I played him the song for the first time – and on top of it, it was a very dramatic moment in my life – and he burst out laughing, saying that whether I want it or not I was absolutely internationally dramatic since it meant intensive care unit. [Both laugh] This is perfect. That’s how I felt. In French it’s a lot of fun because people go “ICU,” which cracks me up because they don’t really understand the relation to it, but it was actually just to write it quickly when I was going into the studio. And then it made me laugh because there was this modern kind of text and abbreviation.
MM: When you write songs do you usually start with a lyric or a guitar part or…?
LD: I guess that it can change, but most of the time I get in a zone where I guess it’s because I want to write, but I don’t really know it and in that zone I start with my guitar or with the piano to find two or three or four – a kind of combination of notes that can get me on a loop. On a kind of repetitive loop. And if all goes well, then suddenly the first sentence manages to get down and then I have the start of a pattern and that manages to take me to the chorus and that’s where reality starts where if the chorus isn’t able to come then those are songs that I drop and then there’s the lucky moments when the chorus comes out and then it’s kind of from there [that] the second and third verse tend to follow, but it’s very rare to actually be able to go til the end of a song. You’ll have many aborted things where you think it was a good idea, or your think you had an intention, [and] in fact it dies off. And I believe that, for me at least, that if they die off I don’t try to beat them and get something out of it. I wait for the songs to reveal themselves if they want to.
MM: I know Places was a huge international best-seller. How is Lay Low doing? Is it doing as well?
LD: It’s doing well and what’s funny it’s reaching also out for a kind of different audience. It’s doing better internationally than the first one did. It’s got a life in Canada. It’s got a life in, funny enough, I was touring in Australia where people received it well. In Japan, also. In Korea. I mean, places where I’ve never traveled for the first album. And then in France it’s had a good life, but the industry has changed so much, really, in three years that numbers have gone down for pretty much everyone except if you’re being played on the radio a lot. In France they have regulations on radio where you have to play fifty percent French music, 50% international music, which means that I find myself in competition with major international stars, major American or English stars, but what’s fun, I guess, is that my audience is very niche. Which is lovely because they have a faithfulness that is real. I don’t have to deal with a very young audience that kind of changes their minds every two seconds.
MM: When you were an actress and model you always had people telling you what to do. Is it liberating then to be singing your own songs?
LD: Absolutely. Absolutely because my favorite part of it is the responsibility that comes with it because acting is really harsh because you are held responsible for things that, in fact, have little to do with you, which is a strange in between situation where you really have to hold for movies that you didn’t do yourself. I guess more so on the other side, what I loved about acting – what scared me sometimes – was the idea of trying to seduce. Trying to please the director. Please a writer. And there’s something frightening for me in this. I feel like a little girl trying to please my father. And for me, my father was a director and that’s how I started by being an actress. So, what’s lovely for me in music is that suddenly it’s an adult position where I have to deal with the reality of it. I have to deal with the creative process. But also the non-creative process. And it’s lovely to, yeah, do the full circle with a project and to have to fight for a project and see it take off. On top of it, I’ve been very lucky with my music career, so if it had been harder maybe I wouldn’t be talking about it that way.
MM: At the end of our interviews we always ask some random questions. So, I’ll ask you: what was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
LD: Let me think. It was a French rapper called Mc*Solaar.
MM: What song is stuck in your head right now?
LD: It’s a song by a very talented young Canadian who’s called Jesse Mac Cormack. And the song is called “Too Far Into.” He’s just done an EP.
MM: What’s the strangest gift you’ve ever been given by a fan?
LD: [Laughs] Um, I have one very odd fan who gives me a parcel. She kind of makes a bag out of strange bits of fabric and it in are random little things that she’s found in the street. So, it can be a little tin soldier. Or bits of a broken pipe. Because she knows I know odd stuff and that I collect stuff. That’s not really the kind of stuff I collect but there’s something always quite fascinating. It’s like emptying the pocket of a kid. She used to pick up strange little things. A bead here, and I don’t know, an empty box of matches, and so she gives me a very strange combination of stuff. [Laughs]
MM: What scared you as a child?
LD: I wonder. There were many things, but I guess – my sister had nearly been kidnapped when I was a little girl so we had that panic in the family of kidnapping. I remember often having nightmares about it. My mother trying to make a secret password where if I was kidnapped how to tell her on the phone that I was well or whatever. I guess that I didn’t understand the reality of it, but it kind of freaked me out as an option.
MM: What scares you today?
LD: Well, I guess when I had my son nearly fourteen years ago, my father said welcome to the world of fear. And I guess that it’s true. And now that he’s a teenager and soon he’ll be – in a couple of years – living his own life. It’s hard not to protect them. And not be a mother hen. So, yes, he’s my soft spot. That’s my greatest thrill and at the same time my greatest fear.
MM: What are your favorite and least favorite things about Paris?
LD: My favorite thing about Paris is that I love history and literature and art and a lot of it happened there so there’s something beautiful about being able to touch stones or pavements and know what happened there and how it carries a history. And then on the other side, that’s kind of the downside of it, too, where because it’s lived through so much, and because it’s been there for so long, there’s something slightly patronizing about it where we over-complicate things. That’s why I love America. I love that here you do things and you think about it after. In France, we think so much that sometimes we over-think. And we lose a bit of our freedom.
U.S. TOUR DATES:
May 5—Le Poisson Rouge—New York, NY
May 6—U Street Music Hall—Washington, DC
May 9—The Roxy—Los Angeles, CA
May 10—The Triple Door—Seattle, WA
May 11—Bimbo’s 365 Club—San Francisco, CA