From the meaning of death, our place in the universe and what drives the power of live performance, Jehnny Beth talks Ed Nash through the songs that inspire her.
As both a consummate music lover and perfectionist, Jehnny Beth found the task of choosing nine pivotal songs as a challenge to be solved. “I went over on the songs and I changed them halfway through. It’s very hard to pick just nine isn’t it?” she explains with a laugh. “I was trying to make a selection that would show diversity. I listen to quite a wide range of music, like a lot of people nowadays, and I think that’s important.”
Talking to Beth about her choices isn’t simply a case of documenting key moments in her life so far, but instead encompasses wider themes, where music can explore the nature of the self, the idea of purity as an artist, and even the meaning of death – all of which are underpinned by a sense of Memento Mori that drives her creativity.
Since Savages finished their tour for Adore Life, Beth has been relentlessly busy. She’s written the score for the documentary XY Chelsea with her partner Johnny Hostile and returned to acting in the French film An Impossible Love. She’s also got the matter of her first solo offering “I’m The Man” to think about. The song featured in the fifth series of Peaky Blinders, after the shows’ director Anthony Byrne thought it would be the perfect accompaniment for a scene featuring Polly, played by the inimitable Helen McCrory. “He sent me the scene and I thought it was hilarious, I liked the fact that she was stepping in shit and I loved that she was looking as badass as possible.” There’s more solo music on the horizon, with “I’m The Man” being “part of some work I’m putting out in the next few months.”
As we talk through her final selection of songs, Beth tells me they're linked by the different threads of her connection with music “These songs all have meaning to me in different ways, but it’s their meanings that brings them all together.” She marvels at the artists who have created the songs, and in one case, looks outside of the world of music to include the physicist Carl Sagan’s spoken word text “Pale Blue Dot.”
As with her own work, she singles out the pursuit of excellence in the creators of the songs she’s chosen. “The artists are the best at their craft and I want to be part of those families. When you grow up you create your own family with music, don’t you? With the music you listen to, you create your world and that makes you feel part of it. That’s what it is for me, it’s my family, it’s the thing that I keep close to myself to keep doing what I do.”
“I Can’t Give Everything Away” is part of the Blackstar record. I remember when Bowie died, I was in L.A. at the time and it was the middle of the night at 4 or 5am. I was listening to his music in bed and I was crying.
“This version of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is a remix by Trent Reznor, and in my humble opinion it’s one of those rare occasions where the remix is better than the original. I hadn’t heard it before but a friend sent it to me and I was blown away; it’s absolutely heart-breaking and extremely well done.
“It’s not surprising, because Trent’s collaborations with Bowie give him all the credit to be able to remix a Bowie song and make it a masterpiece, but also it’s a very high-level craft that he does, and that’s why I love it. Sadly, I haven’t seen it performed live, I saw the tour where they played it, but they only played it in certain cities. When I saw them they performed “I'm Afraid of Americans” though, which was good as well.
“Blackstar is one of those records that has been so important to me over the past few years. In that time there’s probably been three records like that and strangely enough, they’ve been written about, or surrounded by, the idea of death. There’s Blackstar, You Want it Darker by Leonard Cohen and Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave. Those records came out close together over the course of a few years, but they cemented something for me, because the idea of death was very present in my head, although not for the same reasons as those artists.”
“When I listen to music, I like to feel that intention of containing everything that you feel in the space of three minutes. It’s ambitious, and I think you can never actually reach that, but I like to feel that you can try, which can explain the extremes you find in lyrics or music.
“I can’t listen to this song without bursting into tears, so I have to be very careful when I put it on! The line that gets me every time is ‘My mirrored twin, my next of kin / I'd know you in my sleep”, that’s the first line that gets me, and then there’s the line ‘I'm good at love, I'm good at hate / It's in between I freeze.’
“I’ve tried to listen to it in various situations and contexts - with friends or by myself, but it works every time. I don’t know why I can’t listen to it without crying… well, I know why actually, Leonard Cohen is one of those genius writers who can make you feel the immensity of everything, of the universe, and then in the same line go to the smallest of things. That’s what makes him an immense writer for me, that capability to go from the infinitely small to the infinitely big.
“The legend says that he wrote “A Thousand Kisses Deep” over the course of several years, where he would write a line, not touch it for a long time and then come back to it. You can hear him doing different versions of it and it’s not the same text. It’s like the blues, you can sing it and alter it and make it new.
“We could all carry on writing “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, it’s like a never-ending poem because it could go on forever and have many different versions. It’s that spiral effect that attracts me, it’s like a never-ending pit of death, and it comes back to what I was saying about the idea of death. I like music to sound like it’s the last thing that was done before death, which can explain the urgency you can find in the music. That’s the way I approach life, I need to feel the imminence of death every day. It’s not even a sad thought, but I drive myself crazy thinking of all the things I want to do creatively before I die.
“When Leonard Cohen died, I was on the last tour with Savages and I asked the girls if we could play “A Thousand Kisses Deep” - the version that I sent you, which has the crowd cheering in between each line - in the dark before we go onstage. I was standing at the side of the stage, listening to it with the reaction of the crowd on the tape, but also to the reaction of our crowd. It was very, very special every time we did it; each time I walked onstage with tears in my eyes.”
“Fugazi had an immense impact on me when I discovered them as a teenager, especially for the stage, and Guy Picciotto is a hero of mine.
“The documentary Instrument that came out in 1999 is one of the best documentaries about a band and I’d recommend it to everybody if they haven’t watched it. It’s a great document of a DIY band, a band who has made no compromises, that captures the edges of why this band makes music in the first place. You can’t fake that purity, you can’t try to emulate it; it has to be a way of life and that’s what Fugazi, Ian MacKaye, Guy Picciotto and everyone in the band is showing. It’s that dedication.
“That’s where I got the love of white lighting on the stage from. Fugazi would never have lights, they would always play with the house lights on and the intensity of the mosh pit and the connection between the band and the audience reaches a high climax, because there’s nowhere to hide - it’s just you and people, instruments, voice and words, that’s it, and magic happens.
“The fact that magic happens without any intoxication and with no alcohol, because you’re straight-edged with no artifice, it becomes a ritual, something absolutely special and there’s no doubt about the fact that you made it happen and everyone in the room has made it happen. In terms of making you confident, giving you self-esteem and making you happy, I think that’s the highest level where music can actually achieve that.
“Waiting Room” is from their first record and the lyrics are what a teenager wants to hear growing up. I think that’s why this song was so important to me when I grew up, because it’s about waiting, waiting for a better life and for something to happen, but the song is telling you that you have to make it happen - sitting down is not going to do it, you have to get up. He says in the song “I don't sit idly by, I'm planning a big surprise / I'm going to fight for what I want to be and I won't make the same mistakes” and I think the line “function is the key” sums up everything that Fugazi is about.
“Ian MacKaye came to see Savages several times during our early days of touring. Every time we played in Washington, he would come to see us perform and would come backstage. One day I was sort of lost before I went onstage, I didn’t really know how to approach this next gig. I was possibly tired from touring, so I asked Ian what I should think of before I went onstage? I said ‘Tell me’ - because obviously, he’s like a master Yoda - ‘What do I do now?’ and he said ‘You have to think of one thing, be clear. Clarity.’ That really summed up what he was about for me, he was just as I imagined him.”
“To Pimp a Butterfly was very important record when it came out, obviously not just for me, but for lots of people. It was musically where it really interested me, because he was reintroducing jazz into hip-hop culture, and Kamasi Washington was doing that as well.
“It’s a very important record in musical history, but the reason I love it is because finally there was piece of pop culture from today that I could get behind musically. There’s not a lot of things that are so massive, and on such a massive scale, where I can get behind every single line and every single sound and feel like I’m part of something that is happening now; where I like it, that makes me step into the world of today.
“There’s a lot of bands, but when they reach a certain level often I don’t feel I can love it, maybe I feel it’s lost something, or it’s that the popular music of today is not the sort of music that I listen to, but suddenly there’s something on such a massive scale that I can listen to and that feels fucking great.
“A friend was at Coachella and Kendrick Lamar was playing at the same time as New Order. He said ‘What am I going to do?! Is it bad if I go to see Kendrick Lamar?’ and I was ‘No, it’s not, he’s great.’ And not disrespecting New Order obviously, but I thought that was a great example of what I’m trying to explain.”
“I don’t like Beyoncé’s music and I’d never listen to Beyoncé, it’s not the kind of music that touches me, but then she released Beyoncé. It was the one before Lemonade, the one that was completely unannounced, and I remember it was the first time that an artist on such a big scale did that.
“A friend of mine, Romy Madley Croft from The XX, is really into the pop world and she was trying to get me to listen to Beyoncé, Mariah Carey and all these Motown songs. It was very hard for me, because I can’t really get behind the lyrics, they’re not the type of lyrics that touch me, but suddenly with this record Beyoncé was working with these underground producers and immediately I thought it was interesting, especially the song “Haunted” that Boots worked on with her.
“What I love about it is that it’s a deconstruction of a pop song, the pop structure was gone - the verse, chorus, verse, middle eighth, chorus, chorus, chorus - that was gone. It was jumping from one thing to another in one song and that’s something that Kendrick Lamar does as well. I felt that was invigorating and thought ‘Oh, finally!’ There was something very radical going on musically in the structure, and I musically I could get behind it, get interested in it and I could listen to it, which really surprised me, because I could never listen to Beyoncé before that.
“I’ve actually never really listened to Beyoncé after that. It was that one moment, but the deconstruction is also why I was taking about “Fly” by Low. The last Low record, Double Negative, fucking hell, that record blew my mind and especially that song. They put layers on it and it was so radical, because the song was there but it was behind a wall of noise, a sort of a veil. There’s a scream before the song, but the song is behind that scream. It’s amazing how someone can do something sonically like that, it becomes theoretical as well.
“I thought it was a mirror to the way the world is today, and “Fly” is a really great metaphor for our times. There is a feeling there but its underneath something that’s hard to reach. I thought it was a very good metaphor for how we live today and about society.”
“I’ve been a fan of Tricky since Maxinquaye came out and I rediscovered him recently, actually last week, when Johnny Hostile wanted to watch him live and we went to see him in London. This is a record full of contrasts and he sort of moves inside it; he has a really hypnotic presence.
“Again, it’s quite ritualistic and there’s a use of repetition that’s amazing, he has that character and live it’s like a trance-like attitude. It’s the way his body moves onstage, he’s shaking from head to toe, he grabs the drum riser, he shakes it like crazy and I love that. I love that he’s transforming you and I don’t think you can come out of a show like that as the same person, something has happened.
“With “Vent”, it’s shamanic and it’s that repetition - the repetition of the words are going to change you. The back and forth between Martina Topley-Bird and Tricky is like the angel and the devil, that’s how I see them, they’re complete opposites and there’s a real life and death tension in there as well.
“I think Tricky is one of the best writers of this century, he’s up there with Leonard Cohen and Jim Morrison, he reminds me of him, he has that capacity as a writer.”
“This song is a reference to my childhood. Jazz was the first thing that I learned to play on the piano and to sing, and that’s how I learned English. When I was eight years old I started singing Jazz standards and playing piano, so Jazz and Miles Davies were a big thing for me, but there was also Mingus, Monk and Coltrane.
“I chose this because of the story how Miles Davies composed it as a film soundtrack, for the film Elevator to the Gallows. It’s a beautiful film-noir with the incredible Jeanne Moreau in it and she’s very important to me. I did a movie in France a year ago and I hadn’t been in a movie for ten years. On the first day of shooting, before I said the first line, someone stopped and said ‘Jeanne Moreau has died’. It was a strange moment for me, to have this icon from my childhood, this person that I loved, die before I started shooting again after ten years.
“I love film-noir, it’s one of my favourite film genres; it’s like a melding of moods. There was a lot of jazz in the films that I was watching when I was a kid and my parents were showing things to me. It was like a very early sort of shock - where music could give you a shock - and you can see how Miles Davies composed that very famous line on the trumpet, just by watching Jeanne Moreau walk in the streets in the movie. He improvised it and again, it’s like the genius of words. It’s just instinct, feeling, the concept is pure and I find that fascinating.”
“When I was at university, I discovered the No Wave bands from New York City in the late ‘70s. I discovered this song from the film Downtown 81, it’s a B-movie with people like Basquiat in it, you can find it on YouTube and there’s this clip of the song “Blonde Red Head” in it.
“When I watched that song, I was eighteen and it blew my mind; I decided to make music after that. It was absolutely what I loved, because I was into theatre a lot at the time, and it grouped all of the love I had for the stage. I had never, ever heard something like that in my entire life and it was a massive shock.
“I loved the idea of the guitar playing, I’d never heard someone play the guitar like Arto Lindsay before and it really shocked me. It made me feel like discovering a lot of other bands and the New York scene blew up at that point, with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s and Liars. The music was a continuation of the theatre from the 80’s and the 90s that I’d discovered, Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s were massive bands for me too.”
“This one is not really a song is it! Carl Sagan is a physicist and he wrote a book called Cosmos, which I really recommend. He was a pioneer in physics, for people who weren’t really good at physics and maths at school, but who wanted to know about the universe, how the earth was created, how we ended up on this planet, what do we know and what did science find out that we needed to know?
“Three years ago, I discovered there was a universe - and I mean that in the true sense of it. I didn’t know there was a universe before, I lived in my own little bubble, in my own little city with my friends and my family, but I didn’t really look up to the sky, or to the stars, or wonder ‘Why are we here?’ I would wonder about it philosophically, but science actually brought me a lot more into it than philosophy.
“Philosophy is a taxing question isn’t it? Science is as well, but it also gives you answers to immense questions and I feel very grateful for that - certainly in terms of a sense of truth - a sense of being about who we are and also a sense of unity about this world and the people that we call strangers or different or monsters - people who we blame for things. It makes you think differently and it changes the scale of things. Carl Sagan was very important for that, and there’s also Neil deGrasse Tyson, he’s sort of the modern Carl Sagan and he’s done a series on Netflix called Cosmos as well, where he carries on that link that Sagan started.
“Pale Blue Dot” was a text written by Carl Sagan. It’s about a picture that was taken when NASA sent Voyager 1 to explore the whole universe, and then it was going to be switched off when it was coming to the edge of our solar system, hopefully for some other species to find it.
“Carl Sagan asked NASA to turn Voyager 1 back towards the earth. for a last shot of the earth from the stars. The picture is of the earth from as far as we can be. it’s a picture of dark blackness and then the stars and then in the middle there is this pale blue dot, and that’s it. The point of the concept is about what that means, that everyone that you ever loved - and everyone you ever hated - is there and that’s all we’ve got, it's the only home we’ve got.”