A Candle to Curse the Darkness
Adore Life: On paper, it’s a strange statement. To adore life isn’t quite the same as saying you love life, or you enjoy life – that suggests a flippancy, a sense that experiences can be disposable.
I sit down with singer Jehnny Beth and guitarist Gemma Thompson at a painfully cool coffee-shop-cum-gallery in a desolate part of Hackney Wick, East London. It’s ten days after the terrorist attacks in Jehnny Beth's hometown of Paris – a fact that never leaves my mind throughout our conversation and lingering each time I listen to the album in advance of our conversation. None of us address the matter directly. The band are due to play the city the following week: by all accounts, it’s one of the most charged performances of their career.
The material on Adore Life isn’t exactly optimistic, but the almost nihilistic tendencies of their 2013 debut Silence Yourself are gone. I put it to the pair that the album, with its artwork of a raised fist, comes across as a defiant piece of work.
“I think you may be right,” ponders Jehnny Beth. “But we’ve always been looking people in the eyes, if that’s what you mean by defiant. It’s interesting to represent the contrast you can find inside the music. So the fact you could juxtapose the words 'Adore Life' to a fist raised in the air, it just shows you that you can find joy and warmth and the appreciation of life, and the desire to love and be loved, and all those things that doesn’t come that easy.”
“There’s always been a real intention to not shy away from the noise we would make, and to not go quietly into the light…or not go quietly into the night?” She laughs, trying to remember the exact line.
“Dylan Thomas?” Thompson asks her bandmate. “Do not walk quietly into the night…it’s Dylan Thomas.” “Is it?” Jehnny responds. “It’s Grace Jones as well.”
[A quick Google search pulls up the Dylan Thomas line easily enough – “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The phrase has never appeared in a Grace Jones lyric, though. It’s not until much later that I find it in her autobiography: “Those who know me, and are related to me, or close to me, have been warned many times by my actions that I am very unlikely to go quietly into the night, or into the night.” Modernist poetry and post-modern disco - a very Savages combination.]
"I want to care and give my time and love to the people who really want it, and we have fun with that. I don’t feel the need to convince the world.” - Jehnny Beth
But despite the defiant nature of the artwork, the raised fist doesn’t seem to extend to its title. When I put it to them that Adore Life acts as both a command and a statement about the band itself (see the words together on the cover – “Savages Adore Life”), I’m met with about twenty seconds of silence. It’s an awkward moment.
“It’s a bit of both, really.” Thompson eventually offers, before Jehnny Beth continues. “Several people have said that they feel it’s an instructive title. I never really thought about it that way. I mean, I see where that comes from, and I’m fine with that. It’s not an order…but it can be.”
Whereas Silence Yourself was? “I don’t think so,” she laughs. “But [again] it can be. it doesn’t belong to us at some point. There are variations of implications for this title. But it wasn’t like ‘SILENCE YOURSELF!’ It was more ‘What happens if you silence yourself?’ “It’s not a definitive order – you can’t force anyone to listen to that.”
Thompson adds, “It’s a choice, it’s an idea, and it gives the intention for each record. Like, for the first record, finding a place where you are, and trying to understand your place in your surroundings and your context, and then to be able to build up from that, to work on certain things… So Adore Life has become the natural progression from that – you’ve allowed yourself this time to understand a bit more what you are, so now you think more about adoration…it’s a very simple thing about enjoyment – this is a more positive record, definitely.”
The development from Silence Yourself to Adore Life is genuinely startling. Savages’ debut was impressive, but very much sounded like a first record – the work of a band trying to find themselves amongst their influences. Adore Life is arguably the band’s first full-length that defines what Savages sound like on their own terms. Everything is streamlined into a concise, ten-song statement, veering from the oppressive swallow-you-whole guitar noise on death disco stomper “Surrender” to the dazzling balladry of its almost-title-track.
After Paris, “Adore” was the song I’d return to most frequently, something I’d blast at full volume for reassurance. “I know evil when I see it. I know good, and I just do it,” Jehnny Beth sings, pausing theatrically before those final two words as if she has exhausted any more complex way of putting her feelings across. “Maybe I will die, maybe tomorrow, so I need to say…” She croons, the band dropping out beneath her. “I adore life. Do you adore life?”
It’s a stunning moment, but conveys a blatantly positive sentiment – an existential joy - that’s rarely expressed in music. I ask them why they think so few artists come out with a message like this. Another extended silence ensues. “It’s harder to say ‘adore life’ rather than being angry and frustrated,” Thompson suggests. “It’s easier to be negative about things than to embrace what you have, and to wake up and be like ‘Oh, I’m healthy…’ - simple things.”
“It’s a really interesting thing,” she continues. “The fact that we play with volume, we play a certain way and push certain things. We can still make that noise, but still appreciate everything, and the people around us. We had to go through the first record to make that point.”
“You learn that from experience.” Jehnny Beth elaborates. “In a way, the moshpit is a representation of love. What Gemma was saying about loud sounds and the message of love can go hand in hand. It’s finding the fact that you can find joy in life, and accept that without having the feeling that you’re conforming.”
Throughout my time with the pair, I’m struck by the closeness between them – their ability to finish each other’s thoughts, to begin almost the same sentence simultaneously. There’s a moment halfway through the conversation, while Jehnny Beth is answering a question, when Thompson notices some fluff on the singer’s ear, and casually brushes it away. I rarely even see my friends do things like that, and seeing them act so casually with each other is a weirdly endearing moment.
But all of this comes in contrast to the brutality of their music; the decision to use the album’s two most relentless tracks – the queasy amphetamine lurch of “The Answer” and the pummelling “TIWYG” – as its lead singles are a testament to that. When I ask about the canned laughter which punctuates the latter song, however, the pair start giggling. “You answer that,” Jehnny Beth laughs to her bandmate.
“I think because TIWYG was such a full-on song, it was one of these ideas where we wanted to push things to their maximum, and it felt like it was such an extreme that you needed something to let you breathe again. I think the idea of the laughter came from that. Almost like more of a human thing comes into that, after all of that. You almost play it without breathing.” At this, Jehnny Beth again breaks into giggles at the thought.
"Every performance matters, every performance is important, and you try to bring the same intentions and the same honesty..." - Jehnny Beth
A great deal of this intensity seems to stem from the band’s decision to workshop the material at a run of small shows, though the band insist that this is merely business as usual. “I think for the first record,” Jehnny Beth explains. “After four months of existence, we had our first show, and we had an audience from then on, but we were still writing the songs off Silence Yourself. So we were just used to writing songs in front of an audience – that’s just our natural habitat. For the second record, we were writing all these songs, and at some point we were like “we need the adrenaline, we need our natural environment.” Then we wanted to move out of London, and we like American audiences, because they like our loudness – they appreciated that, it’s really in their culture. And we chose New York…in the freezing cold. Like, lifting up gear in the blizzards. That was intense, but it was great. But it was natural to us – that’s the way we like writing.”
When I ask whether this may change as the band gets bigger, Jehnny Beth counters, “Maybe we’ll have a different desire. Maybe we won’t want to show anything. We went to see the PJ Harvey exhibition when she recorded in front of an audience at Somerset House. That was just before we went to New York, or just after, but for her it was the recording process that was being watched. So that was slightly different, but slightly insane as well. She came to see us very early on, and she became kind of a…guardian angel. She has a – everyone in the band has respect for her – and she came to the studio when we were recording guitars, and she spent a few hours with us. She’s very curious, learning all the time. Humble, generous…she’s just an incredible artist.”
Thompson picks up the thread: “Seeing some of the actual process…like Jehn was saying, we chose a specific time frame to do the record, and it was more kind of an awareness of doing it. Whereas with the first record, it was what we set out to do. We were aware of this time, and going to see PJ Harvey doing that was almost like a kinship. It’s interesting thinking about if it would change how you would make music – not being able to see, but knowing people were watching…”
Jehnny Beth, who has also been involved in a touring musical tribute to David Lynch over the past year, brings up a conversation she had about it with one of its musicians, Terry Edwards – who was also part of Harvey’s band during this session.
“There were funny moments, I remember laughing and they were making jokes. They were recording all the male voices, but she was directing them. But they were completely ignoring that you were there because of the one-sided window. [Terry] was saying that the only problem was when you really need to go and pee.” She and Thompson start giggling. “And you can’t! But you know, apart from practical, funny things like that…”
Despite the band’s stern refusal to allow audience members to film their shows with their phones, some video footage from one of the David Lynch concerts has emerged online. Taken from one of Jehnny Beth first public performances after the Paris attacks – in which she lost a number of friends and colleague – which took place in the city itself. In the video, accompanied only by Edwards, she’s singing This Mortal Coil’s version of Tim Buckley’s “Song for the Siren”. No stranger to covers of iconic songs, Beth also took part in a tribute to David Bowie at the launch of his David Bowie Is… exhibition in Paris, and tore through tracks like “Suffragette City” and “Life on Mars?” with gleeful abandon.
Her version of “Siren” was extremely different, though. Perhaps even more so than “Adore”, this is Jehnny Beth at her most vulnerable and exposed, and she seems visibly humbled yet somehow scared – twitchy, eyes darting - at having to sing such an enormous song in the face of tragedy. She gains assurance as the song progresses, but it’s a marked contrast from her aggressive prowling when fronting Savages.
Jehnny Beth plays it down. “It’s a performance – every performance matters, every performance is important, and you try to bring the same intentions and the same honesty and the same…with all my abilities. Every time I’ve sang the song, I think the song is bigger than me. And I think on this project, the songs I’m singing are all so strong and beautiful - it’s like less is more. The song is doing the job for me, and I’m a medium for it to deliver the message. It’s not my song, so it’s almost like for a moment, I deliver and embody the music. So is it different? I don’t know…I don’t think so.”
"We just have one line that we’ve always said, where the music dictates, or where the music wants to go – that’s the most important thing." - Gemma Thompson
Aside from PJ Harvey’s reassuring presence over the album, another key touchstone for Adore Life was the dancer/performer Josephine Baker. A passage from a biography of Baker was read by Henry Rollins as part of a trailer for the album, which also featured footage from the New York shows. Thompson explains her influence on the album’s creation. “She was a really groundbreaking artist in a way – she wasn’t what anyone expected of her, that she could be a woman in that context and she didn’t have to be serious in a certain way. Or she could be serious in a funny way. She was kind of all things, and no one could name a particular thing… that was interesting [related to] the idea of talking about the things Savages talk about. That you didn’t have to be a particular way because you play loud music, you didn’t have to think a certain way because of that, you could be other things.”
Jehnny Beth once again expands on her bandmate’s point. “And the idea of savagery being good natured and open-hearted, funny – she embodied all of that. Those little lines [in the trailer] describing her dancing was a note of intention for us when we started writing the album.” I ask if Baker occupies the same role as John Cassavetes, who seemed to inform Silence Yourself in a similar way. She is quick to correct me.
“I read somewhere that someone said the whole record was influenced by John Cassavetes – 'Faces', 'Husbands', and the intro. It was just the intro – we never thought of the connection between the film and the title of the song. The character in Opening Night [the film sampled at the beginning of Silence Yourself], there’s a determination in this character that is extremely inspiring. She’s struggling with what she’s supposed to do, and she’s supposed to play this play, but she doesn’t agree with it, and she disagrees with the theme. The idea that she trusts herself so much, and everyone is against her, but she would keep her intentions, and she was really down the hill with it, to the point where she’s completely drunk and she can’t perform and they push her onstage. All because of that belief – she knows that this intention is wrong and isn’t respected, and even if the audience love it, and the producers, and it’s going well, she thinks that’s not what I do it for. And she says at this age, she reminds herself of why she started doing this. So that was something we were feeling very close to when we started the band and when we tried, we were very careful to keep our intentions.”
Once again, the concept of keeping their integrity as a band comes up – four people, united by their intensity for their music, and the ideas it puts forward. However, much like their earlier statement that Adore Life isn’t an outright command, when I ask how they would change the public discourse about the band if they could – they are, after all, about to release one of the year’s most confrontational, disarming LPs – Beth and Thompson once again avoid a specific answer.
“You can’t really get too concerned with how other people see it.” Thompson explains. “We just have one line that we’ve always said, where the music dictates, or where the music wants to go – that’s the most important thing. So if people think a certain way about it, it doesn’t matter.”
Beth finishes the thought for the final time in our conversation. “We don’t really care about other people’s perception! You can’t really drown people who don’t understand or don’t want to join in. I want to care and give my time and love to the people who really want it, and we have fun with that. I don’t feel the need to convince the world.”
At the time, it seems a defeatist way to close out the interview – almost like the classic line bands trot out about making music for themselves, and if anyone likes it, it’s a bonus. But the thought stays with me, and if anything, it’s as much a declaration of faith in the band’s own power as anything else. Jehnny Beth may not feel like Savages have to actively convince the world about what they do, but Adore Life is a record that undoubtedly speaks for itself.