A Modern Heroine
Seeking to deconstruct the archaic dichotomy of modern love and imploring us to understand that death enriches life, Jehnny Beth enjoys revelling in fantasies but prefers to be on the side of the living.
It’s a drizzly evening in March; Jehnny Beth and I are sitting across from each other. Her gaze, which radiates indomitable power when she is kneeling atop a bed of outstretched hands during her live shows, is just as intense from the 2-metre distance that we have laid out between us – almost as a premonitory dream for what transpires two weeks later. Whilst the topics of death and revelling behind the safety of closed doors are the premise of our conversation; at the time, neither of us would’ve imagined the state of the world that we currently find ourselves in today.
The ease in which she meanders around subject matters of being faced with mortality, the essence of truth, and flirting with danger never comes off as morbid or intimidating. Instead, her deep contemplative pauses and search for the right word come off as completely disarming and insightful. Beth is a woman who focuses deeply on the art of time. It is something which she believes is a luxury these days, and is an earthly concept that she has had to come to terms with in many different forms over the past few months.
It was simply time itself that became the catalyst for Beth stepping out into the world as a solo artist. She describes it as a growing feeling that didn’t just happen overnight: “I felt that I needed to regroup! I didn’t wanna repeat myself as well. I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done and something that gave me the feeling of starting from scratch again, because I think I’m better artistically when I feel like I have no choice left.”
Beth is the kind of artist who appears to always be juggling multiple projects – each one executed with meticulous skill and planning. From her Apple Music radio show Start Making Sense to her TV show ECHOES, which sees a panel of musicians discussing their experiences in the industry; there is the sense of an outpouring of productivity that results in Beth being constantly tied up. This is what fuelled the fire of the pause in her life.
Referencing her time spent as frontwoman of the tumultuous post-punk outfit Savages, she continues: “The ingredient I wanted to add to that feeling of urgency was time. Allow time and allow uncertainty as well, because that’s something I hadn’t really allowed myself before, artistically. I mean, I always made records in a hurry like it was a photograph of a moment – doing records and being in the middle of the storm kind of thing, and just kicking the door, but with this record I wanted to allow myself… to not know.”
The first seeds of committing to a solo record were sown towards the end of 2016 in moments of solitude, just herself and the piano, after endless years of touring and not having any time to focus on the personal aspects of her creativity. In 2017, between bouts of touring with Gorillaz, Beth would sit down for writing sessions with her partner and muse Johnny Hostile, the pair going between their studio in Paris, and exploring a sense of isolation in the countryside – a place that has always been influential for her creativity.
Beth animates when we touch upon points in conversation that evoke great memories or meaning. At other times she is reserved, arms crossed or hands fiddling with an eye-catching set of silverware.
Whilst reflecting on working out the skeletons of the songs with Hostile, her eyes light up whilst providing an insight to the liberal and almost mad scientist approach that they took: “It was research time. There was no boundaries, no stone unturned. It would be very free, but so much so that we would have seven or six versions of each song.” She bursts into a cackle before clarifying that there were indeed benefits to working in this method and it ended up being: “an important phase of exploration.”
What permeates the album is a sense of urgency to capture a moment, an experience, a reminder of the very essence of life. Beth resolutely states that To Love Is To Live is simply, part of her life, who she is and how she leads her life. "It was taken from personal experiences – the things that I learnt myself in time and experience.” Whether lived vicariously through fantasies, self-expression, or being confronted with the fragility of life— what transpires is a celebration of the multiplicity of love in its many forms.
"I think a lot of the record is about binary, you know? The balance of right and wrong, the balance of black and white, the balance of right and left, and good and bad..."
Flirting with the dichotomy of life and death from the perspectives of hedonism, debauchery, insecurity and vulnerability, Beth presents a formidable case for being on the side of the living. “The reason I thought To Love Is To Live was a good idea was because in the record it’s followed by ‘to live is to sin,’” she chuckles whilst candidly explaining the mischievous thought process behind choosing the name of her incendiary debut solo album.
She continues: “I think a lot of the record is about binary, you know? The balance of right and wrong, the balance of black and white, the balance of right and left and good and bad, because I think we live in a very binary world – even religion; society in general is sort of described that way most of the time. Reality is seen through that sort of duality/balance. I thought that to ‘to love is to live, to live is to sin’ was a good way to represent that black and white aspect of the work…
“I felt that ‘to love is to live’ was just true, you know? And also, I mean as you said, there’s a sense of urgency on the record because it is tainted with the idea of mortality and the idea that life is fucking short, and I better do this before I die… You just have to commit to something before you’re aware of your capacity to do it,” she pauses before another wicked cackle escapes her, then adds, “I think that’s kind of my mantra.”
Romy Madley Croft of The xx was instrumental in bringing this fearlessness out of Beth as she recalls: “I remember a really great moment, and I mean great,” she says with a light-hearted eye roll and heavy dose of sarcasm, “writing "Heroine" which was a song was called The Heroism before, and I was really happy with it and [during] one of our writing sessions with Romy she literally strangled me with her two hands cause she was like so fed up with me fighting her, and fighting myself, really.”
Croft would often take Beth out for the evening without ever giving away what she had planned for them, but what would normally transpire is them heading to a restaurant or a club where Beth would end up rambling about things which Croft would write down on her phone so that they could turn it into a song the next morning.
Through this process Beth says she learned, “things I would say very simply in the conversation, I would feel too shy to say through song.” It’s almost difficult to imagine Beth as somebody who feels shyness, but as the narrative of the album unfurls, it becomes apparent that there is a power in the secrets of a closed door, and a freedom of expression and disinhibition that we succumb to.
“Heroine for me, is a song that makes you want to stand up from your bed, and run and grab life by the fullest and live it fully, but also its sort of tragic you know? It’s a demand. It’s not something that’s happening. ‘All I want is to be a heroine…’ it’s almost like a dream, it’s this sort of call for being understood and being heard.” The song itself is reminiscent of Radiohead’s Lotus Flower with it’s staccato drum beat and winding, undulating vocal melody that borders on being a litany. In an ironic sense of synchronicity, the songs are quite opposing in their lyrical content.
Writing lyrics often finds itself amorphously connected to poetry, and it should come as no surprise that Beth is an avid writer as well as lyricist; For Beth, it was rather eye opening to find that working alongside Croft helped her discover that she was hiding some parts of herself behind the meaning of her words.
“Sometimes poetry disguises the truth, which is to say you put too much importance into the structure of the sentence instead of the meaning. She really comes from the pop world where you say it as you mean it. I think a lot of the record is street talk and “Innocence” for me is someone or myself walking down the street and being like ‘fuck you, fuck everybody in this city’ and ‘I don’t give a shit about your struggles. I can’t! I don’t have space for it.’ And I’ve experienced that – it doesn’t define who I am entirely but it just defines some moments that I felt that way and I’ve been a dick, you know…”
Her voice trails off in a slightly timid and contemplative manner before she chuckles and continues, “I didn’t wanna be untrue about the fact that I had bad faults because everybody has them so I was able to put the anger and bad sides in, but then Romy helped me to put more of the good sides of myself that I was too shy to bring forward. I felt too vulnerable to say them.”
Beth takes a moment to pause during our interview to find the music that inspired “Innocence” – a song was debuted in a very raw state during its first public appearance as a spoken word reading at Poet in the City, a poetry festival where Simon Armitage and Beth were discussing their icons and influences, in the summer of 2018.
Written by an American/Puerto Rican artist called Hurray for the Riff Raff, she explains: “She wrote the song called “Pa’lante” and I love her delivery in that. That’s what inspired me to write "Innocence" in a sort of down to the bone, really straight forward way, almost exactly what’s in my head – although I’m ashamed of that thought, I’m gonna put it down. The only thread I followed was if I’m not sure what it is, I’m gonna do it or if I’ve never done it before, I’m gonna do it.
Pa’lante is a Spanish slang word which loosely translates to “onward” or “go for it”. Contemplating the attempts to change her habits completely, there’s a beautiful symbolism that this is a nod to. Beth adds that the process is akin to one where “you hate it when you do it, but actually you don’t realise that it’s better. I know a lot of people around me are very brave like that, I mean Romy is like that, Johnny Hostile is like that as well. This sort of learning new things and putting yourself in danger – I’m lucky I’m surrounded by great artists… their bravery inspires me.”
"I think my personality is very much inclusive of love and I’m interested in the dialogue and the junction between the two."
To Love Is To Live, from start to finish is a statement of intent. The opening moments of “I Am” are dominated by a robotically cold, static and emotionless voice; an omnipotent entity that eventually takes the backseat for thirty minutes of Beth’s exploration into the duality of her existence. During the listening experience, it becomes apparent that “I’m The Man”, the lead single of the album, could have been a foreshadowing into the multifaceted oscillation between industrial punk, vulnerable piano ballads, and the complete freedom of sexual expression that leaves no room for gender bias.
When I ask if she ever feels as though she is competing to inhabit male-dominated spaces in the music industry, Beth is quick to point out that gender isn’t something she is concerned with, or even considers when interacting with people on any level: “I see men and women as my companions, and I don’t have a preference…sexual or otherwise.”
She laughs as an evocative grin creeps over her face, “I think my personality is very much inclusive of love and I’m interested in the dialogue and the junction between the two. It’s just natural to me. I don’t see a gender when I see someone, I [just] see someone… Gender doesn’t define you, the same as education doesn’t define you. Your upbringing, your conditioning; you shouldn’t let that define you, or you shouldn’t define people with it.”
As the album draws to a close and Beth has reached into every crevice of her mind, the omnipotent voice creeps in again in a harrowing manner, repeating the opening verse whilst being accented by a crescendo ripple of strings. I ask if the decision behind rounding out the album with that kind of repetition was to symbolise accepting your state of existence and the fragility that comes with it, in a kind of recognition that falls into the thought process of: ‘I am human and I am accepting all of my faults’.
Beth acknowledges this from the perspective of longevity: “Yeah, it is. The opening is a question mark and the ending is sort of, this is who I am. It was important for me that Atticus – because he did that first track brilliantly, and I loved it, and I felt that it was important that he closes the record as well – he produced the last track and musically that it ties up into this sort of cycle, so when you finish you wanna start again…” cue another pause for dramatic effect that precedes her infectious laughter, “hopefully, because I think this record will take a few listens!”
Citing Beyoncé’s self-titled album, Low’s Double Negative, and Bowie’s Blackstar as pivotal bodies of work that allowed her to focus on the “deconstruction of the pop song”, Beth decided to lean into the idea of making a beautiful song that is aurally quite far away from itself, with distortion being the main focus.
“I felt that it was time for complexity. It was time for describing human beings as layered beings with multiple identities and because multiple identity is the biggest promise and it gives the greatest promise of hope, I think, of a possible future you know? We shouldn’t try to reduce that or to hide that in a way. I have put all the different layers, the anger I have, all the different selves, even the ones I’m most ashamed of… The opening line is basically how I felt all the way through making it – “I am naked all the time.”
Denuding herself and speaking openly about her musings on mortality is something that has been elemental in the foundations of To Love Is To Live. Death isn’t something to be feared, it is something that should elevate the zealousness in which you approach life. On the night the news broke that David Bowie had died, Beth and Hostile stayed up all night listening to Blackstar, allowing the artist to transcend his work and find immortality for the umpteenth time, and giving Beth the push she needed to create a musical statement that will outlive her memory.
“French Countryside” was written aboard a plane that Beth thought was going to crash. Faced with her mortality, the most natural thing to do was to write about it. Seeped in melancholia, there’s a strength that radiates through the the vulnerability of it all, owing to the completely ambrosial surrendering of self. More than just feeling as though she had to collate her thoughts in the potential of facing her final moments, the song itself runs a little deeper for Beth.
“I’m fascinated by space, the universe, and our planet, and the mystery around that. For a while I couldn’t really watch the Earth, or a picture of the Earth or a film of the Earth without crying because I thought it was tragically alone and beautiful. So the plane, it sort of gives you that feeling of distance, you sort of distance yourself from your life but you’ve got to get back to it. It was the right time to write a promise song. A promise to someone you will love better, you will do better – obviously you don’t, but the interesting thing about life and death is that closer to death you suddenly become a better being, you suddenly become more loving, more caring, more accessible, and then you forget…”
"I think that death makes life more valuable — enriches it and makes it more dense, and a density of life is what I tried to put on the record."
I liken Beth’s outlook of realism about facing death to that of the Japanese Death Poem – an ancient practice where usually in war or on their death beds, noblemen, poets and Buddhist monks would pen down their thoughts. Often in the style of haiku, these poems could serve as the written variation of a last word and would be about anything from accepting the transient nature of existence and the futility of fighting it, to simply their observations on the world around them. For some, it may be a morbid topic to delve into but Beth is an open book on the subject.
“I don’t think its morbid. I think that death makes life more valuable – enriches it and makes it more dense, and a density of life is what I tried to put on the record. The ups and downs, highs and lows as if I wasn’t going to make another record. I definitely have that in mind a lot, and weirdly enough death catched up on me, and friends who have died, or family…” Beth takes a moment to contemplate the weight of her words. Whilst she is able to discuss these subjects with ease, it doesn’t take away the prominence of them.
“It’s a weird thing,” she continues, “Life… We shouldn’t forget. I think it was Goethe whose son died and he said: ‘I knew I had raised a mortal being’. I thought that was a beautiful thing to say…. To celebrate life – even better! I think it’s important if you don’t have religion, if you don’t have it, you need to find your own 'religion,'” she expands with an open-minded ease. “You need to celebrate life and to accept that feeling. Art is one of them; I think we do. Even a statue which is on a cover – it’s a way to fix something that is alive and celebrate it in a way – celebrate movement by capturing it.”
Freedom of expression is something that Beth seeks to celebrate wherever she can. On To Love Is To Live, the words sin, power, cruelty, safety, and danger crop up time and time again. Whilst these things might tie into specific taboos, they aren’t necessarily always a bad thing and can be positive in consensual environments. It feeds again into Beth’s manifesto that behind closed doors, there is freedom and no need to hide from those who do not understand her secret rituals.
I wonder if the repetition of these words is a way to reiterate that these things are nothing to be afraid of, and Beth is deliberately coy with her answer. A smile of knowing dances on her lips as she ponders the meaning of danger: “I’m aware of self-sabotage, and I think if you’re aware that you can it doesn’t mean that sabotage is the only way to feel danger, you know what I mean?”
Her smile widens as if she is reliving moments in her head: “Danger can be something that you live even though you’re not destroying yourself, so it’s a kind of subtle thing isn’t it? And it’s an education I think that you have to do to yourself. I think parts of it for instance, a small example is, the fact that I’m a sober performer made me realise that you can still experience a lot without destroying your own body and your own mind and your own life… It’s just to be on the side of the living, not to be on the side of the dead.”
Does being a sober performer amplify the experience in a way? “I think so, I think so. I mean alcohol, for example, dulls the fear but it dulls the happiness as well. So, when you leave something that makes you feel really happy, for example: the crowd cheering you, it can bring you to tears because you’ve never really heard it before if you’re too drunk… Yeah, today I see bands and I just wanna talk to them and I wanna pass that on...”
Three days after meeting with Beth, I get to witness first-hand the consequential reasoning behind our entire conversation.This time, in the setting of her debut solo show at Peckham Audio, which at first seems like an incredibly intimate venue for an artist of her stature, but through understand the context of the album’s inception, it couldn’t be a more fitting place.
Bathed in a holy white light as she sings about the art of masturbation in “Heroine” and channelling electronic punk in the Red Light District with “I’m The Man” as she oozes into the crowd, creating anarchy around her, Beth is very much someone who comes to life during live shows. Jehnny Beth is the epitome of a performer.
This makes it all the more disheartening that two months later, we’re amidst a global pandemic trying to find ways to maintain a solid grasp on our sanity, as well as our creativity. Beth’s album release has been pushed back, and her touring schedule postponed. A lot of musicians are taking part in online festivals, setting up live Q&A’s and rolling out as much interactive content as possible but Beth, however, has been going against the grain.
To coincide with the release of her debut solo album, she has written a book of erotic short stories called C.A.L.M.: Crimes Against Love Memories which was a natural progression from the C.A.L.M.: Crimes Against Love Manifesto exhibition that herself and Hostile curated in 2018 which showcased his photography alongside some of her writings. Every Friday, Beth holds a ‘meeting of the perverts’ and reads out chapters of the book. So far, she has had special guests such as Joe Talbot, Eliot Sumner, Collier Schorr, with more to come.
Explaining the connection between the two, Beth says: “The exhibition if you hadn’t seen it was a recreation of a corridor in our Parisian flat. We recreated the corridor and at the end we would screen the pictures that were taken in that corridor, and there would be a spoken word voice that I recorded of the C.A.L.M. manifesto. So that, and ‘because a life lived in fear is equal to no life at all’ is the end of the first story of C.A.L.M – the character says that – so it’s about the liberation of the safety behind closed doors. Basically, we are able to be free to express ourselves, to express anonymously, to express our bodies and not die with a life half lived, and be the heroes that would be blamed for having not lived too timidly.”
Whilst the exploration of carnal desires and sensualism isn’t something that is seen in such an archaic mindset anymore, I can’t help but question if there is any symbolism between To Love Is To Live, and C.A.L.M echoing Madonna’s choice to release the orgiastic coffee table book Sex to coincide with the Erotica album. The crude and lascivious decision of a libertine who intended to promote open mindedness was met with scandalous criticism from those who simply misunderstood its intent.
Is Beth weary of the potential for her own works to be scrutinised and met with backlash? It seems more that she is welcoming the potential to promote and inspire a thought process which challenges societal norms.
“If I get resistance it will be probably because this book tackles one of the latest taboos which is the couple and the relationship and how we perceive that… How we still attach romanticism to relationships, when I think we should live in a post-romantic era, because the problem with romanticism is that it attaches a lot of negative themes to love like monogamy and jealousy – which we don’t really know how to deal with – and there’s rarely role models or artists that really talk about that.”
Truth be told, it seems that there is little resistance, so far. Perhaps because people feel more comfortable being privy to clandestine subjects when there’s the barrier of a screen to protect them from their fantasies. Beth says, “Yeah, maybe? Do you think a screen is creating some sort of disinhibition? I always find it funny when people tell me ‘it’s my bath time’. I like that. When I read it I always think – sometimes my mind wanders and I imagine how people are listening to my voice in different situations – either they’re in bed, in their kitchen or in their gardens, you know? It’s interesting!”
"I think the problem with sexuality is who teaches it, you know? Is it the church? Is it the parents? Is it society?"
The most thought-provoking piece of information on the subject is Beth’s observations which seek to exist in a world that challenges our submissive acceptance of monogamy being the only way to love: “Those ideas which are passed on from generation to generations, we don’t really question them and society is completely made for it, you know. If you’re a couple, everything is made for you: trains, cars, holiday trips – everything is designed for the couple. So, if you reject that idea of a couple – the way it is told to you [that] it should be – then you very soon feel like an outcast.”
I mention to Beth that I am currently reading 120 Days of Sodom and found that the relationship between religion, debauchery and sexuality that is presented in understanding him as a character made me think about the final lines of “The Rooms” which describes an orgy where women have the power: “I saw women kneel to men / And men kneel to God / I saw the woman need a man / And men need a God,” as well as the Catholic guilt that she mentions in “Innocence” which comes with thinking that “Man is a piece of shit,” and thought it would be interesting to get her opinion on the unholy trinity of Sade’s existence, as means of delving into her earlier air quoted reference of religion, which almost felt like a hint towards apostasy – especially on her stance towards rejecting the idea of monogamy.
“Well, well well…” she begins, “It’s a vast subject. I mean religion definitely speaks about the body and what we do with it and tries to explain or teach a certain way of respecting yourself and respecting your body which is chastity and sex in marriage… I think religion is here to tell you what to do, or at least giving you rules of what is good for yourself, because the thing with sexuality is that we’re all beginners, you know? There’s a moment where we start and we don’t know…”
Emphasising that there is a need for sexual education, Beth adds: “I think the problem with sexuality is who teaches it, you know? Is it the church? Is it the parents? Is it society? It’s complicated and I think we haven’t really made up our minds about that, and it would be great if sexuality is treated as something that isn’t tied up to any of those things because I think intimacy shouldn’t be about politics, it shouldn’t be about morals or social issues. That to me sounds totalitarian – when intimacy becomes a revelation for your morals, and I think that’s when there’s danger issues between the realms of ideas.”
Circling back around to the transparency of a pop song, Beth notes that it’s important not to forget that life isn’t just black and white. There are a multitude of circumstances to consider in the throes of love and intimacy. Again, the key thing is time.
“I don’t think female nudity is a taboo anymore, as you say, I don’t think a woman expressing themselves about sexuality is a taboo anymore, but I’ve been talking about relationships and the fact that we feel desperate because the idea, the preconceived idea about love, isn’t necessarily the one we live and we feel that there is this sort of detachment, and there is a lot of anxiety about that. Suddenly, if love is too demanding, if a relationship is demanding sacrifice from you, even pop songs will tell you it means it’s not the right person, and this whole rejection of discipline and work – we seem to forget that love is something we need to learn.”
As we catch-up for a final time, amidst the global lockdown where Beth is in her Parisian home making a fresh pot of coffee, our conversation turns to the future of connection how a global pandemic might make people long for more meaningful relationships once this is all over.
“I mean right now we’re very much into the digital time where interactions are happening on phones or computers and it’s still very human, which is very strange, and even me – I would never have done any live's on Instagram and stuff, you know what I mean? There’s been a shift. I wrote “Human” when I was reading all of those articles and reading tweets about people who part of society have become so obsessed with technology that they have to go to rehab – technology rehab and digital rehab – where they have to cure themselves from their obsessions with a screen, and numbers, and news; a constant flow of news.
"It just never ends and life has lost its meaning and I thought that was a new kind of human pain and sensation of losing your humanity in a way or your impossibility to connect or feel part of a world that is outside of the digital world. It’s definitely something that has changed meanings now. Even just talking to you, I’ve realised that.”
Does she think there will be longevity in realising this? “I don’t know. Maybe for a while but I do think that it never lasts… Because that’s human nature. We spend a lifetime forgetting that we are mortal, and yes, we are. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live and at the same time it’s a shame because I think that the notion of death is what makes life more valuable and definitely makes humans just better, so yeah, you’re right. It will have an effect but I don’t believe in a long-lasting effect...”
As ever, Beth’s intoxicating cackle makes an appearance to lighten the tone, “I may be pessimistic,” she notes before adding: “Maybe in that case art is there to remind us, and I think that’s what I was trying to do with this record To Love Is To Live is to remind myself of the density of living with feeling. In those moments when I lost someone or was very conscious of my own death or someone was on the edge of dying, I think my whole being was involved and there was this total energy going on and I felt connected to the world, because death connects you to the world and it’s your connection to the world. That’s why we’re so addicted to it…. And love. Love definitely connects you.”