the insider: lou doillon
on her new album and transcending her it girl birthright.
Lou Doillon visited New York this week to perform songs from her newly released album Places, which critics are deeming the best album to come out of France in over a decade. Over midday cocktails and cigarettes at the Bowery Hotel, Doillon explains how someone who has every reason not to record music was able to transcend her It girl status, make us forget that she's Jane Birkin's daughter, and bless us with her beautiful new body of work. After listening to her songs--as well as hearing her speak throughout this lengthy interview--the most authentic model/actress to ever turn singer has left us with lyrics as well as ideas that we can't seem to forget.
Can you explain the story behind one of your favorite songs off of the new album? There's a song called "Real Strong," which is a song that I enjoy playing. It's one of my favorite songs on the album. I don't know why--maybe it's because it's the last one that I wrote. We recorded the album very quickly--in only 10 days. The song is about a thing that I thought was very personal, but I realized that we all experience exactly the same thing: Which is that very strange moment in the middle of the night when you got drunk, or did drugs whatever it is, but alcohol is mostly the thing that triggers it. And I don't know if it's being really you or being someone else, but you start really fucking everything up. And that's not what's fun--the best about it is when you have a quick second where you're quite proud. And I love that specific moment of being proud in the middle of the night, when you know you're going to regret it bitterly the next day. You have this awkward, tiny moment where you're fucking everything up, you know it, and you're really proud of that. So the song talks about that specific moment, and I'm happy to see that the majority of my whole audience feels the same way. They don't feel alone in those weird moments in life.
How was your performance at Le Baron this week? It was lovely. It was really cool, because I was a bit worried about the venue and about playing in a club with two acoustic guitars, which is a bit hard. If we had gone electric it would have been easier. But there's this thing where you have to ask a great deal from people, because you're going to ask them to shut up for half an hour, which everyone has told me is a bit of a complicated thing in New York, so it was kind of spooky. Just before going on stage it was like, 'Listen. Here, everyone talks during the whole song, so don't get offended.' And in fact, they're such weird songs that when you have a girl crying her heart out behind a guitar it kind of shuts up people a bit! In fact, it was lovely. It was half an hour of people really listening. We played "Real Smart" even though manager didn't think it was a good idea to play a slow, really depressing song in a club at 10 o'clock in the evening. And it was funny how it was the one people listened to the most, because there was nothing and just tiny guitar picking, people suddenly just have to go with you.
You mentioned having to record your album quite quickly. Why is that? I wanted to because, in France, I come from a very famous family and all of that "blah blah." And there's already all this movement of girls where you don't really know what they do and it's this kind of It-girl thing, which is a bit complicated. I've been branded an It girl, which was a tiny bit painful just because I started working when I was six years old and I've been doing independent movies and independent theater, which no one actually sees. And I've known so many actresses who did albums just because everyone proposed it to them. And on top of it, the majority of my friends are musicians who have a hard time signing. So I was very adverse to doing music anyway. At the age of 25, I picked up the guitar without any purpose apart from the fact that I was going bonkers and I needed to get it out. Being an actress and a model, I find that my greatest pleasure doing those jobs is to be a victim--to be absolutely like putty. But you've got to care to balance that. So I would go back home and pick up my guitar, or pick up my crayons and at least there I was my own chief. It's a dodgy job when you spend your whole day wearing other people's clothes, looking like someone else's fantasy. So I did those songs just for me with no desire to bring it out.
What finally made you decide to record your music? I didn't want to because I thought it'd be for the wrong reasons. It would have been, because people want to sell me for another It-girl, whatever the f*ck and I don't want to do that. So then it got to the point where a producer showed up in my kitchen because my mother denounced me by saying that I was doing music in my kitchen. And she loved and she thought everyone would love it, because she's my mother, of course, so I didn't listen to her. He showed up and he fell absolutely in love with the project, and tried to force me to do it. Then told me, 'Alright then I'll take the songs and I'll sing them.' That woke up my ego and made me realize that I did want to sing them because I wanted to keep control. I thought maybe the best way is to do it as petite as possible, by taking all of the hype of it. So I refused to record with American musicians or English musicians--which, of course, my label wanted to do. I refused to record it in California. I thought, 'No, let's do it like normal people do it.' So we recorded it at a studio at the corner of my street in ten days with French musicians. Now it's been one of the greatest successes in France and it's an album that didn't cost a dime. We played every track live. We didn't edit the voices, we didn't do effects on anything. I just wanted it to be pure and honest. I thought, 'If I just give absolutely what I am, then you can hate me if you want to, but I'll be fine with it.' I've lost no one on the way.
Because even if you know that you're happy with the project, you still can't help but care about what other people are going to think about it. Because that can start to mess with your head too, right? And that's where I'm lucky. I was born in the artistic industry and that's--in fact, one way or another--selling out. So I've seen the devil since I was a baby.
Now for whatever reason, it's more about the who than the what. And judging the process and not the result. Who cares about the process? Either you're moved by something or you're not. There's so much attitude that I'm happy to be a flag holder for another option of doing things. We're stuck between two propagandas: There's the propaganda of fear, which is what works. The government knows it very well and the obsession is to keep you frightened. And then--quite smartly--music, fashion, and every single other industry has logged into it. You'll buy new makeup, you'll buy new dresses, and it keeps you on this edge of insecurity. On the other hand, you have the propaganda of perfection: everyone's retouched, everyone's saying how beautiful their life is, and 'I work out, I'm in love, and I make money, and I'm so happy.' Which is actually bullshit because you meet any one of those girls and they're not that happy. There's good days and bad days. One of my songs called "Devil or Angel" is about how we spend our time projecting. What will you be doing in 20 years? Will you have money when you're 60? This obsession with projection makes us feel disappointed, which is the worst feeling in the world. And we shouldn't be. I'm very happy that the music had a lot of success in France for that reason. It's bare and it's logging into what's most personal to me, but also what's most common for others. There's nothing exceptional about it. But maybe today it's actually super brave to say, in fact, that I'm just normal. And I love to see how I calm people down. At the end of my gigs a majority of people come out smiling and take me in their arms and thank me. That's why we have loonies also, because if everyone's convinced they're bonkers, Everyone keeps on reading that everyone's happy and it makes you think, 'I'm not like them.' And if you've got no one to talk to, then maybe one morning you pick up a gun and start shooting everyone down because you're convinced you're abnormal when, in fact, we're all twisted. I was laughing about this with a friend: when you see a beautiful couple snogging in a beautiful car with beautiful clothes, I bet you that nine out of ten of us think, 'f*ck them!' By obsessing ourselves and thinking that we should be better all of the time, it actually makes us be worse.
So was that your approach to your new album--applying this philosophy? Absolutely. I'm trying to get back to that. Let's think! While we're on the topic, another trend that I've noticed is that the artists that are paid to perform or host certain events don't seem to want to be there. Or they seem above it. Absolutely. That's another strange thing about attitudes and moodiness. All of the French actresses wear glasses, but in their trailers you'll find all of the magazines [they're hiding from.] In fact, it's just an attitude thing. For me, I'm quite happy to be wherever I am. I'm a happy person. Except when my album came out people were like, 'Oh my God! I didn't know she was depressed!' But if I come out of my house and if you see me at an event, I will be f*cking smiling. And I don't understand all of those people who go to premieres to not have pictures taken--I don't get it.
That's a good point! I won an award in France for Best Performer of the Year. And I was dancing in the back with the award and stuff. The chief of the event came to see me and he was like, 'I'm so happy you got it. I didn't think you would get it but I'm really happy you got it. And what I'm more happy about is that you seem to be the only happy person here tonight.' I thought, who are those people who just take the award and they're not happy? Come on, you only live once. You're the master of the situation. You can go covered with things that don't even resemble you. I can arrive holding a can of Coca-Cola, but if I sit on the stage and and start to have a real relation with people--then it's fine. And it's for you to decide. But it's that race: more money calls for more money. Sometimes I see girls say no to millions. They may be super pissed off about it, and I'm all for that. But when you see them say yes, but they go dragging their feet you're like, 'come on!' Not to even mention the fact that 90 percent of the planet is living it so f*cking hard. We're all allowed to be bummed, but then stay at home. It's pretty simple. End of bloody story.
Are there any other It girls that you've been grouped with that you admire or are you over the whole gang? It's a complicated thing, because a real It girl--in that sense of the word--is a girl who actually does nothing above being "It." In a weird way, her whole life is going to be about relations. So I always get a bit freaked out by people who are, I wouldn't say star fuckers, but something's a bit strange since their life is their performance. They're is always this on-going show in everyday life, which kind of scares me a tiny bit. So I haven't befriended many. I do not judge and I admire them because it must be super hard at some points. And people are super tough and super nasty about It girls. I don't get being at parties all over the place. They've always asked me to DJ and I was like, 'Please. It is an actual job--one that people actually do well. And what? I'm going to put a headset and have someone next to me helping me out?' [she says gesturing as though she is a fake DJ.] No. I'm very moral with myself.
Was there ever a time when you had to participate in something that you didn't want to participate in? They made me do a fashion show when I was 16. I didn't look like anything, and I didn't know how to wear heels--it was pathetic. My hair was done in an Afro and I looked like sh*t. And they asked me to walk just after Gisele Bundchen. And here I am on the catwalk, watching this beautiful body and the situation was so mad, that I started laughing out loud in the middle of this thing. They ran to get me off stage, because they were so embarrassed. And I was crying of laughter, because it was such a pathetic situation. Clearly, I was my mum's daughter and I didn't have anything to do with this show. And it was funny because ten minutes later, CNN was there saying, 'Who's this girl and what's this happening?' And that's how my whole career started in the fashion industry. Because I was the odd one. I kept arriving at castings with my book and people thought I was there to deliver books. At least I have a lot of fun.
Perhaps what all of the other girls are missing is your sense of humor. A lack of humor, in everything. I wanted to make a T-shirt saying, "We are allowed to laugh about everything." Listen to Lou Doillon's Placeson iTunes.