Last week, Savages released Adore Life, an album of occasionally menacing, frequently desperate, and sometimes tender love songs. The London-based quartet's 2013 debut Silence Yourself put them most obviously in the tradition of English post-punk from the late 1970s and early 1980s, but their intense recordings and ferocious live shows made them a modern favorite. Adore Life further widens the group's spectrum by embracing elements of hard rock and brooding ballads, amid lyrics about how "love is a disease, the strongest addiction I know."
After finishing their extended tour for Silence Yourself in 2014, band members Jehnny Beth, Gemma Thompson, Ayse Hassan, and Fay Milton only took a month off before beginning work on what would become Adore Life. After a period of writing new songs, in January of 2015 they made the rare move of testing out this raw material in front of live audiences, playing nine New York City shows at three different venues over 19 days. Then they went into the studio to further refine the music before releasing it a year later.
Savages' sound and aesthetic can feel like a strategic assault
Savages' sound and aesthetic can feel like a strategic assault, composed of guitar slashes, puncturing drums, theatrical vocals, feedback, all black outfits, and unforgiving light. They are a thoroughly considered band that dissect and distill everything they put out into the world. Here Jehnny Beth, the French-born lead singer and main lyricist of Savages, discusses the group's creative process and what makes it out of her notebook.
Eric Ducker: You can tell that certain bands only record new material so they have an excuse to go on tour, while some artists are only interested in being in the studio to see how far they can push their music in that context. With Savages, how do you see the divide of emphasis between touring and recording?
Jehnny Beth: Live performance informs the recording. I have to say I enjoy every part of the process, but my favorite would be writing. I enjoy playing live, but recording for me is not my main favorite. Probably you'd have different answers from other members. For example, Gemma [Thompson], our guitarist — I'm talking for her here — I would imagine she would say she loves the process of recording because it allows her to take some time. She had time on this record to experiment, to try different gear and different amps, and to try different sounds that she has in mind. She has time to explore these things. There are a lot of possibilities that you have in the studio that you don't necessarily have live.
When do you usually write lyrics?
Pretty much anytime. I don't need a quiet time necessarily, I just need to be able to reach out to my notebook and my pen as quickly as possible. It can be any time of the day, any time of the night, whatever I'm doing, so I always have it in my bag.
How quickly do you share what you're doing with your bandmates?
That depends. Unless we are starting the process of writing, I don't really share my work. I never know when I'm writing if it's for Savages or if it's for something else or if it should just stay in my notebook. When we start making something that's when I start trying out some things. I send the lyrics to the girls so they can have a look at what I'm talking about, because they're all really interested in that process as well — the meaning of the songs and what we're trying to say. It's all entangled with the music, it needs to be closely connected, otherwise you can't really have a record.
So they know what lyrics are about? I've interviewed bands where the drummer might say, "I have no idea what he's singing about."
They don't know everything, but they know the concept and they are really interested in it, even the drummer. They are interested in knowing what the song is about and what feeling it evokes, the communication between the sounds and the voices. They really pay attention. I would be very desperate if I was playing with musicians who weren't paying attention to the meaning of things. I think that's what brings us together as well.
How easy is it for you to scrap your work, whether it's lyrics or entire songs?
It's very easy for me. I don't have any problems with getting rid of something if it doesn't work. Of course you get attached to things. Sometimes you're trying so hard to find a way for these words to fit in, but they don't fit in, so you have to give up. Maybe they will find their way into another song or in another time. That's why I started doing spoken word on tour in between songs. Sometimes they emerge as a song. I remember doing, "I need something new in my ears, something you could say, perhaps," [the opening lines from Adore Life's "I Need Something New"] which was part of a bigger text, but I only selected that section. I got down on the stage to be with the audience, and the girls were surprised. We really enjoy that kind of playful thing where everyone goes, "We're going there? Ooookay, cool. Let's try it." Then everybody tries to follow and respond to that, and that created that song.
Were you ever more precious or protective of your stuff, or have you always had this openness to change?
No, you get it with time and experience. I get more and more prolific as I get older. At the beginning when you write, if you're 15 or 16, you tend to cherish one thing you've written for weeks and you're really proud of it, which isn't the feeling I have now. It's a matter of trusting yourself that you can do better all the time. Even if I really love the song "Adore," and I really managed to say what I wanted to say on this song, I'm not worried that I can't write another song that would maybe [be better than] this one.
This leads me to the shows you did in New York last January. Why then, and why there?
It was a pretty weird choice, right? In January, in New York, in the blizzard. It was pretty hard work, loading gear in the snow, quite mental. Well, we wanted to get out of London. We had been stuck in London for like six months, and the place where we had been writing got sold. Beyond that, we always had our heart in America from the first record, we always had good audiences there. It's always interesting to take your music out of its habitat and see how it checks out and how it transforms it.
At each of those shows in New York you were trying out new things. As you get ready to tour this album, do you have a fixed game plan?
We always consider the venue, the place, the time, the town. We want to really adapt the set list to how we're feeling and how we think the audience is going to be. We always want to try new things — a new start, a new end, a new movement. I'm sure we'll transform things like we've always done. We'll adapt our sets to the environment, or we'll be bored halfway through and start writing a new song on stage or we'll introduce a cover. There's room for that.
How do you adapt a show to a particular night or crowd?
If you're in the town and the room starts to pack up with very young, excited fans, then you want to make sure you bash out with the most exciting songs at the beginning to get everybody going and start a mosh pit by song three. You can feel it in the room, whether it's going to be a slow start or if it's going to be a really quick burner. It's just matter of reaction to that.
Do you remember the first time you performed publicly?
I do and I don't, because I was three years old. My father is a theater director, and we went on tour in Russia [in the mid-1980s] for one of his plays. It was a play about 1789, which is the French Revolution. I was playing the daughter of the king, and there was a scene where I was carried in the queen's arms, crossing the stage.
What about your first time performing music?
I had two instructors, jazz musicians — a singer and a pianist who were a couple, older than my parents. They were people I used to go to every weekend to learn piano and sing. I was probably eight when I started being their student. At 10 I did my first piano recital. I was a terrified. Absolutely. Piano was all right, but it was singing that I was absolutely terrified of.
What were you afraid of?
I don't know. I was actually too nervous to sing.
How did you eventually get comfortable performing?
When I moved to London with Johnny Hostile [who later produced both Savages albums]. In our band John & Jehn, I played a Farfisa organ. I had a massive, particular Farfisa with a big cabinet, which weighted about 72 kilos. I was playing the bass with my left hand and the organ with my right hand — a bit like a Doors thing — and I would be singing. This was very formative. We were playing everywhere in London, absolutely everywhere, every shithole. We learned so much from those experiences, and we toured in Europe for several years. So just experience, that's how I got over it. I was really scared to sing and perform, but the more I did it, the more I got over it. I get nervous still, but I'm not nervous when the room is full. If I have an anxiety, I'm thinking, "Is no one going to come?"
I rewatched your performance at the David Bowie Is... exhibit opening in Paris from last year. Obviously it's extra emotional now because of his recent passing, but what also struck me is the way you presented those songs live is different than the way you present songs by Savages.
It is different. I was part of a project. I wasn't the center of it, I was just providing vocals. It wasn't my thing — I was directed for it, there were loads of dancers — so it's not me in Savages. I can be a singer as well for different projects if I feel like it. Savages is particular because it's where I found my voice. Savages is where I found my Jehnny Beth character. It's where I found how to express myself. And I enjoy it the most. But I like to sing for other people as well, and I like to consider myself a singer, not just a musician in a band.