Charlotte Gainsbourg Finds Her Own Voice

Charlotte Gainsbourg Finds Her Own Voice


Still not entirely sure of her songwriting, Ms. Gainsbourg considered calling in help from the literary provocateur Michel Houellebecq, and met with writers at her label’s suggestion. “He took the lyrics and made them fit,” she said of one such potential collaborator. “It looked like a song. But it was not my song.” She eventually shrugged off all offers of assistance.

She was on the verge of a breakthrough by December 2013, when Ms. Barry died after falling from a fourth-floor apartment window. A painful mourning period followed, made harder by the Gainsbourg clan’s status as major French celebrities. “Everybody recognizes her in the street in France,” Mr. Akchoté said. “I remember her coming to my house in Paris, and the guy delivering mail stopped and said, ‘Oh, it’s little Charlotte!’ She’s 46 years old, but in the minds of the people, she’s a shy girl. It’s very heavy for her.”

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From left, Ms. Barry, Ms. Gainsbourg, Ms. Birkin and Mr. Gainsbourg at the César awards ceremony in 1986, the year Ms. Gainsbourg won a trophy for her performance in the film “L’Effrontée.”

Credit
PAT/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

Ms. Gainsbourg finished one song around this time — the title track, a heartbroken lullaby recorded with Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, of Daft Punk — but staying in Paris felt untenable. In the summer of 2014, she and her partner, the filmmaker Yvan Attal, moved to the West Village with their children. “It was a way of making my sister’s death a little more unreal,” she said. “I had big guilt; it wasn’t a happy move. I needed to escape, for my survival.”

In time, Ms. Gainsbourg came to relish her relative anonymity in New York, where she continues to reside. “In France, the word ‘artist’ is overwhelming — it’s reserved to van Gogh, not me,” she said. “Here I find it refreshing that nobody cares.”

Mr. Akchoté flew in later that autumn to join her at a small studio in Brooklyn. They went on to write and record the bulk of the album there over the next year or so, including the song “Kate,” a bittersweet electro-pop tribute to Ms. Gainsbourg’s half sister. “I was expecting someone totally broken,” Mr. Akchoté said. “But she wanted to make something with all this sadness she had. All the different feelings she had, we used.”

In 2016, they went to the Electric Lady studio in Manhattan to continue recording with help from others, including the Canadian composer Owen Pallett, who wrote string arrangements for several songs. For the upbeat groove “Songbird in a Cage,” Ms. Gainsbourg called in a favor from Paul McCartney, who had written the song for her years earlier and dropped by one day to play guitar, drums and piano. “He was like a child, having fun, trying every instrument,” Mr. Akchoté said. “It was unreal.”

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“In France, the word ‘artist’ is overwhelming — it’s reserved to van Gogh, not me,” Ms. Gainsbourg said. “Here I find it refreshing that nobody cares.”

Credit
Clement Pascal for The New York Times

She completed “Rest” last December, only to delay its release by nearly a year so she could direct several music videos, another career first. Now, with the album’s arrival at hand, she was feeling apprehensive. “It’s still quite raw,” she said. She had resolved not to read reviews because “I don’t want to get bruised.”

Ms. Gainsbourg said she hoped to tour next spring. In the meantime, she is looking forward to Feb. 1, when her mother will perform an orchestral tribute to the music of Serge Gainsbourg at Carnegie Hall. For Ms. Birkin, it will be a night of mixed emotions. “It’s a wonderful feeling, but equally sad, because the most beautiful songs were written when I left him,” she said. “At the same time, I think I was so lucky to have had a composer who wrote for me since I was 20 until the day he died.”

Her daughter put it more simply. “What she’s doing is magical,” Ms. Gainsbourg said, smiling warmly. “It’s their love story, and to have your parents’ love story performed with a symphonic orchestra is very, very moving.”

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