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Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck talk collaboration

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck

Story by Jack Foley

SINGER and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg has been talking about her new album, IRM, and collaborating with Beck.

IRM is the follow up to 2006’s 5.55, which sold over 500,000 copies worldwide. It’s the French-language name for MRI: magnetic resonance imaging, the method doctors use to see inside the body.

The new album’s title and its uneasy, apprehensive moods reflect Charlotte’s recent experiences.

In 2007, she suffered a brain haemorrhage during a waterskiing accident, was subsequently operated on and had repeated scans.

“You nourish the work with whatever you’ve been through,” she acknowledges. “The sound of the MRI scanner stuck with me. When Beck and I talked about how I wanted the music to sound, I played him the sound of the scanner – I’d found it on the internet – and said I wanted to incorporate it. I’ll never forget that sound.”

During her six months convalescence, Charlotte began thinking about making the follow up to 5.55.

Naturally, the accident and its aftermath loomed large. After working with French electro-moodist duo Air, Jarvis Cocker and Nigel Godrich on 5.55 she wanted “to get on a different track, to go in a new direction”.

Recalling meeting Beck at a White Stripes show she had been to with Godrich – he had also produced Beck – she got in touch to see whether he would be interested in working together.

Beck was hardly unaware of Charlotte’s family background: his admiration for Serge Gainsbourg surfaced in 2002 on the Sea Change album, which borrowed parts of Gainsbourg’s classic Melody Nelson for the track Paper Tiger.

Another one of those links came through Beck’s father, David Campbell – he had arranged the strings on 5.55.

Sessions began in LA in Spring 2008 at Beck’s home studio. For his first full album for another artist, Beck composed new material.

He also had a few already-written songs in mind. But as he began feeling what Charlotte wanted, everything was re-shaped.

Charlotte would give Beck fragmentary lines, which he transformed into finished lyrics. She noticed it was “like how my father worked, he took all these pieces and created something amazing”.

Overall, there were three main sessions, each separated by Charlotte’s filming assignments.

The first was Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and was followed by Patrice Chéreau’s Persécution, which was filmed in Australia.

Returning to LA and Beck after completing Antichrist, Charlotte found she was colouring the music with her mood.

“Each session was stopped by a film I had to do,” she confirms. “Each film is an experience you take from, like baggage you carry. I spent three weeks in LA recording after the Lars von Trier shoot. I was quite moody.

“I described to Beck what I’d gone through, the whole story. Although I didn’t feel the film had tainted me in a dark way, it had given me a fragility. Beck always made the effort to take it somewhere else. After that, I made Persécution, a much more normal film!”

IRM is released through Because Music on January 25, 2010.