We fell immediately in dark-hearted love with Savages upon the release of their forbidding debut album Silence Yourself in 2013, with the London quartet forwarding a brand of retro-nu-goth that was purely ideologically driven—whilst others around them were merely conveniently jumping the black-clad bandwagon. It’s now been four years since their follow up, Adore Life, and they remain on self-professed hiatus.
But the band’s French-born frontperson Jehnny Beth (née Camille Berthomier) has just emerged with her first solo album, the poignantly titled To Love is To Live (a more hopeful take, obviously, on Nietzsche’s “To live is to suffer”), featuring the piercing new single “Heroine.” It flaunts guest appearances by The xx’s Romy Madley Croft and, believe it or not, actor Cillian Murphy.
For our ongoing Corona Stories series, she opens up about hiding out and undergoing self-discovery in Paris’ Montmartre district, in the meantime revealing an intensely personal decision she undertook whilst attempting to write the album from a small town in Northeastern Spain.
From Paris Isolation to Mediterranean Revelation
I have never been a fan of Beyoncé’s music. Yet the first time I heard the song “Haunted” from her eponymous album, the one she dropped unannounced in December 2013 (an unconventional practice back then in the industry) it was like a meteorite crashing into my ancient world, I was taken without warning.
At the time, I was locked down in a Parisian flat, alone—a self-induced confinement made necessary by a feeling of genuine tiredness. Too much touring, too much debate inside the band, I had lost a great amount of weight and gotten ill, I didn’t really have a home to go to, or so I imagined. The flat I was renting looked out on the Abbesses square, one of the most touristic views of the city—one would say almost fake. I would spend most of my days looking out the four giant windows and see everything as the truth. Especially in the early evenings when the street lights would switch on and the dealers would take center stage.
I listened to a lot of music, I worked at night with my headphones on and my computer, trying to sing with my broken voice. There, in the abysmal loneliness of my rented apartment, in the absence of interruption and human conversation, in the absence of any observer at all, I listened to the Beyoncé record and thought about how the pop star had rejuvenated the art of the album, how something in me was changing as fast as the song “Haunted” was changing at 2:55.
Interestingly, I have not listened to any other albums of hers since, nor did my discovery turn me into an unconditional fan; but this album felt like it was unwrapping a surprise for me, something I needed to figure out. I remember listening to it with a great sense of questioning.
I have lived many episodes of confinement, all of them changed my life. In the darkness of the solitude I have always found a glimmer of hope that I have cherished more than anything else; because there was never a single doubt that I was the one who had felt it. The emotion was mine and mine alone, no one else’s. There is something quite disarming about being the rightful owner of a sentiment, no one having handed it to you. Sitting on a chair with my headphones on in the empty living room of my Parisian Airbnb, I looked up in the burst of a smile and realised there was no one to share it with. The smile went back in, and within it stayed, hoping to find a soul to confess it to as soon as possible. But no, I refused such impetuosity, I resisted the urge to text someone and felt consequently the smile traveling inside my body. First burning my chest, an uncomfortable warmth that circulated through my veins, and then spread to my limbs, extremities and brain. After a few seconds the impatience to hand out the feeling disappeared as I was filled with its power, the sense of being reanimated from a dark sleep.
In between recording sessions of To Love is to Live I started writing prose; stories about sexuality and freedom. I took a plane to Barcelona and drove to a village on the Costa Brava. I was to isolate myself for several weeks in order to write. My little apartment was overlooking the sea and a row of typical beautiful white facades opposite the creek. The deep blue of the Mediterranean was like a moving mirror that reflected the sun with blinding force. I could hear sea gulls when I wrote, the waves and the children buying ice cream in the street. One afternoon, after a visit to the bathroom I suddenly realised that I was late with my periods. On my next trip outdoors I bought a pregnancy test at the local pharmacy and peed on the strip as soon as I got back. I remember the instrument laying on the kitchen table, my eyes fixing it as it stared back at me, and my heart’s beating raising incrementally.
Sometimes when my imagination drifts, I picture all the periods of isolation of a lifetime connected to each other by an invisible bond. Maybe if we put them back to back we could see ourselves uncorrupted, undiluted, pure, impervious to the magnetism of a world that imposes on us to conform. But is it even possible to show enough resistance to ward off the conditioned thoughts? Can we really start seeing what we never see about ourselves, about the world? Or will we continue living our lives like we have nothing better to do?
The test was positive and it was still positive no matter how long I kept staring at it. I walked to another pharmacy and bought all the tests they had in store. All came back positive. I pushed them to the bin with my forearm and screamed ‘No! No, No NO!’ I didn’t want children, I never had wanted children, this was an accident, an error, a betrayal. That evening I drove to the nearest headland and parked underneath the lighthouse of the peninsula. The wind was bashing the wings of the car and rocked my interrogations from side to side as I watched the sun go down between the mountains and the sea. My head was a choir of many dissonant voices. We are alone. Existence is a random chaos.
It is not God, nor fate, that kills the children and the elderly. It is us, only us. I was trying to find my own voice in the cacophony of the world. Everyone was talking but me. Then I felt it. It was quite timid at first, it barely stopped my tears, but I felt it emerging with the bright certainty that I was its rightful creator, I felt its warmth traveling through my veins, my chest and forehead, I knew it, I had seen it before, it was that glimmer of hope again, the truth, the only one that mattered in the whole world: mine.
A few weeks later I summoned the memory of those last rays of sunlight as I walked to the hospital for my abortion, and remembered the truth I had caught in the midst of my loneliness. This was one of the most difficult episodes of my life, I don’t wish it on anyone; but there was never a doubt in my head that it was the right thing to do.
Today I think of all my past isolations and I am grateful for their education. I am aware of their scandalous luxury and selfishness in the light of the world’s growing inequalities—how can you retreat from the world when the world needs you? But if we are the sum of our experiences, I am the sum of my isolations. Because they were a chance to face the walls I didn’t know I was building. Because isolation doesn’t have to mean passivity, but quite the opposite. “Isolation is the gift” says Charles Bukowski in his poem Go All The Way. “You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”