Jehnny Beth of Savages: ‘Sex is a wonderful way to test yourself’

Jehnny Beth is in her childhood bedroom, leaning on a copy Goethe’s Faust the size a phone book. We weren’t meant to meet here, through a rectangular FaceTime window: a family emergency concerning her father’s health has brought the French-born musician home to Poitiers, though she has kept her interview appointment as a distraction.

Now 35, Beth – black clothes, slicked-back hair – scans the room for traces her past, though the collaged CK1 ads and “the magic trio” Brad, Leo and Cruise are long gone. This is where 20 years ago the teenage Camille Berthomier became obsessed with music and escaping to London, far from Catholicism and sexual repression. “In my head, it was always about leaving,” she says. “And then I moved properly at 20, 21, and didn’t really look back.”

When she met Nicolas Congé 16 years ago, they christened themselves Jehnny Beth and Johnny Hostile and played together from 2006 to 2011, although they’re still a couple. Then Beth joined uncompromising punk four-piece Savages, who, given rock’s dwindling currency, are one Britain’s only recent significant bands: two Mercury-nominated albums; transcendent shows where Beth commanded fans to abandon distraction and embrace desire. They were also weirdly controversial, with misogynist critics certain they were manufactured; a retrograde tribute band without a cause. Whole articles were written about the fact that they didn’t smile much. Today, Beth laughs raucously, sometimes out self-deprecation, sometimes at my delusion that I could persuade her to reveal things she has absolutely no intention revealing.




Jehnny Beth  Savages: 'Sex is a wonderful way to test yourself'





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The band fered the freedom she had craved. “You’re a gang against the world,” she says. But their identity became restrictive. “It can become a prison for creativity. I felt that Savages was very pure musically and as an art form and I didn’t want to break it.” Keen to collaborate with other musicians, Beth pursued a solo album in 2016 – To Love Is to Live is out in May. She respects Savages and cherishes their time together but they haven’t discussed future plans. “It’s whatever it will be.”

Made with Hostile, the producer Flood and the xx’s Romy Madley-Crt among others, the album was intended to put her in unexpected contexts: although not miles from Savages, it is broader, spanning industrial noise, dissonant jazz and eerie balladry. The process was exciting, she says. “Dangerous, actually frightening as well, weirdly. I found some sharpness again, creatively, from putting myself on edge.”

Beth has never exactly taken the st option – she sobered up in 2013 in part to experience the unadulterated exposure playing live, and routinely intimidated journalists with her withering gaze and frank sex talk. Still, David Bowie’s death in 2016 reinvigorated her do-or-die mentality. “You spend a lot time in life saying: ‘I’ll do this one day, I’ll say to this person, I love you, I’ll …” She pauses: “Start crochet!” (Nobody in history has been less likely to start crochet.)

“It was a moment urgency,” she adds, “where I felt I needed to do instead saying: ‘I’ll do it some time.’ Whenever I can, I need to revisit that feeling.”

That also involved looking back. Hostile had moved to Paris (they have an open relationship; she enjoyed the space). When the opportunity arose to get a studio, she followed him, started therapy and the process reconciling herself with a past that she had rejected so successfully, she could now better express herself in English. “In your 20s, you search for who you are,” she says. “I felt I had done that – Savages being the loudest expression that – and it was time to not forget.”

In London, Beth had distanced herself from home, valuing the family she had found in music because she had chosen it: “I wanted to find who I was and not necessarily be only the product my upbringing.” She couldn’t do that, such as expressing her bisexuality, “if I have to still be my parents’ daughter”. Later, she understood that her artistic and private selves didn’t always have to match – as with the difficult personal circumstances this interview. “What you’re feeling is not necessarily what you’re representing – a performance aspect is part the job.”




Jehnny Beth  Savages: 'Sex is a wonderful way to test yourself'





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She credits Madley-Crt, a close friend, with encouraging her to reveal her fear and self-doubt on the album, qualities you might not expect a woman known for spitting “Don’t let the fuckers get you down” in hot pink stilettos. Beth says she experiences those anxieties like everybody else: “That you’re afraid you’re not up to the task.” She also shows a ster side. “It’s hard sometimes to show you really care,” she apologises to a lover on the ballad French Countryside.

With Savages, she sung about sex, but never intimacy. “I liked the contrast,” she says. “Four women with aggression in the music, that was something I felt I hadn’t seen before. Four women talking about care, that didn’t seem like something that was missing.” She sidelined stness “as an artistic decision”. It’s only recently that she discovered her nurturing side. “I can take care people who are suffering,” she says, heavily. “I didn’t know I could.”

If the album has a theme, says Beth, it is “the multiplicity and complexity being human”. She mentions raging single I’m the Man, where she embodies a hated figure: “There’s no bitch in town who doesn’t understand how hard my dick can be,” she sneers. She is disappointed to see it labelled a “gender song”; for her it was about how “we sometimes love people who have done things that we think are monstrous, but we can’t deny that we belong to the same humanity. We have to face the human truth that evil exists in the world”.

She won’t say what inspired the song, but it seems linked to a story in Crimes Against Love Manifesto, a book graphic sex writing (accompanied by Hostile’s photos) that she is publishing this summer. One story, The Millionaire, describes a disgraced man who undergoes ritual humiliation to edify people who want to witness “the version the world you believe in”. The song and the story seem clearly about a Weinstein type. “No,” Beth says categorically. No? “No!” She swears she hadn’t thought that, and sighs. “I don’t do activist art, OK? I don’t have anything to defend.” The book shouldn’t be read from “a social or moral” perspective, she insists. “That’s not what art is supposed to be. I wrote something that belongs to the land the imagination and to fantasy and I don’t think that’s political.”




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But stories about a paedophilic liaison and a man biting a woman’s neck during sex and eventually consuming her directly challenge social mores. That is implicitly political. “It’s true that I like to find humanity in monsters,” she says. “But also, fantasies are not real. There shouldn’t be any boundaries in that. What I’m interested in is the freedom the imagination about sexuality and the fact that behind closed doors, when you’re not hurting anybody, you can imagine and do whatever you want.

“I don’t think I should tell you this,” she says the cannibalism story, “but whatever. It’s the one that made me the most horny when I was writing it, which I didn’t expect. It’s so strange, the way we’re connected. That’s why I can’t judge myself for it: it’s exactly as if you were judging your dream.” Still, she knows the book might be too ripe for some: “De Sade was not read during his time, he was read the century after!”

While some critics dismissed Savages for being defiantly apolitical, their purpose – deeper self-understanding, uncompromising pleasure – is evident in the decisive Beth, who annihilated the Catholic guilt that taught her “that even a thought could be a sin”, never mind sexuality itself. For her, fantasies are creatively inspiring, sex a safe form exploration. “Even if you surrender control, you’re still in control,” she says. “You’re able to scare yourself but not be hurt.” The stage is similar. “You can scare the shit out yourself! But once you understand you’re absolutely safe, suddenly you can do anything – look at Iggy Pop. I see sex the same way – a wonderful way to test yourself. It is important because once you test yourself, you know yourself. You need that as a person and you need that as an artist.”

She takes the role seriously. While writing the album, a song called Heroism kept eluding her. Madley-Crt, then Flood, then Hostile, pushed her towards what she really wanted to say: “All I want is, all I need, is to be a heroine.” The title changed. “It took me all these people to realise that sometimes you look for role models everywhere,” she says. “Sometimes you have to think: I am the role model and I have to accept that.”

If the art that lasts “shows us our complexity and asks us, why do I desire that? Or why do I not want it?” says Beth, “I would like to be a mirror for that.” What happens at the end that questioning? “There isn’t one answer,” she says. “That’s why it’s so disturbing for people.” She returns to the book and the potential for it to be misunderstood as readers seek definitive explanations. “They don’t wanna stay in the space where living must occur. I wanna stay in the place where thinking must occur,” she says severely. “Fuck the closure. Fuck the full stop.”

To Love Is to Live is out on 8 May on 20L07.