Tea with Lou Doillon
story + photos / Maeghan Donohue
I arrived at The Café Standard and within the first few minutes of meeting Lou Doillon, I blurted out,“You do heartbreak reaaalllly well.” I had just spent my morning preparing for our meeting by listening to Doillon’s sophomore album Lay Low—the follow up to her 2013 award-winning debut Places. I was immediately a fan of Places when it was released—Doillon tackled what seemed to be overt loss and longing as well as nuanced understanding of relationship politics in songs like “ICU” and “Devil or Angel,” but her energetic delivery demonstrated resounding commitment to survival. Lay Low takes this one step further. Lay Low is braver. Doillon splays these themes of love, brokenness, and complex relationship dynamics across tracks in a sonically sparse and lyrically raw way. While there is still an air of resilience, these songs unfurl uncomfortable, painful, honest emotion without qualification.
Hence my somewhat ill-conceived outburst about how well she grapples with heartbreak. It was meant as a compliment; I listened to the album on repeat and after it finished for the fourth time realized that instead of taking notes for our meeting I was perseverating on my own personal heartache. If listening to an album can resonate so instantly and intimately with a listener that she is plucked from professionalism, loses a certain level of consciousness, and forgets what she’s doing entirely, then excuse the redundancy but – the artist does heartbreak reaalllly well.
Few artists expose this depth of vulnerability, least of all artists as public as Lou Doillon. A renaissance woman—actress-turned-model-turned-musician from an iconic lineage, in some ways the intimacy and profundity of her music seems contrary to what you’d expect of such a person. But as I further discovered when we sat down to talk sound, inspiration, and process before she embarks upon the U.S. leg of her Lay Low tour, Lou Doillon has no qualms about exposing herself and inviting her audience into what for most would be painfully private struggles. As it turns out, she is empowered by it.
Could you describe your sound and tell me a little bit about what inspires you?
Well I guess that I’ve always been inspired by by some form of honesty or some form of uh…I wouldn’t say fragility because I think that to put it on front is a form of strength… but for sure all of the singers that I’ve always listened to had put their hearts on the table one way or another, and I guess often the people who write their own songs because there’s something always biographical…and I guess that the voice is always ahead and then the music follows in a kind of storytelling way. When I was growing up it was Leonard Cohen or it was Nina Simone, it was women where there was something going on or men where there was something brutal about it I guess without any… they were never looking to please. So I guess when I started writing I must have been influenced by all of that and also you do with what you’ve got and I knew that I didn’t have the kind of wow voice or something of a performer in that sense, maybe what I had was the opportunity, with everything that I’ve lived, to be bluntly honest and not be frightened by that—and to be old enough to do so. Maybe if I had started music when I was 20 years old I would have tried to impress or I would have tried to please…
Maybe narrative wouldn’t be as strong?
Absolutely, absolutely. And it’s true that it came late for me and so yeah I guess it’s the kind of music—I always like to think that I do mirror music in the sense that I find that we live at such a pace today that everything is pretty much filled up like a coloring book, you know, like stories are filled up and the music is filled up and production is filled up and I like to back away from all of that and to leave a lot of space. To leave space in the sound but to leave space in the meaning also, and I like the idea that- often fans tell me and it makes me happy-that when they put on the album they pretty quickly have to confront themselves as themselves—that I kind of disappear in a way and that’s what I mean by mirror music.
It’s intensely intimate—and the new album is heart wrenching- if you’re going through any sort of *thing* in life which we always are on some level — especially heartbreak, this album packs a punch. You do heartbreak exceptionally well…
And it often has to do with relationships in general. It could be with family members, it could be with friends…it’s the bond, or it’s the breakup of that bond. And also it’s the process of, for me—of aging in the sense of suddenly recognizing your patterns and recognizing how when you lose that kind of age of innocence you realize that things start to echo in a terrifying way sometimes- and you think—it’s terrible! Are people replaceable to such an extent that in fact you’re actually seeking the same thing?
And you can find it! That *same* thing. Even if it’s totally to your detriment.
Exactly! So, even in a production sense I use that – I love accidents—I often start writing a song with a guitar, with a piano, and then when I start producing, people tend to color it up and I always have to say stop and take away layers…. it’s a combination of doing something together—and it’s like life— none of us have the same heartbeat and yet there are beautiful moments where we manage to mingle and find something in common. And some of the songs on the album we didn’t even do with a click we just played live with people around and I love accidents so I would keep the sound of a door opening because things happen for a purpose. There was one song that I was singing and my co-producer, Taylor Kirk, can be kind of a tough man and I started singing and he just walked out. And the sound – and he didn’t do it in a nasty way – but the studio door just whacked back and I just thought that was so wonderful because it described exactly what I was saying in the song. I thought, this is perfect and I kept the sound and for a month each time we did a mix of it in LA – and of course they cleaned the door and I was like where’s the door?! And they had to all find the tracks and I was like—I think it’s the first vocal tracks where we have the door and they were like— why do we need the door and I thought it’s going to be in our subconscious but it’s there at the first sentence it’s like [makes screeching door-opening/slamming sound]…It’s on the last song and the same with the first song—just piano and where there’s nothing going on and my editor was really funny because when he heard the songs he was like- you’re mad, you’re really really trying to go against the flow and against hits and against the radio. I was like no, I wouldn’t dare go against anything, it’s just this is what I do and I can’t corrupt it to try and please because it doesn’t suit me. You’ve got to know what you’re good at at one point and what you’re not good at and I know that it’s – it’s like some girls have this beauty that’s completely crooked and if you put them in a prom dress and you do their hair and do their makeup suddenly the beauty’s gone. And other girls it’s the other way around. Suddenly you primp them up and they’re the most gorgeous girl that you’ve ever seen and you didn’t know so you’ve got to know what your fragility is like and I know that yeah when we produced the songs my editor was like some songs there’s nothing on it, the first song of the album there’s one piano, a double take with- I think we did two takes of the piano- and at one point there’s a baritone and that’s it and he was laughing saying, I dare you to put this as the first song of an album because normally the trend is that people listen to the first three songs to buy an album so people tend to cram the-you know- the kind of up songs from the start and so when he heard that piano one for the first song he said you’re crazy and I said well, no, I think it’s got to do with asking for attention and straight away at least I’m honest saying this is what it’s going to be like—there’s nothing—you have to sit down and really make an effort to come toward the music and then we can kind of meet up. And I need the listener—I find it terrible sometimes music where you feel that they don’t need you.
In terms of creating an album—and I ask this—because I like to buy an album and listen to it as a monolithic piece of art—
So when you’re writing, are you thinking about that? Do you arrange deliberately to make a unified piece?
I wish I could, I always wanted to have the approach really like a storyteller to be able to have a start and a finish to a story… in fact I don’t. Songs come out and what’s fun is when I start realizing what song is saying pretty much the same thing with maybe less intensity and they’re like families and suddenly you realize you’ve got the kind of love/sad song and you’ve got maybe two or three of those and then you’ve got the kind of I’ll survive anyway songs and then once they are produced, what’s fun to see, again … some songs reveal themselves when produced, some completely lose what they had. Sometimes you have to be tough and go back to that—Weekender Baby for example I have four versions-was nearly full band – and no, it’s the voice and guitar one that has something, I don’t know what it’s got but it’s got a little thing where it couldn’t be boosted in fact and then once I got this family going funny enough you find yourself cutting papers and putting them on the ground and trying to see what’s the story and what’s going to be the order and for that album the order came on the first set up I did. It was that order and I couldn’t move out of it. Suddenly it made sense and you do it for nearly mystical reasons one way or another—you wouldn’t be able to explain it at first and that’s what’s lovely with promotion is that suddenly you find yourself having to analyze what you’ve done and sometimes you realize that in fact there is a logic behind it. Since you work with your subconscious it’s clearly saying something and I realize I had thought of it to begin with to be on a vinyl—to have A and B and in fact it’s funny how it starts with nearly nothing, built up, then it goes back down on Weekender Baby which is stripped again for the end of the A side, and B side starts with nearly nothing and then builds up and so in fact-in a way it describes what it is the process of recording an album. You’ve got songs that are nearly naked, suddenly clothes are back on back on, and then back down—and I like that—but it’s done not on purpose.
Getting back to inspiration– You mentioned Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen—what other bands and musicians past and present inspire you or have influenced you?
Fiona Apple for sure. Such a wonderful mixture of real violence and absolute beauty and something of her surrendering that moves me. Cat Power also very much—but it can be things that are very far away from me like Nina Hagen or Bjork or Siouxsie and the Banshees where I love it—I don’t know what I’ve taken from it. Natacha Atlas who does a kind of Arabic music and has the most amazing voice and French singers also- French singers who – I guess where I’m very French is that character is always more important –character in the voice- more important than perfection I guess. And I come from a culture that absolutely puts that on front so whether it’s [Georges] Brassens or um many different- more males on that side- but [Jacques] Brel – what a CRAZY voice and wonderful interpretation when he’s on stage and it’s just the most mesmerizing thing. Or [Alain] Bashung who I love very much with crazy poetry and crazy production. And so no it moves around but there’s also, yeah, kind of rock and roll people where you think—yeah, I wish—I wish I had that umm…
Yes! PJ Harvey, for example. I wish I were that kind of electric guitar lady for sure—her and Nick Cave were just like a dream come true and –but it’s true it makes me laugh when I see what I listen to on my iPod I’m like—It wouldn’t make much sense if people saw what I listen to and then what I do but I guess that’s the way it is. And you have to surrender to the fact that you do music that maybe you wouldn’t even listen to at this point.
What about artists/writers/thinkers outside of music that inspire or inform your work?
A LOT. I guess a lot of women because I think that growing up you’re always reassured to see them around. So obviously Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker who I adore who cracks me up. And that always is deeply behind the music that I do; I always thought I have the same humor that she has which is to call yourself on it. To see and to surrender to your own stupidity of the situation. I love that—I read her poetry out loud or even her short stories and just think it’s crazy to be that mad and it’s beautiful the way she turns it to derision to make it light and that I love. I never want to do—and I hope the songs are never too much on the emotional side—they go that way but it’s never kind of me weeping or being on the ground –you have to kick back.
As a listener it definitely seems there is a sense of hope to the devastation in your lyrics. There’s definitely devastation…
But it’s active…I’m not a victim in it.
Much like Dorothy Parker, actually, she could write about all of these devastating things…
But she’s empowered by the fact that she’s writing about it. Suddenly she’s in a process where—I used to on the first album, I had this guy who was kind of the inspiration and for me he was the guy who had knocked me down. And my first producer was like, no he’s your muse! And suddenly it turned the whole situation, and I was like—YES.
Like, “I have the power”!
Exactly! And it’s true so—so I’ve never felt that any of those women were passive—that they knew exactly what they were doing and they knew why they were getting drawn into situations because they were more interested—I mean it’s very selfish actually- but you’re more interested in what’s going on in your heart or what’s the process than the actual story that’s going on because you’re just, you know, pulling things to be able to come back home and craft whatever it is that you’re doing—stories, paintings. Lately there’s Anne Carson—the power!
OH! She is the BEST. You’ve made my day with that reference. Have you read Autobiography of Red?
BEAUTIFUL. The Beauty of the Husband is crazy—another one on her breakup where it’s the same thing—so strong and beautiful. There could be many influences but let’s stick to this girl pantheon of women where I look above to them and I’m like, help me out, please help me out…. I was doing an interview last week of Patti Smith and I was very honored and I was realizing that I’ve been reading a lot of biographies lately… I read a great biography on the band Television, um, her last book M Train…and ….what was wonderful was to see that at the time to become an artist whatever arts you were into it was a real risk and it was walking away from society in one way or another. It was taking the B road and you knew there was no plan that you could make because you were on a kind of mad adventure and what was going to happen was going to happen. All of those people whom I admire would have written, would have sung, would have painted whether they were famous or not— they just had to do it. Today what’s very complicated is that this artist industry has become the obsession of the planet so it’s now not only not the B road, but it’s a fucking highway—people want to do that to make money and to have a kind of ambition and result and I think that’s where it’s very complicated for everyone because that’s what kids want to do now whereas 40 years ago you were mad if you wanted to do that, you were a disappointment to your whole family.
Can you tell me a little about the new album and how you feel your writing and sound has evolved and what a fan of your first record would find different or surprising?
I think it’s like going on a quest and I’ve just gone further into the forest one way or another, I don’t think that I changed – I think it’s more of a precision of what I was doing on the first album and also the fact of now this is what I do 24 hours a day which was very different than the first album so for sure in the voice or in the attitude I’m maybe less scared than I was on the first album and maybe I allow myself to be more – I wouldn’t say rough—but maybe more unpolished. And I was able for the second album to produce it with Taylor Kirk, who I went to find in Canada, and do the artwork of the album and think it through so it’s a bit like my child. With the first one I was so lucky to have someone who helped me out and and helped me give birth one way or another like this wonderful…I was surrounded by love. Whereas the second one I was pretty much by myself to do it.
May 5—Le Poisson Rouge—New York, NY
May 6—U Street Music Hall—Washington, DC
May 9—The Roxy—Los Angeles, CA
May 10—The Triple Door—Seattle, WA
May 11—Bimbo’s 365 Club—San Francisco, CA