Musicians in lockdown: Cash Savage interviews Jehnny Beth
By: Archer Magazine
Jehnny Beth, the charismatic lead singer and co-writer of UK band Savages, recently launched her first album as a solo artist: To Love is To Live. In addition to the album, Jehnny Beth will also be releasing Crimes Against Love Memories (C.A.L.M.), her first book, featuring a collection of erotic short stories along with photography from Johnny Hostile.
We set up a conversation between Jehnny Beth and Melbourne musician Cash Savage, to discuss identity, creativity, and being a performer in lockdown.
We hope you enjoy the results.
Cash Savage (CS): Hello Jehnny Beth, how are you?
Jehnny Beth (JB): Hello, how are you? It’s morning here!
CS: It’s evening here, I’ve just opened a beer. Where are you in the world?
JB: I’m in Paris.
CS: It must be pretty strange to have a big release at this time, during a pandemic. How are you feeling about not necessarily being able to tour it?
JB: I feel pretty crap about it. Artists don’t like to be told to sit at home and wait patiently and do the same as everybody else is doing. It definitely plays against my rebellious side.
But I think I have to accept it and I also see the positives in all of it. It helps me and the crazy people around me in the team to think differently about how you release a record. Sometimes touring comes too soon, as well.
I would have loved to go on tour, I was ready to go. I was booked on all the festivals I wanted to play in Europe, and going on tour with Nine Inch Nails in America and Canada, all of that was very exciting.
Anyone who knows me knows I love live performance, and it’s a big part of who I am. But you know, we’ll plan something else next year. And right now, you know what? I”m just thinking the same as Michael Jordan when he loses a season with the Bulls. That last match when they lose, the next morning at 8am, he’s training for the next season.
I feel exactly the same way. I feel like I’m just training now for whenever I can go back. I’ll be ready.
CS: That’s good to hear. What can you tell me about the hyper-masculine character you play in I’m the Man? It seems like a very specific but also very broad character. How did that come about, and when did the song come to you?
JB: That was one of the first songs I wrote for this record. I went to the south of France after touring with Savages. I hadn’t had a holiday for years so I was writing, and I was just getting conscious about the way sometimes we, as artists, are expected to draw a line between good and evil, and pretend that we’re standing on the right side of things: we only have pure thoughts, and we only think of the best for humanity.
For me, I felt very uncomfortable in that position. I felt very flawed, especially at that point. I felt very fragmented, I felt I had a lot of contradictory thoughts.
I’d started therapy at that point, which I’m still doing now, and I think I was just trying to wear the mask of evil to absorb all my sins, and to absolve of them as well. And to go to an extreme so I can understand that side of myself: the violence that’s inside of me, the anger, all the things that exist, I needed to get them out, let them out and let them be.
And in a way, violence and anger and all that are still typically masculine traits. But I wanted to say, ‘I am the man that you say is evil. I am the same. I am that man too, and you are that man too, so don’t pretend that it’s someone else.’
That person lives inside of you, that person is also part of the same species as you. When you see an evil dolphin, you don’t say, ‘Oh that particular dolphin, he needs to cut it out.’ You say, ‘Dolphins can be violent.’
That’s what I was going through.
I find that an interesting topic, because I find that society doesn’t necessarily put aggression and femininity together. For women, it’s a putdown to be called aggressive or angry, but for men it’s this celebrated thing.
CS: Do you find that the way that you perform, people see you as aggressive? I get dismissed as being angry, and I find it infuriating when people say I look angry onstage. Is that something that happens to you as well?
JB: Oh yes, many times. Especially in Savages, where I was embracing this side of me. In photo shoots I was purposely frowning. I was channelling Johnny Rotten, who was always opening his eyes really wide like a mime in every photoshoot. My thing was to frown.
I wanted to frown because people were always asking me to smile. It became a game for me, especially in America when we were touring and loading the gear and guitars in hotel rooms, and Americans always come and talk to you, and they’re like ‘Hey! What’s the name of your band?!’ and you’re like ‘It’s Savages.’ And they’d be laughing in our face, and they’d say, ‘Well, you could smile a bit!’
Making this record was about showing sides of my personality that I wasn’t able to show in Savages. It was really good in that it was pure: there was one message and it wasn’t diluted, but that was also a real struggle, to keep that discipline into the band. No, you can’t wear colours on stage; all these things became a bit of a prison for everybody, I think. It didn’t mean that I wanted to break them, I felt they were what makes Savages for me a 10/10 band, I don’t see any flaws in that band and that was a group effort.
But when I met Romy Madley Croft of the XX, one of the first things she told me when she got to know me as a friend was: ‘Well, there are sides of your personality that I know now, that really nobody can see in Savages. And if you’re doing a personal record, I’d love that people could start to see those sides of you.’
And that was intriguing for me. I was like ‘Oh… danger!’ And in a way, being the frowning woman in heels, if you want to describe it really quickly, was a protection for me, like a barrier.
CS: Like a mask, or a costume.
JB: Yeah, exactly. And so I wanted to change the costume. So I needed to have a new shape. Find a new form, really.
CS: This album is obviously quite personal, and given this interview is for a gender, sex and identity magazine, I’d like to touch a little bit on themes of religion and sexuality. You’ve obviously got a lot to say about these two topics. What drew you to them? Why these parts?
JB: When I decided to make this record I had no idea that’s what I was going to do. I informed everybody, ‘I’m going to move to Paris, I’m going to do a record,’ but I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about, I just let it come.
The starting point was the flaws: the things that were living inside of me, in my head, that I felt ashamed about. So it was a disconnection with the rest of humanity, almost disgust, sometimes, with my peers. And obviously the conflicts with my Catholic education.
But I think the main subject of the record, if I have to be a bit more precise, I think I’m trying to say that what’s happening in your head doesn’t belong to anybody, and it shouldn’t be a place where society or religion should come and put some walls. You should try to break them down, because that’s the last place where you can be free.
If I’m a militant of anything, I’m a militant of that: of the liberation of thoughts; of fantasy. Catholicism teaches you that even a thought can be a sin. I’ve suffered a lot growing up, and feeling like there were certain things I shouldn’t think about. For example, the idea of monogamy and family, and all these conceptions of relationships and love and romanticism, which tell you that you cannot fantasise about someone else if you’re in love with someone.
All this guilt that brings, it’s so traumatic. When I was younger, I was tormented by anxiety, from those things that were happening to me in my mind, and I was told they were totally wrong.
So I think it’s more about trying to tell a human story, a story of humanity, trying to present humans as complex beings, and I wanted to make a record that is layered, that is contrasting, because that’s how I know life is. Life is full of contradictions, and also you can have a voice, it doesn’t mean that you have to be without reproach. Having a voice without being perfect.
That’s the problem today, especially with stardom, and even politicians: it’s the conflict that people can’t say their opinions, they have to be absolutely pure and clean and if they’re not clean, then we disregard what they have to say. And that’s an issue I’m struggling with.
CS: That sounds like a really beautiful place to come from. Dark, but a beautiful place. The message there is amazing. I was going to ask you about the title, To Love is To Live, but you’ve just summed that up really well.
JB: Haha. The idea of the record was also, it started from a dark place, but there are moments of light in the record. Like Heroine, or French Countryside, those are hopeful songs, and I think those are strong because they are close to those darker moments. And for me they stand out, because of that.
CS: Thank you so much for your time, and I can’t wait for you to tour this record. I’m a big fan.
JB: Thank you so much for your time and to your interest in the record.