AT AGE 12, Charlotte Gainsbourg recorded her first song—the notorious "Lemon Incest," with her father, the legendary French musical auteur Serge Gainsbourg. (And if you have never heard the deliberately provocative father-daughter duet, it is still as shocking today as it was in 1984.) But in spite of this early start to her musical career, and despite the three full-length albums she has recorded since then, Gainsbourg has almost no experience performing live in front of an audience.
"That's why it's so nerve-racking for me for the moment, 'cause I don't know what it'll be like," she says on the phone during a break from rehearsals for her upcoming North American tour—her first ever. "I've [performed] a few times in New York, but they were small shows in comparison to what we're about to do. It was a great experience, very exhilarating and wonderful, but I still feel that it's completely new. It's difficult."
Famous father aside (and mother, too: English actress/singer Jane Birkin), Gainsbourg may be best known in this country as an actress—last year, she starred in Lars von Trier's infamously dark Antichrist—but her 2006 album 5:55 topped the charts in her native France. That album was recorded with the help of Jarvis Cocker and the band Air.
"There were talks about going live then," she says, "but the fact that Air also released their own album very soon after mine, it meant that they were going on the road very soon and I couldn't imagine doing this album that we had done together without them. Also, I didn't think I was ready; it wasn't obvious for me. Maybe it's because my parents only performed after 20 years of career and it wasn't something that they had to do or needed to do in their time."
Gainsbourg's new album is called IRM, which is French for MRI, and it was written and produced by Beck. It's a wide-ranging but cohesive collection of pop songs, from the Kinks-y acoustic shuffle "Heaven Can Wait," to the futuristic ping-pong beat of "Greenwich Mean Time." Whereas 5:55 kept Gainsbourg at arm's length from the listener, cloaked in gauzy, dream-lounge trappings, she is remarkably, unflinchingly present on IRM. Its initially simple-sounding pop songs contain hidden depths: "Me and Jane Doe" sounds like a drowsy chant, but its bleary vista broadens with clicking xylophone, martial buzz-snare, and echoing voices in the background. "Dandelion," meanwhile, is a decidedly continental take on the blues, with Gainsbourg rarely raising her voice above a whisper while glistening, legato strings find common ground with the unpretentious cowboy-boot beat.
"The weird thing with music is that I feel like it's like overacting, which you try to avoid doing in films," she says. "You try to keep it down a little bit or you'll be over the top. But with music you have to push yourself and express yourself as much as you can, so I find it very, very different. But there's another big difference, between recording in a studio and then performing live. For me they have nothing to do with each other. The first one is very intimate in a studio, you're just with a sound engineer, there's a dialogue going on, and you're completely isolated. Onstage, of course, you're in front of an audience and it's easy to—how do you say, 'trip?'" (This is the only indication in the conversation that Gainsbourg's crisply accented English is anything less than perfectly fluent.) "No, take a trip out of a song, sort of a voyage and escape from where you are, but still you have to acknowledge the audience."
IRM's title refers to the medical procedures Gainsbourg underwent in 2007, when she had a near-fatal brain hemorrhage, and the title track actually makes use of the whirring, industrial sound of an MRI scan. "I found those sounds on the internet. There's a website where you can experience the MRI—I guess to be a little more relaxed about the idea of having to do one. I wanted to have those sounds in a song, and Beck liked the idea. We built the song starting from those sounds, mixing them with a beat. Those sounds were so disturbing and exhilarating at the same time, but there was a real dynamic."
That health scare hangs over IRM's fatalism and escapism, the two opposing qualities that make it such a successful record. But Gainsbourg says the album was not consciously devised to address that aspect of her life. "I didn't organize things around the experience. Nothing was calculated. There's no value on the trauma you have. But it's true that I think it does help to put it somewhere. It's a relief."