Call her a loser and she’ll glow with pride. Lou Doillon is not just a blue-blooded musician but also a philosopher who embraces her inner schmuck.
Like fingernails dug into skin or a leaf fossilised in stone, French musician Lou Doillon can’t help but leave an imprint. It’s not because of her beauty, although she does have that – she’s from a family of muses; the daughter of sixties icon Jane Birkin, and half-sister of Charlotte Gainsbourg – instead it’s the spell of words that rush past those trademark Birkin family teeth that capture you, especially when she’s saying how her favourite kind of people are the absurd, pathetic, silly, and angry ones – those who she, with crushing affection, labels as losers. Does she count herself among them? “Well I think that I would prefer to,” she says. “We all do things that we think are so exceptional and then when we talk about them we realise that they’re exactly the same as other people, and I find in a society that’s sometimes dangerously fascinated by the elite, and by perfection, and by what’s flawless, I find that it’s very far from humanity and I would much rather focus on what makes me terribly human and to say out loud specific sides of humanity that are not always the beautiful sides – that we’re jealous, that we’re frightened, that what we don’t know scares us, that we tend to think about ourselves more than anything, that we tend to protect our children more than other people’s children, those sides – I find that if we talk about them and if we embrace them, then we can maybe move away from them and by accepting our shallow sides, which we all have, it makes us better people, it makes us stronger people, and maybe we get closer to heroes, in a way. But the basic definition of a hero is something that frightens me, to be different from other people. I love the idea of being the same as other people, I find it very, very important.”
A philosopher disguised as a musician, Doillon has a voice that’s deep and rich, making her feel like a classic artist from way back when even though she’s only been in the game for three years. Her father is French film director Jacques Doillon so it was fate that she first stepped into the limelight as an actor, making her film debut at the age of six and becoming a recognisable face in European cinema and theatre until 2002, when she gave birth to her son Marlowe at the age of 19. Doillon and her partner split within a year, leaving her as a single mother with her career in neutral. She made a return to film, and modelled for the likes of Givenchy and Lee Cooper, but for a long while she moved like a compass with no north, unable to escape the dizzying feeling that she was more than an actor or more than a model. It was only at the age of 30 that she finally plucked up enough valour to stop the arrow from swinging; she decided to share her music, despite her fear of being just another anointed celebrity daughter on her next leisurely whim, loathed by the French public. But when she released her debut album Places in 2012 she needn’t have braced so hard. It stunned critics, earning her the Victoire de la Musique for best female artist of the year. Her second album, Lay Low, has recently been released and is another blow to the old ticker, beautifully musing on love, memory and honest, all too human failures.
Her attraction to songwriting and philosophy makes absolute sense when you realise Doillon has spent more time with books than a spinster librarian. She loves literature, and in conversation references it often, always with passion and eloquence but never so preciously that she won’t blow her nose down the phone line while talking about Bertrand Russell. She’s incredibly reflective, an outsider born in the ‘in’ circle, and this January – steamy weather permitting – she’ll take to the stage in a tuxedo to sing her smoke-hazed songs to Australian audiences.
How did you feel starting work on a second album? The great distance between the first and the second album was that I had discovered [playing] live, and the pleasure I had taken being on tour, so there was for sure that aspect on the new record, where we can feel much more of the atmosphere of what’s going on in the studio itself, of wanting to keep something of the essence of how albums used to be made. I had learnt a lot on the recording of the first album, and for the second one it’s true that I knew better, so I could put myself in the process more and take more responsibility and therefore have more fears and more panic. This album, I really had to carry it – not by myself, I was working with Taylor Kirk of Timber Timbre who I adore, but he was more like a sidekick in a way and also he was in Canada so I was the one who had to confront myself with reality, with the label, with expectations of people around me, and it was a great experience.
What were you thinking about while you were writing it? It’s always kind of hard [to know] in the sense that it’s a long process; some of it was written at the end of the last tour, more was written when I was back home and kind of alone, and then more was written in the summer when I had rented a house and I was with loads of friends. I guess that it’s looking around and looking at my life and other people’s around me; I love to find recurrence and things that just loop, one way or another, on themselves, so I guess that I can always see how relations work between two people and that’s kind of slightly obsessive with me. There’s a French author who I love, Roland Dubillard, who writes dialogues between characters called One and Two and it’s always different relations but always the same idea of being One and Two and how that works out. So I guess that it’s true that it always revolves around that – we kind of hope sometimes that we’re more universal than that, or wider or taller than that, and we manage to get into relationships that have nothing to do with our life, our childhood, our panic, but I don’t think we do. I think that even our careers, politics, nearly everything has to do with how you see yourself, how you want people to see you, your panics, and we always come back to: how do you love yourself? How do you love other people? Are you scared? To what extent are you scared? And does love calm you down, one way or another? So those are always the subjects that tend to come back.
Are there certain times of the day or places where you
write better? Absolutely. I tend to like writing when it’s not too sacred, so there’s obviously the moments at night when you’re by yourself and a bit lonely and I guess hurt; night-time seems to be a moment that works, but otherwise I love to write in the kitchen when there are people around actually, there’s something – when it’s too respectful, what’s going on around me, I feel worried because suddenly I realise that I’m sitting down to write a song, which is never a feeling that I enjoy. More than anything, I love it when you’re cooking and kids are talking to you, or your friends, or that people don’t really care that much and suddenly like a little mouse you can quickly get a piece of paper and things coming out, and suddenly you take the guitar, no one seems to care, and when you manage to write in those situations often it sticks better than when you’re writing by yourself, and you kind of get all convinced you’re doing something really good and the next day you listen to it and you’re really disappointed.
What’s the most multitasking you’ve done while also writing? I guess it was cooking for ten people and writing a song and trying to teach kids mathematic problems in the summer – poor little things.
What’s your biggest fear on stage? Well, there’s a stupid thing that I think comes from my theatre years of being worried that I’m going to forget the dialogue, until I realise that I’ve written it and that, at worst, you know, I can say something else or start again. But there’s a kind of little school-girl panic of getting the lyrics wrong, especially when people like the songs and it’s already happened to me, to go to see gigs of people that I adore, know the song by heart and realise the singer is getting it wrong, which is always quite confusing for all the people in the audience, so I guess that’s the panic. And unexpected things; you wonder are you going to cough, are you going to faint, are you going to manage to pull through, is there a bug on your arm? All those kind of weird things, and that’s what’s beautiful with life, that it’s exceptional how worried we are and how we manage to actually do it every night. And also the big fear is to wonder to what extent you’ll be able to connect with the audience. Sometimes you’re too tired and you don’t feel it and in fact it’s there, and sometimes the audience is more shy than the one the night before so it takes you time and at first you’re a bit vexed and you wonder if people care or not, and it’s kind of scary.
What have you been drawing lately? As you can see by now, I’m the obsessive type, so it’s hands and legs and feet, it’s the limbs that I see, just because there’s something very relaxing in drawing for me, and something very hard in drawing hands and perspective and I always have myself under control, in a way, whereas other people tend to move and, you know, stay in the pose for five minutes and then get bored, which I completely understand, but I’m shy and I don’t want to tell people, “Could you please not move for 45 minutes?” My dog is a pest; each time I try to draw him he just kind of has the second sense where even if he’s passed out he will just suddenly move, so my legs and hands at least don’t move at all.
Is there a poetic attraction to limbs as well? Oh there is, it’s exactly like the music, I’m learning what to hold on to and what to let go, and I saw a beautiful documentary that broke my heart, seven or eight years ago, by a director called Agnès Varda a movie called Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse ( The Gleaners and I), and she just films her right hand for five minutes in the sun, and says [paraphrasing], “That hand that’s lived with me for so long,” because she’s in her eighties at this point, and saying, “We’ve kissed together and we’ve held lovers and we grew up together and we buried lovers,” and you’re destroyed to think that yes, this is going to be our little testimony, our hands. It’s a very strange thing, everything that we do with our hands, so I’m very moved by hands or even other people’s hands – my son’s hands, and the idea of everything that we’re going to go through. And that’s the last thing that we hold onto; all the people who have died around me, it’s the hand that suddenly lets go and it’s over.
What was a tough time in your life that you’re now glad happened? Love’s disappointments, I guess. Because they’re, strangely enough, the ones that strip you of
everything. I mean, I’ve had very tough moments, like everyone, of people you love who die or accidents or spooky things, but they don’t strip you – they take you out of life, but they don’t take you out of yourself. It’s love’s disappointments that tend to – you lose all of your value; it’s not only about pain it’s about being worthless and it’s true that I had a terrible love story with someone who was really, really devilish and who stripped me bare of everything and god I lost a lot of time climbing back up, but today, everything that I do is linked to that so I’m very happy. I went from giddy-eyed and ‘I love life’ to suddenly, at 26, life just kind of stops and it takes until you’re 30 for you to literally have your chin back up. It took everything away from my little world, but maybe my little world wasn’t worth much. Suddenly it all went down the drain and I had to re-create and rebuild, and today I sit on those foundations and I’m very happy.
What pulls you out of a bad state of mind? It tends to be Alan Watts on YouTube, just being extremely calm and his laugh and his way of talking about the world and all those kind of very mellow ideas from the ’60s and ’70s and so he really, really grounds me, and often wise people do. There’s Bertrand Russell also, who I love. His books just ground me. And otherwise there is humour. So, Dorothy Parker is my favourite poet and she cracks me up, and to have her book in my pocket is always a form of saviour because at least I’m not alone; there are two of us, and maybe even more. But that’s a great relief.
What was a really good experience in your life that you’re
glad happened? It was a tough road, but my son, who I had when I wasn’t prepared and wasn’t expecting any of it, and I was a child, I was 19, so today to have this teenager around is – we love each other so much and I think it gave him a lot of tolerance to have such a young mum who learnt every step with him, and I learnt how to become a better human being and a better woman with him by my side, and I found the job that makes me happy [music] when he was ten years old; it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
What makes you laugh? Pathetic sides of life. I love honesty and I love how pathetic we can be, there’s something very reassuring in that for me. I adore the people who kind of spot themselves in the moments when you realise how low we can go. I adore it in literature, I adore it in comedy, I love it – that side is what makes me laugh. I tend to be quite neutral to grandeur and heroes and perfection, it kind of freaks me out but little, tiny things and petty people really crack me up. In literature I find it a lot, in all those kind of beautiful losers, there is something… like Saul Bellow really makes me laugh or sometimes Dostoyevsky can make me laugh, or Bukowski cracks me up. John Fante, the same. You follow those loony losers. There’s a great book called
Hunger, which is technically one of the first loser books written, by a guy called Knut Hamsun at the end of the last century and you cry of laughter; the guy has nothing, has no money and he manages to get two coins to get some food and of course his arrogance takes over and he walks by a beggar who’s got more dignity than him, because at this point he’s a beggar himself, and he throws the coins in the beggar’s face and just this guy, you think, ‘You fucking asshole,’ it’s just insane and it’s the pride that comes back up and that I love. Movements of pride really make me laugh.
What’s your favourite way to relax? I love the physical side of doing yoga. It used to be reading Sherlock Holmes, but because I read it to such an extent that I know every single one by heart, it kind of gets worse and worse every year, so now it would be watching Columbo which would get me to sleep and chill out, because I guess with murder stories, one way or another, I know that there’s going to be a resolution at the end, that someone is going to find out who did what, and that really calms me down [laughs].
Who would you love to see in the audience at one of your
shows? I’ve got a great passion for your artist Courtney Barnett who really, really cracks me up – and they’re the same [Barnett and the above writers] – her lyrics crack me up, and her way of putting it down and the situations and its design, it’s everything I love about writing and doing music and being honest and being a beautiful soul.
You’re a style icon to many people, but are there any
fashion phases you’d rather forget? Oh, none. I guess apart from when I was 13 trying to please and suddenly having a kind of ‘no look’ of being trendy, I guess the 13 to 14 trendy year is not the most interesting, but all the other ones I’m fine with.
What’s your most prized possession? My diaries. Those I’ve kept since I was 13 and I’ve got a suitcase with them inside in case anything happens, that I can run with my son under one arm, the dog, and the suitcase of diaries.
What’s your biggest gripe about the music industry? I guess the idea that people tend to listen to albums less and less in the sense of the order of it – that’s why I love vinyls, because you really had the time to get into an album, from start to finish, and I’m not very into iTunes in the sense of just buying tracks, that’s quite confusing to me. I tend to want to do an album as a story and for it to have a start and finish, kind of. Lou Doillon is playing So Frenchy So Chic 2016 in Melbourne and Sydney, plus shows in Perth and Brisbane in January.