A couple of months ago I interviewed the very lovely Lou Doillon (aka we met at a café and talked for two hours, mostly of our love of Leonard Cohen). The interview is featured in this summer's issue of Wonderland Magazine. I thought you might like to read it...
Sipping a café crème in her camel hair coat, maroon fedora and unruly bangs, Lou Doillon looks like the epitome of contemporary French chic. But as soon as she starts talking - in perfect English, “bien sûr” - it becomes clear that the singer is hardly the typical Gallic girl. “I feel very English whenever I’m in France, and vice-versa. At home in Paris I constantly bake pies and we only eat British food; I think that comes as a bit of a shock to my mother, who took up French nationality in the sixties and knows the Marseillaise by heart.”
The 30 year-old daughter of Jane Birkin and filmmaker Jacques Doillon was born in Paris, yet grew up listening almost exclusively to American music: “I used to sit at the back of the car on trips and listen to the tapes my father played. That’s how I discovered Nina Simone, Patti Smith and, of course, Bob Dylan. I remember the day I first heard him, I was amazed at the wittiness of his lyrics.” All of these artists have unconsciously influenced the eleven melancholy ballads that compose Places - Doillon’s first album. However, the singer/ actress/ model had only one inspiration in mind while writing her songs. “Unlike Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen had a real influence on my album. Dylan might be the best songwriter, but he is never kind. Cohen on the other hand is, as the French would say, 'bienveillant'. His lyrics are rather raw, but there is never any viciousness or reproach in them. As I was writing, I tried to remain as graceful as him… Although my songs speak about heartbreak, I ended up taking all the anger away from them, and thanking past lovers for the pain and the lessons they taught me.”
A rather unusual point of view, considering today’s musical landscape. But then again, Doillon's upbringing and family are hardly conventional. Her parents separated when she was nine years old, and she spent most of the time with her mother. Doillon's close family also included Serge Gainsbourg and Charlotte, Jane Birkin's daughter by the legendary French singer. “My family had different and sometimes difficult relationships, but they had a rare kind of honesty about them. I had my father of course, but Serge was also very present in my life; none of them were ever scared of using their relationships to make their art. They didn’t believe in a simplistic interpretation of love where if you are in a couple you are happy and if you are loveless you are sad. Things are so much more complicated than that and feelings shift constantly.I think the French are able to understand and accept that better than other people.” Has that shaped her music? “A sense of vulnerability in love did, yes.”
Uncertainty, frustration and longing fill her lyrics, which are perfectly complemented in the blue notes of an accompanying piano and the hints of a western guitar. Her low-pitched voice, far removed from Jane Birkin’s fragile soprano tones, vibrates with despair. “I’m not a 20 year-old girl anymore. I’ve screamed, cried, laughed, smoked and drank a lot in my life. I guess my voice reveals those extremes. Etienne Daho, my producer, once told me it reminded him of Karen Dalton, the American folk singer. I have been listening to her a lot since.”
Daho - one of France’s most respected singers and music producers, who has worked with the likes of Françoise Hardy, Air and Vanessa Paradis - was the first person to hear Doillon’s songs. Under his wing, Places received critical acclaim upon its release. It was also an unexpected commercial success, selling more than 200.000 copies. But the singer remains somewhat puzzled: “I’m a newcomer. So far I’ve only sang 10 gigs, and when I listen to the album I still can’t believe those are my songs. Maybe that’s because I work very fast. The writing process takes over me when I’m in a dark place. I never really look for writing because as soon as I do I can be sure nothing will come out.”
Music is simply the latest of Doillon's creative outlets (she's also worked as an artist, designer, model and actress), but it's definitely her favourite. “It allows me not only to reveal myself in all my vulnerability and brokenness, but also to understand myself better. Songwriting is a very unconscious process, sometimes I don’t know where what I’m writing is coming from. Etienne says it takes three or four years to understand your own songs; it is probably true. We’ll see!” However, her plans still involve all kinds of different projects. “The need of expression is so powerful... Why explore it in just one way? I think more than caring about getting really perfect at one thing we should aim at being curious and exceptional and simply enjoy ourselves. After all... we only live once.”