Jehnny Beth on Playing Both Sides of the Artist-Media Divide
The Savages singer and solo artist reveals the connections between her experiments in music and adventures in broadcasting.
On the cover of her debut solo album, To Love Is to Live, Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth appears as a work of art—a nude statue, vulnerably exposed yet fiercely resolute. It’s a striking metaphor for the brittle electro ballads and industrial-punk salvos contained within, as Beth chips away at the forces of oppression that have weighed on her throughout her life, particularly regarding sexuality and religion, to arrive at the most impeccably sculpted version of herself.
But the truth is, the Jehnny Beth we hear now represents just one manifestation of her artistry. There’s the cinematic visionary who—along with long-time collaborator/romantic partner Johnny Hostile—oversees the provocative music videos that accompany her music. There’s the actor who’s appeared in a handful of French movies and the author who recently released her debut collection of erotic short stories, C.A.L.M.: Crimes Against Love Memories. And there’s the seasoned radio host who also launched her own Paris-based TV show, Echoes, where she talks shop with artists like Primal Scream, Portishead/Beak>’s Geoff Barrow, King Krule, and Nilüfer Yanya. As Beth explains to Spotify, these extracurricular pursuits are more than savvy ways to keep herself busy and extend her brand—they’re educational experiences that have helped broaden her musical perspective.
Spotify for Artists: It’s been a busy time for you, despite the pandemic. What were your expectations coming into this year?
Jehnny Beth: I had prepared for two to three years to release this book and this record, and tour with my own name. It's definitely not what I expected, but it's not like everything stopped. The record came out, the book came out, I started doing my TV show. The only thing we can't do is gather together, but we will do that as soon as we can. [The shutdown] actually gives a different perspective on the work. In indie rock music—if I can call it that horrible, horrid name!—there's always this idea that you have to tour as soon as a record is out, but, actually, that can happen at a different time. I don't think it's necessarily bad to spread things out. There's a lot of promotion we can do around the release of the record in the fall, if all goes well. It just makes things a little bit more in the long term.
No, I'm always doing different things, and I collaborate a lot with different people. One of my main collaborators is Johnny Hostile, and he's also the kind of artist who likes to pick up new mediums and try new things. I started writing the book because I was inspired by his photography. Certain things can happen because you meet people. I was asked if I wanted to do a music TV show, I was into the idea, I worked with people on the concept. I don't do anything alone, and I also never really stop, so they weren't really thought of as one piece of work. I just think of them as different outputs from the same person.
When you’re hosting Echoes, what do you get out of putting yourself in the role of the interviewer?
I much prefer being the interviewer than being interviewed! I always learn something, because you're having a conversation and you're sharing information and experiences. It's something I always do naturally in my life anyway. Like, if I meet different artists, I always want to have that conversation where I ask them about their work and how they made something I loved, or how they’re starting to think about something new—the process of things is something I'm very interested in. I also read books of interviews. The art of the interview is something I take seriously, I like to read them and think they deserve to be published in books, not just in magazines or websites. I've always idolized how Henry Rollins is able to switch jobs and still be Henry Rollins: an incredible writer and an incredible interviewer and TV host, a documentary presenter, singer in a punk band, stand-up comedian. Artists in 2020 are more prone to do different things. Even in the mainstream, we see artists who are diversifying—you see Rihanna starting to do fashion in a very serious way.
How has hosting your own shows affected your relationship with music?
It's changed my relationship to contemporary music. Especially the radio show—it's opened my ears and eyes to lots of different cultures and I feel connected to my time in a way I hadn't felt before. It's enabled me to feel connected to mainstream music like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé that I might never listen to otherwise. That made me really happy. You know, when I was 10 years old, I had my cassette tapes with Michael Jackson, but in my teenage years, it was all about indie rock and obscure music. It's cool to feel connected to something that's coming out now on a massive level. It's made me feel like I was 10 again!