Lou Doillon grew up in the public eye as the daughter of English singer, actress, and fashion muse Jane Birkin and French film director Jacques Doillon. She starred in her first film before she was ten and has been the face of Givenchy, Chloé, and Maje. In 2012, Lou released her debut album “Places” — a confessional and refreshingly minimalistic album that went double platinum and earned her a Best Female Artist award at Les Victoires de la Musique. “Lay Low,” her much-anticipated sophomore album finds all the beauty in simplicity with Lou’s smokey vocals giving life to reflective lyrics laid over stripped down tracks. We had the chance to speak with the lovely Lou Doillon about her new album, writing processes, Patti Smith, and advice she has for up-and-coming artists.
Prior to recording your first album “Places,” you kept your music hidden between pages of your journals as a very private outlet. What lead you to decide to take the leap and put those songs out to the universe?
Well I guess that I’ve always loved doing music for me, and I’ve got lots of things that calm me down that are private to me, like, drawing or writing. The music, for a very long time, I was kind of doing for myself, then I started playing to my friends, mostly girlfriends who would be very supportive and very sweet, who would come by, and then they would bring their friends; so suddenly I had this strange gathering in my kitchen. Word came to a producer (Etienne Daho) who asked for a demo, and I laughed and told him I had no demo, that he could come in my kitchen if he wanted, and I could play him some songs, but that was about it. I had never recorded anything, and he managed to convince me on an idea that was actually very true — that writing or drawing you can do for yourself, which is the whole point, but music has something that is very pagan or tribal about it, where music is to be shared, and there was something arrogant or selfish to keep it to myself, especially when people around me were sending me signs that they were into it. I started recording, and then I got really freaked out, like, “How dare I record this with so many musicians who are real musicians that I love!” I was really lucky to have such a genuinely kind producer to convince me to have the guts to get it out. To be an artist is also to let go of your own projects, and allow them to be criticized and allow them to not work out. What’s gonna happen? You do an album and everyone hates it? Well, then you go back to your kitchen.
Once you decided to record, the reality that everyone was going to finally hear those songs wasn’t frightening for you?
Funny enough, not at all. I wonder what kind of planet I was on, but I think that the writing and the process of actually doing the song is where it’s painful, in a way. Once that’s done, going into the studio was the easier part for me. Which was funny because my producer, who has worked with so many artists, had worked with artists who had a really nasty time in the studio, where it goes on forever and it’s very complicated. I was so amazed that anyone would give me time in a studio to record that I was actually really happy, and I was lucky because he was such a good producer and he could have done techno versions of the songs, so I was lucky to have someone believing in the songs, and it was amazing. It only took ten days with four musicians, and it was done. I love how we used to do albums. The kind of old fashioned one week in the studio and that’s it because time can be an enemy and you start desiring perfection, which is a very dangerous thing.
Then that stripped down, minimalist vibe that your albums have was a very organic development?
Absolutely. That’s how my songs are structured. Thanks to all the experience I have from jobs that I’ve done prior, I know how to recognize what something is, and I don’t fantasize on changing that that much. Like I always use the example that you have some girls who are really beautiful with dirty hair and an old raggedy t-shirt, and when you put them in a prom dress with a big hairdo and a lot of makeup, you’ve completely lost the girl, and on the other side, you have girls that are the other way around — when the dress and makeup is there, the girl is a stunner, and you’re like, “Wow!” For everything you have to recognize what things are and my music doesn’t imply big production, and I don’t think it would actually match.
Did you feel pressure writing “Lay Low” after the success of “Places”?
The response to “Places” was insane, and I had prepared myself for people not to care. It was like a story out of a fairy book tale. I had a team who was paranoid enough for me. I released the song without people knowing too much about it being me. I knew people were more obsessed with the image than they might be with the music, so I wanted to get them to focus on the music. I was gold record before even having one radio in front of it. Radio started playing “Places” because people were requesting it. I did very light promotion. More often it was the press talking about the album, rather than me talking to the press. There was and there wasn’t as much pressure to follow up with “Lay Low” because I try to catch myself before things happen, and I knew the big mistake would be — which everyone kind of fantasizes even if they don’t realize it, even if it’s well-intended — but I could feel that everyone was waiting for “Places II,” in a way, and I knew that would be the biggest mistake. The only thing I could do was start all over again. I decided that I had to do an album that I would be proud of. I couldn’t do an album to please an audience, and I couldn’t do an album to please a record label or anyone around me, for that matter, and it was complicated because I went from something where people around me were very frightened — it didn’t sound like “Places,” it was darker and even more bare. At the same time, I thought I would rather do an album that I can — being dramatic — that I can die with, than do an album to please people, where on top of that it doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to work.
Your albums definitely create a sense of closeness because of that. They’re very reflective.
One thing I love about doing promotion is that you suddenly have to think about things you did without thinking — that were more instinct than cerebral. What I like is that I do believe that we’re a society that tends to fill things in, a bit like in a coloring book, where the music we listen to today has so much stuff going on. Movies the same, magazines the same, everything is kind of crammed with information and I like the idea that I do mirror music. There’s so much space, so much silence, in a way, and also, even in the way that I write, I try to keep it as open as possible. What I like is people telling me that after two or three songs, they’re suddenly facing themselves, and listening to their hearts, and their own relationships, and that would be my goal, actually — to do mirror music where people can see themselves and have enough space to work it out however they want to work it out, more than me forcing it upon them.
What about your writing process? Do you sit down with the intention of writing a song, or do they come to you more spontaneously?
Oh, it depends. Sometimes you’re kind of jamming at home, and there are chords and combinations that you’re into and you think of a sentence, and from thereon you start writing, or sometimes something is too strong in your personal life, and you’re just going to have to get it out one way or another. Sometimes I write the lyrics before the music, sometimes the music before the lyrics. It tends to move a lot. Lately I’ve had fun writing for the next album, and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but I’m writing in the name of someone else than me. I’ve discovered a writer that I didn’t know, and who wrote beautiful correspondence of a broken love relationship, and it was lovely to write for her, or in her name, which obviously, in fact, is myself, one way or another. You always put yourself where you wouldn’t expect it, and there it’s a fun exercise because I’ve been on tour for nearly a year, and I wanted to get back to the music without being spooked, like, when you’re in front of a white paper and you don’t know what to do. I thought, “Wait, let’s have fun, try to write songs in the name of that writer,” so lately that’s been the process, and I don’t know where it’s going to take me, but, yea, it changes often.
You recently posted a photo with Patti Smith and called her one of your heroes — how has Patti influenced you? Who are some of the other artists who inspire you?
I’ve met [Patti] often after seeing her perform, but that was the first time where I got to spend an hour with her, and it was a french newspaper that asked me to do an interview with her, and it was lovely to have the honor of being able to ask questions and try to relate. She was extremely kind and I think she was happy with our exchange, and a couple of days before I had been performing with John Cale, and it was funny to meet a generation where — I suddenly realized, that what changed in the recent years, I guess, music or movies or fashion have become so important that now everyone wants to be that and it’s kind of a real business plan and you can make a lot of money, and you can really make it by being an artist — whereas that generation, it was a real risk that they were taking. They came from families where it was terrifying for their parents that they would just decide that they would be artists and maybe could hardly feed themselves with the music they were doing, and it gives them a great freedom that they still have today. There’s something very refreshing, in fact, it’s funny, that you can feel that their careers kind of unraveled behind them, more than a career plan that they had, and I really relate to that, so it was extremely inspiring to be around that kind of energy.
I admire so many women from that era — Billie Holiday and Nina Simone — those women had their hearts out, they had their hearts pulsing on the table, it was just such a generosity to surrender all of their emotions. I’m just amazed by that, and different generations, you know — I love PJ Harvey, and Cat Power, Fiona Apple. I’m very impressed and moved by how generous those people have been to the world, what they’ve given us.
Is there anyone you would really love to collaborate with in the future?
It’s hard — because I love his energy so much, I would say Nick Cave. I love his performance, and his way of working. I really, really love him. But then there’s so many people that I love. I’m easy to be pleased.
Steve Miller said recently at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction that he encourages them to be more inclusive of women. Rock and Roll has often been referred to as a bit of boys’ club. Do you feel that changes need to be made in the industry regarding the treatment of female artists?
I think it’s not even with the industry, I think that’s in general, but at the same time, I find that in rock and roll, when women went for it, they would actually nearly put boys at shame, in a way, because they’re conscious of themselves and kind of into themselves, in a way where when you see Patti Smith perform or when you see Nina Hagen go for it, when you see Siouxsie and the Banshees. I mean they’re so strong, they go beyond the kind of attitude, I guess. Yes, that’s the thing — they’ve had maybe to fight so much more, that there is no attitude. It’s very genuine and pure, and that I love. I absolutely love it. I find that in the artist world there’s been more room for women than in other jobs on the planet, but at least we can kind of represent hope for the new generations to come that you can do it, and there’s nothing sexier than that. Each time I see a girl on the drums, or a girl on the bass, it drives the girls crazy and the guys crazy, so there’s something beautiful about the empowerment of it.
What would be your advice to musicians who are just starting out?
I would say to always do what feels right to you, to never compromise because the real friend you have to make is yourself, and it’s too important, it’s too precious, what comes out of you, to let other people have an opinion on it, or push you to do one thing or another. Also, it’s better to have many different plans and keep the passion for [music], than to try to make money and keep your passion. I find a way to make money elsewhere, so I can keep my relation to music as healthy as I can because it’s hard to work with your emotion, and if someone fucks up that relation between you and yourself, it’s really not worth it. I think the most important thing is to stick with your heart and stick with yourself, and do it because you love doing it.
Lou Doillon will begin her US run of dates in early May. “Lay Low“ is now available.
US Tour Dates:
May 5—Le Poisson Rouge—New York, NY
May 6—U Street Music Hall—Washington, DC
May 9—The Roxy—Los Angeles, CA
May 10—The Triple Door—Seattle, WA
May 11—Bimbo’s 365 Club—San Francisco, CA