As stepdaughter to Serge Gainsbourg, daughter of Jane Birkin and French film director Jacques Doillon, and half-sister to Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lou Doillon is French cultural (and tabloid) royalty. Lou, herself, has worked as a model and actress for years; though, it was only recently that she hit the recording studio. While she'd been courted to record an album since her school days ("It was this stupid 'It Girl' effect, or whatever"), she delayed her music career until it felt perfectly right to
make an album.
Now, everything has changed. Last year, Doillon released Places, which became an immediate sensation in her home country. Rather than exploit her pop potential, Doillon became a singer-songwriter in the classic sense. The album, filled with bone-dry Americana (and sung in English), was nothing like what the press had imagined. As it turns out, though, confounding expectations was the right decision. The album turned her into an even larger sensation that culminated in her winning Best Female Performer at last year's Les Victoires de la Musique — equivalent to the French Grammys. Still, Doillon's musical journey isn't over. While she plays to thousands in Europe, Places just came out on American shores on June 18. We talked to her about winning over audiences once again, her compulsive shopping habits, and the wonderfully unlikely piece of clothing given to her by her sister.
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Photographed by Sunny Shokrae
What's it like going from France, where you play huge shows, to the States, where people are still learning about your music?
“It’s lovely, but that’s why I love those jobs. It's this strange thing that keeps on starting again; I keep having to start again from square one. In a way, it’s wonderful because it kicks in the humility. You’ve got this weird thing one night, but then you’re going back to play a huge gig in Paris. It's like trying to balance while doing the splits. It’s fun, it’s genius, and I’m super happy. It’s great to meet people who’ve bought the album because it’s strange to think what others will think about somewhere else. I do believe we’re all pretty much the same in how we feel about relations, love, and sorrow, but you never know — it’s exciting.”
Lou keeps things simple with an Ann Demeulemeester top, Isabel Marant skirt.
Your album has a bluesy, very American feel to it. Was it startling for a Parisian audience to hear a French artist experimenting with Americana?
“There’s this strange thing in America where it’s about the feeling, whereas in England, it’s more about an attitude. In a modern world that’s been sort of eaten up by attitude all over the bloody place, there’s something I’ve come to enjoy about America; it’s about the music whether you like it or you don’t. It’s true the majority of the musicians I listen to are American. Of course, I’m a Leonard Cohen fan, of course, I’m a Bob Dylan fan. I love people who tell me stories like Woody Guthrie or Arlo Guthrie — that’s the kind of music I love. I even like some stranger stuff like Bobbie Gentry. People always look at me startled like, ‘Why the hell is she listening to this?’ The reason is that I need to hear stories, and I need to hear truth. It’s a bit peculiar for them in France, but the French have always had an interesting taste knowing that they can’t understand a word of English and have been fans of Leonard Cohen for 40 years. They do have a relationship to American music, so I guess that’s why they liked it.”
Novelty spectacles from Love, Adorned and a fabric-covered journal.
What was playing in your house when you were growing up?
“Strange music my father would listen to. My mother didn’t listen to music. My father would listen to very, very odd things like Siouxsie And The Banshees, the Clash, and Nirvana: Unplugged — funny enough, I discovered them from my father. Leonard Cohen would play all the time. And Nina Simone, Patti Smith, and a French guy called Arno, who’s actually Belgian but he does wonderful, wonderful things.”
Is it easy to get up on stage and perform, considering your background in modeling and acting?
“I would say it comes from the same place, and at the same time, it’s completely different. For an actor or a model, the point of interest is not you, it’s the character or whatever you’re wearing, or whatever you have to do. The point is to be hiding behind something. I’ve mainly done independent movies and worked with my father who’s a tough director who believes that an actor shouldn’t be adding layers in an actor’s studio kind of way, but actually doing quite the contrary — removing layers.
That’s why we go see people on stage because we see people do things we’re scared of doing, which is being absolutely themselves, and not scared of judgment. What’s beautiful, and what’s exciting about theater — especially conceptual theater (I’ve been doing plays and weird things) — you’re very scared because you’ve got a tedious responsibility, but the audience is scared also.
What’s lovely about music is that suddenly you’ve got a free audience that’s wasted, snogging, listening, or not listening, and you’ve got to fight to get their attention. There’s a mixture of all that. You’ve got to get into character. You’ve got a heart that’s jumping out your body five minutes before [a show], but it’s the opposite. You’re making yourself absolutely bare and letting the audience think whatever they want.”
Considering your family history, did you feel pressure to make your album sound a certain way?
“Well, that’s why I didn’t want to record. In fact, I went through two years of having my producer trying to convince me to record because A.) I can’t stand the majority of the actresses who start making albums and B.) We live in a fucked up world where the majority of my friends are talented, and can’t record an album when I’ve been asked since I was 15 to make one not even doing music. I was absolutely opposed to it. I didn’t want to take anyone’s place, and the French are highly cynical on top of all that.
The press has been very hard with me since I was 15. I knew I was going to get beaten up — they’re all waiting for me to sing. It was funny for my label trying to get press, and I said they didn’t have to call anyone because they’re all going to be there. Our only work was trying to bring the music somewhere else so you’re not consumed with the image.
That’s where I came up with the jacket for I.C.U. where it’s blurry, and you only saw the back of me. I did no press at all, only musical press — none of the Western press like Elle, Vogue. I wanted to see if people were able to listen, and if they hate me then never mind. We did it all discretely. We recorded in the studio for 10 days on my street with French musicians. We recorded it live. I didn’t want any hype, no star guitarists. What’s complicated with those jobs is to be aware that a really, really massive amount of people are going to have fake good ideas. They don’t know at the time, but they thought I should record in California. I was happy to keep it tight all the time. It was just about the music. Then I was lucky people heard the music and forgot I was the sister of, daughter of so-and-so. Maybe English helped because I’ve got this voice that’s so different from my mother and sister.”
Saint Laurent leathuh on leathuh.
Do you feel a sense of vindication now that people have responded to the music this way?
“It’s lovely. It’s lovely to think people feel less lonely because of it. I’ve always thought I was a little odd, and it’s lovely to meet a gang of people who have wandered in the same way. You feel comforted. In a way, music is a strange thing. When I write a song, even I am the one confused. It’s not really about us, it’s about channeling something people can relate to in a strange way.”
How amazing is that pink bunny hoodie? Lou's sister got it for her in Japan.
Okay, you have to tell us a little bit about the bunny outfit that you're wearing. It's amazing.
“My sister bought it for me for Christmas in Japan. She bought a white one with little ears, a bear one for Charlotte since she would never wear a bunny, a brown one for her with the ears of a cat that she wears only at home, and of course she got me the pink bunny one.”
If you’re on tour and you want to go shopping, where do you go?
“I’m very compulsive, so I’ll stop at any place that just glows in a certain way for god knows what reason. I hate trying things on, so I go very, very quickly. My friends think I’m completely mad, but I can’t stay in a store for more than five minutes. I’m a huge shopper, though! I love doing it by myself, too, because people want to try things on and are insecure about it. I know exactly what I want when I want it. Sometimes it’s really weird, odd things. Sometimes I’ll go in and get a pink kimono and not try it on. If it doesn’t fit, I give it to someone — never mind! It needs to be done with energy. I never check places out before. I land in places, which is hell because I never write anything down and I can’t remember!”
When you get up in the morning and you want to just throw something on, what’s your go-to outfit?
“I used to have this thing of always judging my character by countering it with something. It’s coming back now, but if I felt too manly I’d throw a dress on. When I feel too giddy and stupid, I’ll throw a tuxedo on. I always love the opposition. But since September, the album has become such a success in France it's become a joke. I can't do five meters without everyone stopping me. So, for the first time in my life, when I've always put loads of clothes on for people to notice me, I was like, 'Shit, how can I be incognito?' Lately, I’ve been really boring wearing jeans and a men’s shirt or a girl’s shirt and boots, but now I’m starting to have fun a bit more.”
What was your last compulsive purchase?
“Yeah, yesterday or the day before! I got these glasses from Love, Adorned. You see the world in a mad, mad way. Except I was wearing them in the sun, and someone was like 'You're going to burn your retina!' But it's genius. They're super heavy.”
Hitting all the right notes with a vintage blouse and Acne jeans.
You just played a show at Le Baron in NYC. How did it go?
“It was lovely! I was surprised that I was able to get people's attention. It’s always tough playing an acoustic show in a nightclub — you want to go electric for those kind of evenings, so I was fighting against the electrified crowd, but it actually went really well.”
Lou's simple watch is from Cartier.
What's coming up for you the rest of the year?
“I’m going back to tour in France all of July, and then I’ll be working on a movie in September. Come November is the U.S. tour. We’re going to do a couple of dates in October and then Canada. Then the album will be coming out in Australia and Japan in January. I’ll be recording the second one somewhere between all of that, and I guess we’ll just see where life takes me.”
Saint Laurent boots.