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Mind Games

After surviving a freak accident, Charlotte Gainsbourg rebounds with an award at Cannes and a sultry new album with Beck.

Author K. Leander Williams Photography Courtesy of Paul Jasmin

Image – Courtesy of Paul Jasmin

SITTING IN HER SUN-FILLED LOFT in Paris, willowy, dark-eyed, 38-year-old Charlotte Gainsbourg is happy to have a little quiet time. It’s been a hard year. “I would even say a traumatic one,” she says in her dusky French accent, recalling the brain injury she suffered while waterskiing. Even the award she won at the Cannes International Film Festival (for her role in the latest film by Danish provocateur Lars von Trier) was hard-earned. Making the film was a painful experience. “It’s good to have it behind me,” she says.

Gainsbourg expresses her pain clearly on the title track of IRM, her new album. The song’s shadowy rhythms swirl and ping-pong beneath Gainsbourg’s voice in a techno-pop simulation of the sound of an MRI (the English translation of IRM). “Analyze EKG,” she sings. “Can you see a memory?” The album was written and produced by Beck, and the haunting track is a direct reference to Gainsbourg’s own MRI and subsequent brain surgery.

IRM actually ended up having two meanings,” says Gainsbourg, the daughter of English actress-singer Jane Birkin and her musical Svengali, the iconic crooner Serge Gainsbourg. “Obviously, the accident frames the initial meaning. But then as we completed the record, it seemed to me that both experiences were about putting yourself in someone else’s hands, allowing them to look inside you. I hadn’t really written songs before, so once Beck and I decided to work together, I let him take the reins. It was fascinating to watch him in the studio, building tracks from the ground up—one rhythm and instrument after another.”

The time she spent in L.A. helped her get acquainted with American culture. “Beck’s lyrics contain images from the blues and other American references that I was unfamiliar with at first,” she says.

To start the new decade, Gainsbourg is confronting one of her biggest fears: She’s going on tour. “Frankly, it horrifies me,” she says with a smoky laugh. “The extent of my performing experience so far is doing two songs during one of Air’s concerts,” she adds, referring to the French lounge act. “I was scared to death, but it made me wonder why I didn’t start doing this at eighteen.”

Brooklyn writer K. LEANDER WILLIAMS was never a fan of waterskiing.

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