Lou Doillon Loses Love and Finds Her Voice



The epithets most frequently ascribed to model and actress Lou Doillon are at once envious and dismissive: It-girl, fashionista, reformed wild child, the daughter of that Hermès bag, the sister of Charlotte Gainsbourg. By default of her famous family and her Parisian gritty-chic style, Lou Doillon has been famous for all of her adult life, something she’s not entirely sure she deserves. “There’s something strange of being that famous in France with people not really knowing why you’re famous,” she tells us. “Everyone knows you, but they don’t really know why they know you.” This, however, is about to change. After several years of cautiously dipping her toes into the music world, Lou Doillon is releasing her first EP, I.C.U., this autumn. This new métier suits Doillon—I.C.U. is a wonderfully husky, post-Rolling-Stones-Marianne-Faithfull, four-song record. You wonder why she waited so long to release it, and then you remember the skepticism aroused by most models and actresses turned multi-hyphenates.

Interview connected with Doillon in Paris to discuss musical fears, unrequited love, bilingualism, and traveling across the United States in a Winnebago with only a Bruce Springsteen tape and your mother for company.

EMMA BROWN:  Hi Lou. I know you’ve been writing music for a while, but is this the first EP that you’ve released?

LOU DOILLON:  Yes, absolutely. I worked with a man called Christopher Brenner, an American friend of mine, a wonderful pianist. We had done a bit of music in New York and there was a song that came out a long time ago where I had just written the lyrics. Then I got a bit frightened by the whole business [side of music]; I wanted to keep [my music] far from everything that had to do with an industry because it was a real pleasure [playing] my guitar at home everyday. I never thought that I would bring it out.

BROWN: What made you change your mind?

DOILLON: A man called Etienne Daho, who is a very well respected pop singer in France, discovered my music [through] my mother, who wanted me to record. I compared [myself] too much—you’re a daughter of, and a sister of, and an it-girl—all of those horrible terms and I thought, I really could do without doing an album. He was quite wonderful and said, “Well, if you weren’t a daughter of, sister of, and you did music and you had that voice, you would be recording an album anyway, so why are you twisting things the other way around?” He very softly managed to convince me, and for a year and a half I went to go see every label in France. To my great surprise, I had many propositions, and suddenly the whole thing started taking a real shape.

BROWN: Your family is also very involved in fashion and film; why do you think that you were afraid to go into music when you weren’t afraid to go into acting or modeling?

DOILLON: With fashion, my mother was an icon, but she never lived it in the sense that she was never obsessed with fashion. When I was a young girl, my sister wasn’t doing fashion, so I started fashion thinking, “I’m going to do something that they haven’t done yet.” That was my silly scheme at the time. With movies, I was always very attracted [to the film industry], because my father’s a director and I wanted to work with him desperately when I was a teenager. Funnily enough, I should think that what I love doing the most, what’s the most personal and looks the most like me, is music. There’s a real risk with music; as an actress, you can always hide behind the fact that you didn’t write the script or the dialogue, or that the director wasn’t that good—you hide yourself behind a character, even if you use all of your own feelings to fill in that character. With music, I was very scared; between writing the lyrics, writing the music, and singing it, you can’t really hide behind anyone. [The lyrics are] so bluntly honest, most of the time; there’s something very strange; it’s like taking your trousers down and showing your bum to everyone—”What do you think?” There’s something slightly disturbing about how intimate the music is. [But], after 16 years of being on promotion for films that involve other people, and for fashion, it’s actually quite fulfilling to fight for my own project for the first time in my life.

BROWN: Do you see your music as something that’s purely personal, or something bigger than that?

DOILLON: I don’t know how people will perceive it, but there’s a wonderful French actor called Michel Piccoli, who told my mother once—and I thought it was the most beautiful sentence—”What is the most intimate is actually the most universal.” The more you’re writing absolutely honestly, and absolutely bare of intention—even if it feels absolutely personal and small because it’s at your own scale—other people [relate] to it much more. With “I.C.U.,” for example, people are moved by that song imagining whatever they want to imagine on it.  I wrote that because I was desperately in love with someone that I hadn’t seen and that I never saw again in my life. I wandered for months in the street looking for him, [and] I’ve had friends of mine and people in the street stopping me saying they cried so much because it made them think of their dead mother or their first lover, I even had someone tell me they thought about their dog. [laughs] At one point you [realize], “Actually, they’re right. I’m really talking about grief and about missing,” even though I think that I’m being so precise in the fact that I’m missing my man, it’s just about missing in general.

That’s why I always find there’s a bigger strength in music and literature than in movies, because of that terrible thing of having an image and music and having to be very precise about something. When I read a book, if I read a whole page of description on a young girl, and you read the same description, we wouldn’t picture the same girl. There’s a kind of mysterious zone for you to invent whatever you want to invent with music, I find, and with literature.

BROWN: Does the person with whom you were in love know that “I.C.U.” is about him?

DOILLON: [pause] I don’t know. [laughs]  I don’t know. I still haven’t run into him, which is very awkward. I hope he knows it’s for him.

BROWN: Maybe it will reunite you! All of the songs on your EP are in English; do you ever write songs in French?

DOILLON: I have a strange relation[ship] with French and English. My mother always spoke to me in English, so it’s technically my maternal language, and it became a kind of private language—I was happy that I could speak in English to my mum and the majority of people wouldn’t understand it. When I started writing my diary when I was 11, I started writing it in English in case someone would find it in the metro, I didn’t want them to understand it. Then when I had my son, I started raising him in English for pretty much the same reasons. English for me has always been a very personal language, all [of] my intimate world has always been in English, most of the men with whom I have lived were English or American, and all my friends are English or American or Anglophones, as we call them in French. I must’ve written 80 songs, and none of them ever came out in French. Also, I think that, because French is so complicated, you have to be so skillful to mess around with it; there’s something quite terrible where you start becoming a bit of a snob about it because you’ve got a dictionary of rhyme, and you say, “Ooh, I’m gonna be really smart, and I’m gonna take that from Rimbaud and that from Verlaine, and do a mixture.” The whole process of music for me is something absolutely honest and really naked and bare, so I never forced myself to write in French.

BROWN: Do you dream in English?

DOILLON: I dream in English, which is strange, because when I was a little girl, I wasn’t that good at English. So I should think that all my imagination world is in English.

BROWN: And I hear that you paint as well. Is that more of a hobby or is that something that you plan on pursuing seriously?

DOILLON: Well, I absolutely need it, like the music, to be able to go through the day. I’m a very compulsive person, so I spend most of my time drawing or writing my diary, patching things up and carving bits of wood—I’ve carved two of my guitars. But you know, in France, we’re very stubborn, and people don’t like it when you do two jobs, [and] I’m doing four jobs. When I started music I said, “That’s it, I’m just gonna be nailed to the wall.” So when a friend of mine said, “Come and do an exhibit,” I explained to her, “I think I’m gonna stop for now, because people would burn me at the stake.” [laughs] So for the moment, I’m keeping it for myself, but it’s true that I wouldn’t be able to survive without drawing. That’s for sure.

BROWN: Do you remember the first CD or cassette tape that you ever bought?

DOILLON: I remember a time when we only had one tape.  We went around America with my mum, who had the kind of corny idea—and quite funny—to take a tape of Bruce Springsteen [with us]. I think we did two months and a half, in a Winnebago, listening day in and day out, all his music. [laughs] But I wouldn’t call it a revelation on my part. I think that the first revelation was Siouxsie and the Banshees.

BROWN: How old were you during this Bruce Springsteen trip?

DOILLON: I was six. It was a lot of fun, especially with my mother. At that time there were no mobile [phones], so we literally got lost all around America. [My mother] was very bad with a map, and I was quite small, she even made me drive through the Grand Canyon because she was so tired—she took her huge fur coat and sat me down on it, and I said “I can hardly touch the pedals.” And she said, “Wait, I’ll put my bag under your toes.”  [laughs]

BROWN: Was it just the two of you?

DOILLON: Yeah, and then my cousin joined, my English cousin.

BROWN: When you write a new song, whom do you perform it to first?

DOILLON: The first person to hear the song is my English bulldog Gustave, then it would be my son, because he’s quite ruthless, he can just yawn and look at you with a completely bored look and you think, “Oh, God, no.” Then I perform it for my mum, which surprises everyone, because people are very scared of their own family.

BROWN: What’s the best advice your mother has ever given you?

DOILLON: To record an album. [laughs] Because I would have never thought that things would happen in such a pretty way. There’s something strange about being that famous in France with people not really knowing why you’re famous and, on top of it, I’m not the daughter of the famous couple. [It is as] if I was the daughter Yoko Ono had just after John Lennon died—everyone knows you, but they don’t really know why they know you. It’s been absolutely lovely for a few months to have people impressed by the music, and suddenly stop you in the street for you. That’s something I didn’t think could happen anymore.

BROWN: Did people previously stop you in the street?

DOILLON: Well, they’d stop me in the street and say, “I love your style,” which is something quite complicated to take as a compliment, because you wonder if you really deserve it; or “God, I love your mother so much;”  “God, I love Charlotte;” “I loved your father [Serge Gainsbourg]” and you say, “That’s not my father,” and they say, “Oh, well anyways, the important guy in the family,” and you think “Of course.” That’s been my mode since I was born, so it’s quite lovely to have people stopping you saying, “I really want to tell you—” and you say, “Yeah, yeah, you love my mum,” and they go, “I love your music!”  It’s really shocking at this point. [laughs] It’s so unexpected.