Listening to Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth’s collaborative album Utopian Ashes is to hear both artists as never before – a Scottish-French union that, in its exploration of classic male-female dynamic sees Gillespie channel the emotional articulacy of the 70s songwriters he loves and finds Beth confronted with a newfound revelation of melody. If you like the sad country soul of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’s Grievous Angel and George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s We Go Together, you’ll like this. And that’s not the algorithm talking.
Taking the guise of a fictional relationship, these songs of experience, teased by the gorgeous, sweeping Remember We Were Lovers, are a push-pull of contrasting perspectives across love, loss, disconnection and redemption, with Primal Scream’s Andrew Innes on guitar, Martin Duffy on piano and Darrin Mooney on drums, while Jehnny Beth’s musical partner Johnny Hostile features on bass. Time and time again, we’re reminded that emotional music often reflects on things that, in whatever way, didn’t work out; discomforts we strive to learn from and comprehend. The pay-off is affirming.
Gillespie’s catalogue, with Primal Scream, is punctuated by landmarks, from the ecstasy overture of 1991’s Screamadelica, the emblem of an era, to the paranoid and raging millennium assault XTRMNTR, an album too urgent for vowels. (Never listen to the latter in a car, it feels like the prelude to a crash). Utopian Ashes is another work that has a distinct viewpoint. It is the kind of album it takes years to make – just not in the studio.
Beth, who made her name through the contorting post-punk of Savages, has since undertaken a path of (solo) exploration, sonically and in other roles as radio DJ, TV host and actor. She and Gillespie first enjoyed impromptu collaboration at Suicide’s last-ever gig at London’s Barbican, 2015. But it wasn’t the first time the two had met – that would be at an Hedi Slimane catwalk show in Paris. “This girl dressed head-to-toe in black leather emerged out of the shadows,” Gillespie remembers. “I said, ‘Hi, how are you?’”
DMD: Amid the chaos of Suicide: A Punk Mass at the Barbican, you were thrown together to perform Dream Baby Dream. Did survival cement your bond?
Jehnny Beth: It wasn’t planned at all. I was performing before with another group and the management of Suicide asked if I would join Bobby to do Dream Baby Dream. Because I was covering it with Savages, I knew the song anyway. And Bobby was up for it.
Bobby Gillespie: It was quite edgy backstage.
JB: I was dragged behind you, I remember! It was mayhem that night: people were standing on seats, jumping around. And no-one gave us a cue. We were on the side of the stage, wondering, “Should we go on now?” Martin Rev was jamming on his keyboard and yelling to Alan [Vega]. We sang a bit, then Bobby was on the floor doing a really cool rock’n’roll move. Suddenly we heard this voice, and we were like, “Who’s singing?” I thought it was a member of the audience. I turned around and it was Alan’s kid, who had been given the mic. I really enjoyed sharing the stage with Bobby. I loved the fact that he would switch on straight away.
BG: I think some people were angry that we were up there: I felt a wave of energy in the crowd that … It wasn’t positive. Like, “What the fuck’s he doing here?” Right away, I thought, “Oh great, fuck you!” If you know Suicide you know that it’s all about provocation, so it was kind of right [we were up there]. Jehnny and I became friends, it was a bonding experience.
I saw Suicide open for The Clash in 1978, when I was a teenager. They had the audience at the Glasgow Apollo baying for their blood. It was so confrontational, just for the fact it was two guys, no drummer, no guitar and almost no semblance of a song. If you hear the bootlegs from ’77, ’78, they don’t play the album, it’s freeform and it was too much for people. The kids just wanted to hear The Clash playing rock’n’roll, I’ve got to hand it to The Clash for taking them out. I think a lot of people saw that tour: Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain. The stance and the attitude, I never forgot it.
“With me, I have to live it to write it and the best songs that I’ve written are the most painful ones, the most honest ones” – Bobby Gillespie
DMD: Can you remember what your first impressions of each other were?
BG: A chick dressed in head-to-toe leather. [Laughs]. I’m only joking. I’d first heard Savages on the radio, and saw the image of the four girls. I’d read some interviews. Their music and imagery was reductive: everything was in black and white and they seemed serious. I thought, “They’ve got some kind of manifesto here.” I was curious to meet [Jehnny].
JB: Well, I thought, “That’s a guy who likes leather.” [Laughs]. My first impression, actually – I’ve never told you this, Bobby – but it was after the afterparty of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show, at the [Hammersmith] Apollo. I was with Polly Jean Harvey but she left, then I was with Johnny [Hostile]. We were in the same room and you were talking with Nick and Warren [Ellis], the three of you were in a group. You were telling jokes and making everybody laugh, I thought you seemed like a really funny guy. I also thought, “This man is really well dressed.”
DMD: Utopian Ashes was going to be an electronic album. What happened?
BG: I don’t think it ever was … A term I use for our early experiments is “electronic soundscapes”, which is a bed of electronic music using synthesisers and maybe drum machines, creating a mood, an atmosphere.
JB: A one-chord sort of thing. I think it came from the fact that we had no idea what we were going to do when Bobby and Andrew [Innes] asked me and Johnny if we wanted to jam together.
BG: I had a melody for a verse, which was the melody to Remember We Were Lovers, and I started singing it. Andrew started playing some chords and then Jehnny started singing the chorus line, she had words. Then Andrew started playing piano with a step up and suddenly we had the shape of a song. But it was electronic, the backing was quite Kraftwerk. Jehnny has a really big incredible synthesiser that looks like it could be at the end of the pier in Blackpool: I call it the Doctor Phibes. Have you seen that film with Vincent Price, The Abominable Dr Phibes? It’s a psychedelic horror. He’s got this instrument that he plays and it reminded me of that. But you get these amazing sounds out of it.
When we came back to London, I thought, “This is a fucking strong song, there’s something here.” I was trying to write a verse that would match Jehnny’s chorus lyric and I was working on acoustic guitar. It started to appear that maybe this should be a rock record with live musicians, because our voices, when we sang together in Paris, it was just a bit of magic. We have a different approach: when Jehnny sings it’s quite tense and when I sing it’s a bit looser. Together, it’s just fucking brilliant, you know?
It felt to my mind that we could make an album that’s very interesting and something neither of us have done before in our careers. Working with Jehnny and Johnny was a way into the future where I could express myself differently from what I’d done before – the songs as they developed were ballads. I don’t know if I can speak for Jehnny here but that framework gave me space to breathe lyrically. I could write about situations and subjects that I couldn’t with some of Primal Scream’s music because it’s so intense and paranoid, aggressive and fast.
JB: For me, the idea of melodies changed while making this record. In the past, I saw melodies as cages or prisons. I know it sounds weird, but that’s really what I believed; that the melody would be a constraint in the way of the meaning. It’s very French, that way of seeing things, because in traditional Chanson Française we don’t have much melody. Traditionally we’re looking for poetry put on a bed of music. I think that’s what was in me, even in Savages. When we worked with melodies on Utopian Ashes, it really changed my way of using them, because I realised that actually they can be a great tool for meaning; they enhance the meaning and even more they can submit it better.
BG: The melody enforces the meaning of the word, I agree.
JB: It sounds insane to me now that I used to think the opposite [laughs]. I’m even applying it to new material I’m writing, where I’m looking for melodies first and how they make me feel. Which is really surprising. When you have a melody that people want to sing it’s a great tool for communication.
BG: Melody goes to the heart. Like in The Ronettes’ Walking In The Rain when she hits the chord: “Like walking in the rain.” You’re just like, ‘Oh my god.’ It just destroys you.
“I realised Bobby’s lyrics were very close to the bone and they were showing quite a vulnerable side as well as being human. Seeing someone let their guard down is very touching; you allow the other to see sides of you that are not all shiny, they’re not all perfect” – Jehnny Beth
DMD: A richly narrative, male-female dynamic has been a longtime fascination for you, Bobby – I’m thinking of Some Velvet Morning. Did life have to happen more for you to make this album?
BG: I mean, yeah, of course. With me, I have to live it to write it and the best songs that I’ve written are the most painful ones, the most honest ones. I can take situations from real life and fictionalise them. But songwriting is a craft, it’s something that I have worked at, and I think I’ve become better at in the last ten or 11 years. It’s an ongoing thing. I think if you’re an artist, you’re an observer, not just of your own life and actions, but other people’s characters and their drive. I feel things quite terribly: in some ways I’m quite a tough person, in other ways less so. I hope the music reflects that. My position is that life experience makes for good art, if you can channel it. Even then there’s a craft in presenting it in such a way that other people can relate. Last night, I was reading an interview with a songwriter that I really love, John Prine. He died last year of Covid. The interviewer was asking him about some of his famous songs, and he said, “Well, I just wrote about what happened.” I think the songs that connect most with people are the truest and realest, that are plain-speaking, that people can relate to because they’re either going through the same situation or they’ve experienced the same situation. That’s the school of songwriting I would like to aspire to.
JB: I realised Bobby’s lyrics were very close to the bone and they were showing quite a vulnerable side as well as being human. Seeing someone let their guard down is very touching; you allow the other to see sides of you that are not all shiny, they’re not all perfect. There’s this sort of mutual respect and understanding and I think that’s a very beautiful thing. That’s what Bobby was doing in his writing, I felt, on this record.
BG: I like the fact that my lyrics are quite plain-speaking and Jehnny’s lyrics are sometimes abstract. The marriage of these approaches creates a great dynamic: it gives a tension, and switches the meaning within the framework of a song, which is, for the listener, very interesting. You think the story’s going one way in the verse, and then suddenly the chorus comes in and it’s, “Whoa, what does that mean?” The narratives shift. That’s one of the victories of this record for me.
JB: It’s true what you’re saying. It’s like looking at the same situation from another side. I tend to want to write philosophically about things. Bobby’s lyrics on this record are very in the moment, in the action.
Utopian Ashes is released 2 July 2021.