Trepanation, as the procedure is called, is an ancient medical maneuver that’s been chronicled in 16th-century German engravings and found in unearthed skulls dating back to prehistoric France. Medieval doctors believed trepanation — drilling a hole in a living person’s skull — was a way to get demons out, and early 20th–century neurologists prescribed it as a cure for mania.
In 2007, the very nonmanic French singer-actor Charlotte Gainsbourg sustained a head injury while waterskiing. Persistent headaches prompted her return to the doctors, who, after conducting neurological tests and an MRI, discovered a massive brain hemorrhage that was caused by the accident. The prognosis was serious, Gainsbourg explains: Blood clots, and a small hematoma, had gathered around her brain, “like the one [late actress] Natasha Richardson had,” threatening her life. To save her, the doctors drilled a small hole into her skull in order to release the blood.
The procedure worked, and in coping with the shock of it all, the singer learned that maybe those medieval doctors were on to something. “[My realization] wasn’t that dramatic as the surgery itself,” she qualifies, “but I was very, very close to death. I thought I was very courageous toward life and death, and I didn’t really care, but when it happened, I realized how scared I was.”
A native French speaker, in English, Gainsbourg saunters through sentences, tiptoeing from word to word like she’s crossing a creek one stone at a time. Twenty years passed between the creation of her first and second albums, and she rarely performs live. But then, she’s never had to make music in order to eat. During those two decades she was busy becoming an A-list celebrity in France where, as the daughter of beloved late crooner and mischief-maker Serge Gainsbourg and French actor/chanteuse Jane Birkin, she has been in the spotlight for much of her life. She’s steered that good fortune in fascinating directions. As an actor she’s worked with a long list of esteemed directors: Michel Gondry, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Todd Haynes and Lars von Trier. “I’m not an artist,” she protests. “I’m not even a musician. I can play the piano, but I’m not that good, anyway.”
Still, while getting her MRI and lying in the tube, Gainsbourg started to think about songs. “When I was inside that machine,” she says, “it was an escape to think about music. It’s rhythm. It was very chaotic.”
She stored the memory away, and after she recovered, serendipity put her in the path of Beck Hansen, whom she met at a White Stripes concert in L.A. She and the singer-songwriter had a brief conversation, initiated by their common bond, producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, U2, R.E.M.), who had worked on Gainsbourg’s 2006 return to music, 5:55, and three of Beck’s most critically acclaimed records, including Sea Change. Gainsbourg and Beck met again, backstage at a Radiohead show in Paris, which prompted her to explore the possibility of making a new record. She called Beck and was soon working with him in his Silver Lake home studio. Casually, the two began to record, minus any concrete expectations.
“It wasn’t planned that we’d do a whole album together,” she explains, “but Beck was inspired by my accident.”
He worked the instrumentation and co-wrote the lyrics, and Gainsbourg provided the inspiration by explaining what she’d experienced in the hospital. “Take my eyes and paint my bones/Drill my brain all full of holes,” she breathily whispers on “Master’s Hands” over Beck’s lurching guitar rhythms, producing what would become the first track on IRM (or imagerie par résonance magnétique, the French translation of MRI).
In the same session, they recorded “In the End,” a stripped-down acoustic ballad that layers Gainsbourg’s wafting hums and smoky vocals over glockenspiel and strings arranged by Beck’s father, David Campbell. But the sound, as with many of IRM‘s string pieces, faintly resembles the sensual, warm string sections of Gainsbourg’s father’s. (Beck, in fact, sampled Serge’s “Cargo Culte” on his track “Paper Tiger,” on Sea Change.) “I think they use strings in an entirely different way,” she says of her father’s propensity to use arrangements as a punctuation, as opposed to the Beck family’s more atmospheric runs.
Finally, Gainsbourg and Beck pieced together “Heaven Can Wait,” a poppy piano-driven stomp that would become IRM‘s first single. (Its bizarre, wonderful companion video is by Los Angeles director Keith Schofield.) When these initial songs were complete, Gainsbourg and Beck parted; he needed to finish his own album and she was working on film projects, most notably her shocking, award-winning performance in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.
As she let those initial sessions breathe, the singer decided she wanted more and asked Beck if he’d do the whole album. The phone call didn’t surprise the musician. He’d been continuing to write music with Gainsbourg in mind, and in the next 18 months, they built IRM‘s stylistically disparate but impossibly cohesive vision. So she returned to Silver Lake.
“[Beck] wakes up with a new idea every day,” she says. “Beck wrote all the music and most of the lyrics, but I was reacting to what he was doing. I could have continued forever, but we stopped when the album made sense.”
The function of IRM, like that of the machine that inspired it, was to penetrate her head, Gainsbourg explains. “It was a chance to look at memory and looking into the brain in a more abstract, more poetic way.”
The album avoids the kitschiness of Beck’s genre chop jobs and funky electro-soul breakdowns but maintains his style throughout. Like the best producers, he helps Gainsbourg to speak for herself.
“My creativity comes out with others,” she acknowledges. “That’s why it is such a pleasure to be involved with Beck. I can’t do anything on my own. I like the idea of entering someone else’s world. I find more freedom inside someone else’s work rather than being completely free, and able to create anything.”
Yet, with the album complete, Gainsbourg faces a new obstacle: her first-ever American tour. Since that first time she sang with her father 26 years ago, on the notorious hit single “Lemon Incest,” she has rarely performed live. She says her father and mother, actress and “Je t’aime … moi non plus” singer Birkin, only performed after many years of commercial success. “My mother was my age when she went onstage,” she says. “She had about 10 albums by then. Even then, I saw her terrified backstage.
“It’s very disturbing, in a way, to put yourself out there. One side of me wants to be daring and wants to do it, and to be able to do it. Another part says, ‘You don’t know how to do anything.’ ”