“I’m Not Into French Music”: Lulu Gainsbourg Wrestles With His Father’s Legacy

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“Lady Luck” is the title of a song by Rod Stewart. It also the title of songs by Jamie Woon and Deep Purple and Journey. It is a hotel/casino in Missouri. It is a personification of luck that reduces femininity to notions of temptation, mischief, and danger — one usually, as the list of musicians who sing of the phenomenon would suggest, invoked by men. “Lady Luck” now also appears both as the first single from Lulu Gainsbourg’s upcoming album and as that the title of the album, set for release February 2. It’s a bold move for Gainsbourg, the 29-year-old son of iconic French musician Serge Gainsbourg and model Bambou. The “Lady Luck” cliché comes prepackaged with some ineradicable sleaze. The song, however, happens to be pretty awesome — in the particular way that an appletini at a hotel’s rooftop bar is, genuinely, awesome and in the way that it’s maybe just a little self-aware and self-critical.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that I met Gainsbourg at the (lobby) bar of the Bowery Hotel, with its panoply of fur-and-hide-bedecked chairs, while he was in New York last fall. He had recently relocated to London after living in the States for six years, attending Berklee College of Music, then living in NYC for two years following. He arrived 15 minutes late, his hair tousled, T-shirt and jeans baggy, with a nonchalance that seemed to echo the sort-of opulence of the fussy, furry stool on which he sat.

Gainsbourg had been sleeping in lately. After a break-up a while back, however, when his mind was less at ease, he’d gotten down to four hours of sleep a night. “Now, it’s not that I found peace, it’s not like that. But I found love,” he said. His “girl,” as he called her — a stunningly attractive French waif who he’d introduce later — was upstairs in the hotel room. Perhaps she was his “lady luck”?

It makes sense that Lulu Gainsbourg’s first single after his debut, a covers album that pays tribute to his father, would be about luck: the luck of being brought up within a musically iconic family was, initially, what got the media’s attention. When he was just two, his father composed the song “Lulu,” which his mother performed. Translated, the song begins: “Child of love, portrait of Gainsbourg.” During Gainsbourg’s final tour in 1989, Lulu was brought up on stage and introduced to France with Gainsbourg’s song “Hey Man Amen.” “Oublie-moi, oublie-moi, Lilu,” Serge Gainsbourg sang — “Forget me, forget me.” Lulu seems aware of his inherent portraiture of his father. He doesn’t want to forget, but he’s trying to assert that remembrance of his father doesn’t have to take the form of imitation — anymore.

Gainsbourg explained that he kicked off his career with a tribute album to his father as a way to give in to expectations so that thereafter he wouldn’t have to. In this album, not only did he devote himself to his father’s oeuvre, but he also decided to take a secondary role in much of the singing, leaving the bulk of it up to celebrity collaborators such as Rufus Wainwright, Scarlett Johansson, Marianne Faithfull, Johnny Depp, and Iggy Pop. Did this album really purge the media of its desire to pigeonhole him into the role of a famous son? Hard to tell: just about every interview he’s done thus far has been predicated on his relationship to his father — a relationship truncated when Serge died in 1991, when Lulu was five.

And so it still needs to be said: Serge bought Lulu his first piano before he was even five. Just as kids might rebel against their conservative parents by joining a garage band, it’s a wonder he never felt inclined to do the opposite, to abandon music. But, according to Gainsbourg, “Music has been in my soul since I was a kid. Before doing my first album, I would never say that I would never do music, but I was very scared of it [despite a lifetime of Conservatory training], because of who my dad became. And I didn’t want people to make comparisons with his career, his music, his art with mine. I was worried that whatever I do, I’m just going to be compared to my dad at some point. Over time, hopefully less and less and less. And I’m proud of who my dad was. Mostly [the first album] was a gift from a son to his father, because I never got a chance to give him a gift… except coming to life, which I don’t remember. But I wanted to get people who didn’t know who he was interested. And that’s why I wanted to feature other great artists [on that first album].”

While on Lady Luck, guided by the production of Jeremy Loucas, he expresses his flair for the eclectic — skipping between pop, pop-funk, and classic-rock influences — he eschews one genre particularly: jazz. “My father was a huge fan of jazz. I love listening to jazz, but I won’t play it,” Gainsbourg told me. Ready to assert his own pastiche of a musical identity, he’s also pared down the Hollywood-celebrity guest artists to one interesting choice: Anne Hathaway, who, after gaining much attention for her pipes in Les Miserables, will once again get to flaunt her vocal prowess, this time with the comfort of not having to pretend said pipes are all full of tuberculosis.

“Right before she got the Oscar, I read an interview with her, and she was talking about my first album, saying she liked ‘this kid’ and what he does, and that it was a great tribute to his father,” Gainsbourg recalls. “So I decided to reach out to her… And we met in New York, and had lunch, and were talking about doing a collaboration one day, and then it just happened. She was singing with me. She has an amazing voice. I was shocked,” he gushes. “She’s playing a character, and I’m myself. It’s a love duet [called ‘The Cure’] — we’re talking to each other, but I’m sad because I had a break-up, but I meet her and feel some strange electricity inside me. And we don’t know if she’s with another man. But at the end there’s a deliverance. And the idea is for me to fall in love again at the end. It’s about finding hope again.”

On the new album, which Gainsbourg composed and arranged, he sings entirely in English, a language he set out to hone before attending Berklee — and is still honing. He admitted that this was an attempt at appealing to the broadest range of people possible. “For this album, I taught myself to become a singer. That was very hard, but singing in English was even harder,” he says.

He veers from French music in general, particularly that variety of French music so often labeled, simply, “Varieté Français,” segregated in French record stores from international pop/rock in its attempt to uphold the poetry of the French language, focusing on witty, layered, untranslatable lyrics over sonic experimentation.

“Honestly, I’m not really into French music,” he said. “I won’t say I hate it, I just don’t like it. Because the thing is that I don’t see any change or evolution. It’s always the same style — I fall asleep. At the same time, French people cherish French poetry and lyrics with a little touch which they think maybe they don’t have here. But that depends, because then you look at Leonard Cohen or Dylan, and these shitty-amazing guys” — a term he very clearly uses as a compliment — “and in France you have —”

“Your father?” I suggested.

“My dad and others,” he corrected, not wanting to have just called himself the heir to French Dylan. “But I’m really not into French music at all. So when I’m doing something and it sounds too French, I’m like, ‘Change the arrangement! Or do something else!’ I don’t —” He stopped mid-sentence. His French girlfriend exited the elevator, and suddenly his loyalties changed. “French people can be very attractive. I’m not the first one to say it, because it’s true,” he said, standing to kiss her.

This seemed like the perfect time to ask him about the perhaps self-aware persona of burdened yet somehow effortless French seducer he’s either crafted or simply embodies, one that’s visible in both of his music videos to date (the first was for “L’Eau à la Bouche,” one of his father’s earlier, jazzier songs) and audible in the muttering, accented English with which Gainsbourg talk-sings.

These are not qualities foreign, at all, to the music of his father, who was often half-sardonically playing around with the sounds of French flirtation and seduction, romanticized to hyperbole by the outside world. The height of this may have been the “Sea Sex and Sun” lyric: “Excuse me, I’m a French man/ And I’m afraid I don’t speak very well English, but/ I think that you are the most pretty little girl I ever knew/ Sea, sex and sun/ And I would like to make love with you.” On “Lady Luck,” a song that employs similarly seductive, whispering-your-towel-off-by-the-hot-tub vocals, Lulu’s French accent seems to play a large, self-conscious role in the perpetuation of this identity. But perhaps it’s simply unavoidable: “I always sing with a French accent, but honestly I don’t like the French accent. I love English accents.”

It also seemed pertinent to ask about the seemingly intentionally overwrought ease ‘n’ sleaze of the French masculinity Lulu portrays in that “L’Eau à la Bouche” video. “That was different, because I was trying to make a story about my father’s songs,” he said. “But I actually have a lot of femininity. Sometimes I feel like a woman. Not gay! Maybe [I have this feminine side] because I lost my dad when I was so young. I got hurt, and my mom was my closest friend, and she was the most important thing in my life. Maybe because I had that shock, I’m very sensitive.”

Lulu’s mother, Bambou (pictured with Lulu above) “protected [him] in the best way she could from the media.” But even the above photo seems reminiscent of something Serge Gainsbourg would have done: oddly heartfelt yet incendiary, trolling the press with a strictly for-the-press sexualization of the family. Now that Lulu’s coming, more and more, into the public eye, he’ll be confronted again and again by comparisons, by exactly the kind of talk his mother may have wanted to protect him from, among people who are wondering whether it’s all just Lady Luck’s hereditary game. It’s hard to tell whether we’ll be pleasantly surprised to hear, on Lady Luck, not a worthy heir, but a worthy new artist on his own.