Lou Doillon was born famous. Her mother is British actress, singer and style icon Jane Birkin; her father is famed French director Jacques Doillon; her older sister is French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. But don’t go imagining a baby Lou carried in a Birkin bag, wearing blunt bangs and a Breton striped shirt.
“Someone in the English press said, and my mother and I laughed so much because we didn’t know what it meant, that I was ‘born cool,’” Lou, now 33, told BUST while in New York promoting her second album, Lay Low. “What does that even mean?”
While Lou takes a surprisingly down-to-earth approach to her fame, she acknowledges that her family puts her in a unique position — with both positives and negatives. One of those is the fact of Lou’s career. She first began acting as a four-year-old, playing her mother’s daughter in iconic New Wave director Agnes Varda’s film Kung-Fu Master (check out BUST’s interview with Varda about the film here); her first lead role was as a teenager in her father’s film Trop (peu) d’amour, or Too (Much) Little Love. From childhood to her late 20s, Lou made a name for herself as a model and actress — meaning that her decision to begin recording music was a momentous one.
“The first album, I knew it was such a mistake and such a stupid idea and that people were going to make me pay to such an extent that I was smart at cutting the budget in half, doing it in ten days and only with Parisian musicians, for it to cost nothing, for it to be as brutal as possible, to put no effects on the voice, to keep takes from the start to the end, to have no editing, to just make it so bluntly pure and honest that you could say you didn’t like it but you couldn’t attack the process,” Lou said.
The effort paid off: her first album, 2012’s Places, earned critical raves and Lou won the Best Female Artist award at the 2013 Victoires de la Musique. Her second album, Lay Low, is just as good, a stripped-down singer/songwriter album with songs about love, sex and heartbreak.
We caught up with Lou before she began touring and talked about being stuck between two worlds, her memories of being a child actress and what I’m calling the Croissant Analogy of fame.
You recorded the album in Canada, and you’re about to begin your tour there. What do you love about Canada?
I think there’s a mixture of things that I love about it. It’s got that wonderful status of — because I guess feel the same — being stuck between two worlds, they’re neither one thing or another, and Quebec has that feeling where it’s not French, it’s not English, it’s not American, it’s a bit of all of them in a strange way. I don’t know whether I’m English or if I’m French and I don’t know if I actually care about being one or the other.
And they’ve also got the best of the Anglo-Saxon side for me, which is a love for music that’s very simple. In France, it’s a big deal, music, and there’s a sense that you shouldn’t play an instrument unless you know how to play it perfectly, and everything is prepared one way or another. They pretend it’s not, but it is. In England or in Canada or in America, everyone has a band, everyone plays because they love music. It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about bluffing other people around, it’s because we love doing it.
Considering how well received your first album was, did you feel a lot of pressure while making your second?
I’m rarely smart, but on that one I was. I was smart enough to get as far as possible from France, because I’m better at working with no expectation or even with negative vibes than with too much respect in a way. So I knew that in France, suddenly I had become important in a way, or that the doors were open, and I thought, “Woah, hell, let’s get as far away from that as possible.”
I didn’t want all the sacred side that was suddenly surrounding me in France. I didn’t think it was a good omen for an album to be made. And also, often, one should always start again from scratch and I could feel that everyone was fantasizing Places Number 2, and I thought, “The stupidest thing I could do to anyone, to everyone, and to even Places, would be to do a second one.” No, one should start from zero again and see where we land. And so Lay Low is very different from Places, even if for me it’s exactly the same road and the same process, but it didn’t end at the same place as the first one.
What are some of the major ways the new album is different?
On Lay Low, I was much more implicated in the production side of things. I had to suddenly confront myself, all the hell of it, because of actually booking places and doing things and fighting back and being responsible. There’s something terrifying about being responsible. When you’ve never been a chief before, to suddenly be a chief, it’s a horrible feeling. You would rather be the one who giggles at the back, saying, “God, the chief is hell,” more than being the one who’s responsible and kind of front line. Also, I went for much more of a live experience recording it than on the last album. We played every song live. It was like working on a 1970s movie, in a way. Everything was a three-minute shot.
Speaking of that era of movies, you appeared as a small child in Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master. Do you have memories of filming that movie?
Yes. What’s great is that Agnes Varda is like my godmother in the sense that she puts me to shame. Each time I see her, I feel so old because she’s in her 80s at this point, and she has such a level of creativity, such a level of curiosity of what’s going on around the world, she’s always trooping one way or another to all those different places.
As a child I could already feel that. I think I was four and a half when I did the movie, and I already felt older than her at that point. I remember being thrilled by it. I wanted to please her. At the same time, I was very worried because I didn’t know where she was taking me. There’s two or three scenes where she just abandoned me on a beach and I started crying. She just told the whole film crew to leave, and I thought they had abandoned me, and she was hiding behind a camera filming the whole scene. And it goes on for a very long time. I must be four years old and they literally abandoned me to have the shot.
She’s a double-sided sometimes. She’ll do anything to get what she wants, but I understand that, because it comes from a place where it’s for a good reason, and also she’s not a dangerous person. She’ll always at the last moment save you.
Coming from such a famous family and people have known about you since you were born, do you feel like people have these assumptions about you that you have to prove wrong?
Yes, or the other way around. People can be very kind or very loving for reasons I wouldn’t say that aren’t right but that are strangely hereditary, and they shouldn’t be, in a way. People start laughing very loud or start pretending you don’t exist at all when you’re 5 centimeters away, or they love you more than anything when you haven’t given them one good reason. But it’s a blessing when you take the time to see it, because it’s like being an alien in the sense that I have seen very different sides of humanity since I was very small.
By the age of 5, I knew that if I would go into a bakery with my father, people wouldn’t look at us and give us the croissant, not caring. If I went into the bakery with my mother, they would give us the croissant and not charge. If I went into the bakery with Serge [Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin’s former partner], then the bakery would close and we would do pictures for an hour and a half. If I went into the bakery with Charlotte, then — I mean, I was that big and I realized how people changed. I was lucky to be able to go from one world to another. What’s lucky is to be living on two sides of things so that you can always keep a cool head and always realize the blessing it is, or be critical also. I think it must be much harder for kids who are all on one side or all on the other side.
Lou’s US tour dates:
May 5—Le Poisson Rouge—New York, NY
May 6—U Street Music Hall—Washington, DC
May 9—The Roxy—Los Angeles, CA
May 10—The Triple Door—Seattle, WA
May 11—Bimbo’s 365 Club—San Francisco, CA
More from BUST
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Jane Birkin Is Over The Birkin Bag — For A Good Reason