The Son of The French Pop Legend Re-imagines His Dad's Classic Songs With Help From Some Living Icons
Lucien “Lulu” Gainsbourg was going to drop out of Berklee College of Music in Boston to pursue film composing in L.A. when his mom talked him out of it. Instead of quitting school, he decided to record an album. This sort of restlessness is typical of mid-20s life, but the rest of Gainsbourg’s life is less typical.
His father was French pop auteur Serge Gainsbourg whose sexually charged (not to say scandalous) songs pushed the limits of popular music and the limits of what society would tolerate. Apart from being a dispenser solid parental advice, his mother, Caroline von Paulus, known as Bambou, is a model and singer. His half-sister Charlotte Gainsbourg is also an actress and a singer. Now that he’s come of age, it’s Lulu’s turn, though his actual musical debut was in 1988 when he helped sing “Hey men, Amen” one night during his father’s last live tour.
From Gainsbourg to Lulu, the album he started in his senior year, is similarly out of the ordinary. It collects 13 of his re-imaginings of Serge Gainsbourg songs plus one composition of his own, titled “Fresh News from the Stars.” For help with the vocals he managed to recruit friends Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis, along with Scarlett Johansson, Rufus Wainwright, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, and Shane McGowan, all of them Serge Gainsbourg fans as it turns out.
Lulu sang five songs on the album, some solo some in duet, including a reprise of “Bonnie and Clyde” with Scarlett Johansson, but, following in his father’s footsteps, his most important role was as artistic director, producer and arranger. The 26 year-old who now lives in Manhattan succeeded not only in completing the ambitious project but in giving his dad a very fitting tribute. His debut album is varied and thoughtful, sometimes raw and tense, and exploratory in spirit.
In our interview, Lulu came across as a young soul growing into a big legacy. We talked about his interest in film scoring (something Serge did quite a lot of), his initial anxieties about approaching his father’s oeuvre, and how so many big names signed on to sing on his first full-length.
Did you start working on the album after you graduated?
Well, no, I started working on this album the last year before graduation. I almost left the school after my third year, 2010, but I decided to stay after talking with my mom, she gave me good advice. Then I decided to do the album. So it was the perfect thing. After graduation, two months later I was mastering the album.
So, you were actually going to drop out of music school but your mom convinced you to finish? What did she say that made you decide to finish?
I did three years already and I just needed to do one more, which is nothing. She convinced me. I think she did right. Now I have the diploma.
Why did you want to drop out?
Because I wanted to move to L.A. and start working on film scoring. I think it was too early. But I really want to work on film scoring. That’s something I want to try in the future.
But you haven’t moved to L.A. now, you’ve moved to New York. Is it a better place to work on a music career?
No, actually, I wanted to move to L.A. and then my last year of school, I’ve been in and out a lot between New York, L.A. and France for recording sessions for the album. I did more than half of the album in New York and I started really loving the city. Before, I used to go back and forth, after two weeks I’d be like, okay New York is fine but I’m glad to leave. But now each time I land in New York I feel like I’m home for the first time in my life.
What is it about the city that appeals to you?
Maybe the energy, the mood of the city. It’s a place you can be when you are young. I’m 26. It’s a place where you can hang out 24 hours a day. You don’t need to drive like L.A. Actually, I don’t drive.
Is film scoring something you still plan to do?
Yes, because I am more of a composer than a songwriter. I don’t write lyrics yet. I’m trying right now for my next album but right now it’s really hard. But I’ve been a huge fan of film scoring since I was a kid.
Is there a movie you can remember from when you were a kid where you were really into the soundtrack?
It’s funny but the first soundtrack that comes to my head is the sound track of Peter Pan, the Disney movie, the old one. Actually, I got the vinyl of the soundtrack. I’m a really huge fan of Disney movies. I feel like the Disney movies live through music. Any film really, if you strip out the music for a particular scene than it isn’t the same mood that you. I think the music is as important as the performance of the actors or the directors.
Do you think you were more aware of things like that when you were a kid because your father was a musician?
I don’t know. When my father passed away I was five. And my father liked to play a lot of Disney music and other songs on the piano when I was really young. When he passed away, the same day I sat on the piano all day. I had never played before but I sat all day and by the end of the day I found all the melodies that he was playing to me by ear. When I showed this to my mom she said, “You are starting the piano tomorrow.”
So, you were finishing your last year in music school and you were recording with Iggy Pop and all these big stars from America and France. Did you know a lot of these people when you asked them to be on the album?
I didn’t know anyone. I just knew Johnny and Vanessa, who were friends for a really long time. But other than that I didn’t know any of the artists. I wished myself good luck and then I tried to get everyone. Some I didn’t get like Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Bob Dylan. Some said no, they were busy, but were grateful that I thought of them.
Did a lot of them want to be part of the project because they were fans of your father’s music?
That was the funny part because at the beginning when I started reaching out to all the artists I didn’t know if they knew who my father was. It ends that everyone knows who he was. That’s was very interesting because in the beginning I thought this is not France this is America I didn’t know if people knew him, But my friend who is the producer of the album told me, you would be surprised a lot of people know you father. And then I met them and they we’re like “Of course! Are you nuts?”
Still, it’s a very ambitious project. What made you decide on just a big undertaking?
The first idea was to make a gift to my father, because I never had a chance to give him something. When he passed away I was too young. So, the first gift that I am giving him is a tribute to his work. Secondly, I wanted to approach all these high profile international artist because I wanted to work on the international level for my father to be discovered by a new generation.
Were any of the ladies on the album like muses for you? In a way, you cast Scarlett Johansson as Brigitte Bardot with “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Well, my father’s thing with Brigitte Bardot in “Bonnie and Clyde,” she was one of the sexiest and most popular women at the time. I just did the same. It’s my view that Scarlett is one of the sexist women in my time. Also, I heard her album before. She did Break Up with Pete Yorn. I found out that was inspired by my father and Brigitte Bardot’s time. So, I thought maybe she might want to do it. I contacted her manager myself and a week later she came to it. Pretty cool.
You worked with a few actors for this project and you’ve done some acting yourself. Do you think acting and being a singer are at all similar?
It’s close, I would say. When you sing on stage or in a studio you are telling the story of your songs.
You are no stranger to your father’s music, but what was it like to approach the material that way? Was it ever intimidating?
That was really hard. When I decided to do an album I wanted to my own stuff but it ended as this tribute album to my father. I don’t regret anything, but at that time it was difficult. When you want to make music when you are the son of Serge Gainsbourg it’s hard because he is such an icon today. But when you touch his work it’s even harder. I had a lot of pressure because people we’re waiting for me. And when you touch something that people are really familiar with you don’t know how they will react.
So, were you a little nervous before you showed the album to people?
A lot nervous! But at the end I just put all this pressure to one side and focused on one thing. I focused on my love for my father, the reason why I did this.
Of course, that’s what I wanted. There was no way to do just covers. I wanted to have really high-profile artists and re-interpret and re-imagine everything or do nothing at all. That was the vision I had.
How did you choose the songs?
That was random. Sometimes I was like “Oh, this artist has to do that song” but also I wanted every artist to be free. I was like “Okay, this is my proposal but if you have something else let me know.” But everyone agreed with my choice.
Did you consider having your sister on the album?
Actually, I didn’t want any of the family on the album. It was a personal thing from me for my father. But as soon as I thought of the project of course I told my sister. And she was like “Good luck. I support you.”