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The Son Also Rises
The Son Also Rises

The Son Also Rises

For his first album, Lulu Gainsbourg pays homage to his father—yep, Serge. By Stefan Marolachakis. Photographed by Justin Hollar

On a rainy December afternoon, Lulu Gainsbourg sits on a plush sofa at hotel in downtown New York City, explaining his initial qualms about joining the family business. “I didn’t want to do anything regarding my father at all—I didn’t even want to be a musician at the beginning,” says Gainsbourg, who’s wearing a smart mauve raincoat (with umbrella to match). “I was scared, too much pressure.”

Yes, Gainsbourg is indeed the youngest son of famed French musician and legendary Casanova Serge Gainsbourg—and, no, the gravitas of this fact is most certainly not lost on him. Yet perhaps the only way to face such a legacy is to attack it head on; after all, his half-sister Charlotte’s first record was produced and nearly entirely composed by their father. And so, fittingly, Gainsbourg has just made From Gainsbourg to Lulu, a collection of covers of his father’s music released to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of his passing. The night before our interview, he celebrated the release by performing at Chez Andre—the Standard East hotel’s exclusive basement club—to a comely crowd made up of equal parts young bohemians and hip peers of his father’s. For Gainsbourg, the impetus behind the work was very personal: “I wanted to make it happen for the twentieth anniversary,” says the 27-year-old, who was only five when his dad passed away. “It was the first gift I was giving to my father, and also I wanted to work with international artists to get a new generation of people interested who didn’t know who he was.” He smiles. “I guess it’s working, because I’m here.”

Gainsbourg gathered together an impressive array of guests to assist him in the endeavor: Rufus Wainwright, Scarlett Johansson, Shane MacGowan, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, as well as old friends Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. The thread tying all the artists together is not only Gainsbourg’s respect for their work, but the manner in which he found their styles suitable to his father’s catalogue.

“I had a big list of many artists and I tried to find someone appropriate to the style of each specific song,” he says in a heavy French accent. “That was a big challenge; this is my first album as a singer, producer, arranger, director…first everything. I learned a lot from this.” On some songs, Gainsbourg duets with the featured artist—as with Johansson on the spooky, whispery groove of “Bonnie and Clyde”—but on others he hangs back and provides musical accompaniment, giving the guest vocalists room to stretch out on their own. “I did an eclectic album because he had an eclectic career,” Gainsbourg explains. “I mixed all these styles because he loved Django Reinhardt, gypsy music, jazz, rock, all these kinds of music.”

Gainsbourg conceived the project in the summer of 2010 while he was finishing up his studies at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he focused on film scoring and contemporary writing and production. Recording began in earnest that December and things moved fairly quickly from there; the album was mastered and in the can by July 2011—remarkably fast considering the high-calibre lineup of featured artists. (That likely serves as a testament to the type of hold Serge Gainsbourg continues to have over his devotees.)

Gainsbourg recorded the album in various studios all over the world, but during the sessions in New York he fell in love with the city. “I plan on staying here for maybe the next 10 or 20 years,” he says. “So far I feel at home here, which is good, because that hasn’t happened to me in a really long time.”

Gainsbourg doesn’t plan to tour in support of the album because he doesn’t want to sing his father’s songs alone; plus, he’s already busy writing a new record of his own material. It’s clear that making this album in honour of his father helped him tap into his own creative centre and get past his anxieties about becoming a musician in his own right. But for now, he wants to keep the focus on his dad. For him, the title, From Gainsbourg to Lulu, explains the whole project: “I’m just behind the scenes. This is his work, it has to be in front.”