When Lulu Gainsbourg decided to record a jazz album, being the son of a beloved French icon helped him nab some very famous names to help. People like Iggy Pop and Johnny Depp jumped at the chance to work with the son of Serge Gainsbourg, particularly on an album that pays homage to the late crooner. From Gainsbourg to Lulu is a collection of covers of Serge’s finest work, including the sultry and buzzy cover of “Bonnie and Clyde” with Scarlett Johansson, that the younger Gainsbourg recorded after earning a music degree from Berklee. The son of Serge and French model Bambou, Lulu discovered piano at five and was studying at the Music Conservatory of Paris by eight. He’s now happily settled in New York, where we caught up with him to talk about the album, his famous father, and Home Alone.
How do you like living in New York?
I love living here. This is actually the first time in my life I feel home. I’ve been living on a plane. I’m always in a travelling mood; I cannot stay for more than one month in the same city but New York is different. I studied in Boston so I’ve been in and out of New York a lot. Usually after two weeks in New York I’ve had enough. But Boston, in my opinion, is a really boring city. When I started recording the album a year and a half ago, that’s when I fell in love with this city.
Let’s talk about the album. It’s a very personal project. What inspired you to do it?
At the beginning I didn’t want to do this album or anything with music. I didn’t want to be a musician. I was playing piano for fun but I wasn’t seeing myself as a musician because of my father. I wanted to make something different. I wanted to work in the film industry, I still do. Then a friend told me in 2010, next year is going to be the 20th anniversary of your father’s death, you should do something special. In the beginning I disagreed and said there’s no way, it’s too much pressure for me to do this. Then I just decided to do it. I wanted it to be a gift to my father but at the same time I didn’t want to do this alone. I wanted to work with great artists to make my father’s work discovered by a new generation. This is why I did this project.
Let’s talk about the collaborations. It features a lot of big names, from Marianne Faithfull to Scarlet Johansson. What was the selection process like? How did you choose who you worked with?
At the beginning I made a list on paper with many many names and some songs. All the names on the paper are all artists that I really love. I contacted everyone myself. I was actually surprised that all of them knew who my father was.
For you of course, but for me, I’ve been in France. There, everybody knows him, but this is America. Like Scarlett Johansson, I had no idea she knew him. Johnny [Depp] is a friend, but Rufus Wainwright, I had no idea. Marianne Faithfull worked with him, but Richard Bona, even Iggy Pop! When I started working on this project I found out how big my father was, even outside France.
So you would say everyone on the album was brought together by a mutual respect and admiration for your father?
Yeah. All of them said, “of course I know who he was, are you nuts?”
I read you started playing piano when you were five, but you only knew recently you wanted to put out an album and pursue that professionally.
Yes, before this I wanted to work in music in the film industry.
Yes. I’m a huge fan of film scoring, since I was a kid. I hope I can do that in the future. I was finishing up my studies at the same time as this album, which was a really hard time for me. Especially with all the travelling.
Is there a film score that speaks to you particularly?
Any John Williams scores; Indiana Jones, Star Wars. He even wrote for Home Alone. And Hook!
Is there a dream director you’d like to work with or a genre you see yourself producing scores for?
Of course I would like to work with Spielberg or Scorsese, but I would do anything. It doesn’t have to be a big name, as long as there’s an opportunity and I like the script and the story talks to me.
So I heard it was your mother who convinced you to finish your degree at Berklee. Is that true?
This is definitely true. Basically that was the end of my 3rd year, I had just gotten a place in LA, and I told my mum I’m tired of Boston, I cannot stay. I hate school. I’m just going to move to LA and try to write music for films and she said you only have one more year, you did three, don’t mess around. Don’t fuck up, basically. And I thought about it and some friends said she’s right, you have all your life, you’re still young. So I decided to stay, and at the same time the album came.
So now you have your piece of paper on the wall!
Now I’m glad I have my diploma. Now I can say, “I graduated from Berklee, what did you do?”
I would slip that into every conversation. Do you have any plans to pursue an acting career in America? I know you did a film in France.
You know a lot. Do you know what my favorite food is?
I do not. What is it?
I’ll never tell. Yes, I mean, I’m open to it. The funny thing is the only movie I did in my life, I was 16 and it was a little role. I came back home and said, wow, I spent three days in Normandy. That was great. I want to leave school and be an actor. My mom was like, hmmmmm.
I also had that 16-year-old conversation with my parents. It did not fly.
So after that someone sent me a script with the opportunity for the main role. It was a story about a man for whom two sisters fell in love. I was like, hey that’s easy.
Could you draw on real life experience?
(laughs) Yes. So I went to the audition and I was supposed to say a romantic thing, like, “hey, I’m in love with you,” or whatever. And in front of me I had an ugly man with a big beard and glasses. And I was like, this is not happening. I cannot tell you I love you, I don’t know you. I couldn’t see the girl and I’ve been scared ever since that day. I said, okay mum, I’ll go back to school, acting is not for me. But now I’ve grown up and become a little bit more mature.
Now you could tell the bearded man you love him.
Ya, of course! Or anyone! I’m still really, really shy, so I don’t know if I would be a great actor. I’m open to opportunities.
There are many actors that are shy.
If I’m drunk then whatever! You don’t even know if this is water.
You father’s music is widely covered, how do you feel about that. Are there some that you like are there some that you hate?
I don’t hate anything. Hate would be a really big word and I don’t think I can have that judgment. I mean, I dislike. Everybody can like or dislike. But I respect and am glad that people want to cover my father, even if sometimes it is a bit weird to hear. I still respect the artists who do that. They do it in their own way with their musical knowledge. Some of them I liked. It’s impossible to make a CD or a movie that has a unanimous opinion.
What else is coming up for you?
Right now I’m writing for my next album with my own work. I look forward to recording in the studio, this is what I do and what I love. I cannot wait. It will be something else. I’m also looking forward to being able to tour. It’s been a little hard to perform on stage for this album because the message I’ve been trying to pass through this album was, as I told you, to make my father’s work discovered by a new generation and I cannot perform it by myself. I’m mostly a producer, arranger and musical director and a guest for this rather than the lone singer. I don’t want people to think that I am just the son of my father who’s performing his music.