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Lou Doillon: A Black Sheep Finds Her Way Home

Lou Doillon has traveled many places, only some of which can be found on a map. In her lilting, poetic voice she explains, “I’m always a traveler. A traveler of time, of love.” The concept of the album Places, a melancholic singer-songwriter record, which was released last year in France and debuted last month in the United States, transcends the geographical definition of the word. “It’s all the places,” Doillon says. “It’s the places that you wish you’d been to, the places you fantasize of, and it’s also the places within ourselves.”

What places exist inside in Lou Doillon? Born in France in 1982 to film director Jacques Doillon and actress Jane Birkin, Doillon grew up immersed in creativity and talent. In addition to her mother and father, her five sisters (including half-sister, musician Charlotte Gainsbourg), grandmother and uncle all excelled in artistic pursuits like acting, music, filmmaking, photography. The family was and still is renowned in both France and Birkin’s native England. “My family is…well, more than famous—talented. Everyone in my family is extremely talented,” says Doillon. “It’s a family of geniuses. They’ve always been successful.”

Doillon began acting in films at the age of six and started modeling at eighteen. However, she never earned the same response the rest of her family received. “I think my family was kind of worried about me,” Doillon explains. “They were thinking, ‘Shit, we’re all successful and Lou’s never making it!’” The self-proclaimed black sheep of the group, Doillon spent much of her young adulthood bouncing from one venture to the next: acting, modeling, fashion design. At the age of nineteen, Doillon gave birth to a son and moved to New York City for a while. Despite being surrounded by musicians all her life via both her family and romantic attachments, Doillon never aspired to become one herself, although she did teach herself to play the guitar at the age of twenty-four.

“It’s true that I’ve lost myself many a time,” says Doillon earnestly. “I actually think that’s beautiful. I’m very happy today, and I wouldn’t have been able to write this album if I hadn’t spent fifteen years looking for myself.” She explains that forging her identity was a gradual process and one that could not be hurried. Through force she achieved no answers; it was only through growing up that she could finally make peace with herself. “I find that the twenties are very complicated. You spend so much time hating yourself, but thirty is quite wonderful. You start befriending yourself, or at least hating yourself a bit less.”

Thirty brought many changes for Doillon. By the end of her twenties, she had reached a turning point: “I was just so depressed, I needed it to get out one way or another.” Doillon found refuge in music, and through writing these heartfelt guitar-driven songs (some of which she worked on with Joni Mitchell), she began to let out long-caged emotions that she once had no way of releasing. “I spent fifteen years trying to please people by being something I wasn’t and this is the first time that I’m myself. Suddenly, that’s when the success comes. Clearly, I think I’m better at being myself than being other people.”

Being herself involved taking a different musical path than that of her family and turning to the English language to convey her thoughts. Feeling the pressure of living up to the expectations of her family’s fans, Doillon would automatically grow nervous when trying to speak in French publicly. “As soon as I go into English, my voice just settles down. I feel more at home.” The gender pronouns of the French language create a barrier for Doillon as well. “I love the idea of English, that there’s this kind of gray zone where you can write this whole album and people won’t know if it’s about a boy or a girl if you don’t want to be more precise about it.”

Another pressure Doillon faced was that some people “were kind of horrified, thinking: ‘Can you do a first album when you’re thirty years old?’” She emphatically replies, “Yes! You do an album anytime you’ve got something to say!” The skepticism only excited her more. “I’ve always loved dangerous things,” she says happily. “Dangerous in the sense that it’s strong. I hate what’s tepid.”

Skeptics be damned. Upon its release in France last year, Places became a top seller and won Doillon the French Grammy for Best Performer of the Year, an honor that had never before been bestowed on either a debut album or an album recorded in English. It seems Doillon has earned the positive attention of critics, fans and her own family. “They’re super supportive and super kind. At the same time, I think it’s a bit of a trip for everyone. Even for my sisters, they’re like, ‘Fuck, everyone keeps coming up to talk to us about you,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve had to live that for thirty years! So get used to it!’” she laughs. A year later, she maintains the same optimism as the record hits America. She is not at all concerned with her potential sales. “I’m just enjoying it all so much…. Even if I only get 200 fans, I’ll be very happy.”

It is likely there will be many more than just 200 fans. On tour, Doillon has played at festivals and to large audiences of six to eight thousand people. Of her music’s acoustic sound, she says, “It’s thrilling because it’s quite dangerous at times. Everything is so private and soft that if anyone in the background starts screaming their head off, everyone will hear. We’re not like a big rock band where the music is at eleven.”

In that open environment, Doillon is left to sing out her once most private thoughts on stage to thousands of people. While this could leave many feeling exposed and self-conscious, Doillon says that her audiences help her to feel as though she is just one of them. “I’ve had gigs where you’ve got all the audience in tears with you. Girls…guys…you’ll see an old rocker in the corner, taking it in with his eyes closed.” Sandwiched in between louder, more raucous acts at some festivals, Doillon was concerned that her music might not reach certain people. “You think, ‘God, is it going to be odd for people?’ In fact, no. There’s room for everyone.”

That close-knit atmosphere is what people love about Doillon’s music. They find meaning in her lyrics, solace in her voice and kinship at her concerts. Though her words were originally crafted with specific individuals and scenarios in mind, their messages are universal—each song is extraordinarily personal yet still relatable. She finds fans connecting to songs in different ways. “I’ve had people coming up, especially with the song ‘ICU’. I’ve had so many people who thought it was about someone dead or who cried listening to it because they think about their mother.” Her songs are about the human condition. “It’s funny how when being very precise about your own personal life, it actually locks on to everyone’s personal life,” says Doillon with wonder. “We’re all the same. We’re absolutely all the same. I’ve got this chance of being put on a pedestal because people fantasize about fame or fashion or whatever, and on that pedestal I managed to get back down and sit down on the ground with people.”

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