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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Charlotte Gainsbourg is a cultivated enigma. The French actress and singer has hardly put a foot wrong in a long career that began in adolescence. Her voice is luscious, magnetic, haunting and a bit breathy.

(Soundbite of song "Master Hands")

Ms. CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG (Singer): (Singing) Pull my strings and cut my rope, rattle my frame and shatter my ghost. And if I can't get back in line, they're gonna break me down until the broad daylight comes through...

LYDEN: Gainsbourg is the daughter of the late French singer Serge Gainsbourg and the British singer-actress Jane Birkin. Charlotte Gainsbourg made her music debut at the age of 13 when she dueted on the song "Lemon Incest," with her father.

(Soundbite of song "Lemon Incest")

Mr. SERGE GAINSBOURG (Singer): (Singing) Oh, oh, baby.

Ms. GAINSBOURG: (Singing) (French spoken)

LYDEN: Since then, she's become an award-winning actress and has started alongside the likes of Willem Dafoe and Sean Penn. She's now in her late 30s and has released her third album called "IRM," and she joins us from the studios of Studio Line in Paris. Charlotte Gainsbourg, it's lovely to have you with us on the program.

Ms. GAINSBOURG: Oh my god, what a portrait. Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well, we do our homework. Would you explain this: I know that it's the French acronym for MRI, because you've had some brain scans, but I'll let you tell that story.

Ms. GAINSBOURG: Well, yes. It all began for me with an accident. Waterskiing. I had a lot of MRIs to go through, surgery and so quite a traumatic time for me. But hearing those sounds in that scan machine, I felt that I just wanted to do something with those sounds, put them on music.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GAINSBOURG: It was my first input on an idea of a song. And then I started working with Beck and then talked to him about this idea that he loved and that's how we did it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GAINSBOURG: (Singing) Take a picture, what's inside? Ghost image in my mind. Neural pattern like a spider. Capillary to the center. Hold still and press the button. Looking through a glass onion...

LYDEN: The lyrics, which I believe he wrote, say: take a picture, what's inside? Ghost imaging my mind.

Ms. GAINSBOURG: Neural pattern like a spider. He wrote all the lyrics and apparently he didn't know that I had had that accident, that I actually had a hole in my head.

LYDEN: You came so close to the edge. Could I just - the fatal edge, and I'm so sorry that you did. How has it changed your outlook on life, or has it?

Ms. GAINSBOURG: It changed straight after going through the surgery when I realized that I was still alive. And it's true that you look at life in a different way but that disappears after a few months. I didn't really like what I saw about myself after that accident because I became very, very fragile. It took me a very long time to overcome all of this. And the work on the album helped me a lot.

LYDEN: What did you do like about Beck's work that made you want to work with him? There must be quite a bit actually.

Ms. GAINSBOURG: Quite a bit. I love his work. I'm very, very attracted to his voice. It's a weird thing of, you know, wanting to work with someone, but to want to put your voice instead of his, because I do love the way he sings. And I'm very proud to have made this duo, you know, "Heaven Can Wait," where you can hear him.

(Soundbite of song "Heaven Can Wait")

BECK (Musician) and Ms. GAINSBOURG: (Singing) Heaven can wait. I have too far to go. Somewhere between what you need and what you know. And they're trying to drive that escalator into the ground...

LYDEN: So jazzy - in an album that has a lot of mysterious and dark tones.

Ms. GAINSBOURG: But that was what I enjoyed the most with this work was to be able to explore so many different styles. The first session we started out with "Heaven Can Wait" and a song called "In the End" and "Master's Hands." It was three very, very different styles. There's sort of a pop song, a ballad. And when Beck asked me, well, what sound do you want for this album? I didn't know because I wanted to explore things with him.

(Soundbite of song "Vanities")

Ms. GAINSBOURG: (Singing) You could have it all, you could pawn it off. You could learn to crawl, where you used to walk. And I, I...

LYDEN: Many of the songs here are songs in English. Do French fans ever ask why?

Ms. GAINSBOURG: Yes, of course. I feel much freer in English. French is too difficult because of the comparisons to my father. When he died I thought I'll never go back to music. He was the only reason I did it.

LYDEN: Do you have a favorite song from "IRM"?

Ms. GAINSBOURG: I do. I love "Trick Pony" because my son played the drums on this track.

(Soundbite of song "Trick Pony")

Ms. GAINSBOURG: (Singing) Train, train. Come and gone. My rum coco, my cold empty shake, shake...

It wasn't planned at all. He happened to be in the studio and had fun on the drums. And Beck thought it was a great beat so we used it, and I felt very, very proud of that. My daughter speaks on a track called "Greenwich Mean Time."

(Soundbite of song "Greenwich Mean Time")

Ms. ALICE ATTAL: Et toi? Et toi?

Ms. GAINSBOURG: (Singing) Crooked man down a crooked mile...

I had fun recording her voice and placing it there. It's touching for me to know that they're present on this album.

(Soundbite of song "Greenwich Mean Time")

Ms. GAINSBOURG: (Singing) We live together in a crooked little house. We're all fine. We're all fine.

LYDEN: Charlotte Gainsbourg, it's been a great pleasure talking to you and thanks for joining us from the studios of Studio Line in Paris.

Ms. GAINSBOURG: Thank you very much. Thanks.

(Soundbite of song "In the End")

LYDEN: And you can hear songs from the new CD on our Web site, nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns to the show next week. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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