Jane Birkin – Icon/Singer/Actor/Writer Presents a One-Time Concert
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
Cultural Icon/Singer/Actor/Writer Presents a One-Time Concert – Birkin Gainsbourg The Symphonic
by Brad Balfour
In the late-'60s, a French song, "Je t'aime, moi non plus," came out and stirred both controversy and accolades as well as becoming an international pop hit – even getting considerable airplay in the very uptight USA. As sung by Jane Birkin, with her hushed, breathy, half-whispered vocals, it prompted explicit sexual fantasies – just as Serge Gainsbourg, its creator, and her lover, intended.
The late Jewish singer, songwriter, pianist, film composer, poet, painter, screenwriter, writer, actor and director has been regarded as modern France’s most important pop music figure, renowned for often provocative and scandalous releases which caused uproar everywhere, often dividing public opinion. His diverse output – he wrote over 550 songs, many of which have been covered more than 1,000 times – range from jazz, chanson, and yé-yé to efforts in rock, funk, reggae, and electronica.
Though his varied but individualistic compositions made him hard to categorize, his legacy has been enshrined and he's become one of the world's most influential musicians. His lyrics incorporated wordplay, with humorous, bizarre, provocative, sexual, satirical or subversive overtones, prompting critics to regard Gainsbourg and a French literary treasure.
In '68, the 22-year-old met the 40-something Gainsbourg while co-starring with him in Slogan, which marked the beginning of years-long working and personal relationship. The duo released their debut Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg in 1969, and Birkin also appeared in the controversial film Je t'aime moi non plus (1976) under Gainsbourg's direction.
Their story was little bit romantic, a little bit tragic. It contained lots of drama and emotion – and it made a huge impact on both their lives. Though they parted ways – she separated from Gainsbourg in 1980 – Birkin continued working as both actress, singer, and writer, appearing in indie films and recording numerous solo albums. But her time with Serge was always present in her life.
Since his surprising death from a second heart attack in 1991, Gainsbourg has attained legendary status, and is regarded as one of France's greatest musicians and a beloved national figure. He has also gained a cult following in the English-speaking world with chart success throughout the United Kingdom and the USA (something no other Francophone artist has managed) with "Je t'aime... moi non plus" and "Bonnie and Clyde" respectively.
The 70-something Birkin now comes to New York's Beacon Theatre to pay tribute to her late husband with "Birkin Gainsbourg The Symphonic" on Friday, March 6th at 8 pm. Birkin will be joined by rock legend Iggy Pop and actress/daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Arranged by Emmy Award-winner Nobuyuki Nakajima with by Philippe Lerichomme's artistic direction, the concert offers symphonic versions of classic Gainsbourg songs ranging from his career beginnings in the '50s to those written especially for Birkin, such as "Jane B" and "Baby Alone in Babylone" – penned after the legendary couple's separation.
I'm glad that I, at least, got a chance to spend two days with him. I had gone to Paris and started working for Metal Hurlant. I was sent to interview Serge. When I came to the house, he showed me everything there and then we went out to his studio. He took me to Le Palace to see Ingrid Cavan perform and then to Elysee Matinot for a late dinner with a film producer, fashion designer and actress. When I came back, I visited him a second time. I wish I had written more about him, but I'm hoping through this conversation I'll be able to do so.
Born December 14th, 1946, Jane Mallory Birkin, OBE achieved international fame in part due to her decade-long musical and romantic partnership with Serge Gainsbourg. She also had a prolific career as an actress in British and French cinema. This London native first achieved notoriety thanks to Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 thriller Blowup, where Birkin has a minor but surprising scene in which she plays a model who romps topless with photographer David Hemmings. Birkin would establish acting credits in Antonioni's Kaleidoscope, as well as Agatha Christie's films Death on the Nile (1978), and Evil Under the Sun (1982).
In 1991, she appeared in the Red Fox miniseries and in an American drama, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, in 1998. After she starred in 2016's Oscar-nominated short “La femme et le TGV,” she said, at the time, it would be her final film.
Birkin has lived mainly in France since the '70s raising her children. She's been mother to late photographer Kate Barry (d. 2013), with her first husband John Barry; actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, with Serge; and model Lou Doillon, with Jacques Doillon. Additionally, she lent her name to the popular Hermès Birkin bag. Over a week ago, Birkin spoke about her life shortly before making to NYC for this show.
Are you surprised at how you've become an icon? On the internet, people are always posting your photos. Do you think of yourself as an icon?
No, of course not. It's quite funny. I'm going to a show tonight with Celine and she looks exactly like I looked when I was 20, so it's pretty sweet. I never think of myself that way. And then seeing some of them, what I see every day, it's very sweet of people to think of you at all.
How do you manage these personae?
Well, I'm not sure. I'm doing a film in May, June, and July. I've got a new record coming out with it; I wrote the lyrics and music. I've done the Philharmonic ones in nearly three years and we go to Moscow and then I'll finish it off with my daughter Lou. I will have done nearly three years with Philharmonic. I've been lucky to have ideas because I've found Nobuyuki Nakajima– the orchestrator who's Japanese. When I went to Japan, they had the tsunami, and I wanted to go there and do a kick-off to cheer people up. I met him and he was a composer and I thought, well, if I do it in a Philharmonic way with the orchestra... He writes movie music; I've always rather loved movie music. I knew it wouldn't be boring and he'd find a place for my voice somewhere. And he did. It's a magical thing that he's managed to do.
Is there a thread running through them all that's very Jane Birkin? How would you describe that?
I brought out my diary and some people are surprised because they're very honest. If I was frightened of anything, it was that people would be disappointed in me and that I wasn't a courageous or good person that I wanted to be in it. In the diary it shows, but those diaries are coming out in Russian, Spanish and in Italian and German. Really who would have thought that this little girl turned into somebody who kept going for so long. And so, in Quebec, I'll be reading the diaries and then I'll come over to New York and seeing the Philharmonic and just hope.
Why do you think it works so well?
It's probably emotional because I'm really singing Serge's point of view, his pain, his distress, all the beautiful things that he moved in me when I left him. It's another part of the history really and just a new way of presenting things. A way of doing songs and also the one concert you saw, which was with Jamille and the North African group and funny, because they were very particular, they seem to travel very well. So, I had a good year for knowing the best people to work with. I think that's probably my good luck.
Do you find yourself relating first to the lyrics and then the music or the other way around?
I know them all for so long now – these songs I've been singing, some of them for over 50 years, but, with this new way of doing it. This is the best way I've ever done it. I think you can understand the words when you listen to them, even though it's a Philharmonic orchestra. Sometimes I can't get over the beauty of the songs he wrote and just find it so odd that they were never in English and others did versions of them because he's probably just the greatest writer. People have come to miss him an awful lot because of the extravagance of his personality and realizing not too late, but even so quite late, the immaculate writer he was. I was just lucky to have him from when I was 20 years old until the day he died.
Some people think of Serge and Leonard Cohen as having a similar emotional connection. Who do you feel Serge was most connected to? Some others think of him as the French Bob Dylan. What do you think of that association? He really has shaped a lot of other people.
He's influenced the French way of writing since he started. He was a different way of writing, a different way in rhyming, so for the French, he did all that. The ideas of melody, the notes and the ideas that no one ever had done before, doing a whole album on a story that had a beginning and the dramatic end. He's as great a writer as Dylan and Cohen. Of course, he has the same melancholia that you can feel with them as well. He was such a funny mixture of being Russian, Jewish, terribly dramatic, and funny. Always longing to tell the latest Jewish joke or the latest Belgian joke that he had written down in the pocket book. Always longing to play a tune on the piano that would move you. Then he would start crying. And yet he was just the funniest man.
I don't know if it the other two people you mentioned were quite as surprising in real life, but he was the most amazingly charming, funny, and kind man. I don't know whether there are many artists who you can say that about. As to his genius side, he was always ahead of his time. It was just lucky that people realized how great he was in time. He was only 63 when he died, but I think he knew that he was about the most popular man in France. He had a complicated beginning with his looks and everything. At the end, I think he realized that he was the most loved man in France. Thank God. He had just enough time for that.
What's it like working with your daughter? You did a film together, right?
She was in Jane V and Kung Fu Master with me. My other daughter, Lou, who was about four, is in it as well. She sang once with me on the concert that I did. So, it was fun to be with her and Iggy Pop, who was really very sweet. I can't wait to be with them.
Is this the first gig you're doing with Iggy and Charlotte together. Have done it with Charlotte but not [with Iggy]?
No, no. It's the only time.
I can't wait to see it. I've seen you do your music at Alliance Francais a few years ago. And you did that show before, Arabesque, with the middle Eastern Arabic stuff. You cover this sort of global expanse of sound – do you feel that each style touches on different aspects of you?
I don't really know that. I realized at the end, this concert had given me a comedy music gallery for one person. There were funny songs and sad songs and with the scopes that nobody who could make Iijima. We have often [have] the voice from the piano before the whole 60-piece orchestra comes in. It's just a fabulous feeling, like flying. I watched the shift or Charisse and you have to be pretty careful about not tripping yourself up. If you make a mistake with the 60 people that are not going to follow me, I've got to follow them. It's a journey I did slowly. You always think it's good to be the last time you do it.
There's that other side of you, the visual side. Your scene in Blow Up, it was a very unconscious, very natural thing. Then you developed a fashion identify, the Birkin bag and the modeling – you got identified as a fashion icon. Were you conscious or unconscious of it? Did you realize that you had such a visual presence? Did it affect you in giving you another medium to play in?
I had absolutely no idea. The only thing I probably didn't have was this arrogance of coming into this in the 60s and therefore wearing short skirts and my basket and thinking that whatever we did was right, because I mean that's the way we wanted to do it. That was by the fact of being English, and a little bit more daring than the French were. Especially at 20 years old and when all the fashion is in England. Everything was happening in England, the fashion and the music. I mean when I popped over from England, we were in a fairly good place in England. So probably that had something to do with it, just wearing the things that I wanted. If I didn't think they would put it the right way around, then I turned the wrong way. In all this I was egged on by Serge's gospel, who thought it was all great.
In those days we weren't icons of any kind. I didn't get to anything free from anybody. It was just great fun. We picked up things that we thought were fun. I found things that I thought Serge would look great in. I found his body pumps, so he didn't have to wear uncomfortable shoes and jewelry around his neck and his blazer and jeans and that. Suddenly it's become everybody's fashion to look like that. But it was he who started it,
How did you meet Iggy Pop – another pop culture icon? How did you become friends with Iggy?
I wasn't friends with Iggy. He just seemed to be the most fantastic performer that I could possibly ask for. When I did ask if he'd be free then, I was astonished that he knew Serge's work so terribly well and was so modest and sweet and willing to come on this adventure with me. But I didn't know him at all. Anyone who's worked with him said that he was such a lovely person to work with, so I mean, he's got the reputation of being a sweetheart and very loved by the people that I love. I'm sure it'll be fun to meet him.
When will Charlotte's documentary be done?
I'm just doing it little by little frankly. We did a couple of days in New York and we did a couple of days in Tokyo and so it'll probably take years. I hope so. Then it's worth looking up someone who is, when I started writing my own record just now, I remember to close the person who was absolutely wonderful and worth looking up is, is my brother's son called Anno Birkin. He was in a group called Kicks Joy Darkness and they all got killed in Milan in 2001 but his words, which you can find on the internet are just wonderful. Perhaps the most beautiful modern poetry that I know.
This is the one show you're going to do of this. And then you're going to come back and you've got your album to finish.
I finished all the words and all the singing, but we've got to do the quotes in Abbey Road and then do the rest next week and then it'll be the Children's Chorale and things like that. It'll be finished by May. Then I start the film May, June, July, and then the record comes out in September. So, I have my work cut out [for me]. It'll be quite nice.
And in the middle of all this, Charlotte's shooting the documentary?
She's just doing a couple of days in New York.