From plain Jane to pop icon
JANE BIRKIN has became a much-beloved figure in and beyond the world of French music and film
Jane Birkin, the quintessentially spunky British lass who became a quintessential pop icon of French chanson through her liaison with scandalous Serge Gainsbourg, is musing over the success of her latest and most personal album, Enfants d’hiver, in her native land.
“Strangely enough, the album has had the best, most wonderful reviews in England,” she says over the line from her home in Paris.
“I thought to myself, How strange that the English would prefer me singing in French, even though I’m English. I think it’s because there’s something about the language that’s attractive and expressive, and even if they don’t understand every word they can delve into it.”
Although her early career was propelled by scandals that quickly made her a ’60s pop personality (even though she then seemed to have none), and despite a small voice saved only by sensual breathiness, Birkin has become a much-beloved figure in and beyond the world of French music and film.
Enfants d’hiver, from which she will sing at the FrancoFolies on Friday, is a kind of confessional thank-you note, refreshing and touching.
Her notoriety at the start of her career was immediate, and the first image of her that was seen worldwide became part of the Sixties’ sense of sexual liberation: in the 1966 film Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s cool, acerbic look at swinging London, she played a schoolgirl with long, ironed hair and bangs who frolicked (and stripped) with the photographer character played by David Hemmings – becoming the first actress to flash pubic hair, even if ever so briefly, in a British film.
It was during that period that she married British composer John Barry – of James Bond film-music fame – who had launched her career by casting her in a stage show called Passion Flower Hotel. They had a child, Kate.
Then she met Gainsbourg, the incorrigible roué genius of French pop, and in 1969 simulated orgasm for him on the steamy organ-driven Je t’aime … moi non plus – a song Gainsbourg originally wrote for Brigitte Bardot, who had also been his lover. The Gainsbourg-Birkin version became the first French song to top the British pop charts, despite being banned by the BBC. (In another song, Gainsbourg dubbed 1969 “l’année érotique”; ironically, Je t’aime stalled at No. 69 on the U.S. hit parade.)
Birkin also played the title figure in Gainsbourg’s 1971 mini-pop-opera masterpiece concept album, Melody Nelson, and warbled the refrain in his song La Decadanse.
They were a golden couple; she put up with his excesses, because few men of that era were more interesting. They had a daughter, Charlotte, who has also become a pop star and actress. (In a replay of her mother’s past, she gained notoriety for her sound effects in Gainsbourg’s provocative Lemon Incest.)
Gainsbourg died in 1991, a decade after Birkin finally left him – a decade in which his drinking, carousing and heart problems finally caught up with him. (He alluded to his regrets over the breakup in the song Baby Alone in Babylone.) Meanwhile, Birkin had met French film director Jacques Doillon, with whom she had a daughter, Lou, now a model and actress. No longer Gainsbourg’s muse, Birkin flowered in a film and music career of her own.
She began the millennium by recording Gainsbourg songs with North African backings on the successful album Arabesque; the tour for that album marked her most recent concerts in Montreal. She is a member of both the Order of the British Empire and the French Ordre National du Mérite.
“The English recognize that they don’t have a (version of) Serge Gainsbourg in the literary sense,” she says.
“In his Gitanes-smoking, sexual, funny, sad, desperate way there was something about him that, when they listened to Melody Nelson and realized its greatness, it became part of their lives.
“The fact is, Je t’aime … moi non plus has been voted the No. 1 love song of all time by the English, who realized that the French language has something about it that’s more sensual than English. They love accents in France – the Germans or Italians or English doing French – but in England the actual French voice and language is very attractive as such.”
Birkin has appeared in more than 70 films and has been nominated for several Césars, France’s equivalent of the Oscars. She has made more than 20 solo albums. And, it seems, everybody wants to duet with Birkin: she’s collaborated with such artists as original yé-yé icon Françoise Hardy, Feist, Beth Gibbons from Portishead, Bryan Ferry, Franz Ferdinand, Manu Chao, Johnny Marr from The Smiths, Mickey 3D, Paolo Conte, Beck, Rufus Wainwright, Benjamin Biolay, Keren Ann, Yann Tiersen, Alain Souchon, Les Negresses Vertes, MC Solaar, Miossec, Yosui Inoue, Étienne Daho, Jimmy Rowles, Goran Bregovic, Sonny Landreth, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, The Divine Comedy, The Magic Numbers, and many others.
On Enfants d’hiver, the first album for which she wrote all the lyrics herself, her small voice is serene, still with a sweet undertone of British in her French accent. Mostly, though, she’s moved into the Carla Bruni department (which she greatly influenced): vulnerable and wise at the same time, a kind of French pop Zen.
While she remains a keeper of the Gainsbourg flame – no Birkin concert goes without at least one of his songs – she has clearly hit a creative peak with Enfants d’hiver.
“For many years I was Serge’s muse and his feminine side,” she says. “And he wrote some of the most extraordinary songs to me, songs of me in leotards and the image he wanted me to be. I was singing Serge’s philosophy, but there was a secret side of me, and a sea of melancholy.
“I wanted to sing about what I felt like playing on the beach when I was 12. I wanted to make a record reflecting this secret interior life away from the public image. I wanted to put out an album that would resemble me. In French, the title Enfants d’hiver translates as winter children, but it’s also understood as diverse children” – enfants divers.
Ask her how she balances being perceived as a cultural icon – after all, Hermès, perhaps the ultimate French luxury fashion house, designed and named a handbag for her, and the Birkin bag became one of its most popular (and expensive) items – and how she feels as a plain old human being, and Birkin says there’s no time to ponder such matters due to her humanitarian work with Amnesty International on immigrant-welfare and AIDS issues. (She’s visited Bosnia, Rwanda and the Palestine territories, spotlighting the plight of children.)
“Frankly, I think of myself as little as possible. I care more about working with AIDS and children, enlisting other show people to get involved, than my life as an actress. Therefore, my image doesn’t matter very much. How lucky I feel to do something (about the world’s ills)!”
Be that as it may, Jane Birkin has managed the tricky task of using her image to transcend it – for the betterment of musical creativity and, in her own way, the world she inhabits. Jane Birkin performs Enfants d’hiver at Les FrancoFolies on Aug. 7 at Théâtre Maisonneuve, 175 Ste. Catherine St. W. Opening is Stéphanie Lapointe. Tickets are $55, available at the box office; call 514-842-2112. For more Francofolies info, go to www.francofolies.com