Jane Birkin 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy of PR)
Considering the fact that Jane Birkin’s first contact with most of the world was
her recorded simulation of an orgasm, the rest of her career hasn’t been too
much of a post-coital letdown.
From her genre-defining roles in definitive
’60s love-era films Blowup, Wonderwall and the French film Slogan, to her
unlikely worldwide cult hit recorded with actor/singer boyfriend Serge
Gainsbourg, “Je t’aime... moi non plus” (“I Love you... Me Neither”),
Birkin did her small part to tear down sexual and social barriers of the day and
drag the staid establishment kicking and screaming into an era of mini-skirts,
unisex haircuts and high boots.
While Twiggy may have been the pinup girl
for the “swinging ’60s,” it was the English- born actress and singer Birkin who
was the real “it girl” of that turbulent, society-changing decade. When Martin
Scorsese wanted an inside view of George Harrison in the mid-1960s for his
current documentary Living in a Material World, he went to Birkin, who got to
know the moptop when he scored the music for Wonderwall.
But it’s a
testament to Birkin’s talent as an actress and a singer that she’s not just
known as the original 1960s wild child and lover of Gainsbourg, but has enjoyed
a long, successful musical and cinematic career, in addition to mothering
actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg.
All impressive accomplishments
indeed, but of course, it eventually all comes back to “Je t’aime.” For those
who may not recall it, the 1969 song featured innocuous music supporting cooing
lyrics sung in French by Gainsbourg and Birkin. Innocent enough, except for the
added background tracks of Birkin’s simulating an increasing level of sexual
moans and groans climaxing in more ways than one at the song’s
The song, with its languorous piano-based rhythms, later
influenced the music of everyone from Portishead and Air to Dido and Pulp’s
Jarvis Cocker. It became a hit, despite being banned from the airwaves in many
However, it was not an intent to shock and change the world
order that prompted a young Birkin to shed her clothes for those films or
simulate sex in the song – it was based in the entirely traditional human
emotions of pride, fear and jealousy.
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Birkin was married to James Bond
composer John Barry in 1966 when she was cast in Michelangelo Antonioni’s
Blowup, and decided to disrobe upon the dare of her husband.
think I was brave enough to take my clothes off, so I did it to impress him,”
the 65-year-old Birkin said in an email interview last week, ahead of her
musical performances “Birkin sings Gainsbourg Via Japan” on January 14 and 15 at
Reading 3 in Tel Aviv.
By 1969, Birkin had divorced Barry and begun a
long-term romance with French matinee idol Gainsbourg, which led to “Je
“I did that out of fear of another girl doing it in a telephone
cubicle with the divine Serge,” she said. “So it was jealousy and fear – those
Birkin described those times as “a cultural revolution” but
for her, it was more of an attempt to establish a “normal” life at 18 with her
“Swinging London was exciting, with photographers like
David Bailey, pop groups The Beatles and The Stones, actors like Terrence Stamp,
Michael Crawford and Michael Caine, mini-dresses and looking wonderful on the
Kings Road with Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy... but to me it it didn’t seem like a
revolution,” said Birkin.
“I was married most conventionally at 18, so
all I worried about was ‘Can I have a baby, will I lose John Barry?’ Well, I
had my baby Kate at 20 and lost John Barry.”
She was referring to the
breakup of her marriage, but Birkin rebounded when she met Gainsbourg, the
person who eventually became her mentor, on the set of Slogan in 1968. They
began a relationship that lasted 13 years, including several collaborations, not
the least being their daughter Charlotte who was born in 1980. (She gave birth
to another daughter, actress/songwriter/ model Lou Doillon in
AFTER APPEARING as Brigitte Bardot’s lover in 1973’s Don Juan (Or
If Don Juan Were a Woman), Birkin in 1975 resumed collaborating with Gainsbourg,
appearing in his first film, Je t’aime... moi non plus, based on their hit song
together. She then went on to star in the Agatha Christie films Death on the
Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), while at the same time beginning to
appear frequently on theater stages and holding down a second career as a singer
with albums including Baby Alone in Babylone, Amours des Feintes, Lolita Go Home
Birkin explained that she loves all those disciplines
and has never been able to choose between them, thus she continues to indulge in
all of them.
“I am happy to be asked to do anything by friends,” said
Birkin. “Hence yesterday, I was filming in Turin, for Sergio Castelito with
Penelope Cruz, I’m appearing in Quebec in February with Wajdi Mouawad in a
one-woman play he wrote for me, La Sentinelle , and I’m performing the Japanese
musical show up to the end of the year. So, I’m a very un-frustrated person and a
very lucky person.”
Birkin’s streak of individuality and quirky style
have endeared her to a new generation of musical artists who have clamored to
collaborate with her – including everyone from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, Franz
Ferdinand and The Divine Comedy to Rufus Wainwright and Keren
Rendez-vous, her album of duets with Bryan Ferry, Placebo’s Brian
Molko and Gibbons, was released in 2004. It was followed by Fictions in 2008
where she collaborated with authors such as Neil Hannon, Gibbons, Wainwright and
her daughter Charlotte.
“Beth is a fabulous writer for me, as was Rufus
[and] Keren Ann, but my daughters Charlotte and Lou are my favorites,” she said.
“Maybe the Japanese philosophy from Nobu is brushing off on me – live each day
and be happy, no looking back except for the chance to have the best of dear
Serge’s work carry on with me.”
No matter which avenues her muse has led
her down, Birkin always seems to return to the main artistic influence on her
life – her time with Gainsbourg. 20 years after his death and 40 years after
L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, the first Gainsbourg concept album featuring
Birkin, the singer is still singing his music.
In the past, Birkin has
presented Gainsbourg’s music in different settings – including 2002’s
Algerian-tinged shows “Arabesque.”
On her current tour, Birkin is
offering the Gainsbourg songbook of jazz, cabaret, reggae and offbeat French pop
interpreted by a group of Japanese backing musicians on piano, violin, drums and
horns. The collaboration arose after Birkin traveled to Japan and got involved
with relief efforts after last year’s devastating earthquake by staging a Tokyo
concert to raise funds for Doctors of the World.
“Singing songs makes me
feel less useless than watching misery on the television,” she said. “I’m lucky
enough to have been able to be there and show that their feeling of being
forgotten in an indifferent world can be proven wrong. I’m a messenger!”
Birkin’s interest in humanitarian issues preceded Japan, and she had worked for
years with Amnesty International on various topics including immigrant welfare
and Aids in countries like Bosnia and Rwanda. And she’s been a vocal proponent
of Palestinian rights, including making a documentary on Palestinian
actor/director George Ibrahim.
“I sang Arabesque in Ramallah and Gaza
seven years ago before playing in Tel Aviv, the last time I visited Israel, and
Djamel, my violinist and artistic orchestrator of Serge’s works, was delighted
to play to a Jewish audience as well,” said Birkin.
“This time, it’s more
difficult due to scheduling – we have to separate the two dates and go back to
Palestine a month later. So be it, I’ll get boycotted whatever I do, so what to
do? Forget both? I could, but I don’t want to. I think I can come to Israel with
‘Serge via Japan’ and still stick up for ‘Palestine’s existence.’
that people in both countries will feel: ‘well, she’s naïve, she doesn’t live
here, who’s she to have an opinion?’ I hope my Japanese musicians will
understand the complexities and not be wounded by comments that are made. But
they’re wise, and I hope people will see their great talent... and that
Gainsbourg’s beautiful songs will rise above all.”
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