A Conversation With Jane Birkin

For every sound and image of Jane Birkin burned into memory (e.g., Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Vadim’s Don Juan, Or If Don Juan Were A Woman), there’s an equal amount dedicated to her time with Serge Gainsbourg. From 1969 to 1980, the love pair created the legendarily naughty song “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus,” a film (Slogan) and a daughter, Charlotte. Gainsbourg made Birkin something of a muse, writing dozens of complexly wordy songs for her and, in turn, she continues the observance of their co-joined legacy with the new, lush Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique (Warner Classics/Parlophone) and a rare live celebration of such, February 1 at Carnegie Hall.

Once you made your fortune in France, you never really returned home to London. What was the allure?
I left for France to do a screen test when I was 20. John Barry (her then-husband, known for composing the music for 12 James Bond films) had already left for Los Angeles, with me not knowing what else to do. So I went to Paris and never came back—maybe just for Christmas or holidays. I just wound up staying with Serge after John and I divorced for the next 13 years or so.

I would be remiss if I did not mention your daughter, Charlotte, and her latest album, Rest. Do you keep up with each release, the minutiae of it all?
She let me listen to Rest about two years ago, and I was astounded by her words, her honesty. It was so true and beautiful, poetically speaking. I think that she was brave in opening her heart to what hurts. What’s strange about this is that she was always a very secret child—a very introverted actress. She never talked about her private life. Now she has this desire to be open and for people to understand her. And that has a remarkable beauty to it.

Does she get that from you or Serge?
I would say that she got that most from Serge—at least maybe the writing, though Serge used a style of writing that was very much like Cole Porter, really; of cutting words into two and singing them as part of the next lines. So it is a whole thing. He was the most modern writer that ever existed in France, more so than Brel and such. It was his way of shortening words or using slang. No one has really been like him since, so he is a constant reference to anybody who writes in French

He had a brilliant level of wordplay that mixed the erudite with the erotic—even foul. When you were first presented with his lyrics and his shifting musicality, how did you embrace it?
I’m never really sure what people mean when they say embrace. [Laughs] He wrote many songs for me—eventually one every two years over 20-odd years.

Until he passed.
What he gave me to sing was what I believe was most feminine about him, and all his sadness, and all his breakups, even the one involving me, as well. That’s a very strange psychological position to be in. It was intriguing to try to be up to his standards and honor it in some way. When we were together, I guess it felt more normal for him to write about me or to me, as I was always by his side. He gave me the most beautiful of his songs always.

I don’t mean to sound naïve, but if someone was writing songs for me and about me on a regular basis, I might find them difficult to sing. Flattered and moved, yes, but did you find that awkward?
Not a naïve question at all because it is really not that simple. I mean, there were songs that he wrote explicitly about me having an affair and about how he cried. And they were written in such a beautiful way. I was like you; terribly moved and awkward. I could understand they were wonderful songs and from a man’s soul. I just tried to sing them as high as I could in pitch to make him as pleased as he could and feel as if I was interpreting his words to the very highest of standards. I would watch him through the glass of the studio and hoped they were as beautiful as they could be. And not disappoint him I was singing his pain. I always hoped for another 12 songs, then another. And then he died.

How did you even learn to sing, since acting was your thing?
I was in a musical when I was 17: The Passion Flower Hotel. It was very bad with lots of stupid songs such as “I Must I Must I Must Increase My Bust.” So not funny. A real school farce. There were, however, a few beautiful melodies because that is what John Barry did. No one noticed whether I had a good voice—it was just that I lived with the composer. It was weird that I found myself again in the musical arena with Serge, especially at first with this terribly sexy song “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus.” It was a lot of heavy breathing, which I understood exacty what that was. I also understood that every other pretty girl in Paris wanted to sing that song with him. I was no fool. So when he said he’d written “Jane B Preludio De Chopin 4,” well, I loved him. I didn’t care what the song was. It was just good fun being with him being out on the road. I never cared much about anything. I wasn’t really a professional person with some grand ambition. I believe he would think it funny that I’m here doing this in America now. He loved America.

I do get that Serge was classically trained, but why do this as a symphony?
I don’t know if he saw it as so grand, but he did use classical music as inspiration and when he wanted to give us something beautiful. His father was a classically trained musician who played piano in cabarets and casinos. It’s a bit pompous, this show, as I didn’t know if I had the voice for it. But I did do this first as a reading of his lyrics—to show off what sort of poet he was. I believe Serge would have been pleased, as he was only able to use full orchestras for his movies. Orchestras were always so frightfully expensive. I believe he would be moved especially hearing “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” played that way.

—A.D. Amorosi