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How Jane Birkin became a music, fashion and film icon

Jane Birkin
Photograph: Courtesy Nico Bustos

Notoriously, Jane Birkin romped naked as a teenager in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Blow-Up; married Bond film composer John Barry; cooed erotically with her former lover, the late, undoubtably great French pop provocateur Serge Gainsbourg on “Je t’aime… moi non plus”; and, yes, she inspired the Hermès Birkin bag. There’s more, of course, but these days she’s renewing her musical relationship with Gainsbourg.

Joined by the Wordless Music Orchestra and guest Rufus Wainwright, Birkin performs at Carnegie Hall Thursday, February 1. The show is part of a world tour for her recent album, Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique, which retunes Gainsbourg’s songs as orchestral pieces, exquisitely arranged by Emmy Award–winning composer Nobuyuki Nakajima, who will also be accompanying on piano at Carnegie Hall.

Speaking from her home in Paris, Birkin asserts that Le Symphonique is about Serge. Mais non, we assert, it’s about Birkin et Gainsbourg.

Le Symphonique’s arrangements are beautiful. How are the songs different in this format?
People hear the words more, because of the way Nobuyuki orchestrated them—he lets me fly above the orchestra. It’s wonderful to rediscover the words Serge wrote. When I first sang them, I don’t remember realizing the beauty of the words. It was so stressful having to interpret words that were about me; they were about him and me. Fifty years later, it is as if I am interpreting songs about [overall] romance and life. It’s not about me anymore.

The most famous Gainsbourg-Birkin song, “Je t’aime…” is only hinted at on the album. Why isn’t it here in full?
Because it’s a duo and I haven’t sung it in 50 years. Of course I haven’t! Because the other person isn’t there.

Could someone else sing Serge’s part?
Never, no! Never! I wouldn’t touch that. It would be inconceivable. It is so beautiful [as] classical music—it’s much better to leave it like that.

You intend to publish your diaries. Why share those—and why now?
I’ve got nothing else to share, so I might as well.

You refer to the diaries revealing your lack of self-confidence.
It’s what comes out when I read them. I think it’s usually rather the case. I’ve read quite a few people’s diaries and you’d think they would have self-confidence, and they don’t. They’ve all been fairly unstable, lacking in confidence and insecure. It’s part of being an actress, possibly.

The Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique deluxe edition includes a DVD of your Super 8 video. Why air deeply personal family footage?
I thought, What else have I got to give that was about those years? I thought it would be nice for people to see that Serge was so lovely, so sweet and so tender. I think it would be a surprise for people who imagine he would be sarcastic and strange and distant. He was so gentle and so kind and so funny. That was what it was for.

Let’s talk about the bag. The real Birkin bag was a straw basket you used long before Hermès.
It was as famous as I was. It cost five pounds and I got it near a theater where I was doing a play, just before I married John Barry.

Is that your style—quirky, not following fashion, more what pleases you?
Yes, in a way. It was not what people would usually have as evening wear or for going to nightclubs. It was my basket. The clothes I wore were mostly comfortable. There seems to be a certain style about it, but apart from things being comfortable, I can’t think what it was. I have photos of me wearing the shortest skirt possible while the French were wearing more decent things. That was not what we were wearing on the King’s Road. The English are eccentric and do what they want. You could walk down the King’s Road wearing a top hat and underwear, and it would be fine. It’s just an English way of going about it.

Jane Birkin and Wordless Music Orchestra play Carnegie Hall Thursday, February 1 at 8pm (carnegiehall.org); $55–$125. Buy tickets.

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