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Artist on Artist: Jane Birkin, muse of Serge Gainsbourg, talks to Janet Bean

French pop icon tells the Eleventh Dream Day drummer: 'It’s not very usual to go on being great friends with your ex-husband'

  • Franck Laguilliez
  • Jane Birkin

Jane Birkin's distinctive singing was first heard by the world in 1969 on "Je T'aime . . . Moi Non Plus," a controversial duet with Serge Gainsbourg. The musical collaboration set off a 13-year romantic and creative relationship that spawned some of France's most memorable pop; Birkin's breathy coo paired with Gainsbourg's lush arrangements created beautifully offbeat songs. Birkin is interviewed by Chicago musician Janet Bean, best known as the co-front woman of Freakwater and the ass kicker on the drum kit behind Eleventh Dream Day. Jane Birkin plays the Portage on Mon 12/5. Eleventh Dream Day plays the Empty Bottle on Sat 12/3 —Luca Cimarusti

I am a fan of your work musically and on film—and your humanitarian work. I want to thank you for that and ask you where are you right now? We arrived in Seattle from Tokyo yesterday. The Japanese orchestra arrived just now, so I took them down to the port to see the fishing boats come in. They're into all the local things in all the towns we've been to. It's great fun to be with them. It was raining this morning, but when I saw them I said, "Oh yes, we can whiz off and see all the sights in Seattle."

The tour is primarily made up of songs of Serge Gainsbourg's? Only.

What was the motivation behind performing these songs rather than your newer material?

I was asked to do dates in America because it was 20 years after Serge died and 40 years after a now-well-known record called Melody Nelson. I said yes. And then I went to Tokyo a week or two after the nuclear disaster, and I asked if I could sing a few songs to show solidarity. We did this little concert and then I came back and did another concert in Paris, which was rather prestigious and was able to have Catherine Deneuve and [Charles] Aznavour. Everyone wanted to be a part of it and it was very exciting. [A friend] said, "Don't forget you're supposed to be going to America." They'd asked me to sing at the Hollywood Bowl. I thought, "Sing what?" I've got no director, and they just want you to whiz off on your own. I said, hang on, how about those Japanese I was with a few weeks ago? They were wonderful, and their head seemed to be a man called Nobu [Nobuyuki Nakajima] and he turns out to be a composer in his own right and a great pianist. I said, "Couldn't he fix up Serge's songs?" So my artistic director got ahold of all Nobu's stuff, and Nobu got ahold of everything I'd ever sung of Serge's, and they came across things that fit in well with Nobu because they were things done with trumpets and drums and jazz. I must have at least 200 songs Serge wrote for me, so there was a lot to choose from. And I stuck in a few that I wanted to sing because I would miss them too much. So we put together this homage to Serge 20 years after his death, 40 years after Melody Nelson, that at its time didn't sell well. I was pregnant with Charlotte so I remember when it came out.

I came across a recitation of your late nephew Anno Birkin's poem called "Close to the River." I thought it was such a touching performance. It speaks so intimately and honestly about relationships and their inescapable effects, the binding connections. The line that resonated with me when I heard it was "I am the ring that won't slip off." I was just about to say that one.

I love that line. In many ways, I think Serge's songs are of a much more sexual nature and done in a more nonsentimental way. I was wondering, having been in a relationship myself with a musical partner that I remain connected to and have a child with, do you think this collaborative relationship was a way of communicating feelings despite the separation? Yes. Just a year after I left him I think I had Lou with Jacques Doillion—no perhaps I hadn't yet had her; it was very shortly afterwards. Anyhow, he rang me up and he said, "I think I owe you a record." I said, "You don't owe me anything at all." And he said, "Yes, I do. So come over and choose the songs you like best." So I went back to the house on the Rue de Verneuil and I put little glosses on the tunes I liked. He was writing two records at the same time and I thought, well, that's the least he could do! I'd chosen "Fuir le Bonheur," "Les Dessous Chics." We got into the recording studio, and it was painful to see him behind the glass crying while I was singing "Con C'est Con Ces Consequences" or "Fuir le Bonheur" or "Les Dessous Chics" because they were all about separations in the most elegant or gentlemanly way. All I could do was sing as high as I could and to make him as pleased as possible. It was the first time I got a gold record, which you only get once in your life, and I said to Serge, "Pick it up for me. It's because of you." He decided to be godfather to my daughter Lou, and he would turn up at any time of night and I would recook him dinner and he became a great chum. But with the pain I was singing, I realized I'd become him. All the songs he'd written before, which were sexy or sweet or whatever he thought I was, were nice. "Mon Amour Baiser," "Di Doo Dah"—they're charming. The ones that are really interesting are the ones he wrote when I left him. It was a far deeper, more fascinating way of writing. I said to him, "Can I say that I'm your feminine side, your B side?"—as we used to have records in those days. And he said, "Yeah, that suits me just fine." I went to London to look after my father and Serge rang and said, "I bought you a diamond. You'll think it's vulgar because it's very big, but you might need it one day." I said, "Oh shut up and stop drinking." That was Friday and on Saturday he was dead. When I went back to Paris, his manservant gave me this red box from Cartier. He said, "He asked me to give it to you." I was thankful and thought how strange; it's not very usual to go on being great friends with your ex-husband.

No, it's not, but I have people ask me that often: "How can that be?" It's wonderful.

We work together musically, we have a child together and we remain friends. I think there is something about the musical relationship that allows that to happen. And to have the child.

We have a child who is an adult now and who has special needs. We had to remain very strong. But I am so thankful for those things that make you work through that process. We had been together for 13 years. It was wonderful in the beginning and even the middle, perhaps not so much in the end. Somehow out of all that mess we managed to make these miraculous records. Thank goodness he was loved before he died. He could have been like Modigliani or van Gogh. He just wanted to go to America, so I thought at least I'm doing that for him.

You spend a great deal of time involved with humanitarian efforts. You rode in a tank into Sarajevo trying to deliver needed items to a war-torn city. As a superhuman, do you have a hobby that we non-superhumans can say, "Oh, I do that too"? Do you collect stamps or e-mail your friends silly videos about kittens? For the 43rd year of my life I will be Father Christmas for my children, coming up the stairs with the stockings full of goodies. My big girls had said, "Why don't we get stockings any more?" I said, "Because you are 43 and 40 and 28." They said, "We'd quite like them again." So this whole tour I'd been picking out little things from all the countries so that they'll get their stockings this year.

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