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Interview: Jane Birkin Talks Music, Serge Gainsbourg, and More

Birkin literally incorporated Serge Gainsbourg’s ghostly presence Saturday night at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex in Los Angeles.

Interview: Jane Birkin Talks Music, Serge Gainsbourg, and More
Photo: Chris Molina

Dressed in a crisp white shirt a la Bernard-Henry Lévy, black dress pants, and a dark overcoat, which she took off unceremoniously before the first song was even through, Jane Birkin literally incorporated Serge Gainsbourg’s ghostly presence Saturday night at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex in Los Angeles. In a final tribute to the man who wrote for her all of his life, and a tribute to Japan after its recent nuclear disaster, Birkin was joined on stage by four musicians from Tokyo to sing Gainsbourg’s music with so much delicateness and gratitude one would think this was her only such concert, not one other stop in a world tour. She did her best to make up for the untranslatability of the lyrics by offering comments and anecdotes in English between songs. Birkin’s voice remains uncannily beautiful in its blend of frailty and resilience. It’s a voice drenched in loss and disillusionment, but also in the refusal to be clamped down by its own melancholia. Birkin’s age—she’ll soon be 65—has only given Gainsbourg’s lyrics an even more immersive gravitas. Alliteration-friendly songs like “Di Doo Dah” highlighted his mastery not only with sentences and words, but letters themselves, as well as her ability to pronounce every sound as if they each were the haunting last line of a poem. In fact, there’s an echo of Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t you celebrate with me” behind each of Birkin’s sung utterances (“Come celebrate with me/That everyday something has tried to kill me/And has failed”). She seemed entranced by her Japanese band, whom she met by chance at a concert in Tokyo a week after the earthquake and tsunami, in a sort of thankful ecstasy, like a reluctant diva oblivious to her own legendary status. Slant had a chance to speak with Birkin before the concert, which, it must be noted, featured during a fleeting moment a light projection of a discreet moving mobile piece, which turned on itself like a carousel of childhood tokens or delicate holiday ornaments, the perfect visual translation to Gainbourg’s otherwise untranslatable melancholia.

This series of concerts was borne out of your wish to do something for Japan, after its recent natural disasters. What was it about Japan that prompted you to create a concert for, as opposed to other potential causes in different parts of the world?

I have done many concerts, and had come to the U.S. many times with Serge’s songs, orchestrated differently every time, but this time I didn’t know what way to approach the oncoming concerts, exactly 20 years after Serge’s death, and 40 years after “Melody.” I nearly put them off. Then the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe hit Japan, and my first thoughts were to get there fast, to buy a ticket and be “solidaire.” I’ve known [the Japanese] for over 40 years and have done concerts [in Japan] nearly every two years. I asked Sachiko, my producer friend, to fix up a little concert for their morale; this was on a Thursday, and by Sunday I was there and singing “Di Doo Dah” and “L’Aquoiboniste,” their favorites, with a great group. I wasn’t the only artist, but I was the only one coming that way from Europe. I saw the refugees, went around to supermarkets to collect money for the fishermen, then went back to Paris.

After so many years carrying Gainsbourg’s legacy with you, how do you make sense of this notion of the muse-artist? Is Jane Birkin’s career a kind of feminist experiment?

At the beginning, 20 years ago, when Serge died, it was very difficult, even in England, to get them to think of Serge other than as a drunk, sexy, funny guy. I just had to get proof, to go back to Paris and ask Mitterrand, Chirac, Lang, Bardot, Godard, Jeanmere, Cardinale, and Yves St Laurent what Serge meant to them, in two lines that I’d get translated. Mitterand wrote, “We’ve lost our Beaudelaire,” Chirac “our Rimbaud, our Appolinaire.” I got it all printed on a program, all wondrous things, so people would understand. Dirk Bogarde, when he introduced me at the Savoy, explained to the English what I meant to the French. Now 20 years on, and some 1000 concerts later, people understand his greatness. Melody Nelson, which hadn’t sold 40 years ago, is now everyone’s favorite record, so he doesn’t need me anymore. I love singing the songs he wrote for me, and I never tire of them, but I sing others’ songs. I am doing Tom Waits’s “Alice” in two weeks. And Beth Gibbons has written songs for me, Rufus Wainwright, a lot of kind, talented people. I wrote an album and I’d love to sing in a musical…The King and I!

This is not the first time you’ve done musical collaborations. Who would you still love to share the stage with?

As I said, I’d love to do a musical. Tom Waits has magic, his wife’s words too. [Maybe] Daho in France?

The music industry has obviously changed a lot since you first started. What remains intact nonetheless?

I don’t know. I never felt very involved [with the industry]. I didn’t have to. Going on the road is great and will always be great. Serge had his record company believe in him, flop or success, and he stayed with them all his life. They are like movie producers. You make a success and they follow. When the next one doesn’t work so well, they wait for the next and the next. That’s changed though. It’s much harder for kids now—and for films too. [Jacques] Doillon had to wait four years to get his last film made, on a tiny budget, yet they’ll be selling his entire oeuvre like Truffaut when he dies.

How do you consume your music: iPod, iPhone, old-fashioned CD? And what have you been listening to lately?

Old fashioned CDs. I listen to the news when I wake up, on the radio. Lulu Gainsbourg did a great job with Scarlett Johansson on “Bonnie and Clyde.” I listen to Charlotte and I’ve been listening to my daughter Lou [Doillon]’s album. It is great, and it’s all written by her.

Not too many artists utilize their platform and prominence to raise funds or awareness for social-political causes. What else is fame good for?

I do what I want, if it makes me feel better and less lousy, but each in their own way. Fame can get you an interview on TV about a cause you care desperately about. I can use that, but not too much or people get bored. I was lucky to be tipped off by good friends about some people’s plight, and maybe it helped a bit, but it didn’t stop that boy Troy [Davis] on death row though. One has limited success and little power, but boycotts work. Look, I’m no “good-doer,” it’s just the way it happened, and if you have a few great songs you feel less dreadful by going over there [to a concert] and giving people something else to think about for an hour.

What is your next project after this series of concerts for Japan?

I’m going to Canada to do a play—well, an hour’s monologue by Wajdi Mouawad, who wrote La Sentinelle for me, and maybe I’ll do one in the fall. I’d like to direct my own film. I loved doing Boxes, my second film. And if a composer wants to put a thing I wrote to music, pourquoi pas? These concerts will last until August, [afterward there will be] a bit of time with prams, kids, and having fun in my new house by the “jardin des plants”! I miss my girls and the children, thank God Christmas is coming and we can all be together.

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