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For Jane Birkin, her enduring legacy is an afterthought to her mission to keep the work of Serge Gainsbourg alive. She tells Zaneta Cheng of Gainsbourg’s poignant songs, her fear of concerts and her love for France

 

The opening song of the concert is “Ces Petits Riens” (These Little Nothings). It begins Mieux vaut n’penser a rien / Que n’pas penser du tout (Better to think of nothing than not to think at all). When Jane Birkin walks out in a suit of all black, replete with satin lapels and suede boots – ever the siren of Saint Germain and Left Bank louche – singing those words in her breathy warble, it’s apparent they mean anything but nought to her. Eyes shut, each word sung in such visible earnest, she’s one of the rare artists whose live performances are immeasurably more moving and magical than her recordings. On stage, each tremble and break conveys the fragility, vulnerability and immense responsibility she feels as she sings the songs of Serge Gainsbourg, to whom she was lover and muse – the former for 12 years and the latter until his death in 1991. The lovers became legends in France with their song “Je T’aime ... Moi Non Plus”, banned from airwaves for its sexual content in the UK, Italy, Spain and other countries when it was released. Since then, Birkin – an English import – became woven into the fabric of French culture, with her hair and her unstudied style mimicked even beyond Gallic shores. Now the torch-bearer for Gainsbourg’s oeuvre, she’s embarking once again on a concert tour, two years after the death of her eldest daughter and 26 years since Gainsbourg’s passing, stopping in Hong Kong to spin us the magical web that was Serge and Jane. Prestige caught up with Birkin before her two performances here last month.

 

Although you had a long career as a singer and recording artist, you never performed live until your concert at the Bataclan in your 40s. Can you tell us about that concert and what made you decide to go on tour?

I remember being pushed on stage, and them taking my fingers so they could peel me off and push me on stage. I must say it was frightening. I must have done it for a year, that show at the Bataclan, and then I went on tour. Serge wrote two more records for me – Lost Song and then Amour des Feintes, which was the last album he ever wrote, and then he died. [Philippe] Lerichonne, my artistic director, said, “Now Serge is dead, you must sing the whole last album.” I sang that concert for nearly a year and I put the microphone down at the end of the concert because Lerichonne said that’s how I should end, and people thought I wouldn’t sing any more. I thought they were right. Serge is dead so I don’t know what to sing any more. Then I started to miss it, miss the people attached to it, so I made another record with many authors, because Lerichonne said to me, “If you’re going to make a record without Serge, then be completely unfaithful, don’t sing for another composer, sing for 25 other composers.” So I did. Then I was asked to do a tiny concert in Avignon for the Festival de Théâtre. A woman asked if I knew a few songs with a sort of folklore and I didn’t, but I arranged Serge’s songs with Arab musicians. The head of the Odéon, a very classical and prestigious theatre in Paris, asked if I had anything to sing for four days because they had a hole and they didn’t know what to put in it, so I said come and see, maybe it’s not chic enough. They came and watched, and they thought it was chic so they gave us the four days. In the audience was a man who asked me if I wanted a manager and if I wanted to go on tour. I never had a manager before, so I said, “Why not?” So I did [the album] Arabesque round the world for nearly 10 years.

 

How do you prepare for them?

I shouldn’t talk because I get [croaky]. It’s always very frightening and I make people’s lives miserable by saying, “I mustn’t talk, I mustn’t talk.” Then I have my hair curled. Then I go through all the words because there are 25 songs and the words are quite complicated, but it’s a very strange métier because the last time I sang must have been four years ago. So from singing nothing to singing 25 songs for nearly two hours every night, there’s been no training. If I was a professional singer maybe I would do a la gamme [training] like opera singers do every day, but here, there’s no training whatsoever.

You’ve been performing Serge Gainsbourg’s songs for 30 years. Have your feelings toward the songs changed?

No. It’s changed in that when I did the Bataclan, he was there. I was trying to please one person, who was Serge. When he died, I just wanted the voice to be strong enough so that I didn’t lose it, and that they would think his melodies so beautiful and they would understand his words. Then I became the person who carried his work around, which was a great responsibility. With the classical music, this time, I’ve realised how terribly sad his songs are. Most of the ones I’ve decided to sing this time are from when we separated. So I know the pain it was for him, and sometimes when I’m singing them I mustn’t sing too much, otherwise you could cry and you can’t sing any more, and anyway it’s too late. But I find myself feeling more moved maybe than at the beginning.

This time I liked singing “Lost Song”, which I had absolutely no interest in singing when Serge gave it to me. I went to see him and asked him if he would write some words for some classical music. I had forgotten the composer so I hummed and he said, “Grieg.” Then I told him, “I don’t know who I am any more. I’ve come back from Japan. But am I English? Am I French? Am I old and am I young?” He said, “So you want a sort of lost song then.” But when I sang the song I thought he was making fun of me. So I sang the words but I didn’t realise quite how extraordinary they are. At the end of the song he says, “You say vous after having said tu.” In the French language you say vous vois to older people and people you don’t know. When you meet with them, or sleep with them, or they’re your children, then you say tu. So he says, “Now you say vous to me, whereas before you used to say tu.” But it also means to kill me, tu moi. So it’s a very poignant song.

Your concert sets tend to be minimalistic. Is this a deliberate aesthetic decision?

No, I wouldn’t have known what to do. Lerichonne tells me where to stand roughly so that in my head it changes a tiny bit, but there’s really very little that I do. I don’t know how to dance. They don’t need my anecdotes for making it even longer, so if I can just come up with the songs, that’s already quite good. I’m dressed very simply, so it’s what I do best, which is not very much.

You’re one of the most admired women in the world and one of the most copied. How does it feel to live with that legacy?

What is the legacy?

As a fashion icon, musician, actress, symbol of femininity for an era.

I had a good idea for the [Hermès Birkin] bag. That was a very good idea, but that’s all I had, one idea. And then one had people who knew how to dress you with very little. Saint Laurent made it very easy to wear men’s smoking jackets. So what else did I do? As I was very young, I used to dare to do things that nowadays I don’t think people would ever dare do because they would know how to do it correctly, and I didn’t. I had a dress that was in lace, I remember, and I didn’t like it so I just turned it the other way round and put a brooch on it and went to Cannes. People thought it was a very extraordinary dress but it was the other way round. I think I read somewhere that Françoise Hardy had a V-neck jersey and she turned it the other way round. So sometimes it’s just turning things the other way round.

Why do you think people love your songs?

When you’ve been singing this long – I don’t mean singing on stage, but I sang “Je T’aime ... Moi Non Plus” with Serge when I was 20, so I’ve been singing for a very long time – I think they remember where they were when they first heard that song, and that’s probably why they’re moved or touched, because of themselves, because I’m a part of their history. I’ve been in France now for nearly 50 years, so I’ve been part of people’s histories for nearly 50 years. I’m lucky because if you have about 10 good songs it means you can sing anywhere. You can make people think of something else for about an hour. If they’re living through things that are quite difficult then – c’est déjà ca [as it’s already happened, you have to accept it]. I think if the fascists win in France it would be a great big mistake and it would be very, very, very frightening, so if I can do anything to stop Marine le Pen, I will. I love France. I don’t want people looking at us in horror like they look at Trump, or like they look at Brexit. I love them much too much for that. 



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