Jane Birkin On Grief, Jealousy, And Her Most Personal Album Ever
After Jane Birkin suddenly lost her eldest daughter — photographer Kate Barry, who died of suspected suicide in 2013 — she took comfort in going to the movies. The onscreen tragedies characters would suffer served as something of a reminder that things could, in fact, get worse. It was during this time that Birkin, who rose to prominence in the late 1960s as a singer, actor, and collaborator of French-pop provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, saw Manchester By The Sea, which is about a man (Casey Affleck) who loses his three young children in an accidental house fire and spends the whole movie blaming himself.
When Birkin tells me that she went to see Manchester By The Sea of her own volition after Barry’s death, I can’t help but gasp. How could someone who’d recently lost a child voluntarily watch a film that features such a tragic plot line about parental bereavement — and find relief in it?
“It was nothing in comparison to this boy, you know?” Birkin says of her loss. “I had [Kate] for 46 years. My brother lost his son when he was 20. So people have had stories that are a million times worse … I like movies because they put things into perspective, and I like hearing other people’s stories. And I like records about other people’s feelings. So it’s rather similar.”
Like her middle daughter — Charlotte Gainsbourg, who sang about losing her sister on her own album, 2017’s Rest — Birkin also processes her grief through music on the forthcoming album, Oh! Pardon tu dormais… Her press materials stress that this is her “most intimate and personal album to date,” and that actually isn’t just marketing hyperbole: The 74-year-old British expat has spent much of her career performing material written and composed by her late romantic and musical partner, Gainsbourg, who passed away in 1991. In more recent years, she’s collaborated with an abundance of names. Her 2006 effort Fictions featured Johnny Marr, Kate Bush, Rufus Wainwright, Portishead vocalist Beth Gibbons, and Tom Waits, just to name a few. In 2017, she toured philharmonic versions of Gainsbourg’s songs in Birkin/Gainsbourg: The Symphonic, which comprised orchestral arrangements from Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Nakajima.
Though she has technically written her own material before, historically Birkin has been more accustomed to interpreting others’ work — until now. Together with co-writers, composers, and producers Étienne Daho and Jean-Louis Piérot, who felt inspired by her play of the same name, Birkin dug more deeply into her “not particularly nice” feelings, like “jealousy, inadequacy, and fear of being left.” The end result is an elegant set of French pop ballads (with two in English) that communicate universal feelings of loss, heartbreak, and, ultimately, acceptance.
Speaking over Zoom from her Paris apartment — walls covered in so many photographs it almost resembles a New York City theater district restaurant plastered with signed headshots — Birkin opens up about Oh! Pardon tu dormais…, looking for clues in Barry’s death, discovering Fran Lebowitz (“fascinating personality, absolutely wonderful”), and her very first impressions of Serge Gainsbourg when they met in 1969.
How has it been in Paris lately?
JANE BIRKIN: It’s not bad, you know? It’s not bad. It could be worse.
There was a first [lockdown], it was a bit brutal. I had a bulldog that died. The whole thing was miserable. We were walking the dog around the block and going to pick up food for other people in the apartments and myself. There was nothing else to do, so luckily there were a few poetry readings we could do over the phone to people to make the day pass. And I watched my daughter Lou [Doillon] who was on, what’s it called? Instagram. She did an hour a day.
And that was the one thing we could look forward to, is to see Lou playing the piano and singing poems, and being in contact with people all over the world. It was like a window, it was wonderful. But apart from that it was just so boring. You never met anybody. Even my bulldog was unhappy, because in the street people used to run to the other side of the street as if they were going to be able to give him something. And I was coughing behind my mask, so people avoided me too.
The whole thing went on for about two months, three months of complete isolation. You didn’t see anybody, you didn’t see any of the children because none of them wanted to give it to me. Charlotte [Gainsbourg] was stuck in New York, Lou was in Paris, but we weren’t allowed to move.
I’d love to learn a little more about your new album — can you share how it relates to the play that you wrote, also titled Oh! Pardon tu dormais…?
BIRKIN: Well, really the text is taken from the play’s dialogue. So, Étienne [Daho, producer and composer] came to see the play two or three times and he said he thought it would make a good concert album. I thought that sounded interesting, and I was really pleased that he would find my writing interesting in any way. He’s been on for years about it. I gave them the song about Kate [Barry] first, “Cigarettes.” It was very eerie and Étienne helped me with the lyrics.
I found myself with a complete kindred spirit, and who egged me on to be not particularly nice. To have feelings that … Jealousy, and inadequacy, and fear of being left. So, I gave him everything that I was thinking of. But most of it came from the play.
That’s interesting. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about being pushed to be not particularly nice.
BIRKIN: I think what pleased him in the play and a bit he took out of my diary too, was the thing when she says, “You’re my poison.” I mean, the absolutely terrifying thing that came out of my diary, that I nearly didn’t print in the diary because I thought, “Oh, this doesn’t look very good for me.” And then I thought, “Well, anybody who knows about jealousy will understand.” And it’s the one thing that Étienne said, “Oh, I think that will make a rather good song.”
So I was egged on. To shoot this other side whereas one has been sort of a fairly nice actress. He said, “I don’t know why you would want to [play] noble, square people.” He said, “People who’ve got fragilities. That’s what makes [them] interesting to play.”
Right, so being encouraged to express “fragilities” makes this the most personal album you’ve ever done.
BIRKIN: Yes, yes. But it’s personal because it’s me talking. I’d been able to talk on my own in interviews and political debates and things that I’ve done aside [from music]. The songs that were written by Serge [Gainsbourg] and the first ones he wrote me, until I was about 30, were songs of … “I brought you a little baby doll who was very sweet, and loved her father.” They were a little bit stupid, but absolutely charming.
They were perfectly charming songs if you wrote about a perfectly charming little girl. And then when I left him, he gave me songs that were far more interesting. It was difficult because I realized that I inflicted this pain on him, so it was a peculiar thing to then have to sing his pain to him.
But still, the songs were of a density of an anguish and sadness that was difficult to compare to anything else he had written for me or anything else he had written for himself. When I sang a song, where he makes me say, “One thing amongst other things that you don’t know is that you have the very best of me,” well, it’s about him, and it’s about me leaving him and not realizing that I had the very best of him, which I did.
They were very personal and they were so beautiful. But they weren’t about me. Which made them more delicate because I think that he knew himself so well, that that’s why they’re so beautifully written. It was a side of him that he gave me to sing and he left for him the side that’s sort of … the showoff, boisterous, fun things that he did as well.
And he had a fragile side in him always, but he didn’t sing that anymore, he gave them for me to sing. I was so lucky he gave them to me to sing until he died.
What made this feel like the right time to address your feelings surrounding Kate?
BIRKIN: Well, I hadn’t said anything in seven years. When it happened, there was nothing to say. And I just kept silent and shut myself up for a couple of years until I could actually go on the road with [French actor] Michel Piccoli and Hervé Pierre to sing Serge’s lyrics without the music [2017’s Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique].
And then the idea for the Philharmonic came along, and that was wonderful. It was only supposed to be for two shows in Canada. It took us right around the world, for two years, three years, maybe a bit more. And I was able to find [arranger] Nobuyuki Nakajima because I’d gone off to Japan with Kate when the disaster [tsunami Fukushima] had struck them. [Birkin performed in the Together For Japan benefit concert in April 2011.]
So, it was a great feeling of camaraderie, really, with the Japanese. And that’s what got me another two or three years. But if I was going to make a record which was about really personal things, then it was impossible not to talk of Kate. I mean Charlotte had done it before me on her record, on that beautiful song that she wrote. That was two, three years ago.
I love that album, by the way.
BIRKIN: It’s my favorite as well.
So, she was unable not to talk about Kate as well, which is what happens. And for me it’s been seven years, and I’ve written the songs in a hotel bedroom when I was really miserable a couple of years ago. When I was on tour with the symphony.
And we put it to music with Étienne. He said that I didn’t answer him for two days after he chose that particular music, and how worried he was. I don’t remember not answering him, but maybe I didn’t. In which case they go awfully worried, poor things. And I wasn’t shocked in any way, it was the perfect way to do it. But perhaps I didn’t say so immediately, which means that you worry people needlessly.
And the one on the cemetery [“Ces murs épais”], he helped me with the lyrics of that. Which was more painful really than the other, which is some sort of [mystery] of how she was found. And it will always be a mystery. So … Well, did she open the window because of the cigarette or was she in a depression? I’d seen her on the Monday, she was dead by Thursday, what happened? That will always be a mystery for people who lose their children that way. That you never know, you keep your beautiful clues. I thought I found a clue about Ulysses that she’d stuck onto her notebook. “Was happy as Ulysses between his parents,” and that gave me the idea for “Catch Me If You Can.” That last song on the album. You scramble around for little notes, little things that somehow might have… Just a clue of what they’d felt. And then any photo you can find of her, it’s so precious because everything’s so rare.
I dreamt of her last night, so it’s a curious thing. I was buying things for her bedroom and I found a bed canvas I was so pleased with and something else that was really warm. And she wasn’t dead. So, I must have talked about her that day. You always hope they’ll come back in dreams.
Losing more and more people, you always hope they’ll come back and give you a visit because you’re so frightened of forgetting what their voice sounded like or how they felt. I remember when my father died, I put my finger along his nose into his top lip and his second lip, and down to his chin so that my fingers would record his face so I’d never forget exactly how he’d felt. People dying is so hard to live with.
I had her for 46 years. My brother lost his son when he was 20. So people have had stories that are a million times worse. I remember when I was really unhappy, the best thing to do is to go off to see movies, so I went off and saw Manchester By The Sea.
Are you watching anything good — perhaps more upbeat — while in lockdown?
BIRKIN: Étienne was the one who told me to look onto the internet and find that Scorsese movie about … Oh that wonderful lady.
BIRKIN: Yes! He told me [about it] the day before yesterday and yesterday I looked at it with my best friend. And it was an enchantment to find something so original and so opinionated. And humorous, my God. Fascinating personality. Absolutely wonderful. And what’s more, she grows on you. At the beginning you think that she’s so humorous, but it’s nearly exhausting. At then end you want more and more of her, and you think, “Oh no, don’t let this end.”
I’d love to go back to Serge for a minute. I read that you had never really considered being a singer before you met him. What was your first impression of him when you met?
BIRKIN: When I met him for a screen test [for 1969’s Slogan], he came over to Paris and I didn’t speak French. So, I can imagine how annoying I must have seemed to him. He’d just done a very good screen test with Marisa Berenson and then he sees me come down the staircase with a mini skirt and nothing that he particularly liked. I mean he was a very sophisticated man, so I must have seemed very childish and foolish to him.
Then I had to do a scene where I was crying, and he thought that was quite disgusting because people that mix up their private life with … John Barry had just left me, so I was feeling sorry for myself, he thought that that was really rather revolting to use that in a crying scene. [Laughs] He seemed disdainful, and snobbish, and aloof.
But then I got the part, so I realized that he hadn’t actually said no to me playing it because he could have, he was the star. But doing the film with him was so arduous. There he was, looking more disdainful, sitting in the bath with a bathing suit on. I had to be perched on the side of the bath stark naked as usual. I said to the director, “This is really hard because he can look up at me and I feel nothing friendly in his gaze whatsoever.” So, it’s hard to play being in love with this person who really is so sarcastic and… so cutting.
[The director] said that he’s not like that at all. I said, “Oh,” and he said he’d fix a dinner with himself, and Serge, and me. And so he did, and Serge was a little offended because I didn’t know his poetry. And he had a little book which was called Cruel Songs. And I called Serge “bourguignon,” I don’t know why. I think it was the only French word I knew, and so he was a little insulted as he did have quite a reputation in France. A bit like Lord Byron. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
And then there was a song on the dancefloor, so I called him over onto the dancefloor and he walked on my feet. I saw that he couldn’t dance, that he had no [rhythm]… It was madness. I realized that, “Oh, this person who’s pretended to be so aloof and so disdainful, and so proud — actually he can’t dance.” He was just a treasure all night through.
He took me to Russian night clubs, where all the Russian musicians came out and played on the pavement. And we went to South American night clubs where South American musicians played their guitars and so did he. And old Joe Turner who was the old jazz man in Paris, he did a four-hander over Joe because he was the greatest of friends with him. Then we went to a club where everyone would … The gentlemen were dressed up as ladies and I was so amazed. “Oh Sergeou,” they said to Serge, blowing little kisses with their hands. And I realized that he was a sort of a treasure of Paris.
And they all adored him and there was every reason to because he was absolutely charming and especially the funniest man I had ever known. It is the most attractive thing in anyone. To be funny.
I didn’t want to let him go. He said, “Shall I drop you back at your hotel?” “No,” I said. I was amazed that I was so courageous and bold. I didn’t want to let him go. I thought he was going to take me home to his parents; he was taking me to the Hilton hotel. I was too fast, oh dear me. And the man at the desk said, “Your usual rooms?” He goes, “Oh no.”
He fell asleep, and I was able to sneak off to the drugstore and get a record that I’d been dancing to called “Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve Got Love In My Tummy” and stick it between his toes… It was a wonderful beginning. He was the most sensual man I’ve ever, ever known. The most… It mattered an awful lot to him. Everything was sensual and sexual.
We were talking a little bit about Charlotte’s music before, which is wonderful. I was looking around to see if you two had ever really worked together or sung together in public, but I didn’t see much. Is that something you two have spoken about before?
BIRKIN: It’s daunting for them. When I say “them” it’s because for Lou as well, it’s the same thing. They spent most of their professional life getting away from their parents.
BIRKIN: And Charlotte making a name for herself and daring to sing, and then to sing in French. I mean she’s been very brave and bold and it took a lot of courage to do that with the father she had. And for Lou the same thing, to sing in English with an English accent that had nothing to do with being English — an American accent that she’s developed, which is something really Texan. And they’ve developed their own way of singing, of feeling, of notoriousness, and of great beauty.
Charlotte is an actress, you can’t get better than her. I mean, Charlotte was a star when she was nine, so it’s not really … She hasn’t had to get away. Well she’d rather set the tune for us being her parents. I said to Serge, “You do realize now that we’re Charlotte’s parents, it’s not the other way around.” But I think for her even so it’s tough to come back to Paris and every taxi you get into they say, “Ah, well I have memories of your father.”
That’s why she just loved being in New York because of the freedom it gave her. Just being normal. And I would think it’s very similar for Lou, she’s created her whole ambiance around herself, but has nothing to do with any of us professionally. Privately of course. Talking about our affairs and children. All the private, private things which is all I long to know, actually. But over professional things, not really. Charlotte sang with me in New York a year ago when I did the concert.
She sang one of her father’s songs with me. Lou was going to sing one with me in French, which she’s never done at the Montreal Festival, but it’s been put off three times now, so I don’t know whether it’s going to be done. But I think the last thing they want to do is to sing along with mother.
I could see how they’d want to separate themselves and their careers from you and Serge early in life. But it sounds like now that they’re established, things are a little different.
BIRKIN: Charlotte’s making a documentary about me that’s going to Cannes. It was a way of getting to know each other. For me as well, as she has been away in New York since Kate died and is a very mysterious person to me, so it was a way for her to … Well, it’s her idea to get to know me. And so she’s made a very personal documentary over the last four years, which I haven’t seen, but is apparently coming out in Cannes. I think she found out things she wanted to know.
What would present-day Jane Birkin tell 1960s-era Jane Birkin?
BIRKIN: To be quite a different person. In my diaries [Munkey Diaries], the person I read about at 20 years old is so pathetic, waiting for John Barry to come home, and he’d just been writing a symphony or something. So, what a drag it must have been to come back and see your 19-year-old bride there, with nothing to say for herself. Just jealous and frightened of losing him, and crying all night long so that he shoved you into another room because you kept him awake sobbing.
Luckily I had Kate. I just knew that I never wanted to be in that situation again when I had nothing to say for myself. I wanted a job, I wanted to keep my head up high. But I’ve always been attracted to very clever, intelligent, fascinating people. That’s something that I find so terribly attractive. I mean, I’d go off tomorrow with somebody who was an oncologist. I just, I find everything more interesting than talking to actors. I mean, people that know about things, doctors. That sort of thing I find so positively fascinating that I could stay for hours listening to people that can teach me things.
So, I suppose I’ll always be in the student seat, as it were. I find myself drawn to funny people and to fascinating people.
Oh! Pardon tu dormais… is out 2/5 via Verve. Pre-order it here.