Jane Birkin was born in London on 14 December 1946, the daughter of Judy Campbell, an actress, and David Birkin, a captain in the Royal Navy. She first trod the boards at the age of 17 and met John Barry, who signed her up in 1965 for his musical comedy Passion Flower Hotel. They married shortly afterwards, and Kate was born in 1967.
When she was twenty years old, Jane attracted attention in Blow-up, Antonioni’s scandalous film that received recognition at the Cannes Film Festival. In France, Pierre Grimblat was filming Slogan. He was looking for an Englishwoman to play opposite Serge Gainsbourg. The artist was already famous on the fringe of the 1960s teenage pop movement, but he was taking his break-up with Brigitte Bardot hard. Jane went for a screen test; she spoke broken French, knew nothing about her co-star and bore the brunt of his heartache. Gainsbourg, gruffer than ever, gave the frightened young woman a rough time, making her burst into tears in front of the camera. And that was how their mythical love story began in Paris in 1969. They became inseparable, becoming a legend in the ‘underground’ bars where the post-68 libertarian wind was blowing. Lasciviously languid in voice and body, they recorded Je t’aime moi non plus. Jane lent her ingenuousness to the hackneyed eroticism and was the talk of the town. The heretical single appeared on the Jane Birkin Serge Gainsbourg album, which was released in 1969. On that album Jane sang four tracks on her own, others in duet with Serge, including the timeless 69 année érotique. Censorship went wild, and the record sold a million copies in a matter of months. The couple made the headlines in all the magazines, gained a lot of media attention, and had fun. When Charlotte was born in 1971, Jane took two years off.
She resumed her career again in 1973 with Di Doo Dah, her first solo album, and proved herself as a film actress in J. Rouffio’s Sept morts sur ordonnance. Even if her performances were eclipsed by the ‘erotic kitsch’ soppiness at the time, slender Jane willingly played along with the image of the ethereal Englishwoman with which she had been saddled, and contributed to the success of these commercial productions.
In 1975 the turbulent lovers were back with Je t’aime moi non plus, the film. In this film, Pygmalion explores a homosexual theme heightened by the ambiguity of his androgynous muse. Puritan France was outraged. The critics panned the film, and Jane, spurned by films, returned to the recording studios. Lolita go home came out in 1975. Jane sang Philippe Labro’s lyrics set to Gainsbourg’s music. In 1978 it was Ex-fan des sixties and the charm was working. The public was seduced by Jane’s slightly acid tone, her half-piercing, half-whispered voice, and the cotton-wool touch she applied to Serge’s tortured lyrics.
In 1983 Jane had left Serge 2 years beforehand for Jacques Doillon, the director of La fille prodigue and la Pirate, who imposed a decidedly dramatic style on the actress. Gainsbourg was suffering from the separation and confessed it to her discreetly by writing Baby alone in Babylone for her. Jane, a deeply moving interpreter of the writer’s inner turmoil, made the collusion of the divided lovers tremble behind each note of fuir le bonheur de peur qu’il ne se sauve, of dessous chics, or of Norma Jean Baker. The Eighties were glamorous, and Jane’s life was golden.
Lou was born in 1982, her album went gold and directors like Jacques Rivette and Régis Wargnier were in tune with her artistic sensitivity. After Lost song was released in 1987, Jane agreed to appear on stage at the Bataclan ‘to shock Serge’. The minimalist performance underpinned the tender and poetic mood of the recital that was made up of twenty tracks, one of which was a poignant cover of Léo Ferré’s Avec le temps. It was a hit. Jane Birkin was approaching her fortieth birthday totally fulfilled, as a full-fledged artist, leaving behind the eternal adolescent.
In 1990 Gainsbourg dedicated a new album to her: Amours des feintes. It was to be the last. He passed away on 2 March 1991. A few days later, David Birkin died. Jane was crushed but couldn’t cancel her tour, which had been booked for ages. When she appeared on stage at the Casino de Paris, the atmosphere was contemplative and the emotion palpable. Her recent statement was on everyone’s mind: ‘I’m going to give up singing. I just can’t imagine recording with anyone else’.
Supported by her family and friends, Jane wound up her tour at Francofolies de la Rochelle in July 1992, by placing the mike on the floor. That was her way of saying goodbye to him. The idea of stopping took the strain off her. She returned to the intimacy of writing and devoted herself to what was dear to her: her family and her humanitarian work. She sang in particular on behalf of Amnesty International, made a short film for the battle against AIDS, and went to support the troops in the war in Sarajevo.
Her fans, who were urging her to carry on ‘singing Serge’ to them, had their wish granted in 1996, the year of Versions Jane, on which various artists like Goran Bregovic and the Senegalese percussionist Dudu N’Diaye Rose reorchestrated 15 tracks from the repertoire of Gainsbourg’s youth. The overall feel of it was nostalgic, but the public was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about La gadoue and its spirited rhythm, revamped by Les négresses vertes, thirty years after the original version.
In 1998 Jane recorded A la légère. In this new venture, which she described as ‘total infidelity’, she invited 12 composers to write 12 original songs. For the first time, Gainsbourg wrote neither the lyrics nor the music, but he inspired each creation. The contributors included: Chamfort, Souchon, Voulzy, Françoise Hardy, MC Solaar, Lavoine, Daho and Zazie, who provided Jane with C’est comme ça, with its loaded lyric: ‘I won’t say another word about you/It’s better like that/In the future, others will make me speak’. These words, inaudible at first hearing, soon impressed themselves on Jane as the conclusion of the album that was ‘the most discreet she could wish’. The singer took risks, raised the tone, and took up the challenge with a crystal-clear voice, lighter, like her.
In 2002 Jane decided to defend in her own way the colours of Elisa, Les dessous chics, her favourite song, or of Amours défuntes. Under an oriental flag, she performed Serge’s songs, under skies ‘at the same time Algerian, Andalusian and gypsy’. She was thrilled by the idea of introducing him as widely as possible to a young audience. For this new show dubbed Arabesque, she realised her wish of working with the Algerian violinist Djamel Benyelles, whose bow made Gainsbourg’s songs quiver to the tune of Arabic interludes. At his side, Jane swayed her hips whilst finding les clés du Paradis, barefoot, draped in a long blood-red dress, surrounded by Aziz Boularouq (percussion), Fred Maggi (piano) and Amel Riahi el Mansouri (lute). Created at the Swiss festival of Nyon in 1997, Arabesque was a welcome change of scene for an enthusiastic audience, which gave Jane a standing ovation. It was the festival atmosphere she had been dreaming of for a show that had seemed unthinkable just a few years before. In 2003, Jane will be presenting Arabesque in France, as well as in London, Spain, Italy, New York and Asia. Filmed at the Odéon theatre in Paris, it is being released by Capitol on CD and DVD in late October 2002.
With Rendez-Vous (2004), her already-famous album of duets with Françoise Hardy, Bryan Ferry, Etienne Daho, Brian Molko, Miossec and Beth Gibbons, to name a few, Jane Birkin tried to find her own harmony in the harmonies of others. But Rendez-Vous ultimately fell short of the mark, left her halfway between herself and others, between France and England. Suddenly she felt the need to “go home”, and it’s with these words, in the uneasy equilibrium they strike between two languages divided even by common meanings, that she explains herself best: “The starting point for the record was “Home” by Neil Hannon (Divine Comedy), and that was it more or less, going home. And then hell, I said to myself why? for whom? My mother’s dead, My father’s dead. What am I doing? I avoid Chelsea, even the whole of Kensington. It’s off limits, like a crime scene. It’s all taped up to stop me from going any further back to my childhood I don’t want to check to make sure it isn’t there. From now on I’ll stick to areas I don’t know.”
Naturally enough for an artist set on following her feelings, Fictions ended up as something quite different. Never lacking in imagination when it comes to tasting life’s fruits, Jane Birkin has conjured up a palette of moods, for one of her best talents is the ability to make the songs of others her own. In the past it wasn’t just a case of Gainsbourg speaking through her voice, for she inspired him to the point that what he wrote was what she wanted to hear.
With Fictions‚ and for excellent reasons simply because they’re her own ‚ she’s been careful to assemble an impressive line-up of songwriters including Neil Hannon, Beth Gibbons, Rufus Wainwright, Arthur H and Dominique A: each a willing knight at her service, their songs interleaved with cover of Neil Young classic. All under the aegis of producers Renaud Letang and Gonzales, orchestrators of the acclaimed Rendez-Vous. Birkin’s voice nestles with a sweetness rarely achieved in the past, among deceptively fragile arrangements which are set off by the likes of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr (and Marr doesn’t take out his axe for just anyone these days) Bryan Ferry, or the Pet Shop Boys. Jane Birkin puts a lot of herself in Fictions: more than enough to keep pleasing her fans on both sides of the Channel. Home for Birkin is neither France nor England now, but the hearts of those who love her: “I’ve been a displaced person for most of my life and it’s a bit impertinent to try to find out if I’ll be received as just another singer. I needed to go and see. It’s strange being part of other people’s lives. Sometimes you feel like sailing without a compass. This record started out with a destination, but in the end it changed into an adventure that brought me back to where I am”.
After her return to the theatre as “Electre” by Sophocle from november 2006 to march 2007 (at Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre and in 15 other french cities), she has presented her own first movie as a director and actor: “Boxes” with Michel Piccoli, Géraldine Chaplin, Maurice Bénichou, Tcheky Karyo, Natacha Régnier et Lou Doillon… at the Cannes Film Festival 2007 in the Offical Selection (out of contest).
At the seaside in Brittany, Anna, 45-50 years old, is amongst her boxes. The panic, the mystery, the fears of that specific age… From the age of 19 she was able to give children to the men she loved. What gift can she give now? That age is frightening to Anna as the suspense of puberty. Who will love her with all this baggage, this past history? She has just moved into a big old house. She is alone. Or is she? Out of her boxes come, helter-skelter, ex-husbands, lovers, children, mother, father, ghosts… Anna had three loves. From these relations she had three girls. They emerge angrily, lovingly. She has a hope maybe of forgiveness, of peace.
Jane was on a world tour for the new audiences she discovered through Arabesque until April 2008. It took her to Japan, Lebanon, Norway, Sweden, Latvia, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Canada, Luxembourg, the UK, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Greece and Turkey. In this tour, she performs the songs of Gainsbourg as well as more recent tracks from her two last albums to the audience who sometimes discover her on stage…
After finishing Jacques Rivette’s last film “36 Vues Du Pic Saint Loup” with Sergio Castellito, Jane releases in November 2008 her album “Enfants d’Hiver”, featuring for the first time ever exclusively Birkin lyrics.
In 2009 she toured the world with her new material. The film of Jacques Rivette “36 Vues Du Pic Saint Loup” is released and in competition at the renowned Venice Film Festival.
28 September 2009 Jane releases the album “Jane Live at the Palace”. In parallel, she continues her charities actions: “Rock Sans Papiers” (Paperless immigrants) concert at Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy, travel and concert in Haiti (Earthquake), her fight for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi…