Jane Birkin
Photo by Nathaniel Goldberg

Jane Birkin: “There was a sense of being totally free”

Short Profile

Name: Jane Mallory Birkin
DOB: 14 December 1946
Place of birth: Marylebone, London, United Kingdom
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, actor

Jane Birkin's new album, Oh Pardon! Tu Dormais... is out soon via Universal Music.

Ms. Birkin, do you often think about your legacy?

Not at all! I don't think that you can really choose what people will like, or say, or even remember about you. I mean, my God, probably the Birkin bag will be known. (Laughs) If I look myself to find out the date of something — and the first thing that pops up is that bloody bag! I think it’ll be “Je T’aime Moi Non Plus,” when I go feet first, that’ll be the tune they'll play on the television, and then talk about the bag…

It seems like you’re not so fond of looking back to the past. Apparently you don’t even like to watch any of your films.

No, I don't listen to any of the records either! Because I'm always disappointed! I'm not disappointed in the entire film, but I'm disappointed in me. The other night, I was slightly tempted to look at a film I made called Sept Morts sur Ordonannce, because it was Michel Piccoli and my husband was played by Gerard Depardieu. I had such great memories of that film. When I saw it, they were all wonderful, but I was so pale and boring with this little high voice. I turned the sound down because at least I looked busy. I'm always disappointed by my voice; it’s always too high because probably when you're nervous, you go up a bit. One’s own voice is always uncanny… And I just thought, “Oh, I must never look at things again!”

“There are little snatches of my life, little snatches of a diary...”

Does the past ever come out in your work itself?

Well, on my most recent record, Oh Pardon! Tu Dormais, I was actually feeling nostalgic. I wrote “Cigarettes” and “Ces Murs Épais” about my daughter Kate, who passed away years ago. I wrote them on the back of my agenda book at a moment of feeling particularly sad about Kate; I had been to the pharmacy and I saw a little pedicure set and it broke me down because she had such beautiful feet! It’s always funny the things that catch you out, and I was very upset. But my artistic director said, “Write everything down.” Those were the first songs I gave to Étienne Daho, who worked with me on Oh Pardon!, and it felt as if I couldn’t approach the idea of the album without first writing about Kate. So, there are little snatches of my life, little snatches of a diary.

In that sense, releasing an album might also feel cathartic, a bit like letting go or finding closure.

Actually, it's very scary because you still have to wait to find out whether people like it or not. Right now I'm starting to do interviews for Oh Pardon! Tu Dormais and yesterday, I was very flattered because a rather well renowned English newspaper rang up, and he'd liked it! I was so surprised that he would have taken the time given that not much of the record is in English. I mean, the French who have known you for so long, they would take it seriously, but that somebody English would would ring from a newspaper and have gone into it with such detail… I was surprised.

What compels you to write and sing in French rather than in English?

I think it's because I've been in France for 50 years. It counts! My everyday language is French, and I've lived here for very long. And as I've got a particular and recognizable way of talking French, which isn't necessarily correct, when I ring up for a taxi, or in the old days you’d have to ring up for directory inquiries, invariably the person would say, “Oh, is that Jane?” (Laughs) It’s my way of speaking French really rather badly that is very recognizable. So it's made my way of writing somehow… There’s a peculiarity about it.

When did France start feeling like home to you?

Pretty quickly. Because of Serge [Gainsbourg], I suppose. I’ve been talking to my daughter Charlotte, who's been living in New York for six years now, and has decided to come back to France and she feels… I don't know what the word would be, but taxi drivers recognize her and they talk about her father and all her past comes back, you know, with Kate dying… I think it feels like you’re being watched, whereas in New York, she could have her own friends, she could speak a different language and could invent herself. For me, it’s not the case because I wasn't ever recognized in England. But the effect of setting foot in France made me feel at ease immediately.

Did you feel uneasy in England even before you were famous?

Well, I had a wonderful mother who was so beautiful and so correct that you felt almost inadequate in comparison to her. Then my father who is a war hero and a great beauty. It's wonderful, but it's too much. And when I set foot in France — whew! No one knew who you were, you could start doing things that were amusing, funny, sexy, and no one was watching you, no one would pick you up. So I think nearly immediately, there was a sense of being totally free in France. It is so touching because they took you on with your funny accent, with your sticking out teeth, with your certain way of dressing… There’s that feeling of being adopted by people for who you are.

“I must not read good critiques, and I don't dare read the bad ones! I'm always afraid that someone will put their finger on just what you thought of yourself.”

And do you feel like as you’re getting older, you’re more and more in tune with who you are?

I don't think so. It would be nice to say yes, but I don't think so. I mean, self-satisfaction is something that I've never had. I have almost a superstition of having never been satisfied. I don't like curtain calls, I don't like when people clap for you because you think, “Oh, if it's been okay tonight, then it won't be tomorrow!” I must take no satisfaction, I must not be pleased with myself, I must not read good critiques, and I don't dare read the bad ones! I'm always afraid that someone will put their finger on just what you thought of yourself: that you were not brave, that you were showing off, that you were nothing, that there's nothing in the base of it all, really. I've always feared it in any critique because they would have put their finger on exactly what I thought of myself.

What about when you’re writing songs or working on a book? Do you allow your true self to shine through?

I suppose like everybody, you camouflage it a bit. You can throw a few tricks. But when I published the book MunkeyDiaires, which was excerpts from my own diaries, the number of people that came up saying, “Oh, gosh, she's just like me.” I felt I was one among other women.

Is that where your interest in acting comes from, this feeling of being one among many?

My memories of film are all about being somebody else. That's the joy of it! You can pull on all your your own feelings. How many people can actually stop screaming in a bus because they simply can't handle life, they just go mad for a second? In a film, it's a wonderful excuse to let off everything that you feel. But in everyday life, God, people will come and stop you and the police would come and tell you to shut up! So, it's a wonderful way to let off steam.

But lately your focus seems to be more on music than film.

Yes, well, cinema was fun but it’s over now. I have leukemia, and it’s a type of leukemia that goes on, it's chronic. Actually, I had an offer for a wonderful part in a film and I was so thrilled with the idea of being in it, but my doctor wouldn't let me do it! I said, “I've been doing concerts all year round, this is too unfair!” But they didn't pass me so I thought, “Well, that's the end of any cinema career.” Still, nothing compares to the joy of and the companionship of being with people on a film set every morning. It's a joy to be part of a group and you’re looked after so beautifully… It’s just a joy. You'd love it.