With the old moralities crumbling before the assault of new liberations, in ‘Blow Up’ Jane Birkin was the sixties’ most perfect ingénue. Then there was her much-banned record with Serge Gainsbourg that nevertheless made no.2 on the UK chart. Now, her new 2020 album ‘Oh! Pardon, Tu Dormais…’ is tousle-haired songs of louche seductiveness, regret and memory which tell mesmerising tales. Andrew Darlington listens…
Je T’Aime… Jane Birkin is a goddess.
‘It’s always circling around love, passion, and love at first sight that doesn’t last.’ She’s describing the subject matter of her album ‘Oh! Pardon, Tu Dormais…’ ‘Either the regret of no longer being in love, or the panic of being in this state – where we’re just afraid of losing, the domestic scenes at night when you see your partner sleeping next to you. You want reassurance. If you ask a very important question such as ‘do you love me?’ at 2 am, it’s by no means sure he’ll say ‘yes’ to you… and besides, that won’t be enough because it’s not only ‘do you love me?’ but ‘will you always love me?’ But your partner is half-asleep and not quick to respond. The answer is often not the one we hope for, so it turns sour, as we say in French.’
Why an album title that translates as ‘Oh! Sorry, You Were Sleeping’? ‘I often found this sentence when rereading my diaries. It’s not just me, I think other people will recognize themselves in this album’s stories of insomnia and loneliness. I always had the same anguish of being the only one who could not sleep, in boarding school or when I was seventeen and married. At the end you don’t even say ‘is there someone awake?’ for fear of the silence that follows. It seems to me that I’ve always been a very poor sleeper. Then suddenly I have a crazy chance to do this job where it’s not necessary to wake up and be smart first thing in the morning.’
It must be very gratifying to finally unveil the CD to the world after the long process of writing and recording. She’s done many musical projects prior to this one, so is it still an exciting moment to premier a new record? ‘Well, I’d finished the vocals in February, March (2020)… so it’s been a long wait since then, and… actually it’s a relief when it’s out… suspense to see how people appreciate it or not, but it’s like a baby that’s been growing and now it’s bursting out of it’s cot and clothes!’
Smart and sophisticated in dark trouser-suit over simple white open-neck blouse, Jane Birkin is the goddess who started out as a shy English girl growing up in Chelsea. She had a stuffed cuddly-toy called Munkey, and ‘I had Cliff Richard in bathing things on my bedroom wall, and read the adventures of heroic dog ‘Rin-Tin-Tin’, ‘The Dandy’ and ‘Topper’ – but ‘Beano’ was the best!’ Later, languishing at an Isle of Wight Boarding School, she acquired a contraband copy of the sexually-explicit 1956 novel ‘Peyton Place’ which made her feel ‘very coarse and common’. Then she met John Barry… and they married 16 October 1965, when she was still just nineteen, after he’d written Bond’s ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) score, but before he won an Academy Award and a Grammy for soundtracking ‘Born Free’ (1966). And there were her own iconic movies. Own up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ (1966) is just about my favourite movie of all time, each frame immaculately focused, each focus perfectly framed. She’s there, elfin, wide-eyed, romping with David Hemmings. None of that to bare or not to bare dilemma, it’s all so natural. As the old moralities crumble before the assault of new liberations, with her long, choppy fringe, the gap in her smile, the planes of her cheekbones and her insouciant style, she’s the decade’s most perfect ingénue.
I feel in awe of even posing these questions. And I apologise for this very personal indulgence. But what memories do you have of making that wonderful movie? What was it like working with David Hemmings? ‘He was charming, helpful… I was so afraid of showing myself to the cameras, at least twice I think… and he smiled gently and said ‘It’s me you should be shy of’ as an actress… it was ‘juste’… nice boy.’
And Michelangelo Antonioni? ‘He was a real gentleman, I’d done the screen test and written my name on the wall as demanded, then I’d broken into tears when a man accused me of being ‘a show-off all full of myself writing my name all big like that on the wall, did I think that was the way to get a role?’, than Antonioni intervened, and said ‘cut’… he explained he’d wanted to see if I was vulnerable… he was very kind and gave me a few pages which was the part of the film he was offering me… no more… and he recommended that I think it over, that I’d be naked so see how I felt about that, yes, discuss it with my husband …,’ then when we looked for our costumes, Gillian (Gillian Hills) and I, nothing suited him, so he had the dresses painted, I became blonde, Gillian brunette, even painted the shoes… and just as precise in the shooting, details had to be right, he was an architect… I loved his face, his curiosity, his kindness in continuing to follow my career… giving his vote to me for the Venice film festival for Jacques Rivette’s film… I was so touched…’
Yet she once confessed, ‘when I look back at photos and see myself in ‘Blow Up’ or ‘La Piscine’, I’m not very interesting.’ She was the ‘Exquisite Thing’ in ‘Kaleidoscope’ the same year, then ‘Penny Lane’ in the George Harrison scored ‘Wonderwall’ (1968).
Of course, there was her record with Serge Gainsbourg – the ‘Bad Boy of Gallic Pop’, which was condemned by the Pope. When a shocked BBC radio banned “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” due to its hard-core Porn heavy-breathing, Fontana panicked and promptly withdrew it, while Paul McCartney recorded a hasty cleaned-up version by studio-group Sounds Nice. But the opportunistic indie Major Minor acquire the rights and simultaneously reissue it, for a week or so most dealers stock both versions on their shelves, to the extent that Serge and Jane’s erotica was held off the no.1 slot only by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”. Originally intended as a vehicle for Brigitte Bardot, who declined his invitation, ‘the song I sang with Serge’ Jane muses, ‘will stay with me. When I die, that’ll be the tune they play, as I go out feet first. It’s quite a comfort to know what it will be.’
‘Serge was such a perfectionist in the studio’ she emphasises, ‘quick tempered and not easy… sarcastic and most irritated by my slowness and lack of rhythm… thank god for Philippe Lerichomme (producer and musical director) who intervened and was patient! BUT Serge gave me his very best work, from “Babe Alone” onwards, gems, and emotionally the first to cry and appreciate emotion…’
Relocating to France to become their favourite ‘petite Anglaise’, learning French from a tape-recorder, she was in Gainsbourg’s sexually ambivalent 1976 ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’ movie with Warhol star Joe Dallesandro and Gérard Depardieu, before leaving a glittering trail of albums and films made with Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, or Jacques Doillon, across the decades since. As documented in her ‘Post-Scriptum: Le Journal Intime De Jane Birkin 1982-2013’ (Fayard), her 2013 memoirs.
In fact ‘Oh! Pardon, Tu Dormais…’ is partly a musical adaptation of a 1992 TV-movie she wrote and directed, so, when you came to write and direct your own movie, which Director – if any, most influenced your own directorial style? ‘Jacques Doillon… by being his assistant and script-girl on ‘La Fille De Quinze Ans’ (‘The Fifteen Year-Old Girl’, 1989) I saw how you do a ‘plan sequence’, turning around the characters and doing scenes that could run six minutes, as much as the can permitted, I saw the importance of monologues, dialogues, two-people films, a couple… a crew of eight… how to catch a performance, a first genuine tear, be sure the technique’s right then let the actors go into emotion-passion-hate… he gave me the occasion to have two of the best performances I ever gave, ‘La Pirate’ (1984) and ‘La Fille Prodigue’ (‘The Prodigal Daughter’, 1981), by working me up then making me jump and catching me on film… it was a wonderful school of cinema… Rivette and his wild idea of not giving you a script at all! Or within minutes before shooting, or Agnès Varda who used everyone and everything, a documentarist, a styliste, and when I was frustrated at what she’d done to my little script for ‘Kung-Fu Master’ (1988) she replied, ‘If you feel strongly… do it yourself!’ she gave me the confidence to do just that! And I made ‘Oh! Pardon, Tu Dormais…’ with – I must add Pierre de Marivaux in mind as I’d just done ‘La Fausse Suivante’ with Piccoli under Chereau’s direction in the theatre, the story was, amongst other things about a woman, a countess torn between two men, she’s indecisive, flattered, mean and lovely… he said to one of us in exasperation one day ‘why in hell’s name do you want to be noble! It’s not very interesting! People are good and bad, generous and mean, they change their minds, are loyal and unfaithful! Those are the great parts to play!’
Now the thirteen new Jane Birkin songs, with lyrics written during the album’s production, take chanson forward into a wistful air of melancholy regret, set to music by producer Étienne Daho – who is the title-track male voice, and the other voice in the brief “F.R.U.I.T” dialogue, with Jean-Louis Piérot. They are tousle-haired songs of louche seductiveness, emotionally damaged, yet wrapped in a swirling erotic cabaret of orchestration.
The album is largely sung in French… but for two songs. Will there be an English-language version – or a lyric-insert translation, for those of us less fluent in French? ‘I don’t know, maybe they’ll do a translation but I’d rather do it myself…’ And, excuse my limited understanding of French, but can you explain what the dialogue on “F.R.U.I.T” is about? ‘It’s a joke! I’m sure other people have words they can’t say, out of embarrassment… the sound of the words, what they evoke… for my brother sister and me it was ‘FRUIT’ and anything that describes it – ‘juicy’, I can describe but not say… ‘succulent’! For Charlotte, my daughter it’s ‘moist’!’
She relates the backstory ‘when I played my film ‘Oh! Pardon, Tu Dormais…’ at the Gaîté Montparnasse with Thierry Fortineau a few years ago, Étienne came to see me… often. Because he really liked it, and he spent years trying to convince me to do a musical adaptation. I went to Étienne’s house for our first session, along with my dog Dolly. I sat on the sofa and Étienne and Jean-Louis Piérot had me listen to some melodies they’d been writing for me for a few months. That’s how the writing sessions began. Étienne reworked my words to their music, and I asked him to give me the line. It worked like a charm. The care with which Étienne suggested changes, reworked my monologues with an incredibly light touch, tender like a lover, ensuring he was in the same headspace as me. Or maybe we are kindred spirits? He saved me from an old wound, delivered me from melancholy and inertia. We gave everything, took everything, and I’m still amazed and stunned at what the three of us created. We gave birth to this thing… and this moves me.’
“Cigarettes” is a nod at burlesque Brechtian music-theatre, “Telle Est Ma Maladie Envers Toi (Such Is My Sickness Towards You)” adds a descending bass-line and playful piccolos. She whisper-talks intimacies over the “Max” fade-in, dropping back into spoken-word as rich as absinthe. When her voice is less than perfect, it’s the imperfections that make it tactile, more touchingly human. The brief dialogue-piece “F.R.U.I.T” leads into the electronic edge of “A Marée Haute (At High Tide)”. Yet the album seems to concern itself with memory, regret, poignant reflections of times passed, “Pas D’Accord (Disagree)” honey-drips poetry, then “Ta Sentinelle (Your Sentry)” starts with simple guitar, but builds into epic dimensions, with exquisite ebb and flow. She describes it as ‘a melancholy and envious look at lovers’, wistfully haunted by the phantom of past love affairs. Is there a story behind this beautiful song? ‘Thank you… well a lot of the text came from the ‘Oh! Pardon, Tu Dormais…’ film and play… but it’s about the pain you feel when you see lovers kissing on the porch, the love-at-first-sight story that we recognize in others, those furtive gestures under the table, a passion so urgent it doesn’t even give you enough time to take off your coat, that you have to stay by his side like a sentinel to watch over him, because if not he can’t sleep… and now… it’s a bitter lucid thought about ‘love at first sight’ and how it wears off, and you become ‘just anybody’ to him… whereas you’d been everything, and you feel like screaming ‘I’ve known that feeling too’!… I’ve known that incredible passion! You make me sick!’
‘I like to stroll in Brittany on the beaches of the Pays des Abers’ she explains, and between the beach walks, reading historical books about Marie-Antoinette at the Tower of the Temple during the Revolution, and insomnia, Ms Birkin talks her way through the album’s memories and passions. In advance of its release, the first title to be leaked is “Les Jeux Interdits”, a bright guitar morning with a catchy da-da-dum refrain and a video directed by Romain Winkler of supernatural children dancing around gravestones. It’s a song that recalls stories from behind black and white photos… ‘“Forbidden Games” is a very sweet, very charming memory. It’s a song cradled by the memory of my daughters Charlotte and Kate (Barry, who died in December 2013) in Cresseveuille when I had the small rectory that overlooked the cemetery. We were asked to put the cemetery in order. Kate thought it was unfair that there were graves in the cemetery with lots of touching words and flowers, while others had nothing. So she began to redistribute everything until nothing matched! It was done with such a good heart, at least, that’s what I explained to the mayor. When you’re a child you think everyone should have a fair share.’
‘I wanted the video to look like a Super-Eight home-movie of my kids. My daughters were fascinated by the René Clément film ‘Les Jeux interdits’, they saw it over and over again. Because they did the same thing, acting out play-funerals, burying cuddly toys and whatever came to hand, even the Sunday roast was there. Absolutely everything. It was wonderfully charming, wacky. But – of course, my daughters are too big now, so I took my little grandaughter Jo (by actress-singer daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg) to play one of the characters. I thought it was a shame my third daughter Lou (Doillon) was not represented, even though she’d not been born at that time, so I put in a very charming bambina sitting on a drum. This song is nostalgic without being sad, well without a depressive side, it recounts these memories, although Étienne Daho made it more malicious, in a more spicy tone.’
How was this song composed? ‘For this song, the writing was pretty dazzling. With Étienne we spent little time together but the days we saw each other we worked a lot, it was magical. One word triggered another. He noted everything I had written recently, in my diary, but also in two songs that I had started during the ‘Birkin-Gainsbourg: Symphonique’ tour (her 2017 album) when I missed Kate too much. It was a mixture of all of that.’
“Ghosts” – one of the two tracks sung in English, is gauzily mesmerising and insubstantial enough to evoke the dead, with a phantom choir haunted by lost time. “Je Voulais Être Une Telle Perfection Pour Toi (I Want To Be Such Perfection For You)” has a compulsive crack-up voice-over, with subtle male background voices, a movie in sound, close your eyes to see it better. Until the closing “Catch Me If You Can” which embraces the sadness of memory, ‘on tiptoes I shut the door on all happiness, to all I knew.’ It’s a breathtaking Homeric journey home, which seems to open her most secret vulnerability with ‘will you protect me from the fear of growing old?’ – her heart and her voice break, ‘when the Earth is cold’. Assuming that this is Jane, and not a persona she’s assuming, it seems a very courageous confessional piece of writing?
‘It came very fast… a couple of hours… the music inspired the thought, it tumbles down, Étienne sent me off to Brittany to write an ‘epitaph’ on that melody, and it wouldn’t come… but falling yes, and the vision, my last vision of Kate by the piano at the party after my show, so I imagined her crossing the room leaving us like puppets in the same pose, frozen image… then her falling, back into our arms, like a post-it note I’d seen on her agenda, ‘home like Ulysses between his parents… as if that was safe… home at last…’ then entwined were my own fears ‘will you protect me… from the fear of growing old?’… her and me enlaced… then at last the… ‘my mistake… too late’… a mystery…’
She explains how ‘the problem with Marcel Proust’s ‘madeleine moments’ is that you don’t know before you take that first bite where it will lead you. You’re suddenly thrown back by a smell, a taste and then you are in a room with your great aunt or with your grandparents on the beach. As a child. Looking back, there’s a nostalgia that’s almost a sickness. It seems that everything I do is in aid of trying to go back to my childhood again. I am very nostalgic for my childhood, with my sister and my brother in the Isle of Wight, of our wild escapades. It seems to me and it is precisely because we cannot verify that perhaps our memories are even more wonderful.’
I don’t want to get into politics, but – as a European, I consider BREXIT a disaster that should never have happened. From Jane’s English-French perspective, she must have a unique international view on what’s going on? ‘Oh really not! I would make a rotten politician… changing my mind all the time, being swayed by other’s opinions…’ she insists dismissively, ‘but I saw a documentary on ARTE on Brexit last week and I was overawed by the lies… Boris’s campaign bus… Nigel Farage, the posters of Syrian refugees poised as if about to cross at Dover, the front pages of newspapers egging people on to quit – ‘Brits are the best! Out with the rotten Europeans who pinch our fish and ruin our economy… all the money that could go to salvage the NHS now wasted, squandered by… the européens… make Britain great again!’… I’d forgotten all that… well, I was very sad to lose England and it’s great people and their historic courage, to lose the company of such level-minded, sound… yet eccentric… humorous people… it’s very sad… but given the propaganda… I can see it all now, and how it happened… but here in France Le Pen looms… so there’s no mirth in view!’
In closing, who are today’s artists who inspire Ms Birkin? ‘It might be commonplace to say my own daughters, but it’s true. I can’t wait for Lou to write another record and Charlotte is in the process too. They are so different, really the sun and the moon, but fascinating to me. And musically it’s always a surprise.’
And which are her favourite places to go? ‘In Paris of course, it’s worth going to the Catacombs for a laugh. There’s the somewhat strange Fragonard museum in Maison-Alfort, where we see skinned corpses that have been preserved in just their muscles. The French don’t know it’s there and maybe it disgusts them a little. But he English come in droves to see it, they’re interested.’
Do you still own Munkey? ‘No. I put him into Serge’s coffin to keep him company and comfort the children…’
What is her mood now? ‘There’s a phrase Étienne says all the time, so I’m going to paraphrase it, ‘ah this morning you are solar…!’.’
Je T’Aime… Jane Birkin is a goddess.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
‘Oh! Pardon, Tu Dormais…’ (Wrasse Records, November 2020)
(1) “Oh! Pardon Tu Dormais” (Oh! Sorry You Were Sleeping) featuring Étienne Daho
(2) “Ces Murs Èpais” (These Thick Walls)
(6) “Les Jeux Interdits” (Forbidden Games)
(7) “F.R.U.I.T” featuring Etienne Daho
(8) “A Marée Haute” (At High Tide)
(9) “Pas D’Accord” (Diagree)
(10) “Ta Sentinelle” (Your Sentry)
(11) “Telle Est Ma Maladie Envers Toi” (Such Is My Sickness Towards You)
(12) “Je Voulais Être Une Telle Perfection Pour Toi!” (I Want To Be Such Perfection For You)
(13) “Catch Me If You Can”
A hugely expanded version of a feature
that originally appeared in ‘RnR’ magazine