Sharing Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin finds voice in symphony

Shaun TANDON
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British actress and singer Jane Birkin poses as she arrives for the closing ceremony of the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southeastern France, in 2015

For 50 years Jane Birkin's breathy voice has interpreted her legendary late partner Serge Gainsbourg. But she feels his songs may sometimes be better off without her.

Birkin has revived live performances of Gainsbourg by fronting full orchestras. Now 70, Birkin takes pains to safeguard her voice, staying inside on the eve of concerts.

But if her voice sometimes fails her, that's fine. She finds beauty both in the words of Gainsbourg, a French literary master at once suave and salacious, and his music, which had already borrowed liberally from classical composers.

"The real star is the symphony orchestra and not me," the self-effacing celebrity told AFP in New York, where she was releasing a special edition of her orchestral album, "Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique."

"It's nicer if I can sing. But I realized then -- it's solid stuff. It's fine as it is," she said over a bottle of water above New York Harbor from the top of The Standard hotel.

Birkin will return to New York to bring Gainsbourg on February 1 to Carnegie Hall, accompanied by operatic pop singer Rufus Wainwright.

The hard-living, chain-smoking Gainsbourg died in 1991 at age 62 without ever playing New York, although he reached into the city's nascent hip-hop scene for his last album, "You're Under Arrest."

The orchestral versions came about after Birkin met arranger Nobuyuki Nakajima for benefit concerts following the 2011 tsunami in his native Japan, where she and Gainsbourg enjoy an avid fan base.

Birkin, who took up with Gainsbourg when she was a 20-year-old actress, is perhaps France's best-known Briton who has gone native. She has retained her English accent which charmed listeners on her 1969 duet with Gainsbourg, "Je t'aime... moi non plus," whose eroticism was so palpable it earned a rare rebuke from the Vatican.

"I don't feel anglophone at all. I've never sung in English," she said, adding: "I don't consider myself much of a singer, anyway."

- Hopeful for women -

After decades in the entertainment industry, Birkin is well aware of sexual harassment, a scourge that has quickly come into public focus after allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Birkin, who was married to James Bond film composer John Barry before her romance with Gainsbourg, said her relationship status left her comparatively safe.

"Of course there were a few directors who ask you for weekends in Rome and you didn't go and you didn't get the part. That was part of the game," she said.

"But nobody tried to make a pass at me that I took badly because I was married at 17 and I was with Serge by the time I was 20," she said.

She hoped times were changing.

"Probably in Latin countries like France it's slower, in that people do whistle and wink and it's been sort of normal. I don't mean harassment but just a general sexy behavior," she said.

"Perhaps we'll get like the Americans where no man will dare come up the lift for fear of having a lawsuit. I trust not.

"But when you see the misery some people have been going through, then you can't but think that it's good that it comes out in the open."

- 'Disappointed' in Suu Kyi -

A longtime human rights activist, Birkin had been a prominent campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi, dedicating a song in 2008 to the Nobel laureate then under house arrest by Myanmar's junta.

Suu Kyi has since been freed and risen through elections to be Myanmar's leader. But she has come under fire for not stopping or speaking forcefully against a bloody military campaign targeting the Rohingya, a Muslim minority of whom more than 600,000 have fled to Bangladesh.

Birkin called her stance "disappointing," while acknowledging that Suu Kyi may face constraints.

The Rohingya tragedy showed that people everywhere "are neither good nor bad, but something in the middle."

"Whole nations you hoped, because of their past and the tortures they had been through, were going to conduct themselves superior or more noble than us. But in fact they are just as mean-hearted," she said.

Birkin recently turned one of her symphonic concerts in Paris into a benefit for aid group Doctors of the World.

"What will happen, I presume, is that she will do nothing," she said of Suu Kyi. "We have all got to do something."