Jane Birkin will forever in the public mind be “that girl who sang Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus with Serge Gainsbourg”. As such, in the minds of male musicians of a certain age, she will forever be a muse.
Thus on her 2006 album Fictions, Johnny Marr lends his way with a fretboard while Neil Hannon and Rufus Wainwright contribute new songs. On her 2004 duets album Rendez-Vous, Portishead‘s Beth Gibbons, while resolutely female, was also happy to collaborate, alongside Bryan Ferry and Brian Molko.
As a model and actress, and wife to both John Barry and Gainsbourg and inspiration for a Herms handbag, Birkin was every bit as iconic as Brigitte Bardot, boundary crossing from London in the Swinging Sixties to Paris’ Left Bank cafes and loved in both. In truth her music for much of her career seemed like something of a distraction, but she has built up an impressive canon of solo work, particularly in her later years.
Tonight’s date, her first London show since Morrissey‘s Meltdown in 2004, had no place for Je T’Aime. Midway along a tour that has taken the 61-year-old chanteuse across Europe, this show sees her joined on stage by multi-instrumentalists Christophe Cravero on piano and violin, percussionist Frederick Jacquemin and Thomas Coeuriot on guitar, amongst other things. Their unobtrusive musicianship allows Birkin to do what she does best – babble breathily and hog the limelight.
In combative grey-green khaki trousers and a simple black top, she looks less like a model and more like she’s just returned from a campaigning venture to somewhere dusty in Africa. Known these days as much for her charity work as for her time with Gainsbourg, Birkin’s root cause – and the reason for this gig – is currently about improving the lives of Aids orphans through art. As she lengthily explains in one of many bilingual treatises during a two-hour set, art has the power to change the world.
The endearing quirks of her spoken delivery aside, there’s much to enjoy about Birkin’s unique stage persona. Beneath her luxuriant, greying locks is a smile to melt hearts. As a girl she left England for Paris and was cast in the lead role of a film despite not at the time being able to speak French. Now the French love her for her fluency with an English accent, and the English love her for her French accent. Her charm and her linguistic skills would be excellent tools in promoting Anglo-French cooperation. She perches on the edge of the stage, legs swinging, the smile never failing. Her audience smile warmly back.
Birkin’s singing isn’t up to much. It’s a mark of the skill of her musicians and sound man that she’s not drowned out, for she whispers for much of the time. Her opening number, and a couple that follow, are characterised by a delay effect on her microphone which ends just before becoming irritating. At one stage she attempts to sing in Portuguese, leafing her way through cribsheets as she does, like somebody’s eccentric aunt doing her party piece at a birthday bash.
Her set is made up in equal parts of Gainsbourgian chansons written about her for her to sing, and material from her more recent records, Fictions and Rendez-Vous included. Di Doo Dah, a French-language delight the lyrics of which she penned, is an early and lighthearted highlight. But her politics are never far away, as evidenced by a song about Aung San Suu Kyi in which BIrkin reads out various facts about the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s life under the Burmese military junta. It’s surprisingly powerful.
She conjures the ghosts of Gainsbourg and compares him to Baudelaire. She attempts kazoo. She goes for a little walk up to the circle seats, ambling around gamely as though at a house party karaoke.
While the Beth Gibbons track Strange Melody is showstoppingly good, and Neil Hannon’s Home suits the evening’s rose-tinted look back in time, it’s the Gainsbourg material that she and the audience are most familiar with. With these she taps back to yesteryear, before she was a grandmother, before Gainsbourg’s death. It’s a time she celebrates fondly, but Jane Birkin is as singular in 2008 as she was then.