PARIS — Perennial ingenue Jane Birkin’s singing career kicked off in 1969 with “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus,” the scandalously erotic love song she recorded with the late musician and actor Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she had a famously volatile 13-year relationship. Since then, Birkin’s singing efforts, which encompass some 16 albums, have been inextricably linked to Gainsbourg. But now, with her first completely self-penned album, “Enfants d’Hiver,” the 62-year-old singer and actress journeyed back to her childhood in England, where she grew up the daughter of David Birkin, an aristocratic Royal Navy commander, and Judy Campbell, a musical actress. The album is due out in the U.S. on Wednesday, and Birkin will be performing at Carnegie Hall this fall.
Here, Birkin — the mother of Kate Barry, Lou Doillon and Charlotte Gainsbourg — discusses her family, touring and being a perpetual tomboy.
This story first appeared in the January 5, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: The album cover for “Enfants d’Hiver” features you as a tomboy child clutching an apple. When and where was it taken?
Jane Birkin: In the Isle of Wight, where we would spend our summers. I think I was 11 or 12. We had a cottage there. They were sublime times for me.…I wanted to be like my brother Andrew and was always borrowing his clothes. Now I can cut my hair off and be roughly the same. The bits in between, the films, my time with Serge [Gainsbourg], everybody knows about that, but they don’t know about my childhood. It’s a country you can never go back to.
WWD: Where did you write the album?
J.B.: In Brittany and on the road during my “Arabesque” tour that stretched over seven years in 38 countries. I wrote on sick bags in airplanes or on menus in hotel rooms at night.
WWD: Was Serge Gainsbourg on your mind when you recorded this album?
J.B.: This is more about [memories of] my father, running up the steps, four by four, into his arms, and the next time I go up he has marble feet and he’s dead in bed and I didn’t dare kiss his feet.
WWD: Tell us about the track “Madame.”
J.B.: It’s about the surprise of being called “Madame” when you think you’re an old teenager — that idea of waking up in the morning and going into the bathroom to splash water on your face and you look into the looking glass without your specs on and you look just the same. [Then] you put on your glasses and you could scream. But without the glasses the feelings are the same. It’s peculiar to change into something else.
WWD: You recently performed a concert on the stairs of the renovated Hermès flagship in Paris. As a human rights activist, do you use your connection with the house to aid your humanitarian interests?
J.B.: Are you kidding? [In 2007] I auctioned the original Birkin bag that I designed for nearly 100,000 British pounds for the human rights organization FIDH. After that, I got my lawyer to negotiate with them to make a yearly donation to a charity, even after my death. I’ve asked them to double
WWD: A V-neck sweater and jeans is your signature look. Do you have a wardrobe of ballgowns at home that you secretly like to dress up in?
J.B.: Not at all. My thing is cashmere jerseys. I’m always peeking in [my daughters’] collars to see where they’ve bought their cashmere from. I just did a TV show a couple of days ago with [opera singer] Roberto Ayala where we sang “Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais.” I had to make a tiny bit of effort. I’d bought a secondhand YSL suit for a cocktail in Buenos Aires and wore it with stockings and high heels and a camisole from Sabbia Rosa, where I used to buy my lingerie when I was younger. People were amazed; they’re so used to seeing me in jeans. Then I threw it all off and got changed. I couldn’t wait to get my shoes off, and the skirt was too tight. I’d rather be dressed as a man, and Lou [Doillon] had found these baggy men’s pants [by John Varvatos] for me in New York. As soon as I’m in boys’ things I feel like I’m 12 again. I’ll go on tour in a white shirt and waistcoat. Lou is my costume designer; she has all the good ideas.
WWD: Tell us about your cashmere designs for Lutz & Patmos.
J.B.: I just designed a low-cut jersey in boring colors like taupe and gray or faded blue. I love it when you don’t have to fight against color: Beige is the skin, taupe is the hair and blue is the eyes. I like wearing very, very old things. I had a pair of old Ugg boots, the real ones from Australia, that I wore so much my toes came out of the end and my feet were covered in ink. They looked all sooty, as if I’d been cleaning the chimney.
WWD: You are the mother of a pretty impressive brood.
J.B.: Yes, they have managed, quite beautifully, to become their own person. Lou is the greatest for wanting to share things and has her line with Lee Cooper; Charlotte just did the film [“Antichrist”] with Lars von Trier and is mixing an album with Beck in New York, so I don’t have to worry there, and Kate is one of France’s greatest female photographers. She’s certainly the only one I want to be photographed by. [The song] “Pourquoi” was for Charlotte and “A La Grâce De Toi” was for Kate.
WWD: What’s up next for you?
J.B.: “[A vacation] with my family on the beach in Wales.