NEW YORK — Jane Birkin, Sixties style icon and Hermès bag namesake, seems most comfortable dealing in two’s.
The 56-year-old has had two careers, as an actress and a singer, she’s achieved fame in two countries, Britain and France, and now, on her latest CD, “Arabesque,” she straddles two genres of music — the airy French pop championed by her late husband Serge Gainsbourg and the Arabian rhythms of North Africa.
The album was recorded during Birkin’s live performances in France last year. Though she had stuck with Gainsbourg’s compositions for the majority of her singing career, she knew she couldn’t do “the same old thing.”
Instead, she teamed up with Djamel Beynelles, an Algerian musician who had previously worked with singer Khaled and rai music, an Algerian version of modern pop. He retooled and rearranged the well-worn — and well-loved — tunes she and Gainsbourg made famous, and which are so linked to popular French culture.
“I suddenly felt I’d never heard something so exciting before,” Birkin says of her first listen. “I realized that the essence of Serge, the Oriental feeling that his Jewish-Russian family had always had, was there.” And although Birkin has never been praised for her vocal range, her soft, high pitched warbles on “Arabesque” are perfectly suited to the delicate, enchanting songs.
London-born Birkin first came to the attention of movie fans when she appeared nude — a full-frontal first — in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s racy cult classic “Blow-Up.” But it was her musical collaborations with Gainsbourg during the late Sixties and Seventies that earned her a rabid following in France, where she was dubbed L’Anglaise and widely adored for her gap-tooth grin and androgynous looks.
With Gainsbourg, Birkin recorded “Je T’aime, Moi Non Plus,” the famously breathy, suggestive ode that caused so much scandal it was banned by the BBC and denounced by the Vatican when it was released in 1969. The song, originally intended to be performed by Gainsbourg ex Brigitte Bardot, still raises eyebrows today. During a recent taxi ride in England, the usually modest Birkin saw just how big an impact the song had made. She used to make up stories about working at UNICEF to impress cab drivers when they asked about her career, “but this time I couldn’t resist. I said, ‘I sung a song 30 years ago, called ‘Je T’aime,’” says Birkin. The taxi promptly screeched to a halt and the driver told her, minus expletives, “I’ve had five children to that record!”
“If I’m going to be known for something as they wheel me out feet first, I know it’ll be ‘Je T’aime,’” Birkin adds. “Pourquoi pas?”
Once an ingenue herself, Birkin, still slim and alluring, now has two of her daughters sharing the spotlight with her — actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon (whose father is director Jacques Doillon). She still acts, and her “Arabesque” touring schedule will bring Birkin to New York, where she will perform Sept. 18 and 19 at the Florence Gould Hall.