She speaks in English between songs and sings in French, pleasing the two largest nationalities of her public. Her English retains traces of her London birth and upbringing; the French she learnt as a 21 year old when auditioning for the film Slogan in 1968, starring the Paris-based singer–songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. She got the role, she and Gainsbourg became lovers, and 44 years later she is on tour singing a show of his songs that marks two decades since his death at the age of 62.
The number that fixed the Birkin–Gainsbourg partnership in the public mind is ‘Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus’. A scandalous song, banned in most countries upon its release in 1969, it was still a great enough temptation to the record-buying market for it to became a worldwide hit. Although she playfully refers to it a number of times, she doesn’t perform the song the night I see her, at the Brisbane Powerhouse, and this is perhaps wise, as her original vocal beside Gainsbourg’s raspy utterances was a breathless, orgasmic whisper. The reason the song would be worth hearing, especially in the hands of her crack four-piece Japanese band, is that Gainsbourg was not only a provocative lyricist – he would write and record ‘Lemon Incest’ with his and Birkin’s daughter, Charlotte, in the ’80s – but also a supreme melodist; and it’s the strength of the tunes that helps carry the Birkin show (especially for non-French speakers), as much as the vitality of her voice and her charismatic presence.
She is an attractive woman. Now in her mid sixties and performing in a simple white shirt and black pants, her features and movements still recall the gap-toothed, pretty ingenue who stormed Gainsbourg and France; but while her image in the first 10 years of her career in film and music leant heavily on her looks and erotic appeal, Birkin has shed that skin while retaining an awareness of her beauty. She is now ‘the survivor’, a role that can also require a pout and a noble profile. With the patina that time has given her songs – some of them written by Gainsbourg after their separation in 1980 – Birkin easily musters the necessary gravitas and respect for her former partner’s work, and this in turn mirrors the feelings she engenders in the audience for herself and her own art.
There is another story running through tonight’s concert, besides the celebration of a rich back catalogue of songs. Birkin’s involvement in humanitarian issues and organisations (Amnesty International) has led her to work in various countries; in this spirit, after the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, she went to Tokyo to play a one-off benefit show. Here she met her four musicians: pianist/composer Nobuyuki Nakajima, drummer Tsuotmu Kurihara, violinist Asuka Maret and Shurihiro Sakaguchi on brass. All of them are famous in their homeland, and while they form a kind of supergroup, they are also entirely sympathetic to the music. Birkin is clearly entranced by them; the joy she takes in their playing recalls the attention Leonard Cohen lavished on his touring band – it’s often the big artists, those secure in their own talent, who prove to be the most generous on stage.
She sings a selection of material from the six albums she made with Gainsbourg, as well as numbers from his other collaborations. The late ’60s hit ‘Comic Strip’, originally done with Brigitte Bardot, another ‘muse’ of the songwriter and the original singer on ‘Je T’aime’, gets a sparkling rendition, with violinist Asuka taking the second vocal part while marching through the audience. Birkin also leaves the stage for the stalls, waltzing between rows and kissing the hands of members of the audience. It’s all to do with the mood of the night, which, when the songs aren’t pulling at the heart, has her smiling in gratitude and displaying a surprising self-deprecation.
Another point of her world tour is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of what has come to be regarded as Gainsbourg’s masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson. Birkin has fought as hard for Gainsbourg’s legacy as she has for her other causes, her campaign being at its most dogged when confronting an ‘English’ perception of Serge as merely a “drunk, funny, sexy guy”. Her appearance on the original album was restricted to a few vocal cameos and gracing the album’s cover topless, clutching a stuffed animal to her chest – she laughs when recalling the photo shoot, “the pet monkey” a prop to hide her pregnant belly. ‘Ah! Melody’ is the sweetest song on the seven-track album and she covers it beautifully; it has also been done by Beck, one of many ’90s artists who, tiring of the blues and folk influences of ’60s singer–songwriters, found in Gainsbourg a new sensibility, with his records full of exotic non-rock instrumentation and European song styles. It is the “young people”, proclaims Birkin, who have pushed Histoire to gold-record status, and they make up a section of the audience tonight.
Part of the concert experience is simply being in Birkin’s presence. She’s that kind of person, that kind of performer – and there are many less cogent reasons for wanting to go to a show than the wish to spend two hours in the same room as someone you admire. It’s mostly why people go to see Bob Dylan these days. This kind of reverence can be abused – shows can be nostalgic and sloppy. But in Birkin, with the band at her heels, her voice vibrant, and the bridge of high art that brought the 21-year-old English actress to the enfant terrible of the ’60s French pop scene still intact, we are seeing a fearless artist and an engaging one too.
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