'I don't think of Serge whenever I'm singing, otherwise I would cry'
As she prepares to release an album of songs written for her by former lover Serge Gainsbourg, Sixties idol Jane Birkin tells Craig McLean of their life together and the tragic death of her daughter, Kate.
Picture the scene: Jane Birkin is in bed with Brigitte Bardot, her great rival in love and song. It is 1972 and the willowy Londoner (25), is in a relationship with the great French singer-songwriter, actor and bon vivant Serge Gainsbourg. Together they recorded the 1969 version of his famously sexually explicit composition Je t'aime… moi non plus.
The previous girlfriend of Gainsbourg, 18 years Birkin's senior, was Bardot. Birkin was the epitome of the glamour and excitement of London's Swinging Sixties. A sometime model, her acting career began with roles in The Knack (1965) and Blow-Up (1966). But as Birkin points out, the French actress "was the most beautiful girl in the world. Serge had enormous life-size posters of Bardot in his parents' place." Equally daunting, Gainsbourg had recorded the original version of Je t'aime with Bardot.
So when the two actresses were cast by Barbarella director Roger Vadim in his film Don Juan - and given a bed scene together - Birkin must surely have felt intimidated?
Au contraire, she smiles. "I got to know her and she was a sweetheart. I tried to find fault but, my God, I couldn't. A nice person?" Birkin ponders. "Bardot was better than that - she was totally unambitious. And for an actress to another actress, that's rather wonderful."
While it was "rather flattering" to be following in Bardot's romantic footsteps, the only twinge of competition came under the sheets. "Vadim hadn't given us any inkling of what we were supposed to do in bed. So we're both lying there and Bardot said: 'Perhaps we should sing a little song. How about Je t'aime?' I felt a tiny bit nervous, so I replied: 'Why don't we sing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean?' So that," says Birkin, flashing again her infectious gap-toothed smile, "is what we did."
Birkin and I are talking in a sprawling hotel-cum-conference centre 30 minutes from the centre of Brussels. Resident in Paris for almost 50 years, the 70-year-old is in Belgium for a concert presentation of her new album Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique. It's a collection of songs Gainsbourg wrote for her, both during their 12-year relationship and afterwards, reworked into full orchestral settings. Next week's show with the Heritage Orchestra at the Barbican in London sold out long ago, but she promises more dates for next year.
Today is rehearsal day and Birkin is already slightly weary after a recent concert trip to Japan, where she and Gainsbourg's Seventies albums are particularly adored.
She spends show days in near-total silence, to save her voice, and even this afternoon is speaking in a whispery, breathy, cut-glass English accent. The sound of her barrel-bodied bulldog Dolly, slobbering and snoring on the carpet between us, threatens to drown her out. She's the epitome of classy, comfortable chic.
Born in Marylebone and raised in Chelsea, Birkin has had a whirl of a life: Sixties icon, singer, actress, humanitarian activist, fashion muse (Hermes named the Birkin handbag in her honour) and mother (she and Gainsbourg's daughter is acclaimed singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Birkin's first encounter with Gainsbourg was in early 1968, when she auditioned for the film Slogan. Unable to speak a word of French, she admits she turned up "looking pretty stupid and goofy and ill-at-ease. And I thought Serge looked arrogant. He didn't say polite things like 'How are you?' because he simply couldn't care less. Then I started to cry and I think he thought that was really rather disgusting - I was a typical actress mixing up my private life and this little part in the film. Of course I was weeping for John Barry, and Serge must have found it almost distasteful."
Birkin's split with James Bond composer Barry - they'd married when she was 19 and their daughter, Kate, was born in 1967 - was one reason she headed for Paris. But that raw emotion in her seemingly botched audition served her well: she was cast in Slogan. How soon did she and Gainsbourg's relationship move from the professional to the personal?
"Hmm, I should think quite quickly. I had to do a scene in the bathroom and I thought it was really tough luck that Serge was in the bath wearing this enormous striped bathing suit, whereas I had to be perched on the corner of the bath - naked, of course - at an angle where he could see me quite plainly."
The deluxe edition of Le Symphonique features a film compiled from home movie clips of their years together. There is footage of Birkin, Gainsbourg, Kate and Charlotte in Morocco, Venice, Britanny and Oxford ("making a really rotten film").
In her affecting narration, Birkin talks fondly of the French cultural titan from whom she split in 1980 and who died in 1991. Even though the family were based in Paris, Christmases were always spent in London.
"Serge loved London," she exclaims. "When he ate haggis for the first time, he said it was the most oriental thing he'd ever eaten. He thought it was so exceptional to be so close to another country like France and England were, yet to be so exotic. He thought the London buses were exotic, the telephone booths, post boxes, the English taxis, Victoria Station, pubs."
For Birkin, though, London is the past, and that brings a sadness she can't shake. It brings up thoughts of her dearly departed parents. "I don't go to the King's Road any more because there's no more Ma. To be missing the people so …" she sighs.
More pressing, more crushing, is the loss of Kate, who was born in the capital (in 1982 Birkin had a third daughter, Lou Doillon, also a singer/actress, with director Jacques Doillon). A fashion photographer who had battled drug addiction in her youth, Kate Barry died in 2013, aged 46, after falling from her fourth-floor Parisian apartment.
Any emotions Birkin feels performing the songs of her late partner are more to do with the loss of her daughter. "I don't think about [Gainsbourg's death] when I'm singing at all because otherwise I would cry - and you can't go on singing and it would be a shameful thing," she says. "Anyhow, I've been singing these songs for so long now. If there are things that come back and seem acutely painful, it's for Kate. These days it's Kate's touch that's missing."
What would Gainsbourg make of these symphonic interpretations of his songs?
"I think he'd be very sentimental. That was the nice thing about him," she replies. "I like the songs he wrote for me after we were separated the best. Because I'm him, he must have needed someone to interpret the fragile, girl side of him. He could boast and shock people. But he needed to say these other things, too. And he needed me to be the person through whom he'd say them."
Birkin/Gainsbourg Le Symphonique Deluxe (Parlophone) is released on October 13