Jane Birkin was born in London; she is the daughter of actress Judy Campbell and David Birkin, an officer in the Royal Navy who worked on clandestine operations as navigator with the French Resistance. She made her stage debut at the age of 17 and subsequently met composer John Barry in 1965 when she was cast in the musical comedy Passion Flower Hotel. The two married shortly afterwards, and Kate Barry was born in 1967.

At the age of 20, Birkin attracted attention in Blow-up, Antonioni’s scandalous film that received the grand prix at the Cannes Film Festival. At the time, Pierre Grimblat was filming Slogan in France and was looking for an actress to play opposite Serge Gainsbourg, who was grieving his recent breakup with Brigitte Bardot. Though she barely spoke French and knew nothing about her famous co-star, Birkin went for a screen test where Gainsbourg, having the right to veto the casting of the role, gave her a notoriously hard time. When she burst into tears—the result of a mixture of private sadness about her recent separation from Barry and the role itself—Gainsbourg disapproved, but recognized that she cried well in front of the camera and ultimately approved Birkin’s casting. And thus began, in 1969 Paris, their mythical love story. The two became inseparable and, shortly thereafter, living legends when they recorded the song “Je t’aime…moi non plus.” The Vatican banned it, the BBC refused to play the original version, and as a result the record sold more than a million copies in a matter of months. The pair then traveled together to Yugoslavia to film Abraham Polonsky’s Romance of a Horsethief with Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach, and nine months later their daughter Charlotte was born in 1971.

Di doo dah, Birkin’s first solo album, was released in 1973. That same year she appeared in Jacques Rouffio’s film Sept morts sur ordonnance alongside Gérard Depardieu and Michel Piccoli. She also shared in the box office and popular successes of La moutarde me monte au nez and La course à l’échalote, two of Claude Zidi’s comic films with Pierre Richard.

In 1975 Gainsbourg and Birkin returned with the film Je t’aime moi non plus, an exploration of a homosexual theme heightened by Birkin’s ambiguity as an androgynous muse. Puritan France was outraged and critics panned the film, though Francois Truffaut raved about it and it has since become a cult classic. Birkin’s solo album Lolita Go Home was released that same year, on which she sang lyrics by Philippe Labro set to Gainsbourg’s music. Her album Ex-fan des sixties followed in 1978.

By 1983 Birkin had left Gainsbourg. She was living with film director Jacques Doillon, with whom she had her third daughter, Lou Doillon, in 1982. She appeared in the director’s La fille prodigue and La pirate, which became France’s official entry at Cannes.

Gainsbourg, suffering from the breakup, wrote the album Baby Alone in Babylone for Birkin to record, which went gold and was widely acclaimed. A deeply moving interpreter of Gainsbourg’s inner turmoil, Birkin became from then on, in her words, “his female side” and his “fragile half,” interpreting his songs of pain and separation.

Birkin went on to work with such acclaimed film directors as Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda and Bertrand Tavernier, and in 1985 she returned to the stage as The Countess in Pierre de Marivaux’s La fausse suivante under the direction of the great Patrice Chéreau. It was from these experiences that Birkin drew the courage and self-confidence to finally appear on stage as a singer. Following the release of “Quoi,” another smash hit written for her by Gainsbourg, in 1987 she created a show for the Bataclan in Paris—directed by Philippe Lerichomme—for which she cut off her hair and “dressed like a boy,” saying she did it all “just wanting to impress Serge.” The show was an overnight success, and Gainsbourg was in attendance most nights of the run.

In 1990 Gainsbourg dedicated a new album to Birkin, Amours des feintes, which was to be the last. He died on March 2, 1991, followed a few days later by the death of Birkin’s father, David. Birkin was crushed—both of her heroes gone within days of each other. She appeared on stage at the funeral at the Casino de Paris, where the atmosphere was grave and the emotion palpable. The whole of France was mourning their dead hero.

For a time, Birkin returned to the intimacy of writing and devoted herself to what was dear to her: her family and her humanitarian work. She sang on behalf of Amnesty International, made a short film for them and another for the battle against AIDS, and then wrote and directed her own film, Oh pardon! Tu dormais…, before throwing herself into the humanitarian crisis in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.

All the while fans urged her to continue “singing Serge” to them, and their wish was granted in 1996 with Versions Jane, on which artists including Goran Bregovic and Senegalese percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose re-orchestrated 15 tracks from the repertoire of Gainsbourg’s youth. “La gadoue” and its spirited rhythm—revamped by Les Négresses Vertes—became a hit 30 years after the original.

In 1998 Birkin recorded A la légère, which she described as “total infidelity,” inviting 12 composers to write 12 original songs. Then, in 2002 she returned to Gainsbourg’s songs with a new stage show and album, Arabesque, hoping to introduce his work to even wider audiences. Lerichomme served again as artistic director, and suggested she work with Algerian violinist Djamel Ben Yelles, whose violin made Gainsbourg’s songs vibrate to the tune of Arabic interludes. To date, Birkin has performed Arabesque more than 400 times worldwide.

Rendez-Vous, Birkin’s album of duets with artists including Feist, Manu Chao, Françoise Hardy, Bryan Ferry, Etienne Daho, Brian Molko, Miossec and Beth Gibbons was released in 2004. It was followed by Fictions in 2008 on which she collaborated with artists including Neil Young, Tom Waits, Kate Bush and Rufus Wainwright. 2008 also saw the release of her solo album Enfants d’Hiver, which featured lyrics written exclusively by Birkin for the first time.

Following her return to the stage in the title role of Sophocles’ Electra from November 2006–March 2007, Birkin directed her second film, Boxes, in which she also starred with Michel Piccoli, Geraldine Chaplin, Maurice Bénichou, Tcheky Karyo, Natacha Régnier and Lou Doillon. The film was an official selection of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

In 2011 Birkin traveled to Japan to take part in a concert to aid the victims of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima. It was there that she met Nobuyuki Nakajima, who became the artistic director of Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le symphonique—a celebrated orchestral tribute to Gainsbourg’s life released as a double album, with which Birkin has toured the world. Her most recent album, Oh! Pardon tu dormais... (which translates as “Oh! Sorry you were sleeping…”) is partly inspired by her theatrical play of the same name, and marks her most intimate and personal album to date. Its 13 songs feature lyrics written by Birkin—including, for the first time, two tracks in English—and music by Etienne Daho and Jean-Louis Piérot, who also produced.

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