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Friday, Nov. 16, 2007
By WAYNE GABEL
Flush with tunes by some of the Anglophone world's best songwriters, "Fictions" is Jane Birkin's most English album to date. But don't take it as a sign the British-born Gallic icon is breaking with her past.
Birkin, the muse and one-time lover of late French musician and actor Serge Gainsbourg, says she has no intention of neglecting his share of her repertoire. She also takes a pragmatic view of her native tongue.
"It happens to have the good fortune of being a universal language now, which means that it touches more people," the singer and actress says by phone from Paris ahead of a Japan tour next week.
Her upcoming concerts will have two parts. One will revisit Gainsbourg songs she hasn't performed in years. The second will focus on tracks from "Rendez-Vous," a 2004 collection of duets with artists such as Bryan Ferry, Brazil's Caetano Veloso and Japanese rocker Yosui Inoue, and "Fictions" (2006), which features songs by the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, Rufus Wainwright and Portishead's Beth Gibbons, as well as covers of works by Kate Bush, Tom Waits and Neil Young. Birkin likens some tracks to "mini-portraits."
"It's funny how well people write for you," she says, citing Hannon's "Home." "Neil Hannon must have known that I was brought up on a farm in Berkshire, went to boarding school and had a sort of posh accent."
The song's video suggests there's a tug of war between Britain and France in her heart, but Birkin, who's made her home in Paris since 1968, is more intrigued by its evocation of childhood. For her, longing for England means missing childhood, a "home" of the most elusive sort.
"You can never get back to childhood to verify whether things were quite as lovely as they seemed," she says.
The songs on "Fictions" are a change for Birkin, who has been singing in French since topping the charts in 1969 with "Je t'aime moi non plus," a duet with Gainsbourg that offended conservative sensibilities with its orgasmic moaning. Performing in English offers a comfort zone.
"It's as if you're falling back onto soft cushions. You feel at ease and relaxed," Birkin says. "If you muck up a word, you put in another one."
That's not the case with Gainsbourg's songs.
"They're poetically so complicated that you have to be on a literal vigil not to betray him," she says, noting that the pun-loving Frenchman had a habit of "cutting words into three to make four different meanings."
Though best known as an interpreter of the songs of others, Birkin has penned her own. One she'll be performing in Japan is about Nobel Peace Prize-winning Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.
Birkin, whose fame in Japan owes much to "L'Aquoiboniste," a song featured in the 1999 TBS drama series "Utsukushii Hito," and the Hermes handbag that bears her surname, will never stop singing Gainsbourg's praises.
"It's his look, his fashion, the way he acted — the very educated and spectacularly avant-garde person he was," Birkin says. "He was ahead of his time in just about everything."
Jane Birkin plays Nov. 20-21, 7 p.m. at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo. Tickets are ¥8,000, ¥9,000 (call Conversation at  5280-9996); Nov. 23, 6 p.m. at Sunpalace Hall in Fukuoka, ¥7,000, ¥9,000, ¥11,000 (call Search and Key at  716-3430); Nov. 24, 7 p.m. at Billboard Live Osaka, ¥28,000, ¥30,000 (call the venue at  6342-7722); Nov. 25, 7 p.m. at Billboard Live Tokyo, ¥28,000, ¥30,000 (call the venue at  3405-1133).