Jane Birkin: Famous Flame

Serge Gainsbourg's longtime girlfriend has always held her own.

The term “muse” has always come loaded with conflicting artistic expectations and delicate cultural implications. Rooted in Greek mythology and perpetuated by fashion designers and rock stars, the notion of a seductively inspirational female “sent” to creatively galvanize a struggling artist endures for valid reasons. The feminine side of humanity is associated with creativity, and the longing for an external force that mysteriously removes obstacles to artistic endeavors is an understandable impulse for anyone who’s ever gone a few rounds with writer’s block.

However, when the muse is herself also an artist, that her work could get lost in the shadows is a significant risk. It’s an obfuscation English-born, French-bred singer and actress Jane Birkin has struggled with all her life, but one she’s ultimately risen above.

As the longtime girlfriend of Serge Gainsbourg, the late pop provocateur widely recognized as one of France’s most subversive and scandalous recording artists, Birkin went along for his wild, vice- and vamp-filled ride through the late ’60s and ’70s. She collaborated with him vocally on several of his biggest hits, including the controversial “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” and posed, petulant and Lolita-like, on the cover of his album Histoire de Melody Nelson. Her presence on celluloid was uniformly scintillating, starting with a brief appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 mod masterpiece, Blow-Up, and later as Brigitte Bardot’s lover in Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman. In 1971, Gainsbourg and Birkin had a daughter, Charlotte, who eventually became a respected recording artist in her own right, most recently garnering accolades for IRM, her cerebral, unsettling, yet charming collaboration with Beck.

While this is where the image of Birkin, now 64, begins and ends for most American audiences, she’s remained active in both film and music in the decades since. After a brief fallow period in the wake of Gainsbourg’s 1991 death, Birkin returned to an ambitious touring and recording schedule, performing and collaborating with such varied cohorts as adventurous Algerian violinist Djamel Benyelles, brash bad boy Rufus Wainwright, and silver-throated French songstress Françoise Hardy. She’s also immersed herself in philanthropic and activist causes, including HIV/AIDS awareness, immigrant rights, and, most recently, fund-raising for survivors of the Japan earthquakes and tsunamis.

In 2008, Birkin released Enfants d’Hiver, her first album featuring lyrics completely by her own hand, which was so well-received that her tour itinerary went global, even to far-flung markets like Poland, Turkey, and Brazil.

Her cabaret performance at the Neptune next week will feature her heartfelt tribute to Gainsbourg on the 20th anniversary of his death, with the help of several Japanese musicians she met via her relief efforts there. Birkin may still be channeling the love of her life, but now she’s the star as much as the songs.