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Q&A: Jane Birkin, Beyond the Bag

The songstress phoned from Montreal to bring WWD up to speed about her many pursuits, her famous offspring and the quintessential handbag that bears her name.

More than 40 years after Jane Birkin first sidled up with Serge Gainsbourg, the songstress will honor his memory, as she has countless times before, by performing his music Sunday night at Town Hall in Manhattan.

Nearing the end of a-country-a-night concert tour, the soon-to-be 65-year-old, British-born Birkin phoned from Montreal to bring WWD up to speed about her many pursuits, her famous offspring and the quintessential handbag that bears her name. Her days have been so jam-packed that she thought she had misplaced her passport in all the haste, but true to her low-key style, it was found Thursday in one of her back pockets.

WWD: Do you still get nervous before you perform?
Jane Birkin:
Of course. It’s a fight between the pianist Nobu [Nobuyuki Nakajima] and me to see who gets to the bathroom last. We find ourselves running to be ill. He doesn’t but I vomit, yes, with fear. The fear is being seen by people and to have them judging you. For me, that fear is in Paris, London and possibly New York. But in New York I know my mother [Judy Campbell] came over after 9/11 and sang “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” which she had sung during the [Second World] War. Just to know I will be where my mother had stood should keep me proud and happy. We have a sign if anyone [on stage] makes a mistake — we act as though we are cutting something open with scissors.

WWD: Is there anything you are eager to do while you are in New York?
J.B.:
I have hardly got any time in New York. I will rush down to the Bowery to go to some secondhand shops to get some shoes I promised to find for my grandson. And I will take the other musicians down Broadway, and by the Chrysler Building at night, which I love. I took them off to Niagara Falls the other day. I don’t know if we will have time to go to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. They are so curious about everything. They are good fun to be with.

WWD: How are your daughters? What types of new projects are they working on?
J.B.:
Charlotte [Gainsbourg] has a new record, “Stage Whisper,” that will be out Wednesday. My daughter Lou [Doillon] has a record coming out that she wrote the music and the lyrics for that is quite extraordinary. She has the humor of Dorothy Parker and a grating voice that sounds very American, like Patti Smith. She is about to do a production of “The Seagull” and she has done a film with her father. And my daughter Kate Barry, to whom I am most attached, is taking photographs of all her sisters. She is also having a bonny of a time together with a man who is taking her away for a holiday. It is nice to see someone looking after her. All my girls are well, so I am well.

WWD: You have been performing Serge’s work for a while and now it’s more than 20 years after his death. Do you feel as though he never left?
J.B.:
Sadly, I feel all the things I would love to do — to phone him up for a proper catch-up or to have him fall in from a taxi for dinner at 2 a.m. as he used to — are just illusions.…When I first started performing his music, I knew I had to be so careful. It’s not as though they are my words. I thought, “If I muck them up, I am mucking them up for him.” They are very confident words and they are very beautifully spoken.

WWD: Helping charities is an important part of so much of what you do and yet many people associate you with the Hermès bag that was named for you. Is that a challenge?
J.B.:
No, not at all, I got Hermès to fork out for my charities once I saw the fortune they were making. A certain amount of money every year goes straight to my charity and it will continue to after my death. This year I was able to [use some of that money] to go to Japan for a benefit concert after the earthquake. We use some of the money to feed the poor people who can’t afford to eat in France. I sold one of my Birkin bags for $163,000 to help the Japanese Red Cross. So that rather trivial piece of heavy luggage has done a lot of good in the world.

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