A freewheeling Charlotte Gainsbourg

Amy Troost

The sounds of the New York City streets are evident as Charlotte Gainsbourg answers her cellphone. At one point a police siren drowns out the conversation.

“I’m bicycling,” she explains. She’d planned to ride along the Hudson River Greenway on the city’s West Side, but it was too windy. So she’s tootling down Seventh Avenue as she talks about her stop-start career in music.

Gainsbourg, who kicks off a brief US tour Sunday at Royale, has lived with actor-director Yvan Attal and their two school-age children in New York for about five years. (The couple’s 21-year-old son lives in Paris.) Born in London to the late Serge Gainsbourg and the singer and actress Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg lived most of her life in Paris.


After the death in 2013 of her half-sister, the fashion photographer Kate Barry, “I thought I needed to change everything,” she says. “I won’t live in New York forever — I do feel very European. But I love that feeling of being a foreigner here.”

That feeling helped her compose her fifth album, “Rest,” which came out in late 2017, just in time to make several year-end-best lists. She spent much of last year touring across Europe in support of the release.

Working with the French electronic producer known as Sebastian, Gainsbourg looked to the moody disco-era soundtracks of ’70s suspense films such as “Midnight Express” to convey her despair over the loss of her sister and her lingering grief over her father. He died in 1991 at age 62.

The streets of New York, she says, helped her get “outside my comfort zone. It’s a city where nobody knew who I was. I started doing photography again, I started drawing again. It got me into all the things I like doing.”

Now 47, she’s lived all her life as the daughter of Birkin and Gainsbourg, two stars of the jet set 1960s. Together they recorded “Je t’aime . . . mois non plus,” an international smash that was widely banned for its infamous erotic sighing. Years later, Gainsbourg set off more sirens with the song “Lemon Incest,” recorded with a teenage Charlotte. Sung in French, the song can be heard innocently enough, translated into English as “a lemon zest” — or in the interpretation that’s obviously more problematic.


Charlotte Gainsbourg has no regrets. Her father, she says, was a provocateur.

“As an adult, I love it,” she says. “As a child, it made me more secretive, maybe. But it didn’t bother me. I knew who he was. The provocation, I just thought it was a game.”

In her own work, too, she’s no étranger to controversy. As an actress, she played Sean Penn’s wife in “21 Grams” (2003) and the title role in Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” (2013).

She has always been more comfortable as an actor than a singer, she says, though she never formally trained for either.

“There was more pretending with the singing,” she suggests. “Today, it’s completely different, just because I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not a singer.”

In the absence of her father, she says, “I felt completely lost. It took 20 years to go back to a studio and record with the help of Air.” The French duo, Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker, and others helped her make the album “5:55,” released in 2006. She recorded her next, “IRM” (2009), at Beck’s home studio in Los Angeles.


All of the musicians she has collaborated with share an affinity for her father’s long, stylistically omnivorous career in music. But none of them overstepped their boundaries, she says: “They were tactful enough not to ask.”

Besides, she continues, “I’m the greatest admirer of my father. Obviously all my inspiration comes from [him].”

For the new album’s title track, co-written by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, she asked von Trier to direct a video. He couldn’t fit it into his schedule, “but I’ll tell you exactly what to do,” he told her. He described a surreal montage of images, some original, some found footage, each corresponding to the song’s recurring phrases. On the instrumental passages, the viewer sees Gainsbourg sitting idly in a recording studio.

“He said, ‘When you’re not singing, it should be extremely boring,’” she recalls. “It was a funny exercise.”

Paul McCartney wrote “Songbird in a Cage” for Gainsbourg after she asked him to lunch in London several years ago. He sent her a demo; she and her producer took the song in another direction. She was nervous to hear the Beatle’s reaction, but he loved it, she says, and he stopped by the studio to add instrumentation.

She realizes now she never asked him what the song means.

“You know, like when you meet someone, then you forget their name,” she says with a laugh. “And then it’s too late to ask.”


Charlotte Gainsbourg

At Royale, Boston, April 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets $35, www.royaleboston.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.