A Haunted Aura: An Interview with Marianne Faithfull

Marianne Faithfull’s musical career dates back to London during the Swinging Sixties. She was closely associated with the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham penned her first hit single, “As Tears Go By”. She repaid the favor by introducing Jagger to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, which influenced him to write “Sympathy for the Devil”. Faithfull served as the inspiration for the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and co-wrote the track “Sister Morphine” (1969). As the song title suggests, by the late ’60s, Faithfull became heavily involved with hard drugs.

She spent much of the ’70s homeless and addicted, squatting in London wherever she could. She reemerged from the squalor as a recording artist in 1979, her voice a gruff approximation of her once songbird-pretty tonalities. This fit the roughness of her new material. The success of her comeback release, Broken English, especially her cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”, revealed a tougher artist and introduced her to a whole new audience.

Since then Faithfull has embarked on a host of new musical projects, from recording covers of Brecht/Weill material to renditions of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry to joining in with Dr. Strangelove co-writer Terry Southern and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg to paying tribute to folk anthologist Harry Smith, and much, much more. The specific works just mentioned were all made in collaboration with Hal Willner. Willner produced Faithfull‘s latest record, her 24th since 1965, Easy Come, Easy Go. She recorded two versions: an 18-track, 2-CD deluxe edition with a bonus DVD and a shorter 12-cut single disc. (It’s also available on vinyl.)

The 62-year-old Faithfull spoke over the phone from a New York City office. Her voice retains a British accent, and she laughs often while speaking, not in jest, but to underscore the seriousness of her remarks. She refuses to be coy and directly responds to inquiries, sometimes impatiently before the question is finished. Faithfull is clearly proud of her latest effort and should be. It is a wonderful collection of material that includes some of the best songwriters and singers from the last century, from Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday (“Solitude”) and Bessie Smith (“Easy Come, Easy Go) to country icons like Dolly Parton (“Down from Dover”) and Merle Haggard (“Sing Me Back Home”) to classic rock such as Smokey Robinson (“Ooh Baby Baby”) and Steve Winwood (“Many a Mile to Freedom”) to more contemporary artists including the Decemberists (“The Crane Wife 3”), Neko Case (“Hold On, Hold On”), Morrissey (“Dear God Please Help Me”) and The Espers (“Children of Stone”).

Your autobiography Faithfull documents how much you suffered: your drug addictions, poverty, and problems. Did suffering help you as an artist, or is that line about artists needing to suffer for their art a bunch of hooey?

I don’t think it helped me. I can’t tell for sure. It’s possible, but mostly when I look back at that time I just see it as a waste. Drugs caused me to waste a lot of time and caused me a lot of unnecessary pain.

I consider myself an artist and suffering has nothing to do with it. Look, I know there are some terrible things happening in the world. That doesn‘t make the world a better place. I am a citizen of the world and accept all of it as it is.

You’ve chosen a fairly gloomy group of songs. The 12-track disc begins with a song about an abandoned woman with a stillborn baby (“Down from Dover”) and ends with one about a man on his way to his execution (“Sing Me Back Home“). What attracts you to the dark side?

Hah! I have always been attracted to the bleaker aspects of life. I love drama. Even at the beginning of my career I sang such songs. This is nothing new. Penitentiary songs have been a love of mine for years. They are so wonderful. Everything is so black and white. It’s really just one thing or another, life or death.

But that doesn’t mean there are no happy songs on the album. Take the title song, “Easy Come, Easy Go”….

But that’s a blues number?

Yes, but it is still full of joie de vivre. It has a positive energy. Life is complex. Songs need to express this instead of fill you full of sugar. There is so much shite out there.

The songs on the new album are not all depressing. There are deeper meanings behind the songs. It’s subtle, not obvious. Don’t take the songs at face value. Listen to my voice. It’s full of hope. A lot of the stuff that comes out now is much too easy without even the slightest bit of an edge. It is ridiculous. I can’t do work without an edge. Take the Eno song (“How Many Worlds”). It offers hope, but with a twist.

Your record does contain an incredible selection of songs. Were there any songs you wanted to record but didn’t, either because they didn’t seem to fit with the others or because they were too difficult to sing or produce?

We recorded the album in eight days so we didn’t spend much time on things that didn’t work. We just went and did it very fast. The hard thing was there wasn’t any time to do rough mixes, so I couldn’t judge my performances. I just jumped into everything blind. It was like walking on a tightrope without a net. It felt like we were taking terrible risks, and I am not sure if I want to make another album that fast again, but then again, listening to rough mixes makes me more self-conscious. Making this record was more like giving a performance.

There was one song I couldn’t quite get the feel of, “I Get a Kick Out of You”. We were doing this Gil Evans arrangement that he did for Miles Davis. It was weird and difficult. I got scared and said I can’t do it. But we kept the take. I heard it recently and thought it was good, so maybe one day we will release it.

Was it intimidating covering songs that had already been recorded by great singers like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith? Did you not listen to the famous versions before you took them on, or did you play them for inspiration?

Our arrangements were so different than the famous ones, that it didn’t seem to matter. I did listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Black Coffee” and thought, I’ll never be able to hit those out-of-the-world crystal-breaking sonic vibrations that she can. That frightened me. But I also listened to Bobby Darin‘s version. You know, the “Mack the Knife” guy? He doesn‘t have that kind of range Ella does, but he does a great version, too. It reminded me that there are many ways to perform a song and still give an honest interpretation.”

There is something evocative about the record’s atmosphere. Were you deliberately aiming for a certain effect? How would you describe it?

I always like to create a haunted aura, to give the record a magical charisma built up of some mysterious ingredient x. It gives the record a real shape and purpose. The mood we chose to create was that of something unrushed. We wanted the pace to be able to allow the songs to breathe. That’s why we recorded in analog. It gives the music space.

You have some very talented musicians on the album and a number of famous guest stars. Did you get everybody you wanted, or were there some musicians that couldn’t be on the record because of schedule conflicts and such?

I got everyone I wanted, basically because they are all friends of mine. The first person I called was Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons). I met him in Paris three years ago and we have become very close. He has an incredible voice. Can you believe how beautifully he sings on “Ooh Baby Baby?”

I’ve known Rufus (Wainwright) for years. His mom [Kate McGarrigle] is an old and dear friend. Of course, my relationship with Keith Richards goes back decades. It was wonderful to sing with him again. And who else, Nick [Cave] and Chan [Cat Powers]? Everyone was right there for me. Hal [Willner] assembled the band. I’ve worked with many of them before on his productions.

Explain the new disc’s subtitle: ”18 (or 12) Songs for Music Lovers.” Was that your idea?

It may have been Hal’s or Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s — he did the photography and art, but, really, we all agreed on the name. It reminded me of Songs for Swinging Lovers.

Frank Sinatra?

God, yes. I am a big fan. He is one of the best singers ever. He gives the right weight to every word. He has excellent judgment. Some people sing just to hear their own voices. That was never Frank. He always made sense of the lyrics. That’s the kind of singer I prefer to, I aspire to be.

Like Frank, you have become an icon yourself. Do you know there is a fashion called the Marianne Faithfull-look that people still dress like when they want to be hip? It’s the style of clothes you used to wear in the ’60s.

I’ve come across articles where they say some starlet or young thing is dressed like a young Marianne Faithfull, and I take it is a compliment. I used to be very concerned with how I dress. Now my basic uniform is a crisp, smart white shirt, good jeans, and a Chanel jacket. It’s elegant, but not high fashion. Maybe Karl Lagerfeld would approve. I wish I had the time to comb the vintage stores to get some dresses from the ’40s. That look would fit the songs on the new record.”

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