Marianne Faithfull: a voice that says, “she hasn’t survived. She’s lived.”
Long before Madonna made an art form out of reinvention, Marianne Faithfull was blazing a path for musical chameleons. She began her career in 1964, presaging the dark side of the flower child movement with her version of the Rolling Stones ballad “As Tears Go By.” It was a crepuscular, forlorn vision that punctured the more popular image of happy hippies frolicking in the sun, and one that reached its apotheosis in her 1969 single “Sister Morphine” (recorded by the Stones the following year).
Ten years later, after a crippling bout with drug addiction left her homeless, at her rock-bottom worst, Faithfull reemerged with Broken English, an album in which her fragile, tremulous voice was as spectral and commanding as a ghost’s. She had banished the svengalis, producers and songwriters, who in the 1960s had tried to present her as a mouthpiece for their pop songs, and revealed her own, startling, cigarette-burnt voice and stark, uncompromising vision of reality. Hers, perhaps more than any other contemporary rock singer you could name, is the voice of experience–and it’s this wizened quality that, in the ’90s, made her transformation into a modern-day Brechtian chanteuse such a compelling twist on cabaret.
On Kissin Time
(Virgin Records), her recently released 22nd album, the singer has come full circle. In her collaborations with Blur, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, she more than holds her own. She duets with Beck, who interviewed her for this story, on his song “Nobody’s Fault,” and, much as she did on her very first single, Faithfull turns despair into poetry. The singer is still full of foreboding, but this time she’s ready to face the music. Dimitri Ehrlich MARIANNE FAITHFULL: Hello!
BECK: Marianne! Sorry to keep you waiting, my dear.
MF: That’s all right, my dear. I was able to watch Seinfeld. [both laugh] So how’s your new record?
B: Well, it’s done.
MF: I really am dying to hear it.
B: I hope you like it.
MF: Can you hear me?
B: I can hear you.
MF: But you’re meant to be interviewing me. [both laugh] I’m not meant to be babbling on.
B: I’m sorry I missed you last time you were in L.A. I was wondering what you were doing here. What was the occasion?
MF: The mission? Well, it started with me doing the Gap ad.
B: You’re going to be on the side of a building.
MF: I’m going to be on the side of a building, on a bus stop, all over the place.
B: And how do you feel about that?
MF: Ambivalent, but the good bit was, as I got there, guess who was doing the Gap ad with me? It’s somebody who you never notice what he’s wearing.
MF: Willie Nelson!
B: Really? I love Willie.
MF: We had a good time. I loved his last record.
B: He’s somebody you should sing with.
MF: Oh, I’ve worshiped him for years.
B: I sang with him once.
MF: Did you? What was that like?
B: You know, I think of his voice as almost conversational. But when I stood next to him, it was like standing next to an opera singer. It was very odd. He’s probably one of the loudest singers I’ve ever heard.
MF: Wow. Of course, he’s got that incredible chest, so that means huge lungs. And, I got a denim jacket at the shoot.
B: You got a free jacket? That’s always nice.
MF: Quite a nice one, too. I might stick little things on it. What do you call it? Customize it. That’s what Willie does. He customizes everything.
B: He does. There’s a little hole on his guitar where his pinky sits, and his pinky’s been sitting there for so long it’s worn away.
MF: I’d like to see his guitar collection, just on the level of how far he’s come. I mean, imagine your collection a few years down the line.
B: My guitar collection was always fairly pathetic. I was sort of the anti-collector. But after we worked on the record last year, I went on a spree. I finally broke down and bought about 10 guitars, all the classic ones. But I always refuse to play them. I always want to play the $50 guitar.
MF: Aren’t they just really to have lying around to look at anyway?
B: I guess. So, I finally got your new record.
MF: Oh, good. What do you think?
B: I think it’s great. Fantastic. I love how varied it is. How do you feel about it?
MF: I think it’s the best one. I mean, my favorite record I’ve ever made is The Seven Deadly Sins. But this is my favorite of my sort of rock ‘n’ roll records. I think it’s more interesting.
B: I love the lyrics.
MF: I love the lyrics, too. You know, it also helped me such a lot to understand that all my early work had a point, and the point was–and it’s not the only point–without all that, we couldn’t have done this.
B: Yeah, you’re building. Sometimes you feel like you’re making a record just so you can make one later.
MF: Yes, I don’t know what they tell you nowadays but when I started in ’64, they told us, “This will only last three years.” And here I am, 38 years later, with this lovely record which is built on what I did when I was very young.
B: Right. Did you take it as a challenge?
MF: Well, it ups the ante for the next one, doesn’t it? And I’m just diving into that now–I started working with Polly [PJ Harvey].
B: Did you?
MF: Yeah. Darling Polly.
B: Yeah, she’s great. Have you seen any good films lately?
MF: When I was in Los Angeles, I went to see Enigma. Partly so I’ve got something to talk to Mick [Jagger, the film’s producer] about next time I see him. I thought it was quite good. I quite like films like that, that aren’t that good, but not that bad, either. Have you seen anything?
B: Well, I did a cameo in a friend’s film, Southlander, and they just screened that the other night. It was the first time I’d seen it.
MF: Oh, how was that? It’s nice acting, isn’t it? It’s nice being someone else.
B: I supposedly play myself in this, but I’m sort of playing my friend’s idea of myself.
MF: I can’t wait to see it. Polly and I are writing out of movies quite a lot. We decided to choose films and write songs out of them. One of the ones we’re writing out of is Pretty Baby . It’s the film that Louis Malle made about a brothel in New Orleans. I think it was Brooke Shields’ first real part. The tune Polly came up with is very interesting.
B: Are they literal?
MF: Oh, no. Very, very oblique.
B: They’re in the character?
MF: They’re in the vibe. I’ve got this little demo, and there’s just this tiny bit of Polly, this little bit of her wonderful guitar and just her singing, “Pretty girl come soon. Pretty girl come soon.” I’m going to call it “The Girl Factory.”
B: That’s a great title. Sometimes where we draw inspiration from can be fairly random.
MF: I think it gets very (continued from page 100) boring to always draw inspiration from oneself. That’s why I like going to see exhibitions. I really get a lot out of pictures.
B: Yeah, I get more from visual art than from music as far as inspiration goes.
MF: I find it very dangerous to listen to music while I’m writing. Because you can’t help it, can you? You just sort of get affected, especially sticking with the same stuff, which in my case tends to be Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Jimmy Reed. That doesn’t mean that I then sit down and write “Chain of Fools.” Alas. [both laugh] I wish.
B: I find that sometimes I need to sit down and listen to some bad music to be able to write some good music.
MF: Oh, I love sad music. It makes me happy.
B: No, I said bad.
MF: Bad? I thought you said sad. Why?
B: If I’m trying to write and I listen to great music, it’s already been realized. It’s already perfect. There’s nothing I can add to it, nothing I can improve on. But if I listen to something that has problems, I can see how to fix them.
MF: That’s a very good idea. I have to say I do listen to bad music, too.
B: What are your guilty pleasures musically?
MF: Well, I like Kylie [Minogue]. My favorite artist at the moment is Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
B: He’s great.
MF: Ah! I just think he’s fantastic. He sort of landed in Dublin and practically landed on my lap. A friend of mine brought him to lunch and I cooked a lovely fish tea for him. I said to him, “So you’re called Will Oldham, but on the album you’re called Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.” He’s got these amazing blue eyes, and he looked straight into my eyes–he’s got this incredible sort of detachment about him, a bit like you, actually, but even more. Sorry.
B: What are you saying? [laughs]
MF: He’s very detached. And he looked at me and I really believed him, because it’s a hard thing to say, and he said, “I don’t want to be famous. I want to be left alone to make my music.” But I don’t know if he’ll get his wish.
B: He changes his name every two years.
MF: Oh, does he? He’s really serious about it. After he got back to Kentucky or wherever he is, he sent me a little care package of all his records to thank me for the lunch. I’m working my way through them.
B: And what do you think?
MF: They’re marvelous. I think we’re going to write together. He described this wonderful scene to me. He said, “My brother has a cabin, just a log cabin in a tobacco field, and if you come at the right time of year when the tobacco is getting ripe, when it goes gold and they’re just about to pick it, the scent of tobacco is in the field. There we’ll sit in the cabin and write.” So, of course, I was completely spellbound and I can’t wait.
B: Sounds very cinematic. I think you should take him up on it. In the meantime, I need to send you out a copy of my record. And let’s talk again soon.
MF: Yes. Take care, darling. Lots and lots of love!
B: Lots of love to you!
BECK “Marianne Faithfull,”
Beck, who interviewed friend and fellow outside-the-box resident Marianne Faithfull, recently completed a solo acoustic tour across the U.S. to promote his upcoming album Paper Tiger (Geffen, September 24). For his first release in four years, he reteamed with Nigel Godrich, who produced 1998’s Mutations, and returned to his soulful, stripped-down folk roots.
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