“I was promised a cup of tea,” Marianne Faithfull coos from a Paris suite. Even by phone she’s a powerful presence. Her “hello” startles, raising the mercury from her cool reserve, catching the caller off guard after several retreats into French answering service hell.
Faithfull’s voice is parched like worn vinyl, with the authority of her aristocratic upbringing (her mother was a baroness) and fading evenly like breath on glass throughout the conversation. The throaty rasp is a noticeable shift from the wispy young voice from her first hit song, “As Tears Go By,” in 1964.
Faithfull’s colorful life has been well-documented. She was a chanteuse who was discovered at a record industry party. She then became arm candy to Mick Jagger and company. She has been an addict, a survivor and finally, the fractured, mended voice of the critically-acclaimed 1979 comeback, Broken English.
After a 15 year hiatus, the title track put Faithfull back on the musical map. But it was the bitter, raw, cuss-filled scorned lover’s anthem, “Why’d You Do It,” that proved she was no longer the innocent school girl from 1964. In fact, “Why’d You Do It” could have easily provided Alanis Morissette with the inspiration for “You Oughta Know.”
On Faithfull’s latest treatise, Before the Poison (Anti-), she’s still every inch the Grande Dame, emitting late night cig-and-merlot coolness, a Left Bank intellect with a predilection for William S. Burroughs and Kurt Weill.
And Faithfull’s label, Anti-, has proven to be a place where both established artists (Tom Waits and Solomon Burke) and upstarts (Neko Case and A Girl Called Eddy) can retain creative integrity.
Now, as on other recent releases, Faithfull collaborates with a crop of kindred songwriters—PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Damon Albarn—who meld their styles with her forlorn prose and offer their lyrics to her interpretation, helping replenish a long and varied career.
Harvey’s “The Mystery of Love” opens with Faithfull’s tempered lyrics: “When you’re not by my side, the world’s in two and I’m a fool.”
Much of the record continues with their conversation. Harvey and Cave were once in love and no longer speak, leaving Faithfull to weigh the extremes of love and hate and functioning as a mediator.
“Crazy Love,” is Faithfull’s self-penned, folky template. Her diarist lyrics say, “Crazy love is all around me, love is crazy, love is blind.” Could this song be a reflection back to her 17-year-old self? The one who had to choose between career, college or romance with England’s then-newest hit maker Mick Jagger? “No,” she says lightly. “I could never have written that about myself. I’m not a ‘looking back’ kind of person. It’s taken me a long time to exist in the present. I’ve always looked forward. I’m moving so far through time that I hardly ever stay in the present tense long enough to congratulate myself for what I’ve done.”
After performing as the devil on a lengthy recent tour of the Robert Wilson operetta The Black Rider and also playing as a solo act, Faithfull found that she needed to recover both from road-weariness and a broken ankle. “When I got back to Paris I was exhausted,” she explains. “I should have known. It’s very hard to mix acting and my own work.” To get regain her strength, she spent the past few months reading Willa Cather and Thomas Pynchon, watching stolen moments of television and welcoming a gaggle of visitors.
Today, Faithfull is rejuvenated and anxious for her upcoming U.S. tour. Asked if she’s been tied up all afternoon in press junkets, she replies, “No, I’m far too grand for that, far too fragile. I’m not building a reputation. I’m not trying to get well-known. I am promoting a record and I want people to come to the shows, so I’m working. I have to make records that sell so I can retire.”
This story, by Kate Silver, appeared in ROCKRGRL Magazine, issue #54, March/April 2005.