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Marianne Faithfull on Finding ‘More Meaning’ in Her Classic Songs

More than half a century after she debuted as a teenage pop phenomenon, the singer says she’s finally made her “most honest” album to date

marianne faithfull

Marianne Faithfull discusses her new album, 'Negative Capability,' which features new versions of classic songs like 'As Tears Go By.'

Yann Orhan

Marianne Faithfull feels out of sorts. “I have a cold, the weather’s been terribly hard here in Paris and, what else … well, the usual,” she says on a call from her home in the City of Lights. “I’ve got to have a shoulder replacement, so I’m in a lot of pain.” Despite living in a state of discomfort, her voice sounds strong and there’s something about how her words come through her London accent that suggests confidence. “In the end it will be much better,” she concedes. “I’ve got very good doctors.”

The singer, age 71, has never been one to mince words but now she’s reached a point where she feels she has nothing to hide. She’s described her latest LP (and 21st overall), Negative Capability, as her “most honest” release, and that’s a notable feat since she coauthored the Rolling Stones’ junk-sick “Sister Morphine.” “I’ve always tried to mask my true self as much as I can in my work,” she says. “On this one I haven’t really done that.” She pauses, as she often does, and mulls her words. “Well, maybe I did that a little bit because it’s a habit, but I’ve tried to be really direct.”

On Negative Capability’s songs, she confronts loneliness, death, aging, her longing for love and her anger at inhumanity. (“They Come at Night” is about the Bataclan attack.) She also reinterpreted “Witches’ Song,” from her 1979 album Broken English, to gave it more depth; she added weight to Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (“It says, ‘What are we gonna do now?'” she says of why she did it, “‘How are we gonna get through this?'”); and even redid her breakout hit, “As Tears Go By,” making the song’s observations on aging infinitely more poignant than when she sang it as a teenager. And the music, which was produced by Warren Ellis (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey), aches with yearning and hope in its textures of acoustic guitar, piano and violin. As a whole, the album is a portrait of grief and resilience.

In some ways, these themes have always been present in Faithfull’s work. She started her career as a teenager in 1964 with the Jagger-Richards ballad “As Tears Go By,” a song about the pangs of growing up. She gained further fame and some notoriety as Jagger’s girlfriend in the Sixties but established herself as an artist in her own right with “Sister Morphine” by the end of the decade. But she really came into her own at the end of the Seventies with Broken English — a stunning, dark record that bridged rock and New Wave; her cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and the cutting “Why’d Ya Do It” represented a 180 from the ingenue persona she’d had 15 years earlier.

Over the next two decades, her best work would reflect the tone of Broken English: tough yet vulnerable, raw yet refined. Her influence started to resound in the Nineties, too, in the works of Cat Power, Juliana Hatfield and even Metallica, who tapped her as a guest artist on “The Memory Remains.” And she reached a grand third act in 2005 with Before the Poison, a morose album with songs by PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. She’s been making complex chamber rock in this vein ever since. It’s hard to imagine she didn’t feel honest before.

As with the original songs on her albums in the past decade or so, Faithfull simply worked on lyrics for Negative Capability and found the right songwriters to bring her words to life. This time, she worked with Ed Harcourt, Warren Ellis, Cave and Mark Lanegan, among others, who helped her find the right emotional tone for each of her songs. “I don’t write music,” she says. “So I very, very, very much need people to collaborate with who I love and respect and who will put up with me.”

“She makes sure to surround herself with people who are likely to contribute something that works for her,” says producer Rob Ellis, who first worked with Faithfull on Before the Poison. “And I think because me and Ed and Rob [McVey, guitar] had been performing gigs with her for quite a few years before we did the record, I think we already had an advantage in terms of her likes and dislikes.” (Faithfull says of Ellis: “I need someone to talk to, I really do. I can’t do all this on my own, and Rob’s a very close friend.”)

“She’s incredibly respectful to the musicians,” he continues. “She was a delight in the studio on this last occasion. I think she just loved hanging out. But she’s very no nonsense, as far as working’s concerned. … We’d be figuring out how a track could possibly go during the day and then Marianne would give us an hour or so that she knew she could come down and do some vocals, and she’d be like, ‘That’s it. This is your time. You have me for this period.’ And quite firm about it. And as soon as she was done with it, that was it. It’s not like we could say to her, ‘Maybe one more? Another take?’ She’d go, ‘No, no. That’s it. I’m done.’ And you knew she was right.”

The starting point for the record was “They Come at Night,” which stemmed from a heap of lyrics she wrote the night after terrorists attacked the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan venue in Paris. “I felt very strongly,” she says of why she wrote lyrics like “Cry for them, cry for us, playing the game of death / It’s not a game when you are down to taking your last breath.” She had a gig planned there a little over a year after the attack and wanted a song to mark the occasion, so she turned to Lanegan, the former frontman of grunge-rockers the Screaming Trees who has since made a name for himself playing with hard-rock groups like Queens of the Stone Age and singing his own brooding, melancholy songs. “He’s one of the most brilliant composers there is,” Faithfull says of why she sought out Lanegan. “And he did a brilliant job. It was like it was written for him.”

It was an especially meaningful moment for Lanegan, too. “I came in with Broken English,” he says, referring to the album that ushered in the darker sound Faithfull now owns. “Somehow Broken English got on my radar as part of the punk scene. It had something in common with the music that was happening at that time — the attitude and the raw edge of the music. But really, it was her voice that just nailed me and kept me a fan forever. That record basically changed my life.”

But moreover, he too had been affected by the Bataclan attack. “The guys who were playing in the band that night are guys who used to be in my band, and I sang on Eagles’ records before,” he says. “It was a really stressful day for us, and the horror of the entire thing really struck her. Her words are really free flowing, poetry really, but not set up like a normal verse-chorus thing. It was a bit challenging, but I had been such a huge fan of hers for so long that I had to do it.” (Incidentally, she also sent him lyrics for another song and he wasn’t able to write music for that one; both artists hope to work with one another again in the future. “She sent me two or three really long, beautiful e-mails in my response to declining this other song, and she was so positive and so excited that I had work,” he says. “She’s totally cool.”)

For the song that would be the album’s single, she turned to Nick Cave. The lyrics for “The Gypsy Faerie Queen” are much lighter and based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It’s Puck telling the story with a little bit of Edmund Spenser in there,” she says. But at first Cave refused to work on it. “He was very, very busy and he was going through quite a hard time himself,” she says, referring to the 2015 death of his son Arthur. “When I sent him the lyrics I wrote a letter, too, and said, ‘Look, I know how busy you are. You probably can’t do this, but just on the possible chance, could you put music to these words?’ And at first he said no, and then he changed his mind and said yes. So I feel very lucky, actually.” He came to the studio and recorded it with her, and it became a moving meditation on feeling connected to hope.

“Nick was able to be a member of a band and relax a bit,” Rob Ellis says of having Cave in the studio with the group. “It wasn’t his record. And that was a really liberating thing for him. He was just another brilliant addition to the band.”

Many of the songs display Faithfull’s most intimate thoughts. “My Own Particular Way” opens with “Send me someone to love / Someone who could love me back” and the chorus ends with her saying she’s “ready to love … at last.” “I think the album is about love, don’t you?” she says pointedly, leaving it there. And “Misunderstanding” — a song about misunderstandings in general — finds her singing, “Love is real, love is here / The only thing I know for sure.” “I don’t know, man,” she says of why she wrote it, really punching the word “man” for extra effect, before changing the subject. “Of course it’s a very personal record, but I don’t just write about myself. I wasn’t the only person in the last two years who had a lot of friends die. Lots of people did. Especially people of my age.”

“There’s a bit of loneliness in there in her songs and I think she sort of felt this was a great opportunity to hang out with her boys,” Rob Ellis says of the mood of the LP. “And it was. So she came and lived with us in the studio and we hung out and ate meals together.”

One song about a friend who died that she can articulate is “Born to Live,” which she wrote about Anita Pallenberg, who died of hepatitis last year. “We’re born to die, no one to blame,” she sings to a piano in the chorus. “We’re born to love, we’re all the same.” When she thinks back about her friendship with the actress and model, she’s amazed they were friends at all. “We were almost thrown together because she was with Keith [Richards] and I was with Mick,” she says. “When they were working, we were together. We hung out together, and that’s how we became friends. I don’t know if we just met normally if we would have become friends. Maybe not. She was very different than me. She was much more sophisticated, elegant and beautifully dressed. She was all the things people think I am and Anita really was. I really wanted to honor Anita, ’cause she was a very good friend to me.”

She also reflected on herself by refiguring some of her own songs. On one of them, she revisited her creative renaissance, when she released Broken English. After she’d put out an album of country music in 1976 that failed to make a commercial impact, Dreamin’ My Dreams — her first release since her voice had deepened as a result of drinking and smoking ­— she refocused her sound on punk and New Wave and the new musical approach fit her new voice perfectly on Broken English. One of the originals on the album, “Witches’ Song,” tells of the meeting of a coven (but not in a scary way), but now, nearly four decades later, she felt as though she didn’t get it right. So she tried it again, and the version on Negative Capability is softer, folkier and more measured.

“The one thing about Broken English, wonderful as it was and is, is it was right in the middle of the disco period — not just punk,” she says. “Although the work everyone did on it was great — especially Steve Winwood — the disco thing crept in, maybe through the guy who produced it [Mark Miller Mundy]. I didn’t want any disco on my record. Maybe that’s what made it sell — I don’t know but ‘Witches’ Song’ could not have any disco in it now. It’s much more emotional and more beautiful now.”

Another song that feels different now is “As Tears Go By.” When she first recorded the tune, it was a folky, upbeat ballad with lyrics lamenting having to grow up, and it showed off her beautiful, lilting vocals. She was 17 at the time. Years later, she slowed it down to a more contemplative pace and re-recorded it for 1987’s Strange Weather. But if it seemed to mean something different when she was 40, the song is a whole other beast at 71. The new recording opens with 12-string guitars and Faithfull takes her time, singing, “It is the evening of the day / I sit and watch the children play / Smiling faces I can see, but not for me … “

“It has more meaning now, doesn’t it?” she says. “It’s much deeper. It was Warren’s idea to redo it and at first I didn’t really think it was such a good one. I thought I’d done it enough. But it’s such a beautiful song, and I loved the way we did it. Warren’s violin on it is perfect. I’m really grateful to Mick and Keith for it. I hope they like the new version.”

At this point, she begins feeling uncomfortable again. “I’ve got a fever,” she says. “Would you mind if we just paused for a moment? Now you hold on there, and I’m going to turn the fan on so that I calm down. I do get very nervous when I’m doing an interview.”

Overall, she says she’s in good health. “My great fault is that I still smoke,” she says. Why doesn’t she quit? “‘Cause you want to kill yourself,” she deadpans. “I can’t. It’s a terrible habit, and I will have to stop when I go into hospital for my operation. I don’t even like smoking anymore. It’s just a habit.”

The only thing she’s dying for, she says, is to get through her upcoming shoulder surgery. “I’m in a lot of pain, and I really can’t travel,” she says. “I have to stay put, so I am here.” She expects to feel better by next summer and will leave her home in Paris then to go to her home in Ireland.

She has no plans to tour in support of this record. “I’ve been on the road for 50 years,” she says. But once she feels better, she would consider playing two-night stands in Paris, London and Berlin — “and that’s it,” she says. Moreover, she won’t consider U.S. cites like New York. “I can’t travel that far,” she says. “If somebody paid me a lot of money and got me a private plane, maybe.”

So what she has at the moment is her work. Now that she’s done with the album, she’s working on an interpretation of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drama Prometheus Unbound with Warren Ellis. “I’ve recorded the words for him, and he’s going to put music on it,” she says. “But I don’t know what it will sound like. It’s for the radio.”

And she still has concepts for future albums. One idea she abandoned for Negative Capability was a song based on a postcard Yoko Ono sent her. “It was a picture of an eye and it said, ‘Don’t let your eyes dry,'” Faithfull says. “I thought, ‘Gosh, that’s a lovely idea for a song. And I tried and tried and I couldn’t get it right. So that will have to go on another record. I’m sure we’ll get it eventually.”

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