Calling someone a survivor is like praising him or her for not playing in traffic; survival is, after all, a trait as common in microorganisms as in pop stars. But Marianne Faithfull has walked to the brink more times than most, confronting death and ruin, sometimes of her own making, and finding her way back. Compare the angelic soprano of “As Tears Go By,” the melancholy, slightly saccharine single that introduced her to the world in 1964, with the cracked alto on this year’s Horses And High Heels, and you can hear the way age and hard living have seeped into the fissures in her voice.
Faithfull’s is one of the more extraordinary reinventions in the history of pop music. She was a budding pop starlet enjoying the visibility of dating Mick Jagger at the height of the British Invasion when a notorious drug bust tarnished her public image and sent her tumbling into years of addiction. Then, in 1979, she reappeared with Broken English, a harrowing chronicle of obsession and recrimination laced with angry synthesizers and stinging guitars. In the decades since, she’s established herself as a prime interpreter of the songs of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and made inroads with a new generation by collaborating with the likes of Jarvis Cocker and PJ Harvey. On Horses And High Heels, produced by Hal Willner, Faithfull tries her hand at a typically eclectic assortment of cover songs, from “Back In Baby’s Arms” to a sorrowful version of Knoxville songwriter and playwright RB Morris’ “That’s How Every Empire Falls”; but the highlights are the songs she wrote herself, which delve into her personal history with unprecedented clarity. Shortly after the album’s release, Faithfull spoke with The A.V. Club about her love of vinyl, the end of The News Of The World, and why her life is like an episode of Seinfeld.
The A.V. Club: There are some surprising cover choices on Horses And High Heels, like The Shangri-Las’ “Past Present And Future,” but the songs you wrote yourself are startling in a different way. There’s a real lyrical transparency, almost a plainspoken quality, to some of them.
Marianne Faithfull: I know, I’m very direct now. I’ve simplified much more in my writing. I say what I’ve got to say, not in metaphor. It’s all things that are literally happening. Even “you listen to the rain falling,” it’s something that’s happening. It’s not an image.
AVC: What drove you toward writing more simply?
MF: It’s this really interesting thing to follow the truth, to make sure that it actually fits in with what really happened. I’m not sure I’ll do it on my next one. I might go more back into metaphor and atmosphere. This is the first time I’ve worked so consciously on making the songs reflect what really happened, and I think it was really effective.
AVC: One in particular “Why Did We Have To Part,” which is about the end of a 15-year relationship with your manager, François Ravard.
MF: That’s so blunt. It’s almost shocking for me that it should be so blunt. But what else can I do? I have to tell the story as it actually happened.
AVC: Is it cathartic for you? Does it help you sort through things?
MF: Unfortunately not. I mean, in the end it is of course, but when it was actually happening, which wasn’t very long ago, three years, I couldn’t write. I got blocked. That’s why I put out [the covers album] Easy Come, Easy Go, to get me through that. Then it came back, and then I was able to write, “Why Did We Have To Part.”
AVC: That and the title track, although that’s farther back, there’s a tangible sense of time passing.
MF: It’s not that long ago, it’s about 10 years ago when I was living in Ireland.
AVC: So that’s a true story as well?
MF: Yeah. It took time, because for the song to be really interesting it had to be two places. It wouldn’t have been interesting if it was just in Dublin. What’s interesting about that song isn’t really stuff I’m seeing, it’s what I’m hearing. Which is how I really live. It’s sound that attracts me. And the horses and the hot girls in Paris with the high heels on the cobblestones sounded the same. The echo, that was very important, from the houses on each side. It was a good sound.
AVC: When you said that sound attracts you, has that always been the case, and what does that mean?
MF: Words to conversation, talk, yes. Yes.
AVC: Is that why you are drawn to music and musicians?
MF: Yes, but I had no idea at the time. I thought I wanted to go to drama school or university, and that would have been a completely different life. But what got me was the sound, and hearing it. Hearing everything so loud, I loved that back in the studio. I loved that from the very beginning.
AVC: People often don’t realize that loud, amplified music was very much a novelty in the ’60s. Part of the reason that no one could hear the Beatles over the crowd at Shea Stadium was that the P.A. system just wasn’t that powerful.
MF: The equipment you’ve got really dictates what you’re going to do. When I started touring, there were no monitors, so I had to take the sound from the hall, and of course it was on a delay, so I would sing, and then I would hear it back, but later. It was very weird.
AVC: The promotional video for Horses And High Heels devotes a significant amount of time to talking about using analog recording equipment. That’s something that’s important to you?
MF: It’s a huge deal. It changes the sound completely. I don’t like the compression on compact discs. It’s lacking in air, and it’s lacking in majesty. The vinyl is just about to come out here, and I seriously recommend it, apart from the fact that there are two songs on the vinyl that aren’t on the record, and they’re lovely. Hal [Willner] and I had a big argument about that. He wanted to put “Past Present And Future” [as a vinyl bonus track] and I wasn’t so sure. It seems that people really like it in America, but they don’t like it Europe. They don’t get it.
AVC: That’s certainly one of the more…
MF: Outré. It’s a joke really. Not completely serious. Really.
AVC: Are the vinyl songs covers as well?
MF: Yeah, really beautiful ones. “I Don’t Want To Know,” which is a wonderful song, and another really great song called “Fragile Weapon.”
AVC: Along with “Past Present And Future,” “Goin’ Back,” originally written by Carole King and made famous by Dusty Springfield, is probably the best-known cover on the album,
MF: They’re playing with time.
AVC: There’s a real, concrete sense of time and place on the album, especially on “Horses And High Heels” and “Prussian Blue.”
MF: “Prussian Blue” is about Paris, and nothing much happens in it. I wanted that very much, because I wanted to make it quite clear that I’m not actually a tragedy queen living a high-drama life. I live a very nice life. I have a wonderful time. But it’s not lived drawing on a full level. I’m relaxed, cool, and enjoying it. It’s no different to Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, actually. Nothing really ever happens, but life goes on, and I like that. If I do another record, I might use more atmospheric stuff, but this was an experiment, and I think it worked.
AVC: The record has a very earthy sound. You recorded in New Orleans, with musicians like The Meters’ George Porter, Jr.
MF: He’s incredible. And Doug [Pettibone] is very good, and John Porter was great. And Lou [Reed], and Mac [Rebennack]—and Wayne [Kramer], of course. I took Wayne on tour with me through Europe. I started touring with him in March, so we’d been working with Wayne Kramer, but I couldn’t afford it here. In Canada, he couldn’t get in anyway because he has a history. [Laughs.] I couldn’t afford to do that, and he didn’t really want to yet. But he will, I’m sure.
AVC: Speaking of your more atmospheric, Broken English was a huge break from what you’d done before.
MF: It was a wonderful record.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine the impact that sound would have had at the time.
MF: Straight from the streets. Straight from being a drug addict. It was pretty radical. And it was true. That’s always interesting. It couldn’t go on like that. I didn’t want to be angry, twisted and bitter all my life, so I had to change. And I did. Maybe it wasn’t quite as exciting and knife-edge.
AVC: What drew you to writing about the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof on the title track?
MF: I read a book about it, so that interested me. Before Broken English, even, I was touring with that band, and we’d gone to look at the [Berlin] Wall, me and Barry [Reynolds], and it made a deep impression on me. I think I understood it, actually, the repressed Protestant thing, and very cold, and very lonely. So I read this book about the Baader-Meinhof gang, and then I was watching something on the television. I don’t remember really what it was about, but it had subtitles, and they came on and they said, “Broken English, spoken English.” I immediately wrote that down, and then I wrote the song.
AVC: There’s a degree of empathy in the song, but you’re also addressing her: “What are you fighting for?”
MF: Yeah, it was like that in the beginning. Of course now, “Broken English,” the whole thing has widened, and it’s different. I even say, “What are we fighting for?” now. I take it more personally.
AVC: The title could almost have referred to you at the time: broken, English.
MF: What I’m really doing, I can tell you exactly—what I recognized is that there are a certain kind of neurosis that could express itself in terrorism, and anger out. One thing is sure, to be a drug addict, the anger is all going in. You’re hurting yourself. But with a terrorist like Ulrike Meinhof, she’s hurting other people, and that interested me. I could feel “There but for the grace of God….” I was very glad I wasn’t a terrorist. I wasn’t that happy to be a drug addict, but anyway, I got over it.
AVC: You’ve said you’re not as angry now as you were then, although you can slip back into that mindset for the space of “How’d Ya Do It?”
MF: It’s very important to me, and I’m not. I’m free. It’s not that I put the ’60s down, and I don’t. I’m very grateful to the Stones for the songs that we worked on together, and to Mick Jagger, I’m very grateful, but it’s not really my story. It’s a little part of it. It was four years out of my life. But I did come up very angry, and that’s helped me a lot, because what I realized later is that anger is not actually a bad thing. It’s just a kind of energy, really. I can pull it out even now when I’m singing “Broken English” onstage, and I can leave it alone. I don’t carry it with me. It’s not in me.
AVC: Part of your explanation for the gaps in your songwriting career is that in order to write songs, you have to go deep inside yourself, and sometimes that’s a dangerous thing.
MF: For me it is. I don’t want to stir up any embers of all that.
AVC: When you first started recording, a woman’s job was basically to look pretty and sing nicely. It wasn’t supposed to be your story.
MF: Yeah, I was awfully beautiful—that was the trouble. Until you learn to protect yourself, that can be a very dangerous and unhappy-making thing, because I also didn’t really know. There’s nothing as beautiful as a girl who is beautiful but doesn’t know she’s beautiful, utterly charming. I was terribly innocent. I was just out of college. It was only two years after I had left school that I ran off with Mick. I didn’t know anything about men, certainly nothing about drugs, and nothing about sex, none of that. I really didn’t know.
AVC: You said that after 1967, where you were caught in a drug bust at Keith Richards’ house and the tabloids got a hold of the story…
MF: The perception of me changed completely, but it was wrong.
AVC: You said there was a point at which you thought, “If people think this is what I am, this crazy, high-living drug addict, I might as well play the part.”
MF: I think I did say that to myself. Fuck ’em. I think I actually said, I wish I hadn’t, but I said that, “Might as well be hung as a sheep as a lamb.” When I said that I knew nothing. It was my first acid trip, and that was the only drug I had ever taken.
AVC: Was The News Of The World one of those papers?
MF: Yeah. It was News Of The World, it was all News Of The World, and a few other papers. I must say, when I read my New York Times this morning, and I read that News Of The World is going out of business, I got a bit of quiet satisfaction. Like, “Thank God, finally,” and for that reason. They were absolutely unscrupulous, tapping phones, and they did that with us.
AVC: You said in your first autobiography, Faithfull, that you did heroin before going onstage as Ophelia in Hamlet, to soothe stage fright.
MF: Yeah, I think… No, I think it was before the mad scene, that’s what I was using it for. I didn’t take it before the play, the whole play, just before the mad scene. It was very effective, but it was very dangerous.
AVC: How did that work with the film of Hamlet?
MF: I don’t think I took it then. I was clean then. I think it was something very concentrated, and I decided not to. I wasn’t hooked yet.
AVC: Was there something about being onstage opposite Shakespearean actors like Nicol Williamson, or the role in particular?
MF: It was the role. I ended up like a suicide after that, because I hadn’t been trained, and I was acting, really, like a child would. I was believing that I was Ophelia, and actually got really into it, and that’s really directly connected to what happened in Australia. [In 1969, Faithfull overdosed on barbiturates and was in a coma for six weeks. —ed.] She haunted me. I don’t really want to go on about this much—the fucking ’60s, it’s like a noose hanging around my neck. All this stuff isn’t relevant really now at all, and hasn’t been for years, and it’s that that lends the tragic element to my life. I mean, I got off drugs and stopped being so tragic.
AVC: What’s fascinating musically is to hear you come back to “As Tears Go By” now.
MF: Or like “Strange Weather,” when I rerecorded that.
AVC: Was that a matter of laying claim to it yourself?
MF: I think so, yeah. Owning it. And it worked. But now when I’m onstage I do the first version. I’ve changed. I don’t want to do the sad version.
AVC: The original “As Tears Go By” has this kind of airy, fluttering quality.
MF: It’s bouncy, it’s very, very poppy. I think what I also wanted to show was the depth of the song. It’s a really good song, and it’s got real staying power, and I can still sing it. And it works, I still sing it, and people love it.
AVC: “Sister Morphine” was another one that you had a second go at.
MF: Yeah, obviously, because I was really ill when I did that. I was on drugs, so I did want to rerecord it not on drugs, but it wasn’t quite as interesting. It’s really good now, of course, when I do it live. It’s excellent. It’s spellbinding. It’s partly because I’m so good at what I do. If I sing this song about Sister Morphine, people immediately think I am Sister Morphine, which is not true. Not at all, but that’s how people started to think. I’ve battled against that for years. I think it’s over now. I’ve done it.
AVC: How do Brecht and Weill come into the picture?
MF: They come into it a lot because I started studying alienation, Brechtian, and I’m very happy that people can pick that up. It’s been great for me, because it stops me being hurt by the songs.
AVC: It’s the opposite approach of how you played Ophelia, when you felt you had to be the character in real life.
MF: But I did feel like that. I had read Stanislavski, and I did play Ophelia as if I was Ophelia, and I actually believed I was Ophelia.
AVC: Brecht doesn’t want actors to lose themselves in their characters, or the audience to forget they’re watching a play.
MF: No, and after I studied alienation I never did again. It can be the character in a song, it can be the character in a play, it can be anything.
AVC: Is that still the case? When there are autobiographical songs, like on Horses And High Heels, does that become a character eventually?
MF: That’s me, and I am completely recognizable, and I am myself, and I am not in a trauma. I’m like I was before I took drugs. I’m not consciously practicing alienation. I’m sure that I have a little bit of it, but I’m not consciously doing it. I don’t need to. But there is emotion. It has that slight twist.
AVC: A lot of performers, at least the ones who do grow old, learn how much of themselves they can put into their work without endangering themselves.
MF: You don’t have to be the character. I can really come at it as I am. A working artist, that’s what I am.
AVC: That can be a profound thing on its own.
MF: That can be, yeah. “Goin’ Back” was recorded in one take. That was one of my best tricks I ever did. In that take, I got this flood of emotion, because I do feel those things, I really do. “I’d rather see the world the way it used to be.” I would.
AVC: It’s funny to think of “Goin’ Back” being written by someone in her 20s.
MF: Carole, yeah, very young. Dusty, too. They were both young. It was a perfect moment for that because of the drugs. Somebody like Carole King is such a genius. She was seeing into life much more than anyone else at the time.
AVC: When you sing “Goin’ Back” now, more of its melancholy wisdom comes to the surface. Some versions, it’s easy not to absorb the fullness of what the song is about.
MF: Because they’re not concentrating on the lyrics. Several people who have recorded have left out the wonderful line — [Laughs.] ’60s, really ’60s —“Let everyone debate the true reality.” People don’t go ’round debating the true reality now, but we did, deeply and very, very intensely.