By James Reed
From pop-star ingénue in swinging ’60s London to homeless drug addict a few years later, Faithfull has weathered the tumultuous times she has chronicled in a career spanning nearly five decades. At 64, she’s seen as the ultimate survivor, an icon with a ravaged voice that tells you she’s been to hell and back. Faithfull recently put out a new album, “Horses and High Heels,” which was produced by longtime collaborator Hal Willner. It will be released in the US on Tuesday.
Q. From album to album, your fans have never known where you’re going to take them next, but they trust you.
A. And I trust you’re ready to go with me. I don’t jump the gun. I never think, “What would they like next?” I think, “Where could we go that would be really interesting?” Hopefully you’ll come with me.
Q. You co-wrote four songs on “Horses and High Heels.” Does songwriting come naturally to you these days?
A. It’s been a hard few years. I was quite ill for a while, then I got writer’s block, and out of bad things come some great things. I was going through such a hard time personally, and I couldn’t write; I never can in the middle of it all. So I made that beautiful record of covers – I hate the word “covers,” but anyway – called “Easy Come, Easy Go” [from 2008]. That gave me breathing time to heal in many different ways, and it did incredibly well.
Q. You’re also known for your interpretations of other people’s work. You seem to choose songs that speak specifically to your experience. Is that important to you?
A. Of course. That’s how I pick them. They have to have some part of me in them. The details are different in all of our lives, but the feelings are the same.
Q. At this point could you make a sunny pop record, or do we expect a Marianne Faithfull album to be dark and full of pathos?
A. No, I don’t think so. “Horses and High Heels” is a happy record, but my fans would be disappointed if it was just a great big apple pie at the end of it, wouldn’t they? I never know what I’m going to do next. I don’t know how many years I’ve got left, but I’m thinking a great blues record would be good.
Q. You’re now performing songs that you’ve done for decades. Has your understanding of a song like “Broken English” changed?
A. Of course. What “Broken English” meant when I recorded it and what it means now are completely different, for me and for you. “As Tears Go By,” to take an obvious one, has completely changed for all of us. The best way to do it now is to keep it light, which is why I now do the original version of “As Tears Go By.” I don’t do the dark one. [She rerecorded the 1964 hit as a more melancholy rendition in the late ’80s.] I don’t relate to the really sad one at the moment. That’s been done. It had to be done at the time for my own sake. So doing the tragic version of “As Tears Go By” was very important for me, but it’s not now.
Q. From PJ Harvey to Beck to Cat Power, you’ve always kept good company on your records, particularly on more recent ones. What is it about your story or your mythology that appeals to younger musicians?
A. I don’t know. We all kind of go together, don’t we? I really can’t explain it. It’s like poor little Frances Bean [the only child of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love] calls me her bohemian grandmother when she wants Courtney to back off. She said, “I’m going to stay with my bohemian grandmother Marianne.” And I’m that: I am the bohemian grandmother.
Q. Do you think younger musicians feel humbled or perhaps intimidated by you?
A. Nah. I like musicians. I think I like them more than anything. I think they’re sexy, they’re intelligent, they’re attractive. They surprise me and turn me on. What more do you want?
Q. A lot of attention has been paid to how your voice has evolved over the years, from pristine innocence to damaged beauty. What do you hear in your early recordings from the ’60s?
A. Hard to listen to now. I tell you what does knock me out is just how perfect I was back then. Not a false note, every one a bull’s eye. It’s hard now to look back on that little girl. What can I do but have compassion and say, “You poor little thing. If only you knew what was coming.”
Q. You don’t perform many songs from those early days anymore, do you?
A. I don’t, darling. I haven’t got the voice anymore. One of the most interesting things about that early part of my career was that I was singing songs that were actually too old for me. To sing them now would be to make a big mistake. One of the charms of “In My Time of Sorrow” is that it’s a little girl singing about something she knows sweet [expletive] about. So really, let’s leave them as little bits of perfection.
Q. When you think back on the range of music you’ve made – pop, rock, country, jazz, cabaret – what do you think holds it all together?
A. My journey. Me and you, hand in hand, going forward into this journey. That’s it. Commercial concerns have not been my priority, unfortunately. (Laughs.) I really wish I had made much more money, because I can’t go on forever. And I don’t want to be poor and old. I want you all to pretend you’re little vampires and go out and bite people and turn them into Marianne Faithfull fans. Do you think you could do that for me? Please. Think of my old age.
Q. You spent a few years in the Boston area in the ’80s. What do you remember from that time?
A. Cambridge was where I went to recover. I left Hazelden [an addiction treatment center] and went to live in Boston. That’s where I first went to meetings, where I went to therapy, where I was at my most open. That was the most wonderful feeling, and I have great memories of all the people I knew who were all so kind to me and literally saved my life. And I also managed to go to the Harvard Extension School and studied Shakespeare. I mean, that’s what I call real life. Do it all.
Interview was condensed and edited. James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Sound Effects
ContributorsSarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.
James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.
Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.
Michael Brodeur is the assistant arts editor for the Boston Globe, covering pop music, TV, and nightlife.
Julian Benbow is a staff writer at the Boston Globe, covering sports and music.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.