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My Lady's Story
She’s been a rock icon, a tabloid sensation and a muse to Mick Jagger. But you won’t find Marianne Faithfull mooning over past glories.
Colm O Hare, 27 Jul 2005
Marianne Faithfull is many things – the daughter of an aristocratic mother, the former girlfriend of a rock legend, an acclaimed singer, actress and a highly regarded live performer. But in the public mind she will be forever associated with the ‘60s rock, pop and social revolution – an iconic image and survivor of those heady times.
As a 17-years-old convent schoolgirl in 1964 she was “discovered” by the then Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham and offered the chance to make a record.
Within months, her debut single, ‘As Tears Go By’, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, became a top ten hit.
“I can’t remember everything about that period but I do remember making those records,” she says. “And I released a folk album and a pop album at the same time, which was unusual but it was what I wanted them to do and they did it.”
She had four more UK top ten hits in quick succession including ‘Come And Stay With Me’ and ‘Summer Nights’. Meanwhile, she embarked on a parallel career as a stage and screen actress, appearing in the cult classic, Girl On A Motorcycle and on stage in Chekhov’s Three Sisters (with Glenda Jackson) and Hamlet.
“It all felt like something that had happened to me rather than something I made happen,” she says of those early years in the spotlight. “It had a lot to do with me being in the right place at the right time. But there were lots of things that were wiped out for me by having a hit record.
“The choice I was offered was to make records and to go on tour instead of doing something else that I had been longing to do. I was thinking of maybe studying classical musical at the time or going to university but all that was taken away.
“What is a shock is that David Dalton [co-author of her biography] got hold of my work schedule from that time and it was unbelievable how much I managed to fit in such a short space of time. It was all 'do this, go there, play there'. It was really, really gruelling for someone so young who had been thrown into all this. But I’ve always been good at adjusting to change and I very quickly got used to it. That whole era was one of huge change for everybody – it was as if we were writing the book. And we were writing the book.”
However, it was her personal life – her stormy relationship with Mick Jagger, her growing drug abuse and a celebrated court case, which drew the most attention as the decade waned. “I hated all the notoriety that went with it,” she says. “It was unfortunate in that I was presented as this angelic English rose and I was punished for not living up to that image, of not being virginal I suppose.
“And I committed a class crime by running away with Jagger. I certainly do harbour some resentfulness towards the press for the way I was treated. I wouldn’t live in England again for that reason, the English press is just so outrageous – that whole celebrity obsession. I spend a lot of my time in Paris these days and I still have a place in Ireland.”
When her relationship with Jagger collapsed at the end of the ‘60s she withdrew from the public eye, emerging briefly in the mid ’70s with a album called Dreamin’ My Dreams (which, strangely, was a bigger hit in Ireland than anywhere else). It wasn’t until 1979, however, that she re-kindled her career in earnest with the classic Broken English album, released on Chris Blackwell’s Island label.
It contained brooding, atmospheric songs such as the title track, a dramatic reading of John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ and her version of Shel Silverstein’s ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, (made famous later for its inclusion on the Thelma & Louise soundtrack).
Over the years, her soft, innocent-sounding voice was replaced by a more lived-in, huskier, darker tone. “I think I finally found my voice on that record, in the way that they talk about a writer finding his voice,” she says. “Those doubts and fears that I used to have disappeared. But I still haven’t managed to give up smoking (laughs) I’ve been on those patches but they haven’t worked for me so far. I have to do something about it” .
By the late ‘80s, she became fascinated by Kurt Weill’s music, which led to the release in 1996 of her 20th Century Blues album. It was followed, in 1998, by her recording of the Kurt Weill / Bertolt Brecht opera, The Seven Deadly Sins. These days, Faithfull continues to record and perform around the world. Her most recent album, Before The Poison, featured collaborations with Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Damon Albarn and (film composer) Jon Brion.
“This thing about collaboration is nothing new to me,” she says. “I’ve always done it. I don’t play an instrument so I have to work with other musicians. For the last album we didn’t use any new technology – we did it all on two-inch analogue tape – there’s something pure about doing it that way.
“I don’t actually listen to much music at the moment,” she continues. “Silence is very sweet for me at the moment. When I’m not working I listen to classical music and jazz most of the time. Then there’s the stuff that I’ve always listened to James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard.
“Of the modern stuff there’s not much I really like apart from people like Nick Cave and I’ve been a fan of Polly Jean Harvey for a long time. I like Cat Power and Missy Elliot. There’s some nice songs being written. I like REM, I kinda like Coldplay – he [Chris Martin] writes nice songs and I still really like what Dylan is doing.”
41 years since she made her first record Faithfull confesses to being a tad difficult to work with at times.
“I get a bit grumpy and I go around with a big black cloud over me all day. What really cheers me up is the performing part – it makes all the other fucking stuff, like getting into and out of planes and cars, worthwhile. But the band usually try to cheer me up and then I think it’s not a bad job to have – you could be working in Boots – so [I] shut up. It’s a great job actually and I love making records and I love writing.”
Apart from recording and touring Faithfull has kept busy in other areas of her life. She has been appointed a patron of the War Child charity and has also resumed her film career.
She recently played the part of Maria Therese, mother of Marie Antoinette, in Sofia Coppola’s yet-to-be-released biopic staring Kirsten Dunst.
She is due to start work on another movie at the end of this year. “I can’t tell you anything about it yet I’m afraid but it’ll take about two months of my time.”
Finally, how does she feel about the fact that former ‘60s associates such as McCartney and her old mates The Rolling Stones are still performing?
“I definitely thought Paul would be still be around – why wouldn’t he be? I don’t really think much about The Stones at all these days. I’m in Barcelona right now, I’m going to have a bath, then I’m going to have lunch down by the sea and I’m going to perform tonight.
“But I wish them well and since you ask, I don’t find it so surprising that they’re still touring. But I certainly didn’t think I’d be still around.”