Q&A: Marianne Faithfull On Her Critics, Her Voice, And The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones
"Either you like my voice or you don't," Marianne Faithfull says in a deep, husky breath. "If people come to my music expecting my pretty voice, or anything pretty, they're going to be disappointed and they're going to hate it. It's much better to come to my work and say, 'This is going to be like Neil Young or Bob Dylan,' and then you'll have a good time."
As divisive as she makes it sound, though, Faithfull's voice is her strongest asset these days. The sensitive croon that defined her earliest hitssuch as "As Tears Go By," a song she recorded at 17 and penned by the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and her sometime lover, Mick Jaggergave way to a hoarse tenor by the time she released her art-rock comeback Broken English in 1979. She had taken the results of years of substance abuse and turned it around into something positive, unique and mysterious.
Her latest (23rd!) album, Horses and High Heels (Naïve), might well be a showcase of just how she can make her voice work for her. Over the course of four originals and eight covers, Faithfull milks every possible form of expression from her tattered vocal cords. Beginning with her take on the Gutter Twins' "The Stations," she maintains a brooding and pensive tone throughout the song, which she says has earned the praise of one of that song's original singers, the brooding and pensive Greg Dulli. On her own autobiographical "Why Did We Have to Part," she sings with both sorrow and confidence in her voice as she parses the events leading up to what she calls her final romance. For Allen Toussaint's R&B album cut "Back in Baby's Arms," she belts out hopeful blues. And on tracks like the Shangri-La's non-hit "Past, Present and Future" and Dusty Springfield's schmaltzy hit "Goin' Back," her mature intonation gives the tunes a measured insight the original singers weren't old enough to have yet.
This perspective, of course, is what drives the ever-prolific Faithfull, age 64, these days. Leaning back in a chair outside the Standard Hotel on a sweltering July day, she sips iced coffee, looks out at the people passing by and drags away on Marlboro Lights. Dressed in a multicolored pastel blazer and futzing with her leopard shoes, she ponders just why she has been so busy in recent years, releasing albums with the aid of artists like Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Beck and Damon Albarn. (The new album features guests like Lou Reed, the MC5's Wayne Kramer, and samples of deceased Rolling Stone Brian Jones' recordings of Moroccan pipe music.) "There's nothing to block me," she says, in her noble-sounding London accent. "I'm not drinking. I'm not taking drugs. I'm not in love, which is also a block. I'm just ready for work. I like it."
You seem very much at peace, yet your album has some very sad and emotionally complicated songs. Is it difficult to switch into that mindset to record?
I think that's part of me. I think it's my voice, and maybe in my sensibility. I can't get rid of it. My life is wonderful. It certainly didn't turn out how I expected it to.
The single, "Why Did We Have to Part," is a song that sounds both very sad and very real.
It's very real. I'm just writing exactly what happened. It's a breakup song. It did happen. It really was my last breakup. I've retired now, which is fine. For a woman, it's nothing. I don't think like men like to do that, but I don't mind. It's always brought me a lot of trouble.
But anyway, yeah, the lyrics tell exactly what happened and they're very blunt, straightforward, and just say it. The song is very direct. It's almost too direct. The English don't like it. They're much more used to it being dressed up in other things, but I particularly did not want to do that.
Another song that seems more direct, in your voice, is "Goin' Back."
I love it, but I'm playing with time. I do that quite a lot.
Do you feel you pick your songs based more on your voice?
Yeah, I think I have to. I'm pretty insecure about my voice, too, though I like my voice. I don't think it's as bad as the people who hate it say it is. There was one review that said it sounded like the cracking of a thousand knuckles. But I quite like that. [Laughs] They didn't hate the record at all. They do try to come up with wonderful metaphors for what it sounds like.
What would you say it sounds like?
It sounds real. It's my voice. That's all.
If you are insecure, do you make it a point to take care of your voice?
What do you think? [Ashes cigarette.] I'm very relaxed about it.