Marianne Faithfull first caught the pop world’s attention after she caught the Rolling Stones’. A model-pretty folk singer frequently found on Mick Jagger’s arm, she quickly became a poster child for Swinging London. But it wasn’t until her bracingly raw 1979 album Broken English, recorded after a protracted period of drug abuse and depression, that Faithfull started to get credit for much more than her looks and famous friends.
Since then, Faithfull has become an icon in her own right with a raggedly soulful voice, an inimitable grace undiminished by years of struggle, and musical instincts that remain as razor-sharp as they were when she first recorded “As Tears Go By.” Recently she released her 20th studio album, the deeply pleasurable Give My Love To London, as well as a book of personal artifacts she’s collected over the years. EW got on the phone with her to talk about those projects—and found her to be as hilarious and unflinchingly honest as her reputation suggests.
EW: I’ve looked through your book [Marianne Faithfull: A Life on Record] and listened to your new album and there seems to be a lot of looking back, like on the title track…
Marianne Faithfull: You know it’s incredibly sarcastic, don’t you?
Yes, I do.
Oh, good. Because I had a little girl from a fashion magazine who thought I was writing a song about how wonderful London was and how happy I was during the ’60s.
But I notice that you’ve held onto a lot of letters and photos and such. Do you consider yourself a sentimental person?
Well actually, it’s not my project. That was put together by my manager. He’s the one who’s kept everything and done all that. I don’t! I let everything go. I live in the moment.
How do you think that’s affected the music you make?
I think it’s great for the music I make. It doesn’t mean I can’t look back, and I say that in some of the songs. One of my favorite songs is “Love More Or Less” and I say, “I look at everything that I’ve done / The days, the years, the hours / Life it don’t overcome / It just opens like a flower.” I do look back a little bit, you know.
Do you notice a difference between the people you’ve been working with more recently and those you worked with in the past? Do they make rock stars the same as they used to?
Well, I’m working with Roger Waters on this. I’d call him a rock star. Wouldn’t you?
But you’ve worked with Damon Albarn and Beck…
Damon Albarn’s definitely a rock star! And so is Nick Cave! Yeah, they do [make stars differently]. They’re not quite as…the misogyny is not so bad. But yeah, a rock star is a rock star is a rock star.
Is misogyny something you’ve had to conquer in your career?
Well, just the whole thing of being considered a chick on the arm of a great rock star is an insult to me. But at the time, you have to remember, a lot of girls wanted to be where I was, for some weird reason. I have to correct you on one thing that your paper printed, which really upset me. I wrote, with John Mark, the song “Come My Way,” and when your magazine printed a very beautiful little sort of ‘how to go through Marianne Faithfull’s songs,’ it mentioned “Come My Way” and called it a classic folk song. And it’s not a classic folk song. It’s written by Marianne Faithfull and John Mark. I’ve got to really make sure that people understand that I’ve been writing and thinking about what I’m saying for years now.
Do you stay up on pop music?
No. Not at all. No, no, no. No. I listen to the same music I’ve always listened to, which is basically the blues. I love jazz, I love soul, R&B, Little Richard, yeah, there you are. And occasionally somebody gets through to me. I love the new Leonard Cohen. I love Damon Albarn’s records. I love Nick Cave’s records. It’s not that there’s nobody I like. I’m not interested in pop music or celebrity at all, no.
Do you feel like you got enough of that?
I had enough of that very early on, didn’t I? Didn’t last long. I got very bored very quickly with that.
It seems like a lot of people, once they get that they never want to let go of it.
Well, that’s because they’re stupid or mad or something.
It does seem like something that could be tiring, the exposure…
Oh, it’s horrible! Absolutely horrible! I can understand when musicians…if you don’t have anything else you can do, for instance. Like, basically, the Stones can’t do anything else, can they? All they can do is be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, and that’s what they are. I don’t think they’re doing it for the f—ing publicity, do you? I think they hate all that.
Do you ever consider retiring?
I don’t want to retire, no. But I definitely want to slow down. That’s something I’ve learned in the past couple of years. I’m three years from 70. I certainly don’t want to go on touring. I’ll do like 20 shows a year just to pay my rent and keep my lovely, lovely life together. I’m not interested in being incredibly rich. I make enough money. I’m quite happy.
Your voice has changed considerably over the years.
It’s just changed again, because I’m nearly a year without cigarettes.
Congratulations. How did you quit?
I used the cigarette électronique, of course. They’re very effective. And all the bad stuff you read about it is put out by the tobacco companies, of course.
A lot of singers, as their voices age they try to keep singing like they did when they were younger…
[Laughs] Well that would be funny, wouldn’t it, if I tried that.
You seem to have particularly embraced the different qualities of your voice while it’s changed.
Well, of course I have! What else could I do? I didn’t have any choice. I like my voice. I liked my voice when it changed first. It was the voice I needed to say what I wanted to say to make Broken English.
And what were you trying to say?
I can’t really tell you. You either you know or you don’t. But whatever it was I was saying wouldn’t have worked with my little voice at seventeen. If you know what I mean.