We’re supposed to be talking about the new album, but when it’s Marianne Faithfull you’re parlaying with it’s easy to go someplace you’re not meant to.
I’ve been strictly briefed by the PR, and she’s been briefed too, but then Marianne never has been very good at doing what she’s told. The drug overdose of ‘68 that she likes to refer to as her “episode” is out (though we touch upon it briefly), her hanging out with the Allen Ginsbergs and William Burroughs of this world is probably not relevant when you’ve only got half an hour (though we accidentally exceed that time limit gassing). Living on a wall in Soho in the early ’70s is off the menu, Mick Jagger and whoever else she might have had sex with half a century ago is certainly interdit, but most pertinently of all we’re definitely not here to talk about Jim Morrison and her part in his downfall.
There’s good reason for this. Give My Love To London is perhaps Marianne’s best album since Broken English, and these salacious tidbits she’s so good at are actually detracting from the fact she has a new record out and it’s quite brilliant. During one part of our tête-à-tête I find myself pinching myself that I might just have a major scoop on my hands, but then she saves herself with the words “please don’t print that”. She just can’t seem to help herself.
Marianne says the new record is representative of who she is, and it’s easy to see why. For a start it’s bursting with eye-catching names, and Marianne’s life has always been bursting with eye-catching names. Roger Waters has written the single ‘Sparrows Will Sing’ for her, Nick Cave continues his rich vein of form with the vivid junkie anthem ‘Late Victorian Holocaust’, and Anna Calvi represents new blood with the collaborative ‘Falling Back’. ‘Love More Or Less’ shows Marianne’s tender side while ‘Mother Wolf’ proves just how terrifying she can be, and the spoken and pithy ‘Going Home’ demonstrates a little bit of what she refers to as her “Weimar” period. Then there are the contributors: Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos, Adrian Utley, Ed Harcourt (who also wrote ‘True Lies’ with her), Rob Ellis (the producer) and Flood (mixing). It’s a cornucopia of glitz with an underbelly of darkness.
We’re sat in the garden of an elegant brasserie in Montparnasse, Paris, which over the years has been frequented by Sartre, Picasso, Verlaine, Breton, Wilde, Beckett, Modigliani and Man Ray (to name but a few), chosen by Marianne firstly because it’s close to her apartment (she’s walking with a stick after another fall) and also because the lilac trees keep her out of the sun. Despite being in the wars again, she looks great for her 67 years, a fact she’s only too happy to modestly point out herself. She orders a special kind of tea to combat her cold (“Merci Patrick,” she says to the waiter, “c’est incroyablement bon pour le rhume”), and she adds proudly that she’ll recover much easier now she’s finally beaten the fags. Instead – as evidenced by the cover of the new album, she spends most of the time chuffing on an electronic cigarette.
The vaping might be her only vice now. She’s off the sauce these days and only too happy to talk about AA, though she’s suspicious of British journalists who she claims are distraught to find her enjoying life here in Gay Paree where she’s resided for the last 13 years in happy exile. One journalist in particularly is singled out for scorn, and as she barks “THAT FUCKING WOMAN”, I swear the tables around us rattle. She’s particularly put out that somebody has referred in print to a ’60s “collage” in her apartment as proof that she can’t get over the swinging decade – it’s “an original Richard Hamilton screenprint, the fucking philistines!” Aside from these outbursts and the odd moments of contrarianism and incredulity (when I’m sketchy on details about the guitarist Bill Frisell she looks at me like I’m an idiot), she is charm personified. On top of that she can certainly be withering, and she’s also the queen of digression, the world heavyweight champion of going off on tangents.
One can only suppose that if you’ve not learned your lesson in 50 years of showbiz then you’re unlikely to start changing now, and yet career-wise, Faithfull has always managed to change and adapt, contributing no end to her longevity.
“I always have, yeah,” she says. “But I don’t enjoy it. I HATE change.”
In many ways, given the life you’ve lead, it’s astonishing that you’re about to embark on a 50th anniversary tour.
You could knock me down with a feather, dear. Luckily I never think about it. I’m very proud to say I got through what I would say were a huge amount of challenges, that’s all.
Are you going to take a band with you on the road?
Of course I am! I’m not going to do it a cappella.
Yes, but you played in Paris last year with just a guitarist.
Well, I can do anything actually. I can do what I like. I could even do it a cappella. Actually, that would be François’s [Ravard, Marianne’s longtime manager and former lover] dream because then I could make more money than anything. No, on this one, I’m taking out the same band that was on the record. And a very good band they are too. And I’ll be warming up at the Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam with a guitarist.
The Stedelijk? Nice place.
Is it going to be lovely? I think it will be. We’ll be doing seven songs and they pay me quite well. We’re there for four days and we’re doing three shows and it’s just me and the guitarist. It’ll be a rather nice little dry run.
Is that Adrian Utley?
No, I couldn’t get Adrian. Portishead, you know. It’s a guy called Ron.
Is that the guitarist you played with you in Paris last year?
Noooo! My god! That was the guitarist of life, Bill Frisell. No no, it’s not Bill. This isn’t the right thing for Bill, but I love working with Bill and we will work together again.
So is Ed Harcourt going on tour with you?
He is. I like him tremendously because apart from being incredibly good, he’s very funny, which is terribly important on the road. Ed is a tremendous pianist.
He can play the saw very well too, you know?
Can he? I’m not crazy about that.
You’ve got some great people working with you on this record. Anna Calvi is a remarkable talent.
Anna and I – and this is a mad thing but we’re gonna do it because they’re gonna pay us and give us clothes – have been asked to play at the Chloé show together, so we said “ooh yeah, alright”.
Is that for Paris Fashion Week?
When is Fashion Week?
How do I know?
I don’t know! I go to Saint Laurent and Chanel and I do like Chloé, and I like Asadine but Asadine doesn’t do shows. Very wisely I think.
And you had a penchant for a certain make of shoes until you fell down the stairs…
Christian Louboutin. I’ve never bought a pair again. No that’s it, Christian Louboutin is banned. Anyway, they’re high heels, and I stopped wearing high heels a long time ago. You know, I just broke my hip, so I’ve got to be particularly careful.
Do you speak French fluently now?
Quite well, yeah.
Because you used to speak it even better didn’t you?
I spoke French and then I had my episode, in Saint Vincents in Australia, and when I came round [from a six-day coma] I was fine, except I’d lost French.
Well, it’s not you know. No, I mean the brain is such a mysterious thing. I don’t know if you ever saw that film – it was a terrible film but it had some interesting bits in it, I think it was called Candy, and James Coburn plays a brain surgeon and Anita Pallenberg was his nurse. And he puts his finger inside someone’s brain and says, “if I move my finger this way then this person will only remember the letter D”. It’s obviously entirely made up by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, but on the other hand, how do we know? It definitely happened; I lost French and so I’ve had to learn it all again.
It’s hard enough learning it once…
I’ve not learnt it properly! I’ve just picked it up. It’s good you’re learning French because really, you’ll have a much better time. I hope you’re very happy here before you move back to Wadebridge or wherever. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back [to England]. It’s a terrible place to live. I mean I’ve got friends there who I love dearly who really love it and I’m sorry that I feel like this.
So I was thinking about the title Give My Love To London…
What, about it being intensely sarcastic?
I think it’s a great shame that I even have to explain it. I don’t mean that I have to explain it to you, but I have had to. Some dumb chick from a fashion magazine in New York bubbling away and enthusing about how I wrote… I can’t do the accent, they don’t speak in any recognisable accent any more, they speak sort of Kardashian. Anyway, she was bubbling away in Kardashian saying how wonderful it was that I’d written this love song to London about what wonderful times we had in the ’60s and I was appalled. There was a very long pause. Really, I didn’t know what to do. I said, “well, it’s sarcastic,” and I really had to stop myself saying, “do you know what ‘sarcastic’ means?”
Do you think London is losing its soul a little bit?
I don’t know. I mean there’s always going to be a wonderful thing about London. I remember when I was doing The Black Rider at the Barbican [Faithfull played the diabolical Pegleg] and I was also re-reading Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which all happened around there. The meatmarket and the famous walk, Fagin’s Walk, down to the docks. The Judge Jefferies pub. I had a wonderful time. There’s that part of London that people don’t know about. There are traces and you can still find it.
You live in Montparnasse, where many legends repose. Serge Gainsbourg is nearby isn’t he?
Well, he sleeps here, yes.
And you were a friend of his weren’t you?
Yes I was. I really wish he was still alive.
Is it true Gainsbourg offered you ‘Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)’ to duet with him before Jane Birkin?
No, I’m one of the few women he didn’t offer it to thankfully. God! No, we were really, really good friends but he never wanted to fuck me, which is very good I think. He offered it to everyone else, fucked them and then decided they weren’t quite right. And then he found Jane.
It seems strange that Brigitte Bardot sang it in the first place now, given its infamy with Birkin.
Well, he wrote it for Bardot. That was Serge’s dream, to fuck Bardot. And then he did.
Apparently he was frightened of her breasts, or so he told Jane Birkin.
Ha ha, I don’t know. I don’t know and I don’t want to! Jane is a friend of mine.
Let’s talk about the album.
Yes, that’s what we’re here for, for god’s sake!
‘Sparrows Will Sing’ is a smashing song.
Isn’t it nice?
You’ve sung a few of Roger Waters songs now haven’t you?
Well no, I’ve sung one, which is a masterpiece too. Quite different, it’s called ‘Incarceration of a Flower Child’ and it’s on Vagabond Ways, it’s a wonderful song. He wrote it in the ’60s but happened to never show it to anyone – for some reason he didn’t get around to giving it to Floyd. And actually getting that song out of Roger was like milking mice. I asked him very cheekily [adopting a Cockney accent] “‘Ave you got a song Roge-ah?” “No!” And then he thought about it obviously, and produced this little jewel, this beautiful song about the break-up of a marriage.
‘Sparrows Will Sing’ is quite a hopeful song isn’t it?
Well, that’s what I thought too, as I have very little hope for humanity. I thought, how wonderful to have Roger write a song for me, this one was written specifically for me. I’m a very lucky woman, I know that, having these great, great, great musicians write for me. There’s Damon [Albarn], there’s Nick Cave, there’s Beck, there’s Billy Corgan, and all these people writing for me, especially.
It was around the turn of the century that you decided you’d work with a new generation of songwriters wasn’t it?
It was Francois’s idea, and it was a very good idea. It never would have occurred to me that all these young people would want to work with me [laughs]. I didn’t really think about it. I don’t see myself in an iconic way to be fair, but they do. Well maybe not so much now. I know Polly [Harvey] very well, I know Nick Cave very well.
‘Late Victorian Holocaust’ is vintage Cave…
Oh man, it’s incredible. But actually only he could have written it, because he had that experience, and only I could have sung it. Amy Winehouse could have possibly sung it but she’s dead. She didn’t stick around long enough, silly girl. Because you know everything is on the turn, and the demonisation of drugs is going to change.
In what way?
They’re going to stop demonising drugs! How they’re going to do that I don’t actually know. You can feel it coming. It’s so not worked and it’s so absurd to make devils out of people like they did in the ’60s. Innocent, stupid little hippies who took LSD and smoked dope.
I still find it difficult to imagine David Cameron’s government yielding to or even trying to understand drug culture.
Well, he’s not going to last forever. There are various reasons for taking drugs you know. There’s pleasure. People may prefer it to alcohol – I know I did. I didn’t drink until quite late into the ’70s. And then of course you can use it for pain, as self-medication, and it can actually help you. I don’t think I’d be alive without heroin. I would have killed myself.
I wouldn’t condone it or anything, but I discovered ecstasy at a very low ebb once…
And it cheered you up! I quite liked ecstasy but I can’t say I liked it as much as that. And I didn’t take that much actually. I thought, ‘okay, I understand what this is, it opens your mind’, so I took maybe six or seven which were very good, and I remember the feeling of my brain opening and I said to myself, ‘okay, I think I can stop now’. And I did.
That’s probably the best point to stop.
I never had a bad trip you know. All those things about how awful acid was were lies.
There’s an argument that drugs are fine taken recreationally, but you don’t want to disappear down the rabbit hole.
Well yeah, but I think some people’s destiny is to disappear down the rabbit hole. [Suddenly remembers] We’re not talking about the record. Well, we are talking about ‘Late Victorian Holocaust’ really. Nobody ever wants to talk about the record and I’m not very good at it, I tend to… I’ve never learnt to do it. I want to have a good time and I’m happy to talk about anything. But the thing about Nick and me and ‘Late Victorian Holocaust’ is we were both junkies, neither of us have done smack for 25 years, that’s the only way you can do it. If you listen to the song at the end there’s a line about how it’ll never come again. It’s over. Nobody died. It’s not a moral tale at all, but it’s absolutely blazing with euphoric recall which is one of the things I love about it. How wonderful it was, but those times will never come again.
But at least you’re still here to tell the tale.
You know the fundamental problem with the British media – the basic antagonism between myself and them – comes from the fact that I didn’t fulfil what they thought was my destiny, at all. And even now when they meet me and I’m happy and healthy and free, trudging the road to happy destiny…
So what destiny did they want you to fulfil? You mean to have died in the ’70s?
First of all to die, yes, in the ’70s. They’ve got over that, but they’re very disappointed I’m not sort of wrecked, that I don’t look really wrecked. I mean I look my age… I look alright for my age, you know. But if I was on smack or pills or alcohol I’d look very different. I’m free, and nothing they can do can drive me back. But they’re disappointed. You’re a writer, you must see it doesn’t make such a good story.
I see that people buy into the bullshit of living a rock ‘n’ roll life and dying young. It’s why a talent vacuum like Pete Doherty…
…is interesting to people…
Because he’s doing it. Well, he’s welcome. I hope he makes it.
Well, I was going to say he appears to have missed his window of opportunity. I don’t really want to use Pete Doherty as an example…
He’s a good example. Most of them are dead though. Your Johnny Thunders. They don’t last.
I interviewed Lemmy once…
Oh, I love Lemmy!
He said that all his friends who took heroin were now gone.
I made friends with Lemmy in the ’70s and he’s just fabulous.
They’ve either gone or they’ve gone nuts.
Well, I don’t know how he’s alive actually, he’s got a bit of a speed habit and he’s still on it. I can’t believe it.
Lemmy is held up as the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll but his constitution is the exception to the rule, surely?
You just can’t [continue like that]. Even Keith can’t. Even he had to change his way of life.
He gave up drugs towards the end of the ’70s didn’t he?
Well, no, but he did have to give them up when he fell over on his head.
When he fell out of the coconut tree?
Yes, he had to give them up for his brain.
Back to the record and ‘Mother Wolf’…
Ooh you’re very good aren’t you, you’re a very good man, yes, go on, back to the record. ‘Mother Wolf’ is an angry song. It’s furious!
There are a few protest songs on this album…
Well, I do occasionally… I haven’t for a long time. ‘Broken English’ was a political song. Occasionally I get so furious with something that I do write a song like that, but ‘Mother Wolf’ is the absolute most furious song I’ve ever written. I’m very proud of it.
Why is that young people aren’t writing furious songs?
[Cackles] I don’t know! I just don’t know, they’re young.
But people were young in the ’60s, and people were young in the ’80s. Is it because of people like Bono who’ve made it so…
Uncool? Hmm, I love Bono though. And I even love his uncoolness. I even love Van [Morrison] and he’s even more uncool!
Oh, he’s so sweet.
He never comes across as sweet.
Well, I’m sorry, you have to know him to love him. Dear, dear, dear man, and I’m fond of Bono. I know he does all sorts of dopey things, but he does some great things too. [Puts hands out in imitation of Christ] I don’t like that! He can’t help it. All those Irish boys, except Van who is a prod and a free thinker, which is one of the reasons I appreciate him so much, are coming from that Roman Catholic place.
I guess that’s what happens to you when you hang out with the Pope.
He didn’t always hang out with the Pope.
I don’t think he hung out with that last Pope.
It doesn’t have that effect on everybody. Bob Dylan has hung out with the Pope and it didn’t change him in the slightest. Luckily I have no danger of hanging out with the Pope because I’ve been excommunicated as a witch. You don’t get much cooler than that.
Does religion make you angry?
Oh yeah. I put this picture up on my Facebook page – I use a different name – it’s cruel but it’s savage. There’s a picture of a soldier in a helmet with his gun and everything, and it says at the top, “If your religion says kill other people, please start with yourself”. That’s my honest opinion.
Didn’t you grow up in a religious community a la Iris Murdoch’s The Bell?
I was brought up in a convent unfortunately, and it’s taken me years to get over that, and I couldn’t have got clean and sober until I learned to stop that shit and get over it, and not feel guilty anymore about being a drug addict or an alcoholic. It’s just part of my path.
You once said you thought your mother put you in a convent so she could have a sex life.
Ha ha, that’s one reason, yes. But the real reason I think, for Eva, I think her sex life was important to her but she went to a convent and she couldn’t imagine anybody who was a lady not going to a convent. And we were so poor, but she didn’t want me to go to a comprehensive, she wanted me to go to a posh school where I’d get a very good education. And I did, really very, very good, but unfortunately it was tied up with becoming a Catholic. I made that as a social decision, and I realised very young… I went there when I was seven and by the time I was eight I realised I wasn’t going to make it there if I didn’t become a Catholic. I was going to be destroyed otherwise. I didn’t realise I would almost be destroyed by becoming a Catholic. I thought I could handle it but I couldn’t.
So the unshackling of the Catholic guilt is tied up intrinsically with getting sober then?
Yes, for me yeah, it was crucial. I don’t feel guilty any more about any of that. The hardest thing actually – the guilt and the shame for me – has been sex. It’s taken years but I’m getting there.
So you’re happy now?
Yeah. No sex but I’m happy.