“Excuse me, could we order a pot of Earl Grey?” Marianne Faithfull says to the waitress, in that smoky, sexy voice. Trying not to be unnerved by a bona fide teen idol in my particular pantheon (we’re talking photos stuck onto bedroom walls), I launch right into a discussion about the mind-blowingly trippy, colorful, light-hearted cover art for Horses and High Heels, Faithfull’s just-released 23rd album. To my mind, the illustration is equal parts children’s book fantasy world and 1970s Joni Mitchell album cover. Faithfull is pleasantly surprised to hear this, as it’s been roundly criticized for not being dark and goth enough, completely outside the midnight-black satin-lined box many have put their idea of Marianne Faithfull and her work into.
“I didn’t want to have the usual sort of chic picture of me; I wanted to do something different,” Faithfull says. She and her manager discovered Jim Warren’s illustration by stumbling upon his website, and that was that. “I just loved it. You know, it’s got seven horses in it. It’s like a game, one of those children’s games….I love all that. They don’t really like it, the fans. They want to see me be more serious.” “Very kitsch,” which she calls it, is not at all what her fans have come to expect from the career she resurrected in 1979 with the iconic LP Broken English.
Faithfull was famously discovered at a party in 1964 by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham at the tender age of 17. Oldham immediately knew that he’d found a star and urged Stones’ songwriting team Jagger/Richards to pen her a hit song, which they did (“As Tears Go By”). This launched her career as a pop singer while she was still enrolled in convent school. Several records followed as well as an acting career on television and in feature films. And there was also a rather well-known relationship with Mick Jagger, in the eye of the hurricane of 196s Rock Royalty. She herself was the daughter of a Viennese Baroness with roots in the Hapsburg Dynasty; her maternal great-great-uncle Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was the author of the erotic novel Venus in Furs and inspired the term “masochism.” Between convent school and Mick, there was a short-lived marriage to artist John Dunbar, and a beautiful, golden-haired child, Nicholas (now aged 45, “he’s turned out very well,” she tells me). Faithfull: An Autobiography will fill in the rest of the details, making you feel as if you’re right there wearing a caftan and smoking ganja in Morocco, or going to the Bag O’Nails and Sibylla’s to dance the night away with various rock stars and models in London.
Horses and High Heels—which has gotten great reviews for the music, if not the cover—was produced by Marianne’s longtime artistic compadre, Hal Willner (they teamed up previously for her 2009 acclaimed collection of duets and covers Easy Come Easy Go), and recorded during an incredibly quick three-week period in New Orleans, chosen because of a group of local musicians that they wanted to use on the tracks (The Meters’ George Porter Jr. on bass and drummer Carlo Nuccio make up the album’s rhythm section). “But then I found that there’s also something else, there’s like a really good special kind of vibe from New Orleans, it’s not like America. Not at all,” Marianne observes. “I thought it was rather Caribbean—European and Caribbean.”
But the project began in Paris, where she and Hal selected songs for the album. “Of course Hal knows a lot, he has a lot of very good ideas of things I wouldn’t necessarily know,” says Faithfull. “So he picked [Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan’s] “The Stations”—brilliant idea—and [R.B. Morris’] “That’s How Every Empire Falls,” which is also brilliant, such a great song, and I picked a few of the others.”
One of the songs Faithfull picked was The Shangri-Las’ spookily prescient “Past Present and Future.” “I’m not sure it really works,” she says. “I hope so. I used to listen to it on Radio Luxembourg, when I was 13 or 14, under the covers—so my mother couldn’t hear it—and I didn’t know why I liked it then, but I know now. It’s just one of the weirdest records ever made.”
“Past Present and Future” was The Shangri-Las’ final single on Red Bird Records in 1966. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is the musical bed to the spoken recitation of the lyrics. In the original, an 18-year-old Mary Weiss talks about a love that went wrong and has ruined her for life. But that’s what’s brilliant and spooky about it: to hear a teenaged girl speak world-weary lines like “Was I ever in love? I called it love. I mean, it felt like love.” And then, later, “Tomorrow? Well, tomorrow’s a long way off. Maybe someday I’ll have somebody’s hand. Maybe somewhere someone will understand…I’m all packed up, and I’m on my way, and I’m gonna fall in love. But at the moment it doesn’t look good. At the moment it will never happen again.”
“It just means another thing, when a little girl is saying, ‘I don’t think…I’ll ever…love again,’ says Faithfull, “and you know that’s rubbish. It’s just her first love affair that went wrong. At my age, of course, it means something. It’s truth.”
Her interpretations of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s magnum opus “Goin’ Back” and the New Orleans rocker “Gee Baby” are rich and textured, as well. “‘Goin’ Back’ is lovely,” she agrees. “And I love ‘Gee Baby.’ It’s the first song that Mac [Dr. John] worked on in the ’50s.” Dr. John makes a cameo appearance on the record though not on that particular song, as do Wayne Kramer and Lou Reed. Virtuoso guitarist John Porter is featured on four tracks, and Jenni Muldaur provides redoubtable backup vocals as well. In a genius move, Willner samples the 1971 record Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka (recorded in the Moroccan village of Jajouka) on the track “Eternity” to great effect.
Marianne herself wrote four of the songs, including the title tune. “It’s not a tragic record; it’s a happy record” she says. “I’m very pleased about that. I’m fed up with people seeing me like that. It wasn’t my idea to cast me as a victim.” Which is why she chose the album cover—it’s light and airy and different. “Yeah, so different. That’s what I wanted, that’s what I was trying to say—come on, perk up now!” she adds with a laugh.
Speaking of Light vs. Dark, I ask if it’s true she was called a witch by the Vatican. “Yes, and I’m very proud,” she beams. “It’s one of the most wonderful things that ever happened to me.” She admits that at the time she was quite upset, being only 19 and just two years out of the convent. “Me, Anita [Pallenberg] and Mick—we were both witches and he was denounced as a warlock.” Yes, Virginia, there was a time when powerful religious figures took time out from their busy day blessing millions of people to label rock stars as demons.
Her work schedule at the moment is two weeks on, two weeks off, “which is very effective and my body can recover. It’s such hard work,” she asserts. She’s just come from performing at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and will soon be going to Quebec and then over to Europe to do some shows. “Every show is really special, so that means putting all your energy into each show, and of course I come out of it exhausted.”
She’ll be back in New York City in December for three shows at the City Winery, “if everybody can just hold on and be patient, I’m really doing my best,” she promises, flashing that beatific smile that recalls the ethereal beauty of her ’60s teen-pop years. She plans to do some dates on the West Coast next year. She’s also currently working on some new songs with collaborator Doug Pettibone.
She’s been revered and reviled, been both homeless and lived the high life, and has overcome so much in her 64 years on this earth that many weaker souls would have given up ages ago. What keeps her going, I ask? “There were moments when I thought, I just can’t do this anymore, what’s the point? It’ll never go away. But I’ve done it now,” she admits. “Any working woman knows how hard it is. And it also affects, I think, how people see my work now, you know. You just have to let go of that lovely little voice and understand that I’m doing this now. That’s lovely—but don’t expect that now. It would be very unrealistic.”