Marianne Faithfull on Suffering, Songwriting and How We Over-Philosophise

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Imagery by Yann Orhan

As the star releases her 21st solo album, we talk to her about why she’s deciding to reveal herself even more

“It’s not automatic, no!”

Singer-songwriter Marianne Faithfull is sitting in her Paris apartment as she exclaims this into the microphone of her mobile. She’s talking on speaker as her arms are very painful, she explains. “I just have to wait, until it happens really,” she continues; she’s talking about writing her 21st solo album, Negative Capability, which hits stores today. “I write about my life and what’s happening – it is quite autobiographical. More so than before… I just decided to reveal myself more.”

The frank and occasionally cantankerous seeming star is a powerful force at the age of 71 and her 54-year recording career and renowned magnetism sees her pulling in collaborators like Nick Cave, Warren Ellis (one of The Bad Seeds), Rob Ellis, Ed Harcourt and Mark Lanegan for this latest record. The group stayed, ate and recorded together at La Frette studios, a chateau that doubles as a sound studio on the Seine. “It’s a lovely old house just on the edge of Paris – a live-in situation so that was great fun. [We were there] all together for two weeks, it was wonderful.” So ensues a sultry, melancholic album, infused with Shakespearean folk and delivered in her famously gravelly tone. Though always dry and dead pan, her voice has deepened more so in the last few years: “Oh I don’t do anything to protect it, no,” she says, resigned. “I probably do everything wrong. I wish I didn’t but I do.”

And though staunchly non-nostalgic, Faithfull tugs on threads from her past as well as her present for this work. She returns for the third time to her first ever release, As Tears Go By, the first song she ever recorded: “It started my career, I’m incredibly grateful to Mick and Keith – I think it’s a beautiful song.” As well as a cover of the Bob Dylan-penned hit It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, that she’d already covered once in 1985. There are plenty of new numbers too, including The Gypsy Faerie Queen, co-written and recorded with Nick Cave. And tracks dedicated to recently departed friends: Don’t Go was dedicated to guitarist and close friend Martin Stone, while Born to Live is devoted to her best friend, the German-Italian actress, artist, and model Anita Pallenberg, who Faithfull spoke to every day before her friend’s unexpected death. Then there’s They Come at Night, a song she wrote almost immediately after the Paris attacks, which she and Ellis played live at the Bataclan arena exactly one year after the massacre.

While pain and loss permeate the record, Faithfull remains determined not to read too much into any of it. Fiercely strong and plain-speaking, she talks us through the many ways in which we read into her writing – that which remains for her, a simple, elemental way of life.

AnOther Magazine: So, can you tell me a little about how you went about writing this? Was there anything specific you set out to do?

Marianne Faithfull: No, no. I just knew I was going to have to write. An awful lot of my friends died in the last few years. And I was going to have to write about them, I felt I had to. Not all the songs are about death of course but there are quite a few.

AM: So what does Negative Capability mean then for you in that context?

MF: Oh well it hasn’t got anything to do with that. No (laughs). It doesn’t mean anything particular to me in that context, it means what it means. It was Shakespeare who started doing that and I got it out of a letter John Keats wrote to his brother about negative capability – and I’ve always loved the title, I thought it was a really strong title.

AM: And what does it mean?

MF: Well it means, to Shakespeare anyway, who sort of invented it really, it meant: I think, I don’t know, I think it means the ability to take a subject, a person or anything you like, to look at it from all angles equally... I mean that doesn’t tell you much. But that’s what I know.

AM: Can you think of an example of that in practice?

MF: No... I don’t know enough about it.

AM: And what was it like working with Nick Cave? How would you describe the way he works?

MF: Oh gosh I don’t know, I’ve only worked with him a few times, I think he’s just brilliant, and what’s really interesting is he’s just getting better and better all the time. I find him very, very interesting and I hope I am doing that myself.

AM: You probably must be, right?

MF: I think I might be, yes.

AM: But it’s interesting because you’re going back too – you returned to As Tears Go By, for the third time, on this track.

MF: Yes, everyone finds that very interesting.

AM: Why is that do you think? What’s different this time?

MF: Well I just think that as I grow older or change, what it means changes too. And don’t ask me what it means because I really don’t know. But I think I’m doing it better. I mean my voice of course is very different, but I think my understanding is much better.

AM: You recorded it when you were 17, which is quite remarkable…

MF: I don’t think of it as remarkable to me it’s just normal.

AM: Does that time still feel very vivid in your memory?

MF: No, it’s a long time ago; no, I have no nostalgia at all. I’m not a nostalgic person anyway, especially not for the 50s. I think people are so nostalgic I don’t understand.

AM: Is it unhelpful to be nostalgic do you think?

MF: I think so yeah, it’s not reality, you know.

AM: Does that make it easier to return to a song like this? If you’re not feeling nostalgic about it, it’s a new chapter or a new life for the record perhaps?

MF: Maybe yeah, I don’t know darling, I really don’t know.

AM: Am I over-philosophising?

MF: I think so, I would say you are, but everybody does – they see much more meaning and things in it than I know.

AM: But then again, there’s a lot of pain and loss in this record – you must have had to reach quite deep…?

MF: Everyone’s asking this. So today I called a friend of mine who I meditate with who’s actually a Buddhist called Ben actually, and I asked him, because when we meditate he reads a little bit from the Buddha, from the teaching and you know the four noble truths. I’m not a Buddhist by the way but I love the meditation, and you know life is suffering, and that suffering is not an absolute condition either, you can do things to heal it, and one of them is meditation… I do [find it very helpful] – that’s why I think it’s perfectly ok to admit and to write about suffering. It’s part of life, you know? It’s not absolute, it’s not permanent, it’s not written in stone and you can get out of it.

AM: In writing your music then, is it a kind of therapy?

MF: No, no, no, no! Therapy is therapy and writing songs is writing songs, they’re completely different. Everyone reaches so much into these things I can’t believe it!

Negative Capability is available now on BMG.