Marianne Faithfull is no stranger to death. Perhaps not in the literal sense as she is still alive, but instead, in the sense of foreboding darkness that haunts those who flirt with the dirges of life.
A prominent pop figure of the 1960s who found commercial success with ‘As Tears Go By’, a song written by her ex-lover Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Faithfull possessed an otherwordly presence that in its greatest moments, had the potential to raise those to light; in worse times, she withdrew into the shadows of drug addiction. However, Faithfull is one of those artists, not unlike the romantic poets of the 1800s, that ingests life’s intoxications and turns them into works of art.
Faithfull helped Jagger and Richards write ‘Sister Morphine’ for their 1969 Sticky Fingers album, a song about being enthralled in addiction. It was no accident that she was able to write this LP; at one point in her life, she was caught mid-air chasing the dragon.
Those who know anything about the romantic poets – Percy Shelley, William Blake, Lord Byron, John Keats, and William Wordsworth, and even the American, Edgar Allen Poe – will know that their MO was creating a new poetic reality; it was an attempt to rebel against the mundane machinations of the industrial revolution. They focused heavily on nature, the serene, beauty, and opium. Some of them sought to numb themselves to their over sensitivity and also to influence their perception of reality. In this sense, one could argue Marianne Faithfull is a descendent of the romantics.
It is no surprise, then, that she should pay homage to some of her earliest influences. “When I was 13 or 14, I bought myself a book, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and that really turned me on to poetry, lots of different poetry,” Faithfull said in the liner notes of the album.
Marianne Faithfull’s new record, She Walks in Beauty (named after the Lord Byron poem), features Faithfull reading poems by various romantic poets. Warren Ellis of The Bad Seeds provided instrumental accompaniment, along with contributions by Nick Cave, Brian Eno and Vincent Ségal – it was produced and engineered by Head and Ellis.
During the making of the record, Faithfull’s future was again appropriately uncertain. “We did some of it before I got ill,” Faithfull reflected in the liner notes, “And some of it we had to do afterwards. It was terribly hard, especially afterwards, because of all these side effects. I got very ill. I nearly died. They wrote on my notes at the hospital, ‘palliative care only’. Anyway, I didn’t die, thank God. Thank everybody.” The NHS deserve to be credited for the making of this album.
Faithfull added, “The doctors said they’d never ever treated anybody with such an intense desire to stay alive. I didn’t know that. I was amazed. I survived, and I’m still recovering, and the poems that we did afterwards are wonderful, because they’re even more vulnerable.”
Faithfull’s producer and engineer – who has also worked with P.J Harvey for a long time – Head and Faithfull were both in the latter’s flat in London, using a spare room to first record Faithfull’s reading of the poetry. The singer, who is a writer herself, spoke on the collaborative nature of this record: “It was lockdown,” she says, “So I recorded with Head alone in that little room, then we sent it to Warren in Paris, and he put it together. We got a lot of help. Nick Cave played piano. Brian Eno was wonderful too, and played all sorts of things, and Vincent Ségal played cello. So it was all done separately in this extraordinary moment in our lives on this fucking planet.”
She Walks in Beauty sees Warren Ellis of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds provide the instrumentation as a kind of musical bedrock to Faithfull’s recital of this dying art form. “They’re poems that are full of wonder, that celebrate the great things we can do,” said Warren Ellis.
“I didn’t think of them as songs, so I wasn’t locked into melodies or chords, and I could take incredible liberties. It wasn’t about creating something that had to follow the text or outline it. It was free in that respect. The important thing was that it didn’t get in the way. Some of it’s like musique concrete, street sounds, stuff like that.”
The creative process behind the collaborative project, as it was done remotely from one another, seems that it had a lot of room for spontaneity. “My preferred way of making music is to leave a lot of it to chance, to let accidents happen,” Ellis said. Warren Ellis and Brian Eno went back and forth with another; Vincent Ségal played cello and Nick Cave provided piano. “I sent him this loop with a string figure, and I don’t know what he put on it, but it all starts moving around, and these strange waves go through it,” Ellis said about his line of communication with Eno.
As to the nature of Faithfull’s speaking voice; none can soothe better. As she reads the poems you know that she has lived for a long time with them – they are a part of her. The texture of Faithfull’s voice is worn and aged, which is necessary to read these poems with authority. Like a tree trunk has growth rings – her voice is granular and sorrowful but wise and poetically melancholy.
As the multi-instrumentalist that he is, Warren Ellis does his beautiful yet simple magic. It does not distract the listener from what Faithfull is saying. Ellis, as always, seeks to support the song and composition, he never overplays in anything that he does, but his playing is impressionistic and it will stick with you for a long time.
Marianne Faithfull’s She Walks in Beauty was released 30th of April and available.