Marianne Faithfull: 'Drugs are completely irrelevant to me now'

Marianne Faithfull has a new album out, laying bare her soul, and two films due in cinemas later this year. So is it any wonder she's fed up being asked about heroin, Mick Jagger and apocryphal Mars bars?

Nick Duerden
Sunday 06 March 2011 01:00

Eleven o'clock on a sunny February morning, and Marianne Faithfull is still seething from her appearance, several hours earlier, on BBC Breakfast, on which she had been booked to plug her new album. But the album, she recounts now as she reaches for a cigarette mere moments after sucking the life out of its predecessor, was barely given a mention.

"That stupid woman," she says, of co-host Susanna Reid, her eyes narrowing. "OK, I shouldn't call her stupid, but she was banging on about drugs, which is completely irrelevant in my life now. It's not the point any more, is it? The awfulness of my previous life is no longer the point."

The cigarette, like the many thousands she has smoked over the years, has a transformative effect on her voice, making it so husky it could justifiably carry an 18 certificate. k

"Maybe that whole thing [her drug years] impresses you all because you would never choose to live your life like that, but many people do, so my situation wasn't that bizarre."

Yet, I suggest, we cannot help but be fascinated by it still. After all, her tumultuous life story does frequently beggar belief. "Yes, but you are all a bit too fascinated for my liking. It is my life, after all, not yours. OK, yes, I did do drugs. But I didn't die. I'm alive today, I'm well, I'm working, I'm still creative. What more can I say, really?"

This is an all-too familiar refrain from Marianne Faithfull, and her complaints are largely justifiable. She has, after all, been singing and acting now for 47 years. At the age of 64, she is a grand dame of the arts, one of the intermittent greats even, and she is about to release a compelling new album called Horses and High Heels, in which she rakes over the coals of past glories and hideous lows in a manner so intimate it can make the listener flinch. But all anybody really talks about – when they talk of her at all – is the enduring controversy, the multiple miseries, and that myth about the Mars bar.

"There is," she points out, "a little more to me than that."

Quite. Her early life at least was a gilded one, born to an English father and a Viennese mother with claims to the Habsburg dynasty, no less. She came of age, a ravishing beauty, in the mid-1960s, became a pop star, fell in with the Rolling Stones, dated the lead singer, and began dabbling, recreationally at first, in drugs. But a decade later, she was anorexic, hooked on heroin and homeless, her career seemingly spent, until she somehow staged the unlikeliest of comebacks in 1979, with her seminal album Broken English. And though her personal problems were far from behind her, she has continued to produce records and appear in films ever since.

"Yes, but I've never received the respect I deserved for that," she harrumphs. "It's because of the drugs, I'm sure. It's all anybody can focus on, even today. I wish I'd never done them now, you know? I really do..."

It is the morning after the Baftas in the heart of central London, and Faithfull is sat at a long table in her extravagant suite at the Mayfair Hotel, steadily chain-smoking. Today is a day of promotion – and dealing with the press, as we have already seen, is not something she relishes. She is cordial but brisk and businesslike, and though she can so easily be driven to impatience, she is wonderfully honest, incapable of hiding her true feelings. At one point, her PR reminds her of an impending photoshoot. It prompts a groan that rises from her stomach like hot steam.

"The only time I ever really consider retiring," she says, clutching her lighter in her tattooed left hand, "is when I get fed up with the press. Which is often. I just think, 'Why bother? I should just save up enough money and fuck off...'"

If she feels particularly "shitty" this morning, it is not merely because of poor Susanna Reid, but also because,

while browsing the internet over breakfast, she came across a negative review of her new record. Criticism of any kind always did cut deep, yet the woman cannot help but seek it out. "I'm a masochist," she says, smiling ruefully.

This latest critique, she explains, was on "some froggy website", and was unusual because she is usually revered in France (where she lives). She insists it was also unjust because Horses and High Heels is a good record. She's right; it is. It's a mixture of idiosyncratic cover versions – "Love Song", made famous in the 1970s by Elton John, Jackie Lomax's 1972 soul revue "No Reason", and a positively Shakespearean reading of the Shangri-Las' 1962 classic "Past, Present and Future" – alongside original compositions, and each sung in a voice a world away from the vocal that, back in 1965, first made her famous. If she was Petula Clark-ish then, these days she is positively Tom Waits. But it does suit her.

"I've learnt to accept what has happened to my voice, I suppose, but I do wish it didn't sound quite so rough." She sighs. "I used to have such a pretty little voice, you know."

One of the more intriguing songs here is "Why Did We Have To Part?", a melancholic lament that documents the end of her relationship with François Ravard, the man who had managed her for 15 years. "That night you said you loved another/I simply could not take it in," she sings. Three years after their break-up, he continues to manage her. A recipe for disaster, surely?

"Perhaps," she concedes, "but nobody else organises my life in such a manageable way. And I do need managing."

But there have been unavoidable complications, because where once their private and professional lives were intertwined, they are now quite necessarily separate. Presumably this hasn't been easy?

"No, but then I'm not going to parties and screwing around, if that's what you mean."

At the risk of sounding impertinent, is he?

She laughs. "He is, yes – but, actually, no, he isn't. Well, not at the moment... I don't know what to say. It didn't work out, the romance he had. Surprise, surprise."

Despite the presence of such maudlin songs, she nevertheless describes Horses and High Heels as the happiest album of her career. How so? "Well, I try not to analyse it, but, as I have only recently learnt, I was depressed for a long time, clinically depressed. I'm not any more, so perhaps that's why."

Faithfull's relationship with Mick Jagger lasted from 1966 to 1970. By the time he left her, she'd lost custody of her son Nicholas (she had been married and pregnant before meeting the singer; Nicholas, now in his mid-forties, works in high finance), and was already on a steady downward spiral that would come so close to claiming her life.

Ever since, people have asked how she could have allowed herself to follow such a destructive path when she'd k seemingly had it all, but the singer was never able to tell them. It was only when her clinical depression was diagnosed that those events in her life began to make sense.

"I had to go into treatment three years ago because I'd developed an addiction to sleeping pills," she says. This treatment took place at Crossroads, the rehab clinic Eric Clapton founded on Antigua, and it was here that she was diagnosed. "I was told that I had very likely been clinically depressed for a long, long time, probably since I was 15, or even 14. It explained, to me at least, a lot of my behaviour over the years."

She has been addressing the myriad issues that arose from the diagnosis ever since, and in January this year she travelled to Pennsylvania for a weekend of intensive Gestalt therapy. Gestalt, she explains, is a more holistic form of treatment which attempts to bring out hidden feelings via the "open chair" technique: the patient sits opposite an empty chair and mentally places into it someone of significance, and is then encouraged to express whatever it is that they felt unable to express before.

"It's pretty amazing, actually," she says. "You focus on this decisive moment in your life – and, no, I'm not going to tell you what mine was – and then you try, essentially, to change history by imagining a more positive outcome, which your unconscious accepts."

It's that easy?

She shrugs. "We'll see, shall we? I think it was very useful, but I don't see myself going again. I mean, I don't feel depressed any more. Really, I don't."

But does she remain quite as fragile as those around her have for so long maintained? "Fragile? If I am, then it comes from very deep inside me, and it's not something I'm necessarily aware of. I'm certainly sensitive, but then all musicians are, no? Personally, I see myself as strong, terrifically strong. I mean, I've survived, haven't I? And I'm still going."

Over the past decade, Faithfull has enjoyed a rarefied position within music: everybody seems keen to work with her. Due to lasting bouts of writer's block, it was she who approached them in each instance, but all gave generously, including Damon Albarn, PJ Harvey, Lou Reed, Beck and Jarvis Cocker. She got along tremendously, she says, with all of them.

"Of course, I could have found fault [with some], I suppose, but I didn't. I don't approve of Christian Science, for example... No, it's not Christian Science, it's even worse than that. What is it?"

She is referring to Beck here, who is a Scientologist.

"That's it, Scientology. I don't approve of that at all, but it simply never came up between us; it was never mentioned. And it didn't have to be, just as my awful past life didn't. We worked really well together, me and Beck. Lovely boy."

Still, the fact that the end results of all these collaborations were not subsequently elevated to classic status, which she insists should have happened, still niggles her.

"My entire back catalogue, pretty much, has been undervalued and overlooked. Even Broken English. When they compiled the 100 best records of the century back in 2000, Broken English was nowhere to be seen." She snorts. "Which I think was just absurd."

But never mind, she tells herself: move on. These days, she is trying to be only positive, in the hope that positivity brings lasting happiness. She is still an active recording artist, and still an in-demand actress (she has two films due out later in the year). Not many 64-year-olds, she points out, can say that.

"Things are good. Well, mostly they are. I can't pretend it's nice not being quite so young and quite so thin any more, but then, hey, what can you do?"

Jokingly, I suggest plastic surgery.

"I did actually have liposuction a while back," she shoots back quickly. "I'd developed this double-chin, you see, and I didn't like that, not at all. So I got rid of it. But I couldn't have plastic surgery. Someone with my [drug] past would have trouble with the painkillers, for starters, but also I wouldn't want to look like everybody else. I just want to look like me."

Which she indubitably, indeed fabulously, does. She also strives to lead a proactively healthy lifestyle these days, prompted not just by her past but also by a breast-cancer scare in 2006, and the fact that she has been a long-time sufferer of hepatitis C. Aside from the ongoing nicotine addiction, the woman is now a paragon of almost-virtue.

"I'm sure I'll disappoint many people by saying that my life isn't very exciting any more," she says. "I live alone [in Paris], I don't party very much, and I go to bed at a sensible time. But then it's good for me, just as," she adds, "being able to live in the present, rather than where everybody else wants me to live: in the past."

But the past does have a habit of coming back to haunt her, most recently after last October's publication of Keith Richards' uproarious autobiography Life, in which he revealed, among other things, that Mick Jagger is somewhat lacking in the trouser department. Marianne has been tirelessly solicited for her presumably expert opinion on this ever since.

"Oh God," she moans, clutching at her head, reaching for another cigarette, and frowning so hard that her eyes disappear altogether, "that's another thing that makes me want to retire, the fact that everybody absolutely must discuss the Rolling Stones with me, again and again and again. It was all such a long time ago! Look, whatever Keith has said is his business. I've never said anything about... that, and I never will. It has nothing to do with me any more. I've gotten over it. I just wish everybody else would, too."

Marianne Faithfull's new album 'Horses and High Heels' is out now on Dramatico Records. She will be performing at the Barbican, London EC2, on 24 May (

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