For the past 50 years, Marianne Faithfull has been one of the music world’s most singular characters: a Swinging London teen icon and mid-’60s girlfriend of Mick Jagger, a notorious heroin addict who revived her career in 1979 with the landmark Broken English and, most of all, a singer with an unmistakable voice who has released some 20 albums. Now 67, she’s marking 2014 with one of her best — September’s Give My Love to London (Naive/Easy Sound), filled with collaborations with Brian Eno, Nick Cave and more — and a fascinating photo book, A Life on Record (published Nov. 4 on Rizzoli) featuring pictures of famous friends including Allen Ginsberg, Paul McCartney and Van Morrison. But even after compiling the book, Faithfull has lots more to say about her unexpected relationships through the years.
Billboard caught up with the legendary singer over the phone from her home in Paris, during a break from her current European tour, to talk about her new book, her new album, her unique circle of friends, and more. And when that legendary honey-and-thistle voice answered the phone, there was no mistaking who it was.
How are you?
I’m all right — I’m a bit knackered, ’cause we got back yesterday from the Scandinavian part of the tour and it was very rushed, which is always hard. But it went incredibly well, and I got a very good review today in Oslo. It’s quite hard with a broken hip. (Laughs.)
You’ve got a broken hip now as well as breaking your back in a fall in Los Angeles last year?
Yep. It’s mending slowly, but it’s not the most ideal conditions for a big tour like this. But I think in a funny way, the music I’m playing and the band and the love for the audience and just having to fucking do it, is kind of mending it, you know?
When did you break your hip?
Oh man, in July. My back — that was quite different. That was much, much, much more serious — I was actually flat on my back for six months. This, I’m doing without painkillers. I’m toughing it out.
That’s character-building, I suppose …
Oh, bugger that! (Laughs.) But there was not much choice: The record came out and I went to see a really great sports doctor who’s used to looking after people who smash themselves to bits. Obviously, I’m not an athlete, but in a funny way touring is kind of being a bit like an athlete. I said, “Do you really think I can do this? It’s very painful.” And he said, “Go — it’ll help you, it’ll heal you, do it.”
Are you traveling on a bus and all that?
The first bit of the tour, which was the hardest, my dear, we went like Hannibal and the elephants over the Alps. We went from Germany to Switzerland over the Alps to Milan to Lucca on a fucking bus. It was wonderful. (Laughs.)
Were you working on the book and the album at the same time?
More or less, except the book is more my manager’s project, Francois Ravard. It was really his idea to do the book as part of the celebration of the 50-year anniversary [of her career].
Is that anniversary something it would have ever occurred to observe on your own?
No. (Laughs.) I think that I would have been able to make a great record and do a great tour, but I don’t think my imagination goes further than that. It’s a beautiful book, actually, I’m amazed, and I think he also wants to do all sorts of other things… a Decca box set [Faithfull’s label in the 1960s], all sorts of things. I haven’t got those records anymore.
The book is fascinating — how did you keep all those letters and photos and notes and things during the rough years?
It’s funny, isn’t it? I’m not quite sure how. There were things I have that I didn’t put in because I’m kind of cool, you know. (Laughs.) I actually do have a love letter from Mick Jagger which I did not put in, and I will not sell either.
Were these things that you carried with you? Or did you keep them at your parents’ houses?
A lot of them were at my mother’s, and then when she died they all went to where I was living in Ireland, so they were there. Then I met François, and we started to work together and were also lovers at the time. And then we moved, and we moved again, and we moved to Paris, so everything went to Paris. And the movers were very good, they just brought everything and all these little things were sort of stashed in funny places in little chests that my mother had kept. Strange sort of newspaper clippings. I don’t know why I kept those things — but I did.
I keep meaning to talk about the album but we keep talking about the book–
We must talk about the album, darling, but finish quickly what we’re doing here.
Was it painful or a pleasure to put the book together? Was it both?
Well, I couldn’t put the book together because I personally don’t like pain. It’s too hard, it’s too close to the bone for me. But Francois and Marc [Ascoli], who designed it, they really wanted to do it. I only came in at the very, very end to write the comments, which I said were not going to be serious, they’re going to be funny and witty and as not serious as I could make them.
I find the book actually more interesting than your autobiography because it’s like spending an afternoon with you going through some old pictures.
Oh yeah, it’s real. The autobio is very good, but you’re never quite sure, is she really telling the truth here or what? With this book it’s so incredibly authentic.
Did you say authentic or eccentric?
Well, you could use either really, but I said authentic. Let’s talk about the album or else I’ll get into trouble!
Why a London album now, especially if you wrote it in Paris?
Well, it just turned out like that. I’m not that fond of London — when I go there I have to do “promo,” which I detest, four or five days of it in a long bunch, and I come back just so pissed off and insulted. (Laughs.) I must admit that is getting much better — people are not so insulting anymore. But I came back to Paris after a particularly hard promo session, where I’d been asked really awful, insulting questions, and I wrote that song [“Give My Love To London”] as a horrible, sarcastic put down of London, you know?
And the British press in particular?
Yeah, obviously. I mean, I don’t say anything about the British press but I think that’s what made it all so hard.
Did you and Roger Waters write “Sparrows Will Sing” together?
No. The two things that arrived first for the record were the Roger Waters song and “Give My Love To London” — and then I broke my back. (Laughs.) That was awful and dreadful and terribly painful and horrible in a way, but in another way it was incredibly good for me and for the record. It gave me six months just to ponder, to think. I think people who are not on tour all the time or writing songs or working as hard as I was — I think it’s a natural part of growing up, where you think, you reflect on, “What do I really care about? Who do I really care about? What don’t I like, what do I like? Who do I love, who do I not love? What is important to me in my life, what could I easily do without?” I think it must be a part of growing up, but it’s a part I missed. It really helped me, I can’t really describe how, but by the time I was okay again and able to sit up at the table and start writing, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted, who I was and what I was gonna do. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that.
How do you choose your collaborators? You have such an unusual circle of people that it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling together. Anna Calvi said she was surprised to be asked. How did you find her?
[Co-producer] Rob Ellis, who’s an old friend of mine from when we worked together on Before the Poison with PJ Harvey, Rob produced those tracks. I love and trust Rob very much. When he saw the lyrics for “Falling Back,” he immediately said, “That’s for Anna Calvi.” He had produced her first record, so he called her and she said, “Gosh, yes.”
I actually thought the Nick Harcourt collaboration was a Nick Cave song.
It is my habit, and I don’t really know why I do this — I guess I get something extra out of it — I work with people who are also great lyricists. Steve Earle is a brilliant lyricist — he’s not just a musician — Nick Cave is great lyricist, Harcourt is a great lyricist. I have to do this thing which breaks my fucking heart, man, but I mean it. I say “Okay, if there’s anything that gets in your way, or that doesn’t fit your idea, you can cut it out or change it.” I don’t like doing that.
And do they?
Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Patrick Leonard does not change anything at all. And the one I wrote with Nick he didn’t change much. But Ed changed a bit, and so did Steve. Although Steve didn’t change that much — he just made it much better song.
One thing I’ve noticed — if you wouldn’t mind indulging this a bit — is both on the book and on your last few albums there’s such an unusual collection of people. Especially in the book – there’s Serge Gainsbourg, there’s Jeff Buckley, there’s Iggy Pop, there’s Van Morrison. Could I just say a few of those names and you could just say maybe the best memory of them? How did you meet Serge?
Well, Serge I met when I was a really little girl, when I was 17 and I used to come to Paris to do promo and to do television and radio and be like a pop star, really. And I was [being photographed for a magazine] and it was in the studio that I met Serge Gainsbourg. He was not yet a singer. He was a poet. And I was kind of scared of him, actually. He was friends with the people from the magazine and was sort of lurking in the background in the studio. In those days, I could speak perfect French. One of the funniest things that ever happened to me, was when I took that huge overdose in Australia [in 1969, when she and Jagger were scheduled to star in the film Ned Kelly] and was in a coma for six days, I woke up perfectly all right except that I couldn’t speak French anymore.
Really? Is there anything else you lost?
Nope, nothing at all. Just French. And as I’ve learned French again, it’s nothing like as good as I used to speak it. I used to speak good French. So I could communicate perfectly with someone like Serge, and I got to like him very much. And [sarcastically] I was also so beautiful, blah blah blah — it’s well-known that Serge asked every beautiful woman that he knew, starting with Brigitte Bardot and me and [Gainsbourg’s eventual partner] Jane [Birkin] and everyone if they would do [his controversial 1969 hit] “Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus” with him. And I said, “No, man.”
It worked out well for him, either way.
Well, I think it was meant to be Jane. I think that was a great, great sort of relationship, a very productive creative relationship. I think it made Jane very unhappy, but so what?
How about Allen Ginsberg?
Allen! I was introduced to Allen by Bob Dylan.
Was that the first night that you met Dylan?
Yeah, and Allen was there.
Do you remember anything else about your first meeting? Was that a party?
Yeah, it was all a party in those days. (Laughs.) I was only 17 of course. I do remember one thing that I was very resentful about. All the guys would go into the bathroom for hours and they wouldn’t let me in.
Ginsberg too? What were they doing in there?
What were they doing in there? We know what they were doing in there. They were [mock-dramatically] taking drugs.
Were they just smoking weed?
No, of course not. I’m sure they were taking either methadone or cocaine. Not Allen, because Allen wasn’t into cocaine, but he certainly liked smoking weed. But he didn’t want to do it front of this little infant girl Marianne. So they would go into the bathroom for hours and not let me in, and it was terrible! I thought it was because I was a girl. In fact they were trying to protect me, but that didn’t occur to me.
Did they ever let you in?
Never! I was never considered grown up enough or they didn’t want me to get onto coke or something.
How about Metallica?
Well, that came from them. I was in Ireland, quietly living my beautiful life, and suddenly the phone rang and this voice said, “Hello, Marianne Faithfull? This is Lars from Metallica.” And then the story unfolded that what they wanted was to fly to Dublin and to record me for “The Memory Remains” and put me on the song and that’s what they did. And I made great friends with them of course and we stayed in touch.
How about Iggy Pop?
Just a very old friend from the ’70s. Not a lover or anything but a true friend, a lovely, lovely man.
OK, how about Roman Polanski?
Roman I knew in the ’60s. I’m a huge fan of nearly all his movies. Not all of them — there were one or two I didn’t like. But I think The Tenant is a masterpiece, and The Knife In The Water. I’ve known Roman through the whole damn thing [his alleged sexual offenses against a 13-year-old girl in 1977] and it’s been dreadful for him.
Do you still see him often?
Yes, of course I do. And I know his wife too, and his children. I realize that he probably was a bit crazy for a while after Sharon [Tate’s murder in 1969 by Charles Manson’s followers], I realize that. But he’s perfectly alright now. Anyway, who I am to say? It’s not my business. But I love Roman, and I think he’s a great film director.
Do you remember when you first met Anita Pallenberg?
Oh blimey. A very, very long time ago. I think she must be one of my oldest friends. I’ve probably known her for something like 47 years, when she was with Brian [Jones]. And then all changes thereof.
Do you remember where it was? Was it while the band was on tour?
I really don’t. It must have been in London ’cause I didn’t go with The Rolling Stones on tour, ever. I think I must have met her with Brian first, and then she and Brian took a flat, and I used to go there a lot and hang out, ‘cause my marriage [to John Dunbar] wasn’t going very well, I’m afraid, so I used to run off there. And there would be Anita with Brian, and their relationship wasn’t going well either, and there was Keith waiting to catch her. Which he did.
How about Nick Cave?
Nick! I think a party in London — it’s always like that. You know, we have a lot in common. We’re both former drug addicts, we’ve both been through a lot, we’re both musicians, we’re both very literary, that’s a big bond for us. I think it all starts with musicians and me is that I love their music. I never forget the first time I heard “Lust for Life” for instance. Of course I had to become friends with Iggy Pop. And I did.
Just one more. Did you know Bowie before The 1980 Floor Show [his 1973 television production in which Faithfull appeared in a backless nun’s habit].
Of course I did! Yes, yes. He was almost a friend. I think he tried to help me, but I was always very standoffish about that, about help. I wanted to do everything my way and on my own, really. After my experience with Mick and Keith and Andrew Oldham, I thought, “Hey, the best thing is to do your experience.”
Is touring your main form of income as a recording artist?
Of course! (Laughs.) Nobody makes money out of records anymore, you know that. But I love performing, I love the love from the audience. But I hate traveling. And I’m going to cut back. I went to see Joan Baez — who is a very old friend of mine — before we started this tour and I reckon Joan has got it down: She was playing in Paris for a week and it was sold out and then she moved on somewhere else for another week or at least four days. She wasn’t touring in that sense that I have to do.
Good luck with the rest of the tour — I hope you don’t break any more bones.
No, I won’t! It doesn’t affect my voice, my voice is fine. I stopped smoking a year ago and my voice is doing very well. I’m very healthy.
An edited version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of Billboard.