With ‘Horses & High Heels,’ Marianne Faithfull Is Finally Ready to Be Amused

Considering Marianne Faithfull would rather forget all about the ’60s, the decade that witnessed her transformation from flicker-voiced ingenue to addicted ex-Rolling Stone muse, it’s funny to find her puffing a Marlboro Light on the downstairs patio of New York’s Standard Hotel, a building whose design and retro-futuristic flourishes pastiche that agitated decade. “It’s full of wild activity, though I am quite quiet,” Faithfull says (other verbs that could be used instead of ‘says’: boils, growls, quakes).

A few weeks ago, Faithfull released her 23rd album, Horses and High Heels. Recorded in New Orleans and produced by Hal Willner, it’s a mix of unexpected covers — Carol King’s “Goin’ Back,” the Shangri-La’s “Past Present and Future” — and new material. Sure, there are songs about wrestling with demons, wasted love, and apocalypse, but Faithfull insists she’s in a good place – the best ever, maybe. Mick who?

You recorded Horses and High Heels in New Orleans. Were you trying to channel something of that city’s musical heritage?

I didn’t go to New Orleans to record a New Orleans record. I was never going to make a Cajun record or a Zydeco record. I went there because I wanted to work with these great musicians. They don’t travel, you know. It’s like Memphis. If you want to work with them, you go to them. Otherwise, great food, great clubs, and very hard work.

You recorded the album in an incredibly short amount of time.

Three weeks. But that’s long for me! Easy Come, Easy Go was done in 10 days.

There are four original songs on the album and the rest are covers. How did you choose the cover songs? [Producer] Hal [Willner] came to Paris. It’s the same as we usually do, from Strange Weather on. We get together wherever we are – in this case it was Paris – and he plays me some songs and I play him some.

What does collaborating bring to your music?

Oh, a lot. I have a gift for it. For collaborating and choosing who to collaborate with – I’m good at that, too. It’s a great gift, making it so nobody feels unequal or less.

You’ve been in the music industry for so long. You must have a very unique perspective on how it’s changed.

I don’t think I work according to the music business. The way to always make money in the music business is to make very disposable records, unless you are a genius. Like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, though I wouldn’t call the Stones genius. Only a very few people can afford to do what they really want to do. Somehow, I’ve managed to do that, probably because I’ve never really been in it for the money. I wanted something else – I wanted what I got, which is a body of great work behind me, just carrying on doing great work.

Horses and High Heels is your 23rd album. How many more do you have left in you?

Well, certainly another one. I might stop after that.

You just wrapped filming on Belle du Seigneur, due out next year, alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Natalia Vodianova. How do you like the experience of acting compared to making music?

I don’t have any control over filming. With records, I do. I can personally make sure they’re good. With a film, I just have to hope the director’s good. But I like working with a group. I like – I really like – that it’s not all on me. I’m not the main thing; I’m not the main attraction. I mean, I starred in Irina Palm, but in these two I have a nice supporting role. And it’s lovely.

Is that why you collaborate so much?

I like a bit of the attention to be deflected, yes. I hadn’t heard a lot of the original versions of the covers…

Well, you wouldn’t. They’re very obscure.

How did you find them?

Well, I knew already “Past, Present and Future” because I’m old enough to remember when it came out, which is in 1962, when I was listening to it under the covers of my bedroom in Reading. So I remember that, and I remember “Going Back” – I wanted to do that. Hal came up with some wonderful ideas. “The Stations” was Hals ideas and “That’s How Every Empire Falls.” Beautiful, beautiful song.

“Unconventional” is a word you use often.

I’m trying to sort of make sure that everybody knows that. I don’t have conventional expectations [laughs]. But it’s very rare now. It used to be that everyone I knew was unconventional, but it’s really changed. It’s got very much more conformist. America is going back to the ’50s.

What about France, where you live?

France is always France, as you know from Strauss-Kahn [laughs].

The album art for Horses and High Heels is so wonderfully kitsch. It is kitsch, I know. I just got sick of always having these really tasteful beauty shots. I mean they’re lovely, but I’ve been doing it for so long, and I thought this once, I’m going to do something different. I always had wanted a psychedelic cover, but I never did get that together in enough time. So we found this picture on the internet, and we asked him [artist Jim Warren] to put high heels in it. And he did. He’d do anything we wanted, actually. And I liked it. It’s funny.

It’s so literal.

Very. There are even high heels in the tree. And there are seven horses! There’s one in the sky, three in the trees, there’s two coming out of the water…they’re all over the place.

Amusing cover art – is that an indication of your overall mood these days?

I’m feeling very, very amused. I’m having a very good life. I don’t feel moody and tragic at all – and you know, I’m not. But now I realize that the fans really were shocked. So shocked.

By the cover?

Yes! Yes, man. They weren’t pleased. They wanted a Marianne Faithfull cover. A proper, normal Marianne Faithfull cover. And they got something they didn’t expect. But the songs are still very dark.

Not dark enough. They’re a bit pissed off. But they do love the record – they just were surprised at first. They thought the songs were too bright. They thought “Why Did We Have to Part” was too cheerful.

Really?

Well it is. It’s a bouncy little song with a lovely tune. I don’t really sound that devastated, do I?

Is it frustrating that people want to keep you in a dark corner?

Well it is a little bit, but I’ve got over it. I understand. I mean, it’s always been a problem for me – I will never stay where people want me to stay.

Where are you in your career?

I’m in the best bit. I’m very disciplined, having a very good time, not having a problem with it. I think this is what I always wanted. And I’ve felt like that for a long time now. But I have actually put my foot down now – come, come…

Are you always trying to write new songs, or is writing something you approach in fits and starts?

I’m really trying to write more songs for the next one. That means I have to stockpile. You know, I won’t be starting it [the next album] for another two or three years. I’ve got six weeks off in summer, and then I go back to work. I’m not crazy about the airplane. But I love performing, so I have to pay the price.

Your voice has changed so much over your career. Do you choose to cover songs that suit your voice as it is now?

Oh, I’m very good at that.

Do you ever feel limited by your voice?

Sometimes a little bit – I have a few regrets. But then I honestly do think that I’ve got the right voice for me, that it will say what I what it to say. It’s not pretty, but I don’t want pretty.

Your career has been long and varied. Looking back on it, what are some of the most significant milestones you’ve marked?

As Tears Go By” is a milestone. Writing “Sister Morphine” is another one. Broken English is a milestone. They all are. Strange Weather was a huge difference. Then doing the Kurt Weill stuff was really interesting. And then coming back to my own songs has been great.

Are you at all frustrated that people focus on your life story so intensely?

I think it hasn’t helped my music at all. I’m really a working musician. That’s it. The 60s is not my life – at all. And I find that people don’t want me to move one, but I have anyway. [Trying to light cigarette in the wind] Fuck it. I’m going to go light it indoors.

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