Marianne Faithfull has never been much for nostalgia throughout a roller-coaster career that's found her constantly reinventing herself. But when her band played "As Tears Go By" on her fall U.S. concert tour, she found herself flashing back to where her wild ride all began.
"If you'd have told me that at 62, I'd still be singing `As Tears Go By' to a rapt audience, I couldn't imagine that," says Faithfull. "For years I've done it very acoustically but with this band, we decided to make a new arrangement that was more close to the original with horns and strings. It's incredibly moving for me. It's like (turning) back the years."
The song takes Faithfull back to 1964 when the 17-year-old convent school girl turned up at a party at an art gallery owned by her future first husband, John Dunbar. Andrew Oldham, the Rolling Stones' manager, spotted the blonde and asked if she could sing.
"The first party I went to in London where I was discovered by Andrew Oldham — all the Beatles were there and the Stones were there too," says Faithfull. Soon after, Oldham brought the soprano with an angelic voice into the studio to record the melancholy "As Tears Go By," the first song co-written by Keith Richards and her soon-to-be boyfriend Mick Jagger.
"It's a strange song to get a 17-year-old to sing. It's all about a woman looking back on her youth, not participating, I couldn't really feel it. ... But now I can really feel it and it's very beautiful... I got to the right age where the woman in the song is," says Faithfull, who now sings the song in her world-weary contralto voice roughened by too much tobacco and booze in her colorful past.
But Faithfull has little in common with the song's protagonist who is content "to sit and watch" as her life goes by. She has gone from singing light folk-rock in the '60s to becoming a leading interpreter of the dark pre-World War II Berlin theatrical music of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
Faithfull is proud of her role as muse to the Rolling Stones in their early years, inspiring such songs as "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Wild Horses, and "Sister Morphine" (for which she belatedly received credit for writing the lyrics). And she was a muse to the Beats — Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughts and Gregory Corso — in their later years.
"I like to be involved in every time as it goes past," says Faithfull, interviewed over lunch at an Italian restaurant in lower Manhattan. "I want to write a new script for myself."
New album inspired by Keith Richards
The latest script is her new album "Easy Come, Easy Go," on which she interprets songs spanning nearly a century of popular music from Duke Ellington and Dolly Parton to Neko Case and the Decembrists. It has a contemporary feel thanks to collaborations with younger musicians such as Chan Marshall, known as Cat Power, and two children of her musician friends, Rufus Wainwright and Sean Lennon.
"It's not just an old person singing covers, no, thank God," she says, distinguishing it from albums by contemporaries like Rod Stewart. It's also stylistically eclectic — a mix of jazz, blues, country, folk and rock — because she explains "nobody listens to one style of music, nor do I."
The album closes poignantly with Faithfull and Richards joining voices on Merle Haggard's death row ballad "Sing Me Back Home," a tune she first heard the Stones' guitarist play with Gram Parsons in the '60s. The two longtime friends sing lyrics like "Make my old memories come alive."
"I think I'm ready to do that now. I wasn't before," says Faithfull, who has made a successful recovery after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. "I've been very anti-nostalgia all my life, always thinking about what I'm going to do next rather than what I've done. I think maybe this is a good moment for me to just sit on my haunches and reflect."
Today, she says little remains of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle of her youth that claimed so many of her friends.
"I'm very professional. I don't use drugs and I don't drink... I can't help thinking that that's one of the reasons that everything is so good in life," she says, sipping a glass of sparkling water. "I'm a workaholic now. There's always sex."
Faithfull teamed again on the album with Hal Willner, who produced her last covers album in 1987, "Strange Weather," her first album after undergoing rehab. It marked her resurrection as an avant-cabaret artist and masterful song interpreter.
"She is our Lotte Lenya, our (Marlene) Dietrich, our (Edith) Piaf. You can't learn to sing like that," says Willner. "None of them were trained really and their voice was what they've been in their life... Marianne comes from rock and roll and pop, so her roots are different than those classic singers. But I do believe she's a treasure."
They selected songs that she felt a personal connection to — many of which are like snapshots into different chapters of her life, like Ellington's "Solitude," performed by her favorite singer Billie Holiday.
"Solitude is probably my natural condition," she says. "I am very solitary.... I was an only child... although there's a lot of pain in that song too... My long-term relationship (with manager Francois Ravard) broke up just after I made the album... so now when I sing `Solitude' it has a particular passion."
Smokey Robinson's "Ooh Baby Baby" (performed with Antony Hegarty) brings back memories of the good times with Jagger when they were Swinging London's royal couple. "Mick played all the Miracles to me, a lot of soul, and he would act it out for me, which was wonderful. ... He could dance to anything."
The song also features the line "Mistakes, I know I've made a few," which hits close to home: "I wish I hadn't done drugs. It was a waste of my time and a huge handicap. It didn't help at all."
Faithfull identifies with the album's Bessie Smith title song, the ragtime blues "Easy Come, Easy Go," saying the legendary blues singer inspired her during difficult times in the '70s.
"What I like about Bessie Smith, apart from the songs and her voice, is the feeling where she's obviously at a rough gig ... with all sorts of mayhem going on, but she just keeps singing and doesn't take the slightest notice. That was a great help to me in the '70s when I was touring in strange places like gnarly dance halls ... and I would manage to pretend to myself that I was in a Bessie Smith record and it made it very romantic."
Getting past the anger
Faithfull says it's taken a long time to get over the anger that found voice on her 1979 punk-infused comeback album "Broken English" — following a lost decade in which she succumbed to heroin addiction and spent time living on the streets of London's Soho after her tabloid-sensationalized breakup with Jagger. That's when she established herself as a songwriter in her own right with such songs as the obscenity-laden "Why'd Ya Do It?" about a homicidal spurned lover.
Today, Faithfull goes to see the Stones in concert whenever she can and reminisce with that "strange dysfunctional family" she was belonged to. In her latest memoir, "Memories, Dreams and Reflections," she's much less bitter about her breakup with Jagger, who called her when she was hospitalized for breast cancer.
"I think we could have been very happy but there were ... big problems — one was the usual — not able to be faithful, and I understand that now. ... We were really very young and there were a million girls to (expletive) and a million wonderful sexual things to get up to and he did.
"If I had been more grown up I would have understood well let him do that. He can be faithful as well. I liked him very much. I still like him — an interesting guy."
Today, Faithfull's musical career is flourishing and she's also found time to take the occasional acting role, as she's done since the '60s when she was clad in black leather for the film "Girl on a Motorcycle." More recently, she's played Kirsten Dunst's mother, the Austrian empress, in "Marie Antoinette" — an ironic twist considering she is the daughter of an Austrian baroness from the Sacher-Masoch family, which includes a great-great uncle whose writings inspired the term "masochism." She received a European Film Award best actress nomination for "Irina Palm" in which she plays a middle-aged widow who becomes a sex worker in Soho to pay for treatment for her dying grandson.
Faithfull says "Easy Come, Easy Go" reflects how much better she feels about herself now that she's cast aside some of the demons from her past.
"I'm proud of this record. It's coming from a confident and knowing what I want to do kind of a place," says Faithfull. "I'm really healthy and enjoying my work a lot... I think this really is a very wonderful part of my life."