In the spring of 2020, it was reported that Marianne Faithfull had become extremely ill due to Covid. The virus was at a peak and had a severe impact on her, causing her to become unconscious and requiring her to be rushed to an intensive care unit where she was placed on a ventilator with little chance of recovery. In an interview with the Guardian a year later, Faithfull stated, “I can only recall being in a very bleak state. It seemed like death was inevitable.”
Faithfull managed to survive, but the strength of the illness, along with her pre-existing emphysema, damaged her lungs to the extent that she may never regain her ability to sing. This has put her in a difficult position, as she faces both the possibility of losing income and the high expenses associated with recovering from long-term Covid effects. Although this has caused worry among her supporters, one fan took action to help.
Tanya Pearson, the leader of the Women of Rock Oral History Project, explained that her goal was to generate the highest possible profit for Marianne. She contemplated holding a charity concert, but due to the ongoing pandemic, it was not feasible at the time.
Instead, she chose to attempt making a tribute/benefit album that would include famous artists covering songs that Faithfull is known for. Pearson stated, “The simple part was locating musicians who were generous enough to donate their time and talent.” This project started over two years ago. “However, finding a label willing to forgo any profit was much more challenging.”
Initially, she attempted to work with major record labels such as BMG and Island, through which Faithfull produced some of her most well-known pieces. However, Pearson remembered, “They all expressed admiration for Marianne, but claimed they were unable to proceed.” Pearson added, “I informed them: ‘You have the capability. You simply choose not to.”
After extensive searching, Pearson eventually discovered a small label called In the Q. This week, in collaboration with Bandbox, the label will release a double vinyl set titled The Faithfull, which will also be available on streaming platforms. The compilation features 19 tracks from renowned artists such as Shirley Manson, Cat Power, Iggy Pop, Peaches, and the Bush Tetras. While the majority of the artists are women, Pearson clarified that this was simply due to her connections in the industry through the Women of Rock Oral History Project. However, this had a positive outcome as it showcases Marianne Faithfull as a pioneer and inspiration for many women.
Shirley Manson, along with Peaches, performs a duet on the album covering one of Marianne Faithfull’s most well-known songs, “Why D’Ya Do It?” Manson recalls first hearing the song at 15 and feeling a deep connection to it, as it gave her words to express her feelings of betrayal by a lover. She also appreciated the venomous lyrics and the rarity of a woman singing explicitly about sex and betrayal.
Peaches expressed her admiration for Marianne’s song, which featured themes of hash, pussy, and revenge. She also appreciated the intensity and biting quality of Marianne’s voice, which greatly influenced her own musical style.
Tanya Donelly, known for her involvement in Throwing Muses, the Breeders, and Belly, approached Faithfull’s music from a unique perspective. As a child, Donelly’s parents frequently played Faithfull’s 1960s recordings, when her voice had a delicate tremor and her music had a folk influence. For the tribute, Donelly collaborated with the Parkington Sisters, a harmony trio, on a rendition of “This Little Bird,” one of Faithfull’s biggest hits from 1965. “Her voice on that song was a significant part of my upbringing,” Donelly shared. “I even sang it to my children as a soothing lullaby.”
Although Faithfull’s initial recording was delicate, Donelly sensed a hint of melancholy in it. Donelly remarked, “Her vocals in that song possess both sweetness and darkness. She has a talent for finding a balance between the two.”
Pearson encouraged participants to carefully choose pieces that would encompass Faithfull’s entire career, spanning six decades and including 22 solo albums. The selections range from her 1964 hit single “As Tears Go By” (covered by Tracy Bonham) to more recent songs like “Before the Poison” (by Feminine Aggression) and “Sex With Strangers” (performed by the Toilet Boys’ Miss Guy). The album showcases the diversity of Faithfull’s catalog, which was a major attraction for Tammy Faye Starlite. Starlite covers “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” on the album and has also created a successful cabaret show based on Faithfull’s “Broken English” album. According to Starlite, Faithfull’s career is characterized by a wide range of styles, from 60s pop to 70s country to the raspy vocals of “Broken English” to Brecht-Weill songs and more. Unlike other singers who have a consistent sound throughout their songs, Faithfull’s music always offers something new and unique.
Marrianne Faithfull’s body of work includes a dreamy orchestral song cycle called A Secret Life, which she collaborated on with Angelo Badalamenti. She has also co-written songs with a new generation of musical innovators, including Beck, PJ Harvey, and Nick Cave. Throughout her performances, there is a clear intentionality that shines through, as noted by Donelly who says, “She truly puts meaning behind every word she sings.”
Manson is considered a skilled interpreter because she fully comprehends the lyrics of the songs she covers. Unlike other singers who may sing beautifully but lack understanding of the words, Manson brings a depth of understanding to each song she performs.
Faithfull’s experience as an actor, in roles from Ophelia to the Three Sisters to the Brecht-Weill pieces, helps greatly in that pursuit. “When Marianne sings The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, she both is Lucy Jordan and she’s the narrator of her story,” Starlite said. “She can embody the character’s plight while also objectively describing it.”
Faithfull’s unique skills and distinct voice help to overcome a potential issue that the tribute album could have faced. Despite the fact that most of the songs featured were not written by Faithfull, her rendition of them makes her a co-author in spirit. Other artists on the tribute album attempted to emulate this by giving their own interpretations of the songs that were vastly different from Faithfull’s. For example, Joan As Police Woman turned Broken English from a gritty rock song into a bubbling brood, and Lydia Lunch added a Dylan-esque growl and edgy guitar to the blues track Life, Love and Money.
Despite Marianne Faithfull’s unique and diverse original recordings, the media often reduces her to sensationalized headlines about her time with the Rolling Stones and her struggles with drug addiction. In response to this, Pearson wrote a book titled Why Marianne Faithfull Matters a few years ago, which focuses on her music. Pearson recognizes the frustration that Faithfull may feel if her constant creative output is overshadowed by her past struggles. As documentarians and gatekeepers, Pearson believes there is a responsibility to change the way women like Marianne are portrayed and to give them the respect they deserve for their artistic contributions.
Singers such as Starlite hold the belief that it is not feasible to completely detach Faithfull’s narrative from her artistic creations. According to Starlite, “Her life and art are inseparable, like twins, and they mutually influence each other in a distinct manner. Her personal decisions greatly impacted her voice.”
However, in Faithfull’s situation, her damaged voice actually enhanced her ability to convey emotion. This transformation began when she developed a rougher tone for her album Broken English in 1979, and has only grown in significance since then. On her 2018 album Negative Capability, Faithfull embraced comparisons to her past by including songs she had previously recorded decades ago, such as “As Tears Go By.” This was her third attempt at the song. According to Starlite, “When she last recorded it in 1987 and sang the line ‘It is the evening of the day,’ it sounded like twilight. But this time, it truly sounds like the end. And that is incredibly poignant.”
In her latest album, “She Walks in Beauty,” Faithfull chose to recite classic Romantic poems instead of singing, after recovering from the initial effects of Covid. The result was equally moving as her previous work. Donelly sees Faithfull’s altered voice as a source of inspiration for those of us experiencing a decrease in vocal ability.
It’s no surprise that those involved in the tribute project have a strong connection to Faithfull. Starlite, the creator of the cabaret show, shared that she was inspired to do so because she aspired to be like Marianne Faithfull. She even went as far as including Barry Reynolds, Faithfull’s longtime guitarist and songwriter, in her show. Pearson also shows her admiration for Faithfull by getting a tattoo of her image on her right shoulder.
Pearson has been in touch with Faithfull periodically while putting together the tribute. According to Pearson, Faithfull loves the musical outcome. However, the 76-year-old singer-songwriter continues to struggle with respiratory issues and brain fog, which may have influenced her decision not to participate in interviews promoting the tribute. Despite this, Pearson mentioned that Faithfull is taking singing lessons in hopes of regaining some of her vocal abilities. The team behind the tribute has a greater goal than just raising funds for Faithfull. Manson stated, “Many fans of the artists featured on this record may not be familiar with Marianne.” He hopes that listeners will not only enjoy the tribute album but also be inspired to listen to Faithfull’s music and keep it alive for future generations.
The Faithfull will be released on December 8th.
Tammy Faye Starlite will be putting on a charity performance at the New York venue Pangea on December 22nd to honor the singer Marianne Faithfull. The show, titled She’s a Rainbow, will showcase songs that were inspired by Faithfull.