Marianne Faithful talks about her new album, Horses and High Heels, and why her first priority is staying healthy.
Marianne Faithfull, a survivor of rock's fast lane, is still going strong at 64
As befits a bohemian grande dame of the arts, in conversation Marianne Faithfull exhibits that peculiarly aristocratic mixture of airy grandeur and ripe earthiness. Her smoked-through voice has become even more wonderfully imperious with age, even punctuated by a rather alarming cough and frequent expletives. The daughter of a British military officer and a Viennese ballerina with both toes in the Habsburg dynasty, Faithfull's regality is beguilingly rough around the edges.
Although it's her work ethic that drives her forward these days, a certain louche notoriety still clings to Faithfull. You sense she wouldn't want it any other way. She has certainly been through more in her 64 years than most. As Mick Jagger's girlfriend and a deceptively angelic pop doll she experienced the high-end of the Swinging Sixties while still in her teens. The desperate lows of heroin addiction and destitution followed before she cleaned up her life in the mid-1980s.
Since then she has rarely been idle. In the past decade alone she has appeared in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, regularly collaborated with her brood of "adopted children", which includes Polly Harvey, Jarvis Cocker, Beck and Damon Albarn, and written a second - although not terribly good - memoir, Memories, Dreams and Reflections.
Her new album, Horses and High Heels is her sixth in little over a decade, and one of her best. Recorded in New Orleans and produced by her long-time collaborator Hal Wilner, it's a warm broth of soul, rock and blues, mixing strong new Faithfull originals with hand-picked covers of songs by artists as diverse as the Shangri-Las, Lesley Duncan and Mark Lanegan. Jackie Lomax's No Reason is transformed into a Tumbling Dice-style Stonesy stomp, while Faithfull's sand and gravel voice adds a unique tang to old soul numbers like Gee Baby and Back in Baby's Arms.
"Hal came over to Paris in August and we went through our ideas," she says. "I mostly listen to stuff I've always liked, a lot of blues and soul: Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding. Hal persuaded me to try the soul angle on this record and it kind of worked out. I had a reticence because I didn't want to do it badly or be exploitative about it. I had to believe that my voice had something else to bring, but I think in the end it worked out."
Her creative roll isn't confined to making music. Faithfull has more than 40 years' worth of film and stage credits to her name, and she made two movies last year, Faces in the Crowd and Belle De Seigneur, both scheduled for release in 2012. "My career is definitely two-parted," she says. "My records and performing are one side, and there's my film. I'd love to work with Martin Scorsese. I have my dream directors but they haven't asked me to do anything. Now I work with a lot of very good people, but they're just not famous - yet."
Befitting a queen in exile, Faithfull lives mostly in Paris, although she also has a home in Ireland. It's clear that she lives firmly in the present, but she's gracious about acknowledging the long shadow cast by her past. Although her stint as a "proper pop star" back in the mid-1960s was brief, orchestrated with ruthless dispensability by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog-Oldham, she remembers it as being "really wonderful. It was a great idea to leave school and learn all these new skills and make something of it. I was only picked by Andrew because I was so pretty. I don't think he expected more than one hit record, really."
That big hit was As Tears Go By, written by Jagger and Keith Richards. Both men remain friends, and I ask whether she has read Richards' recently published autobiography, Life. "Of course!" she roars. "I loved it; it was absolutely great." Is she comfortable with the way Richards recounts - in typically frank fashion - his liaison with Faithfull?
"A little bit of it is slightly shaky, but let's go with it," she laughs. "It's Keith's memory and it's his truth, and of course his memory is not going to be the same as mine. The bits concerning me aren't quite right, but I don't care. What I really liked was the stuff about the music, the feeling you get when writing and the feeling of being on stage."
She may have kicked heroin more than 20 years ago and stopped drinking in 2004, but Faithfull has had a turbulent time of it recently. In 2006 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, although rapid surgery prevented the disease spreading and she has fully recovered. In 2008 she cancelled her world tour due to what at the time was described as "general mental, physical and nervous exhaustion", and which she now calls "clinical depression". Little wonder she says today that "I spend a lot of time staying healthy, that's my first priority."
Another trial has been the much publicised end of a 15-year relationship with her manager, François Ravard. Happily, their friendship seems to have survived the end of the romance - she talks about him frequently, in the present tense and with obvious affection.
Ever since her landmark 1979 album Broken English, Faithfull has confronted every aspect of her life in song, however painful, and her break up with Ravard is raked over on Why Did We Have to Part, one of four songs she wrote for her new album. Her last album, 2008's Easy Come, Easy Go, consisted entirely of covers, but her songwriting spark returned for Horses and High Heels.
"I'm sad now that I only wrote four songs for this record," she says. "I could have written more. Since I started to write properly on Broken English it's never really been difficult, but as I get older it gets more so. I think for next time I'm going to start stockpiling songs like a real pro. I guess my writing is pretty individual. I don't hear any other songs like that."
She's rather shy about her aspirations for her new album, conceding that it would be nice to have a hit, while at the same admitting it is unlikely. "I think maybe I still have a slight longing for commercial acceptance," she says. "I know it's not going to happen, it's just one of my fantasies, a secret wish. I think François would laugh because it's not really 'me' to think about things like that, even though I started out in the pop business - it was all about the charts. If I was just beginning now I'd never get a record deal. I don't think the people on these X Factor programmes are very good, but they've got qualities that I never had: flashy voices, incredible dance moves that look fake, fake personalities."
"They're completely false," she drawls, with a stately shudder. Through all her extraordinary ups and downs, faking it has never been Faithfull's style.