Interview: Marianne Faithfull on surviving the Sixties

The singer and actress reminisces about her life and looks to the future

Marianne Faithfull is wearing a man’s black tuxedo jacket and a white blouse with layer after layer of frills. The very masculine meets the very feminine. Just one of the many contradictions she seems to embrace.

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I’ve flown to Dublin to meet her in terrifying winds and by the time I arrive for tea in a formerly splendid hotel I am in a heightened state. Faithfull raises an eyebrow. She’s been in a heightened state all her life, and faced death on more than one occasion, when she took an overdose in the 1960s and when she discovered a lump in her breast in 2006. And she’s just written a happy song about eternity and death.

She says she has a headache, demands paracetamol, then wants to smoke a cigarette. A few minutes later she asks if I have Paul McKenna’s phone number. Can I call him now? Can he help her stop smoking? It’s as if she’s decided there and then that any addiction is unwelcome in her life; it’s taken her to such places of self-sabotage.

Her voice is certainly very cigarette-soaked. She could read a menu and sound like she was describing something laced in pain. However dramatic the emotional scars, she has somehow never been a victim, and has always managed, just, to rescue her dignity.

And she’s very funny. She chose the title of her latest album, Horses and High Heels, simply because it would torture the French to say ’orses and ’igh ’eels. “I love to torment them, the poor old things.” She’s lived in Paris for most of her life with a place in Ireland to escape to. She’s thinking that this might change soon. She’s recently been spending more time in London.

And over the next few weeks she is one of a host of cultural luminaries who have taken over Jarvis Cocker’s BBC 6 Music Sunday Service show. “It’s a rare treat to have been able to play some of the music that I love for two hours and share it with so many listeners,” she says, genuinely touched to have been asked.

Her songs are usually about corrosive relationships, disappointment, infidelity and lost dreams. More recently, she’s been singing about hope, even in the most unlikely circumstances. She comes over strong, yet the lines on her face seem to be etched in pure pain. Maybe that’s what we love about her, her ability to feel and absorb absolutely everything.

“I’m having a great life [she’s 64] and I want to go on having one. I’m sure there’s a moment where you just get really tired and you don’t mind going. Some people die kicking and screaming. Maybe they finished too young or maybe they just haven’t finished; I fully intend to finish what I set out to do. Whatever it is.” And then she lets out a low growl, which turns into a laugh.

“On the whole my wilder emotions don’t come up unless I have a drink or drug.” Does she find that if she had a drink she would want to have a drug? “I don’t know. I would really not want to find out,” she laughs.

Long ago in the deepest darkest 1960s, she overdosed on 150 Tuinal barbiturates. She didn’t mean to take so many; she was taking them on a flight to Australia and, when she arrived, ordered hot chocolate on room service and took more. She hallucinated that she was walking in no man’s land with ex-Rolling Stone Brian Jones, who had died days earlier.

She remembers coming out of a six-day coma with Mick Jagger by her side, and it was after that he wrote Wild Horses. She was his muse. For a while she didn’t like talking about the past, perhaps because so much of it was unresolved pain. Now she’s much more open.

Jagger, Keith Richards – all her ex-lovers flick in and out of the conversation. She adored Richards. “People have said we would have been so good together. I was too young to hold his attention.”

At that time she had little self-confidence. In 1965, when she was 18, she married artist John Dunbar and they had a son, Nicholas. She left Dunbar as soon as she became embroiled with Jagger. She was clever, but being part of the Stones circus took away her confidence because she was simply part of a circus, never the person to command full attention.

It was when she got into method acting playing Ophelia in Tony Richardson’s film of Hamlet that she began to think in a suicidal frame of mind. These days there is nothing self-destructive about her. She had a lumpectomy in 2006. Everything was caught quickly so she didn’t have to endure chemotherapy. “So many of my friends now are having chemo,” she says, “and it’s just awful. I said to myself I’m going to have a little lift at the same time.” And she did. “I was so lucky, so why not make the best of it and have a little diminution as well?

“I eat very healthily. I’ve got love in my life. I’ve got great friends. It upsets me to think of cancer. It would be frightening to end that way – isn’t it meant to be, you’re in your bed and you say, ‘I’ve had enough of this, I can f*** off now’?

“I’m definitely not ready – and I’ve got my darling Nicholas, my grown-up son. It’s so cool to have a grown-up son. He’s perfect to me. I don’t know if he’d suit any other mother, but he’s perfect for me because he’s so free-thinking and he’s written wonderful books – he’s a high-finance journalist.”

For a long time when Nicholas was growing up he lived with his father and she was not allowed to see him. It was a terrible time for her. After her relationship with Jagger finished in 1970 she ended up living rough, homeless on the streets of Soho.

“I abandoned Mick, but then I abandoned me. I left me lying in the road and became an anorexic, shooting up. I think of that time as wanting to disappear. Completely. It sounds stupid now but at the time it was real.”

Was she looking for a relationship to save her? “No. I could always see what was wrong with my relationships. I was very arrogant, very demanding. A lot of my boyfriends were really nice. There was only one – and that’s the American I married [Giorgio Della Terza] – who was not. I met him in an AA meeting, the b*****d. I never talk about him.” Her eyes seem to whirl with anger at even the thought of him.

Her most recent boyfriend was François Ravard, who is still her manager. They were together several years, but broke up after she was recovering from her breast cancer scare. “Cancer doesn’t make you feel sexy. It took a long time to get over it. I went right off sex and then I went right on it again. But by that time it was too late. He’d fallen in love with someone else.”

She wrote Why Did We Have to Part?, on her latest album, about him. She couldn’t work for a long time, couldn’t write, but then realised “it would be very bad for me to stop. Even if I wasn’t writing I should be performing. As soon as you think, ‘I’m going to slow down,’ you’re in trouble. If you haven’t got enough to do you can make the fatal mistake of starting to drink. Not drinking means you have more time with your family.

Is there a sense in which she wants to make up for lost time by spending as much time as possible with Nicholas now? “No, I was always around, even when he was taken from me. It was very painful. But I’ve blocked it out and now I am such good friends with him.”

There is sadness about her, but no regrets. “I’ve come to terms with so many things. I have to take a few things seriously. I have to take my addiction seriously. But I think the best thing I can carry on doing is to work, have fun. I love performing – I’m a natural show-off!”

Is there anything that makes her sad? “Everything stopped making me sad. Now I love making other people laugh, and looking after people and believing that they might not make it if I’m not there. I like that, and I love laughing to myself.” And then she emits one of those low growls that turns into a euphoric laugh.

“I have come to terms with the past. Before, if you asked me a difficult question I’d get hurt and punish you or myself. Now it doesn’t matter. There’s joy in my life and I want to keep an open mind about falling in love. Do you think there are some people out there who might love me?”

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Marianne Faithfull’s Sunday Service is on Sunday 12 June, 4.00pm, BBC6 Music