Marianne Faithfull, Post-Covid: ‘I Don’t Know if I’ll Be Able to Sing Again’

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Faithfull and Ellis (Photo: Rosie Matheson; used with permission)

Marianne Faithfull has a new spoken word album, She Walks in Beauty, with composer and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis.   Recorded around the earliest days of the COVID-19 lockdown — during which the singer herself became infected and almost died of the disease — She Walks in Beauty fulfills Faithfull’s long-held ambition to record a full album of poetry with music, and features musical friends Nick Cave, Brian Eno, cellist Vincent Ségal and producer-engineer Head (who has worked with PJ Harvey, Thom Yorke). The album arrives April 30, 2021, via BMG.

In an April 27 interview with the Los Angeles Times, the legendary singer says the damage to her lungs may not allow her to sing again.

“The damage has been very bad,” she said. “It’s my lungs, my memory and fatigue. It couldn’t be worse. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to sing again.

“I love touring,” she added. “And it’s breaking my heart that I might possibly not be able to do it again.”

From the Jan. 15 album announcement: She Walks in Beauty finds Faithfull drawing deep on the works of Shelley, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Thomas. Her vocal performances, set to Ellis’ subtle collages of sound, draw out the vibrant living matter in these great poems, renewing them with the complex, lived-in timbres of her voice. It’s both a radical departure and a return to her original inspirations as an artist and performer.

“We look forward to sharing a collection of poems that we hope will remind you of what is beautiful in the world,” she says.

Marianne Faithfull, in a photo posted on her Facebook page on May 20, 2020

The news of Faithfull’s hospitalization with Covid-19 arrived on April 4, 2020. After she was released, she wrote, “I want to thank the doctors and nurses who… basically saved my life.”

Ellis describes the music of She Walks in Beauty as a kind of musique concrète, incorporating street sounds with a range of acoustic and electronic instrumentation and manipulation. “My preferred way of making music is to leave a lot of it to chance, to let accidents happen,” he says. “I’ve been moving away from structures in things. This music is me attempting to push forward. I think it’s as good as anything I’ve ever done,” he adds, “in terms of the spirit of it and the process I went through to make it.”

That process would eventually come to include contributions from Cave, who played piano on many of the tracks; Eno, who created sound textures for “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “The Bridge of Sighs”; and Vincent Ségal, who added cello to Shelley’s otherworldly “To the Moon,” and Byron’s late night lament “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” among others.

Faithfull, who turned 74 last December 29, first developed a passion for the English Romantic poets while studying at St Joseph’s Convent School in Reading, U.K. before leaving for London at the age of 16. “I had a wonderful, inspirational English teacher called Mrs. Simpson,” she says. “She introduced me to the English Romantics. I had to leave it all behind in order to be a pop singer, but I never forgot them.”

She has returned to poetry for inspiration many times since: whether on 1979’s Broken English, an album which featured her setting to music Heathcote Williams’ poem of eviscerating rage, “Why’d Ya Do It,” or on subsequent albums, such as 1995’s A Secret Life, which featured the poems of her friend Frank McGuinness, or 1998’s Seven Deadly Sins which explored the work of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.

Still, the works chosen for She Walks in Beauty hold special pride of place. “I wasn’t in doubt,” says Faithfull. “I’ve been thinking about it for so long, this album, it’s been in my head for so long, I think I really knew exactly what I wanted. I just picked the poems I really loved, and I can’t help but say I think I was very lucky. We got it.”

Watch the lyric video for the title track

She Walks in Beauty Tracklist

She Walks in Beauty (Lord Byron)
The Bridge of Sighs (Thomas Hood)
La Belle Dame Sans Merci (John Keats)
Ode to a Nightingale (John Keats)
Ode to Autumn (John Keats)
Ozymandias (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
From the Prelude (William Wordsworth)
Surprised by Joy (Williams Wordsworth)
To the Moon (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
So We’ll Go No More a Roving (Lord Byron)
The Lady of Shalott (Lord Tennyson)

Watch Faithfull and Ellis discuss the album

Related: Read our interview with Faithfull

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  1. Da Mick
    #1 Da Mick 29 April, 2021, 11:11

    I love the idea, but, for me, the pace of “She Walks In Beauty” was too hurried, and the musical background to busy. The whole piece needs to have more breadth and space to really allow the meaning of the words to sink in, rather than maintaining some sort of moving rhythm that’s by you before it sinks in, with a, somewhat, distracting orchestral background. I’m thinking that Steve Roach’s music would be better suited to this type of project, while Marianne (could this be she of the “Shaky Hand?) needs to think past the recitations of her teenage years, and give the piece more space and feeling. In my opinion, she does not do her lovely voice justice.

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  2. Cisley
    #2 Cisley 29 April, 2021, 17:52

    Interesting observations by Da Mick but I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed “She Walks in Beauty” and didn’t find it too hurried, etc. for my personal taste. I will be purchasing it in my next Amazon order.

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