With She Walks in Beauty Marianne Faithfull, with composer and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, releases one of the most distinctive and singular albums of her long, extraordinary life and career. It was recorded just before and during the first Covid-19 lockdown – during which the singer herself became infected and almost died of the disease – with musical friends and family including not only composer Warren Ellis but Nick Cave, Brian Eno, cellist Vincent Ségal and producer-engineer Head. She Walks in Beauty fulfils Faithfull’s long-held ambition to record an album of poetry with music.
Delving deep into her past, it’s a record that draws on her passion for the English Romantic poets, a passion she fostered in her A Level studies with one Mrs Simpson at St Joseph’s Convent School in Reading, before leaving for London at the age of 16. From there she entered the world of ‘As Tears Go By’, of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Top of the Pops and the left-hand path of pop and stage stardom. Sixties iconography and outrage followed, as did her subsequent battles with addiction before her 1979 return to powerful female and artistic autonomy with Broken English, an album which featured her setting to music Heathcote Williams’ poem of eviscerating rage, ‘Why D’Ya Do It?’
On subsequent albums, such as 1995’s A Secret Life, she set the poems of her friend Frank McGuinness to music, while 1998’s Seven Deadly Sins drew on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. She toured a show of Shakespeare’s sonnets with cellist Vincent Ségal in 2008-2009, and earlier in 2020 took part in a relay reading of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. But it is only now that a project she had nursed through the decades has come to fruition.
Instrumental in making She Walks in Beauty a reality is her longtime friend and manager Francois Ravard. “It was Francois who put it together and made it happen,” she says. “And it was him who persuaded Warren to commit, which was really difficult because Warren’s doing so many things.”
“Marianne had a wonderful idea for this poetry record, and she wanted to do it straight away,” recalls Ravard. “I loved the idea immediately, and I called Head and asked him to go to Marianne to record her readings.” Then he approached Warren to see if he could score them in the same way he scores his films. “It took time for him to realise what he could do, but afterwards he said that he’d had one of the best times in his life working on it.”
It was recorded in part at her London home just before and after lockdown, with PJ Harvey’s producer Head, who then sent the voice recordings to Ellis, who set about composing the music in his Paris studio. “I didn’t think of them as songs,” he says. “I wasn’t locked into melodies or chords. I could take incredible liberties. It wasn’t about creating something that had to follow the text or outline it – it was free in that respect. The important thing was that it didn’t get in the way.”
He describes the music of She Walks in Beauty as a kind of musique concrete, 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.”
Working in isolation through lockdown in his Paris studio, Ellis’s immersion in the readings took over his life for a while. “It’s really meditative to hear this stuff over and over,” he says. “For a couple of months it was all I listened to.” Eventually he shared the music he had composed to counterpoint the poems with an enthusiastic Nick Cave, who went on to play piano on many of the tracks (“He downloaded it as he listened to it while talking to me on the phone and he was like, ‘wow, this is incredible, this is amazing!’”). Brian Eno created compelling sound textures on the likes of ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ and ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, while Vincent Ségal added cello parts to Shelley’s liminal, otherworldly ‘To The Moon’, and Byron’s late night lament ‘So We’ll Go No More A-Roving’, among others.
Drawing deep on the poetry of Shelley, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Thomas Hood, Faithfull’s vocal performances set to Ellis’s subtle collages of sound draw out the heart, the quick, the vibrant living matter in all these great poems, making them fresh, renewing them with the complex, lived-in timbres of her voice, and set to a subtle palette of ambient musical settings. It’s both a radical departure and a return to her original inspirations as an artist and performer.
The greatest poetry is best heard, and Faithfull’s accounts of some of the greatest lyric poetry in our language – Keats’ ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ and ‘To Autumn’ – are spine-tingling in their deep understanding of the poetry’s powerful currents of meaning and identification. On ‘Nightingale’, her voice opens up like an epic landscape, while in Shelley’s miniature masterpiece, ‘To The Moon’, she sounds otherworldly, as if calling down from another medium, and the atonal, otherworldly sound textures provided by Eno on ‘Bridge of Sighs’ and ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ become a compelling foil for Faithfull’s haunting interpretations of these rich, dark poems.
“They’ve been with Marianne her whole life,” says Ellis. “She believes in these texts. That world, she inhabits it, embodies it, and that really comes through. She really means it. It’s no blind reading. And what’s great about hearing them is that she totally takes you with her. It’s inclusive. She’s inviting you into this world with her. She does that with a song too. I’ve seen her do things in the studio, deliver a vocal where there’s not one dry eye in the room. And then she’d go, ‘Was that alright?’. She’s got one of those voices. There’s just something about the way she can deliver that is incredibly affecting.”
“Eventually I always end up where I was meant to be,” says Faithfull. “I’ve noticed that. It may take a long time, but I get there. I never forget these things. After all these years, I’ve drawn the strands back and they still mean something and they resonate more, actually, because I now have life experience. Life and near-death experience. Many times! Not just once.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that her previous album, 2018’s highly acclaimed Negative Capability, took its title from a central tenet of Keats’ poetics. “And what that is, is to live in doubt, to not be absolutely sure of yourself. But this time,” she adds, “I wasn’t in doubt – 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.”
She Walks in Beauty is scheduled for release on April 30th 2021, with artwork created for the album by British artist and lifelong friend, Colin Self, and with the full texts of the poems, and commentary, included in the liner notes. While Faithfull continues to recover from the after-effects of Covid-19, and the world around us continues to struggle with the impact of the worldwide pandemic, these are poems and performances to steady and lift the spirit.