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 fulfills Faithfull’s long-held ambition to record an album of poetry with music.
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 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 Ode 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 onBridge of Sighs and La Belle Dame Sans Merci become a compelling foil for Faithfull’s haunting interpretations of these rich, dark poems.
“They’ve have been with her 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.”
She Walks in Beauty is now available, 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.