Rob Ellis: My Songwriting Hero, Marianne Faithfull

My Songwriting Hero, Marianne Faithfull
My Songwriting Hero, Marianne Faithfull

Rob Ellis on Marianne Faithfull: “She deserves to be in any list of great song lyricists alongside Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen”

Having worked with her for well over a decade, the renowned producer is well-positioned to assess the iconic songstress’ talents

I first met Marianne Faithfull in 2003 when I was part of the band recording songs for her album Before The Poison. She’d co-written five of the songs with Polly Harvey, who I’d been working with at the time. The recordings went really well and she and I hit it off right away. Consequently, she asked me to produce a couple of the other tracks slated for that record that she’d written with two other great composers, Damon Albarn and Jon Brion. I have a very fond memory of being privileged to stand next to the piano listening in while Nick Cave, whom I’d not met before, came along to play her his music for another song she’d written for that album, the very beautiful Crazy Love.

“Marianne is a very inspiring person to be with in the studio. By her very presence, she always keeps you fixed on exactly why you are there, not to get diverted down any dry technical or theoretical cul-de-sacs but to keep on the ‘spiritual’ path of what the music is about.

“If she’s not doing a live-with-band take, Marianne likes to overdub her vocals in the control room, a very wise idea, no physical barrier between the singer and her collaborators, because she always likes to feel ‘in’ with the music and those making For that reason the chance of a great vocal take arriving is heightened… She is not one to worry that it may not sound so ‘hi-fi’, correct in the knowledge that a great performance is not dependent on any of those concerns.

“Marianne is a great lyricist, in my humble opinion one of the greatest of our time. It’s no coincidence that she has inspired so many highly respected composers, many of whom have queued up to work with her over the many decades of her career. It’s simply, I think, due to her canny ability to write a brilliant phrase that expresses an idea or a feeling perfectly, simply and succinctly, so as to give the composer space and allow the words and music to perfectly balance and compliment one another.

“She deserves to be in any list of great song lyricists alongside Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Like them, she is a wordsmith who then, as a singer of a very singular texture and character, shapes the music by her delivery of those words, and who also is able to uniquely shape the songs of others with her completely arresting, expressive and inimitable voice.

“It’s such an honour to work with someone who, through her rich life, has been like a line running through all the best popular music of the last 60 years, from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix through to Nick Cave, Beck, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn.

“Marianne has always gone out of her way to help encourage new songwriters and composers and always includes work by them on her albums. This generosity is for her a wise trade-off; while it’s a supportive and philanthropic approach, giving a boost to the writers concerned, it’s also a common sense one for her, ensuring that her own work is constantly refreshed. On the last two albums I worked with her on, she included collaborations with Anna Calvi, Ed Harcourt and Tom McRae. This support goes a long way to adding weight and credibility to these younger artists in the early stages of their careers, and a great vindication of them from her to inspire their own further work…

“In that regard, for myself, professionally Marianne has been very generous in her effusive trumpeting of my small contribution to her huge body of work. She has become a very dear and close friend, ever willing to offer an encouraging word. She lives in Paris, so we see each other maybe four times a year, but we make up for that with frequent phone calls. Our working relationship is based on long telephone conversations where we discuss the creative process of the project at hand. Frankly, I’m still pinching myself that I’ve been put in that position and am hugely grateful that, by doing so, she has contributed to my making some of the best music of my own career.

Songfest 2024

“At the beginning of this year, we recorded Marianne’s latest album Negative Capability over a two week period in a beautiful château just outside Paris. It’s difficult to explain just how special this session was, her dogged determination to overcome physical debilitation and discomfort to create something as beautiful as this LP turned out, is just one reason. I think it’s a very strong candidate for one of the finest records I’ve ever been involved with. I’m certain that everyone else on the recording feels exactly the same way.”

Read more features like this, along with artist interviews, news, tips, reviews and gear in Songwriting Magazine Winter 2018

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