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Laura Marling Wrote A Record About Change. Then The World Fell Apart

Laura Marling has spent the last decade making music on her own terms. Now, she's being forced to consider changing her ways. Words by Joseph Earp

By Joseph Earp, 14/4/2020

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Laura Marling wakes up at the same time each morning, just around six thirty.

“It is pretty great,” she says over the phone from the UK, taking occasional sips from what sounds like a mug of something hot – I can sometimes hear her blowing across the top of it. “You get a lot of stuff done before everybody else gets up, which is nice.”

It’s 7am when we speak, but she has a spark and clarity in her voice that most of us don’t get till noon, at the earliest. She goes to bed relatively early too — 9pm. That’s the “other tragedy” of waking up before the sun’s risen she says, laughing.

These are relatively new habits, developed over the last few years. And the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t affected them, either. In fact, the new global chaos has had a strange, unequal impact on her life, changing a lot of things while leaving other habits perfectly intact.

She’s pulled the release of her new record, Song For Our Daughter, forward, and she’s streaming live guitar tutorials from her Instagram account. She’s never released an album that way before, and is a total newcomer to social media. But otherwise, the days themselves are largely the same. “A lot of my life before social isolation involved quite a lot of routine drudgery,” she says.

“I mean, I just get on with what I used to get on with. I’ve had to work out how to very quickly release an album from home. I’ve set up my studio to broadcast to radio stations – I’ve actually learnt a skill that I’ve put off learning for a long time. I’ve been so busy that I’ve been exhausted every night when I go to bed.”

But things are getting even more normal every day. “The shock has settled,” she says. “The shock and the reality of the possible consequences to the people that you love.” She is – as are we all – getting used to what more and more people are referring to as the ‘new normal’, a phrase both terrifying and oddly comforting in equal measure.

Marling’s reading less since the pandemic, that’s true. Which is a big deal for someone whose music has been inspired by novels and poetry for at least a decade, when she first burst onto the international scene with her debut album Alas I Cannot Swim — “Most of my day when I’m not in social isolation is based around working out how much time I have got to read,” she says.

That debut record, anchored by breakout single ‘Ghosts’, combined the simple, spare folk stylings of early Bob Dylan with an emotional immediacy and fluency that was clearly Marling’s own. Raised by two musically-minded parents — she spent much of her childhood in recording studios with her father — Marling possessed a natural ease that came across on all of her work, even when singing back-up vocals in Noah and The Whale, the band she was briefly a member of.

The press adored her work. But that nascent style was one that Marling quickly seemed tired of. Her second record, I Speak Because I Can, was bolder, stranger — whereas Alas had slipped into easy, hooky choruses, Speak actively defied them. ‘Hope In The Air’, the album’s masterpiece, feints away from compact songwriting at every turn, becoming more complex and darker than anything on Marling’s debut.

From there, Marling’s discography only expanded outwards. A Creature I Don’t Know, released in 2011, blended the sheer emotional enormity of Fleetwood Mac into the mix, with singles like ‘Salinas’ slowly building to unstoppable, iron-wrought climaxes. And Once I Was An Eagle, one of her clear masterpieces, follows a single melodic through-line all the way to completion, building new life out of repetition.

All the while, Marling’s fanbase — both in the public and the press — grew. She courted comparisons to PJ Harvey. She played bigger and bigger venues.

Yet still, she remained at something of a remove. Interviews she gave around the time were always fascinating, but never explicitly revealing — she seemed happy to keep herself at a distance from the prying eye of magazine profiles.

“I like the idea of speaking only when it’s strictly necessary,” she told The Telegraph in 2013. All that seemed to matter to her was the work. That’s still the case.

Finding Friction

When Marling does go back to reading, which she hopes is soon, she says she will probably read non-fiction rather than fiction – or, as she calls it accidentally, “friction”.

She laughs. “Freudian slip.”

So, instead of books, Marling has turned to movies, another love of hers. A couple of nights ago she watched Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata with her sister, who she is living with, both of them locked down at home together.

The film is typical of the work of Bergman, who made movies about faith, despair, and tragedy. It is an icy, austere drama about a mother and a daughter who reconnect after years apart, and they spend much of the film slowly and calmly discussing ways in which they have hurt each other. It is quite cruel, in its way; cruel, but necessarily so.

In short, it is not the film that everyone would turn to in the crisis which we find ourselves living through. But Marling was very uplifted by it. She goes through these phases with directors and writers where they become everything for her – “I think I would be quite susceptible to joining a cult,” she says, not really laughing.

Short Movie, the record that she wrote during the few years she spent living in Los Angeles, was shaped by her sudden interest in the tripped-out psychedelic Westerns of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I Speak Because I Can owes some of its sincerity and its beauty to the novels of Robertson Davies, who she became obsessed with when young.

At the moment, the centre of her creative universe is definitely Bergman. A few years ago, she saw a public discussion of his work, during which a panel of psychoanalysts picked it apart. “I remember coming home from that, and I had butterflies,” she says. “Do you get that – when you have butterflies in your chest because of how amazing the world is, and how creative people are, and what an incredible weave and pattern we live in?” That night, she wrote a number of songs, as if in a frenzy.

“If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it’s the power of the unacknowledged past.”

Psychoanalysis too has become a big part of her life. At the start of this year, she went back to university to study it and get her Masters. She’s been interested in the practice for years. “I was a patient of psychoanalysis for a while in my early twenties,” she says. “I read a lot about it. And I became obsessed with the woman who kind of became the first female psychoanalyst.”

She is drawn, she thinks, to the art of psychoanalysis because it deals with the unconscious, and unconscious thoughts and desires underpin her art as much as anyone else’s. Often, she finds that her writing is somehow “ahead” of her conscious mind, as if she’s constantly in the process of catching up to things that she already knows. Recently, she stumbled across a line in a book that puts the feeling into words. “If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it’s the power of the unacknowledged past,” it said.

She thinks that’s true – especially in the case of Song For Our Daughter, her latest record. “Listening to the record now, I hear such a different story than what I thought it was,” she says.

In fact, a few days after she decided to pull the release date forward, she suddenly realised that something was wrong with it. “I had it in a particular order, and then I was suddenly like, ‘This isn’t in the right order.’ I switched everything around. And I’m usually quite precious about that – I usually keep things in the order in which they were written.”

She pauses for a moment. “I don’t know what contributed to changing it,” she says, simply.

Photo Credit: Justin Tyler Close

Song For Our Daughter is the kind of record that artists only make when they are in complete control of their creative faculties. It’s assured enough to be distinctively Marling, while also showing the signs of a totally unforced, natural urge to experiment. Consider it Laura Marling like you have heard her before, but also as fresh, and vital, and urgent as her debut.

There’s still the direct, honest songwriting of her early career; still the complex but direct instrumentation of her so-called middle phase, the period in her work that culminated in the excellent Semper Femina. But the music’s always in the process of twisting around itself — ‘Hope We Meet Again’ shapeshifts over the course of deceptively confounding verses. Everything’s similar, but changed. Familiar, but also alien in subtle, distinct ways – like catching up with a friend you have not seen since they were very sad, and noticing in them the light of a new purpose, or a new relationship.

On ‘Blow By Blow’, a piano ballad, her voice is husky and low; on ‘Held Down’, the lead single, it skitters around the place like a struck bowling pin. It feels too early to place it in any kind of ranking of Marling’s work, even if one wanted to embark upon such a masochistic project. But it is certainly a special record. That is immediately clear, in the way it was immediately clear that Bowie had done something remarkable when he released Blackstar, or PJ Harvey when she released White Chalk.

More surprisingly, in some ways, Song for Our Daughter feels like her most uplifting, positive record. At least sonically, it never gets as dark as say, ‘What He Wrote’, the haunting mini-masterpiece nestled in the center of I Speak Because I Can. Addressed to a future and potential daughter, it is shot through with a sense of wearied hope; the belief that we can, at the very least, communicate effectively to one another; that we can steer those that we love away from tragedy, and help them become better than us.

That’s particularly striking given that the record is in large part about the response to trauma. That’s how Marling first thought about it, anyway. Now, she has accepted that it will be about a lot of different things to different people. Or, to put it in psychoanalytical terms, that she doesn’t get the final word on what the album is definitively about either way. “There’s always a difference between what I think the record is about, and what I’d like the record to be about,” she says.

But, still, that starting point: the desire to talk to her younger self. “I have just been very preoccupied with the idea of things that I wish I’d known when I was younger,” she says. “What my level of self-actualisation should have been, and my boundary designation.”

“For a while, I was very suspicious and closed off, and I couldn’t explore the world because I was very anxious about my boundaries being traversed again.”

Which is where the “very, very complex and nuanced experience of trauma” comes into the record. “It is partly to do with what I’m studying, and partly to do with my own experience,” Marling explains. “Most people I know, as far as I’m aware, have experienced something that has trampled the boundary with such severity — whatever the boundary is — that they have found it difficult to put the narrative back together.”

This scrambled narrative hurts the creative urge first of all, Marling feels. “It’s very, very difficult for creativity. And I think a majority of young women have or will be traumatised in a way that will make their safe space of creativity very difficult to access. Because for me, when I experienced that, I found it was very difficult to get back to the space where I felt naïve enough and safe enough to explore the world in a way that fuelled my creativity.

“For a while, I was very suspicious and closed off, and I couldn’t explore the world because I was very anxious about my boundaries being traversed again.”

These days, when Marling listens back to the record, she is not sure that sentiment is really in there – at least not obviously. And yet, parts of the album echo around her head in ways she cannot account for. I mention to her one line that seems particularly prescient of our current times, despite being written many weeks before the outbreak of the virus that forced us all inside and threatened lives and livelihoods – “No one is prepared, but we all perform like we’ve done it before.”

“That’s funny,” Marling says. “I’ve been thinking about that line today too.”

Stay And Retreat

Marling is an astonishingly good listener. When I hang up the phone after our chat, I suddenly and embarrassingly realise that I have spent an unprofessional amount of our time together talking about myself — my thesis, what I’m reading, my love for the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who Marling has been absorbing and thinking about recently.

At first, I chalk my oversharing up to our strange, socially isolated times. But listening back over to the recording, I notice a habit Marling has of saying the word, “interesting” whenever new information is presented to her.

She says it with real warmth; real feeling. It does not come across like a way of cutting conversation off, but rather keeping it going, inviting more. She doesn’t laugh much — instead, she takes everything seriously.

Now, that skill is finding itself put to use in a different way, via Marling’s new use of social media. She is on Instagram a couple of times a week, taking virtual guitar lessons in which she teaches fans how to play her biggest hits. Later, she watches footage of her students that they’ve uploaded to their own profiles. They ask her questions about the plants and the art that they can see in the background of her videos, and she answers.

The decision to broadcast herself this way came shortly after Marling’s recent tour of Australia, and was an “uncomplicated” one. “I arrived back, and then the whole country went into lockdown, and it suddenly felt — as it has felt globally — like a very dramatic situation,” she says.

Cut off from the prospect of touring for the foreseeable future, Marling found herself strangely lacking. “I surprised myself: I wanted to do something to connect with my fans,” she says. “Or, I wanted it for myself, in a selfish way — because I wasn’t going to be able to have that experience with them touring, and get that sense of connection.”

Social media is not something that Marling has ever been exposed to before — not properly. In the past, the official Tweets about her music have been issued by ‘Laura Marling HQ’. Information about her forthcoming projects comes mostly through interviews, the majority of which are written, rather than on camera. Indeed, her most revealing moment on tape came in the form of an hour-long appearance on the Midnight Chats podcast, which is most notable for the way that Marling talks about her own shyness.

So Instagram, even in the controlled bursts that Marling has been using it for, has been strange. “It is totally new for me,” she says. “It is a complete shock to the system. There are these very direct, personal things being said in the comments and sent to me in the messages. And it’s a little trip to get your head around.”

“I don’t sign things. I don’t stay after shows. I don’t have my photos taken with my fans. I keep a real distance, other than on the stage.”

More than that, the twin disruptions of social media and the pandemic have forced Marling to reassess and reconsider the ways that she carries herself generally — her ‘persona’, if you will, which can be ever-so-slightly removed.

“I don’t get involved,” she says simply. “And I have long ummed and ahhed about whether that is okay. I don’t sign things. I don’t stay after shows. I don’t have my photos taken with my fans. I keep a real distance, other than on the stage.”

Marling definitely understands why fans want more than she provides with her music; why they do reach out for further connection. After all, she has artists that she feels the same way about. But she thinks, ultimately, that she will one day return to relative radio silence on her socials.

“Nothing — nothing — that has happened on social media has caused me concern in any way,” she says. “But I don’t think I would continue with it after this process is done.”

Photo Credit: Justin Tyler Close

Social media is not a substitute for touring then. And anyway, this tour – the one that she, like so many artists, has recently had to cancel – felt particularly special for her. “I haven’t toured for three years. I was supposed to spend six months on my own – completely on my own – touring the world with my guitars. And I was so in desperate need of it. Because it’s fueling.”

Not that Marling doesn’t enjoy touring with others. Those who have seen her tour with a full band will know that she has a great skill when it comes to chatting with her fellow performers onstage, making them appear as connected and important to her as they clearly are. At a recent Opera House show for instance, she encouraged her bandmembers to tell their worst jokes, much to the delight of the audience. And at her first concert at the venue, some eight years ago, she turned and deeply hugged her bandmembers before she had fully exited the stage, in full view of some of those watching.

But still, there is something she finds very special about striking out on the road alone. “The experiences that I’ve had playing shows solo, packing down my guitars, getting paid, and going to the next show..” Marling stops, searching for the words.

“Just the very intense experience of being onstage and then the very practical experience of getting to the next show,” she says. “It is my favourite way to live.”

Song For Our Daughter will not be performed live in that way for many months – for who knows how long. But still, of all of the performer’s records, it’s the one that most feels like the auditory equivalent of a solo tour. Even though the album is rich and full, and filled with strings and drums, at the end of it all, what comes across most clearly is Marling, her voice and her guitar.

There she is, on every track: offering something to her audience, hands always pointing outwards, out of frame. At you. “I will not forget what a miracle you are,” she sings on ‘For You’, the last song on the album that wasn’t meant to be the last song until something she still can’t explain spoke to her, and put it there.

Song For Our Daughter is out now via Chrysalis/Partisan/Inertia Music.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.

Photo Credit: Justin Tyler Close

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