THAT’S NOT ALL FOLK
Laura Marling’s brief hiatus from music has reaped creative rewards, writes
Laura Marling is having breakfast in a London cafe. The 25-year-old wunderkind of English folk music, softly spoken and often reticent about revealing too much of herself in interviews, exudes warmth and charm in this relaxed environment. She has good reason to be cheerful. Marling’s latest album, Short Movie, her fifth in seven years, has enjoyed worldwide critical acclaim. She is happy also to be back in London after a long stint living in Los Angeles.
Reviews of her recent European concerts with her band have been positive and she is excited about bringing that show to Australia in October. Joie de vivre, then, helps lift her delicate English tone above the clatter of plates and the early morning thrum of the city.
“I like touring,” she says, enthusing about a run of dates through the US that began this week and continues until August. “My days of doing it in a hard way are over, so it’s really just a fun thing to do.”
One doesn’t associate immediately the term fun with the author of so many plaintive musings on the intricacies and mystery of love, relationships and womanhood, subjects that have inhabited Marling’s oeuvre since the release of her debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim in 2008. Yet, while there are sombre moments also on Short Movie, such as the acoustic guitar-driven How Can I, Strange and Divine, there’s more playfulness too, a new agenda that incorporates rock ’n’ roll into her folk brief, including the wielding of an electric guitar. The song False Hope, inspired by her experience of Hurricane Sandy in New York, boasts a strident, post-punk urgency in its jangly Pretenders-like electricity.
It’s a refreshing change of pace for the singer, whose output thus far, not least her last outing, Once I was an Eagle, falls largely into the basket of acoustic introspection, bolstered by her abilities and originality as a guitarist. As well as there being more reliance on electric guitar and on band accompaniment this time, Marling dispensed with previous producer Ethan Johns to co-produce Short Movie with earlier collaborators Matt Ingram and Dan Cox, who own Urchin Studios in Hackney, northeast London, where the album was recorded. Also, for someone who likes to shy away from confessionals, either in song or in print, Marling has opened herself up lyrically, the new songs inspired predominantly by the Hampshire troubadour’s move to Los Angeles three years ago.
“Every record I put out is fiction to some extent,” she says. “And to some extent this one is more creative nonfiction than fiction. The reason I think the use of ‘I’ is more personal this time is that I had spent the past year living in LA not doing music, with no ability to express my opinion. Music has been my outlet for the past seven years, and then I didn’t have that and I felt that I was corking my emotions. I became a bit of an emotional voyeur. That was a kind of thrill. It made me feel alive. I think that appears on the record.”
Prior to her last Australian visit in 2013, Marling told The Australian she had moved to LA from London to get out of her comfort zone. She took time off for the first time in her career and did other things, such as yoga, creative writing courses, the tarot, immersed herself in the works of filmmaker and writer Alejandro Jodorowsky. It was a deliberate step off the rollercoaster that had been her adult life until then.
Marling had been active since she began her music journey in the latter half of the noughties as part of the English nu-folk elite, coming up through the ranks of the British touring circuit flanked by the likes of Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons. LA, after a long tour with Once I was an Eagle, was a chance to kick back.
“I didn’t go there with any expectations really,” she says. “It was more for personal reasons. It was one long surreal unfolding experience that led me to stay for 2½ years.
“It was an experience. It wasn’t really Los Angeles that was the difficult part … there were other things going on. It was pretty far out, though.”
During her down time Marling explored the US with more freedom than she had been afforded from the tour bus. “I read a lot and hung out with friends,” she says.
As she has done throughout her career, she also wrote consistently. The creative writing courses had an influence on her songwriting. Pushing herself into unknown territory proved productive, but not always in a positive way. Having written a batch of songs as the basis for Short Movie, she promptly scrapped them and started again. She isn’t shy about admitting the early songs “just weren’t very good”.
“I mean they weren’t that good,” she clarifies. “Musically they were good, structurally they were passable, but lyrically they were very dull.”
She blames a strong work ethic for not being able to see the error of her ways initially.
“I think I had become accustomed to working to a certain routine of touring and then making a record and then touring again,” she says. “At that point it felt like I should have been making an album. I’m so stubborn that I can convince myself to do something, so I was able to do a whole record while ignoring the fact that the songs were no good.”
Once that hurdle had been overcome, Marling relocated to London early last year to begin work on her new album. Today Marling flits between the English capital and California (“I like them both so I’ve decided to stay in both”) — that is, when she’s not on the road or recording — but both these bustling cities are a long way, culturally at least, from the rural environment in which Marling grew up. One of three daughters of Charles William Somerset Marling, a baronet, the singer spent her childhood in the village of Eversley, a relatively affluent part of Hampshire, completing her high school education at the private Leighton Park School in neighbouring Berkshire. She left school at the age of 16 and settled with her older sisters on the outskirts of London, which became the base for her tentative steps into the music business.
She has described her teenage years as “weird”, but they were also fulfilling. Armed with her acoustic guitar, Marling began playing solo spots around London wherever she could get them. She had brief relationships with Marcus Mumford and Noah and the Whale singer Charlie Fink and supported both of their bands on tour, a period she reflects on as being “exciting and invaluable”.
Since then Marling’s career has been a whirlwind of acclaim and productivity. Alas, I Cannot Swim was followed by I Speak Because I Can (2010), A Creature I Don’t Know (2011), Once I was an Eagle (2013) and Short Movie, which was released in March. This makes her one of the most prolific English singer-songwriters of her genre and her generation. She says she feels
Laura Marling has incorporated rock ‘n’ roll into her folk brief