Laura Mar­ling opens up to Tony Clay­ton-Lea about al­bum num­ber four,

In the run up to the re­lease of her al­ready crit­i­cally­ac­claimed fourth al­bum, Once I Was an Ea­gle, Laura Mar­ling talks medi­ums, metaphors and song­writ­ing with Tony Clay­ton-Lea

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - Laura Mar­ling’s new al­bum, Once I was an Ea­gle, is out next Fri­day and is re­viewed on p14. Hear it ex­clu­sively on irish­ from next Mon­day

‘What th­ese mo­ments led me to con­sider, be­tween the bas­tardi­s­a­tion of the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a day­dream of the brain of an ar­chi­tect, and the sim­ple bliss of hear­ing the scratch and turn of the long an­ti­quated yet once more de­sir­able record, it oc­curred to me that medi­ums change, and are of­ten too long dic­tated and stunted by their his­tory.”

Laura Mar­ling is think­ing, talk­ing out loud about how things change, how the for­mats of recorded mu­sic mu­tate and, some­times, re­turn to the point of ori­gin. How her new al­bum is over an hour long. How there are no “ra­dio” hit songs on it.

Laura Mar­ling ad­mits that she thinks too much. She says this as we share time and cof­fee out­side a café in the East End of Lon­don. She knows the rough-and-tum­ble area quite well, hav­ing lived here for some time, but th­ese days she calls Los An­ge­les home. She is pe­tite, a reg­u­lar smoker of cig­gies, ut­terly fo­cused on the mat­ter at hand, and has the face of a be­lea­guered Jane Austen heroine. Take away the fag, put a bon­net on her head and you might be look­ing at one of the Ben­nett sis­ters. But what’s this? Oh, right, the think­ing, Laura, the think­ing.

“Oh, God, yes, I con­stantly think that I think too much. Is it good out­side the cre­ativ­ity? Well, it’s not di­vis­i­ble, that’s for sure – I am what I am, and it is very good for my art, I sup­pose. It kinda de­pends what day it is; if I could wake up one morn­ing and wish that some­times I could bob along liv­ing with­out con­se­quence then that would be nice. But other times I wouldn’t want to live any other way – I like states of re­flec­tion and I like the world as a big unan­swer­able ques­tion. It has led me to some in­ter­est­ing places, cre­atively and per­son­ally.”

Mar­ling, who is 23, once de­scribed her­self as a “strange mix of com­pletely neu­rotic, an amaz­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tor and not at all a per­fec­tion­ist”, yet in the past five years she has de­liv­ered four al­bums of quite star­tling pu­rity (in­clud­ing her forth­com­ing Once I Was an Ea­gle). She may not al­ways be this pro­lific but for the mo­ment she re­mains a sylph-like fig­ure on top of her game.

The Hamp­shire-born singer-song­writer first came to promi­nence at the age of 16, when, fol­low­ing sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion at a pri­vate school in Berk­shire, she upped sticks to Lon­don and landed right in the midst of the city’s nu-folk mu­sic scene. A brief stint in Noah & the Whale (as well as in the arms of that band’s main song­writer, Char­lie Fink) was fol- lowed by a bout of solo song­writ­ing; a sign­ing to Vir­gin Records; the re­lease of her 2008 de­but al­bum, the Mer­cury Prize-nom­i­nated Alas

I Can­not Swim; and the start of a re­la­tion­ship with Mar­cus Mum­ford. Her sec­ond al­bum, I

Speak Be­cause I Can (also Mer­cury Prize-nom­i­nated), was re­leased in 2010; the fol­low­ing year A Crea­ture I Don’t Know was un­leashed.

Three al­bums in three years – each one lauded to the hilt, cast­ing her as a kind of creative suc­ces­sor to Sandy Denny or Joni Mitchell. That might be some­thing of a bind for most peo­ple, but Mar­ling re­fuses to be pid­geon­holed, ei­ther cul­tur­ally or com­mer­cially.

“It isn’t an aim to have each al­bum bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous one,” she says, smooth­ing a strand of gen­tly wind-blown hair be­hind her left ear. (The move­ment re­veals a tat­too on the in­side of her left wrist, a ren­der­ing of the Mar­ling fam­ily crest. On her right wrist is tat­tooed the fam­ily motto: “We Are Prey To None”.) “But it’s a hope that each one is as good as the pre­vi­ous one, that you’re mov­ing for­ward in some way, even if it’s a small way. I play gui­tar ev­ery day, so at least the gui­tar play­ing should be bet­ter.

“Am­bi­tious? I’m not con­scious of it, but I have to ad­mit I strug­gle to sit still – I’m al­ways do­ing some­thing, and per­haps that’s the drive. I’m al­ways am­bi­tious to ex­plore, though, and not do the same thing again – lyri­cally as much as mu­si­cally. And if you tear that apart fur­ther – tak­ing into ac­count that it’s two years since the last al­bum – the ques­tions and queries in the nar­ra­tives therein are dif­fer­ent be­cause I’ve got dif­fer­ent ques­tions and queries about life.”

What­ever about the chang­ing ques­tions and queries, one as­pect of Mar­ling is con­stant – the use of ele­men­tal and an­i­mal­is­tic im­agery to por­tray emo­tions. Some­times the im­agery is ab­struse and elu­sive, other times not; scat­tered through­out are al­lu­sive yet con­vinc­ing com­men­taries about sex, brit­tle part­ner­ships and steely emo­tions. Char­ac­ters within her songs are frac­tious, oft-times tru­cu­lent peo­ple who (to para­phrase the Mar­ling motto) will not al­low them­selves to be taken ad­van­tage of.

“Yes, they per­son­ify ex­pres­sions and emo­tions,” she af­firms. “It isn’t to blind­side the lis­tener, but to add some other di­men­sion to the writ­ing. And it’s not, strictly speak­ing, con­scious, but just the way I com­mu­ni­cate in day-to-day life. It’s also a medium by which to en­cour­age peo­ple to un­der­stand what you’re try­ing to put across. There are only so many unit­ing feel­ings that can be spec­i­fied in crude

word­ing, and I’ve al­ways found in the books, art and po­etry I love that the most evoca­tive im­ages are liv­ing metaphors such as ‘tem­per­a­men­tal weather’ or ‘ex­pan­sive oceans’.”

Yet you’re dis­tanc­ing your­self from the lis­tener, aren’t you, through this? “To­tally. Again, that’s what I’m like day-to-day and how I com­mu­ni­cate. I would never do more in my work than what I do face-to-face – in other words, never give more away than I would in per­son. Es­sen­tially, I don’t like to give too much of my­self away to strangers. My liv­ing life and my real life – where you build re­la­tion­ships and ex­change vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties with peo­ple – are pretty much dif­fer­ent, al­though when I look back on some records I feel I dare – or maybe even taunt – the lis­tener to take them­selves with me.

“I sup­pose that is what hap­pens, but it isn’t some­thing I sit down and plan to do. Song­writ­ing for me is very un­con­scious process – I’d love to able to say that I’ve sat down and thought it all through, but I didn’t. I’m sort of fig­ur­ing it out even now. I think I’ve been lucky enough to have fallen into song­writ­ing in such a way that I never got caught up in the for­mu­laic process of it. I’m very grate­ful for that, in­creas­ingly so as I move for­ward through the world.”

Mar­ling can thank her fa­ther for free­ing her from the tyranny of for­mu­lae. She re­gards Bob Dy­lan as the ul­ti­mate song­writer who has achieved creative equi­lib­rium in the way she ad­mires the most. “He spoke to so many peo­ple in such a bril­liantly sim­ple way that any­one could un­der­stand it. It’s im­por­tant to be ac­ces­si­ble – you can’t be too far left field, oth­er­wise you’re shoot­ing your­self in the foot.”

Joni Mitchell is also a source of in­spi­ra­tion, she re­veals. “For my 13th birth­day my par­ents gave me two al­bums – Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Patti Smith’s Horses. What a bril­liant com­bi­na­tion of mu­sic to give to a 13-year-old! In the throes of teenage-hood, not know­ing what the fuck was go­ing on, to have th­ese two al­bums was amaz­ing. Ob­vi­ously, I didn’t think this when I was that age, but I dis­tinctly re­mem­ber the ex­pe­ri­ence of lis­ten­ing to Horses, ly­ing down on my back in a room at school; Joni Mitchell’s Blue I’d lis­ten to a lot in my bed­room at home. Patti was quite an ex­is­ten­tial, out­ward ex­pe­ri­ence for me, whereas Joni was in­ward and soli­tary.”

The East Lon­don wind is pick­ing up and Mar­ling shiv­ers slightly. Time to go. She freely ad­mits to be­ing overly book­ish, def­i­nitely soli­tary but not con­fined by her need for ei­ther books or soli­tude. “I re­ally en­joy peo­ple and their com­pany, but, yes, I also like to be re­ally, re­ally alone. I’m not say­ing I’m com­fort­able in my thoughts, but I need time alone to be able to process them. And in­tense so­cial sit­u­a­tions are ex­haust­ing, to­tally ex­haust­ing. I can take some of them, and en­joy them, but I know my lim­its. Let’s put it this way – you won’t find me at a night­club any time soon.”

Prob­a­bly not. But what about Los An­ge­les – is her move there the ge­o­graph­i­cal equiv­a­lent of cut­ting her hair and sev­er­ing ties? For the first time dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, she averts her eyes and looks into the dis­tance. Laura Mar­ling is think­ing again. “There’s such a sense of es­cape there – you can get into a car and go any­where – but it isn’t the end or the start of any­thing.”

She arches an eye­brow. “Too soon to say.”

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