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Nine Songs
Marika Hackman

From the drop dead cool of Debbie Harry to the weird world of dating apps, the singer/songwriter talks Ed Nash through the creative keystones of her third record Any Human Friend

14 February 2020, 17:00 | Words by Ed Nash

Marika Hackman finds inspiration in the most unexpected of places.

Over the course of three albums - We Slept At Last, I’m Not Your Man and Any Human Friend - Hackman’s songs have hopped across musical signatures whilst retaining her distinctive identity as a writer, where the credo is the rules of music exist to be broken, rather than adhered to.

When we meet at her record company’s office in North London, Hackman explains that despite her friends sending her reams of songs to listen to, she avoids discovering new music when she’s writing. “I need to be pushed a little bit, otherwise I either listen to something I’ve been listening to for ages, or I sit in silence, because I like doing that. Or I read books. And I can’t listen to music when I’m reading books." and then adds "it’s a small amount of time that I can fill with music, but when I do find something, I make the time to listen to it constantly. I get obsessed with it.”

With that in mind, I ask if there’s a theme to the Nine Songs choices and she initially deadpans that no, there isn’t one. However, a conversation with Hackman, rather like one of her songs, is a delight where the narrative changes unexpectedly. “There is a theme, I was holding out! All of these songs were in my orbit whilst I was making Any Human Friend and the process as I was going through it.”

One of our albums of 2019, her third record was a period of transition, both as an artist and a person, as well as a stunning leap forward. Whilst the music embraces a more expansive tone of voice, the lyrics are the most intimate Hackman’s written, exploring the vagaries of love, sex, separation and identity, amidst the noise of modern life.

Accordingly, with each song here, Hackman adds a personal and unexpected story, from discovering Fugazi when she met someone on a dating app, her Mum instilling a lifelong admiration for Debbie Harry and her break up with Amber Bain of The Japanese House, through Bain's song "Lilo". Talking with candour about their transition into friendship, whilst “Lilo” is Bain’s song about their parting, “send my love” from Any Human Friend is Hackman’s side of the story, and together they provide a story of how to begin again, on a different, though equally rewarding footing.

“Heart of Glass” by Blondie

“I can trace this song right back to the beginning. My Mum made up a version of it when she was changing my nappy, but with words about ‘poo, farts and stinky arse’ instead of “Heart of Glass.” She used to sing that to me and my brother when we were babies and it was one of the first songs I ever heard, but it was this bastardised version from my Mum.

“It’s always been around and it’s a fucking amazing song, the groove is incredible and the way Debbie Harry sings on top of this massive groove is so chilled and so cool. I did a cover of it at one of my manager’s wedding party and I really got into the mindset of it. I was a bit dry inspiration wise at that point and it’s very obvious which song it relates to on the record, which is “the one.” I thought ‘I’m going to come up with something pretty fucking groovy, it’s probably going to sound fairly similar, but I can Marika-fy it and take it somewhere else.’

“So I sat down with the inspiration of that song but I threw it into this whole different thing, because I felt I was inhabiting this persona of Debbie Harry, who is this ultimate, dream-babe Rockstar. I remember my Mum always used to say that if she was going to go gay for a woman, it would be Debbie Harry and I’ve had that in my head ever since I was a kid

“Heart of Glass” gave me a hit of this kind of arrogant, really confident persona that’s on the song, and then I fucked around with the whole narrative of that. “the one” was the first song I wrote for the record and the opening of the door was me stepping into Debbie Harry’s shoes and playing around with that song.

“That was what kickstarted the whole vibe of Any Human Friend; on “Heart of Glass” everyone in the band is totally in control of what they’re doing - they kind of don’t give a shit - but they know exactly what they’re doing.”

“Locket” by Crumb

“My friend Meg has got really good music taste and she often sends me stuff, but half the time I don’t listen to anything because I’m ‘that person’! That you send me a song and I won’t listen to it, because if it’s on my phone I always forget it’s there, or I’ll be doing something else.

“I think “Locket” popped up on YouTube and I thought the video looked kind of weird, or I saw it on a Tweet. I sent it to Meg and said ‘Check out this song, it’s amazing’ and she replied with ‘You fucker, I sent that to you a month ago.’ It was ‘Oh shit, busted!’

“I don’t listen to very much music at all, which sounds like a really horrible thing to say as a musician, but I’ll get five or six tracks on a rotation that I listen to loads and “Locket” was one of those. It’s the way it takes you; you think it’s going one way - it’s jazzy, you’re getting into this mindset, there’s that beautiful piano at the beginning - but then the groove that comes in is great, the bassline and drumbeat really anchor it. It feels so satisfying and it’s so funky, the way the melodies float over the top, sliding around and having a good time.

“It’s a way that I feel I’ve always written. Even when I was on acoustic guitars, the melodies were always really loose, they’d shift through keys, majors and minors and the acoustic guitar would be doing a more percussive, holding it down kind of work. But with “Locket” I was inspired to write a really funky bassline that would fit over a song melodically. It was ‘OK, that funky bassline is drilled into my skull, let’s have a go at doing this’, but I was thinking ‘How can I capture the essence of what’s happening?’ rather than ‘I’m going to copy this song.’ And then “come undone” came out.

“When something hits you it will always be an inspiration. You never want to rip anyone off or create something that’s already been done. You want to be an innovator and do something new, but there’s also an element of ‘That’s really cool, I want it!’”

“Lilo” by The Japanese House

“I think Amber's a musical genius. Having been with her for so long and seeing how she works - the amount of control she has over everything, the production techniques she uses and the way she writes music. Amber’s inspired by an amazing range of different music; she’s like an incredible sponge creating all this incredible stuff and that’s really inspiring.

“We were still together when I started writing Any Human Friend and we broke up a few months after I’d written “the one”, so it was at the beginning of writing the bulk of my record, and meanwhile she was writing her record.

“I wouldn’t class Any Human Friend as a breakup record, but your life changes and everything gets thrown up into the air. It affects your experiences and what you’re writing about - and it was the same for her. We’re still best mates and we talk all the time, but that year was really difficult.

“We were trying to navigate a new relationship and you can hear a lot of that on my record and on her album as well. I wrote “send my love” and that’s my big song about Amber and our relationship. It was a four-year relationship and I started writing it literally four days after we broke up. So when she asked me to do the “Lilo” video with her - and that song is about me and our relationship - it was ‘Of course I’ll do this for you. We’re fine, and we’ve gotten into a good place being friends.’

“I was still doing bits for my record when we made the video, so it was all feeding into my emotional space. I think it set us both back in quite a big way, which was fine; it’s an incredible video and I’m proud I did it. It’s so real and that’s why it hurt to make it, but after that we both had a bit of a head scramble and we had to put in the work to get back on track.

“I’m very happy to talk about Amber and our relationship, because we both talk about it in our music. There’s nothing bad there, the fact we can talk about it so openly feels like a respectfulness to what we had as a relationship and to what we have now as friends. I think it’s a nice thing for people to read or hear, especially for people who are going through the same stuff. If you’re honest with your experiences, people can tap into them and feel comforted by that.

“The poignancy of “Lilo” and the process of making the video was very difficult, but it was also totally worth it. It was a very beautiful process, an amazing thing, and it definitely fed back in. When I hear “Lilo” now or I see Amber play it live it’s too much. I find it too emotional and it really strikes a nerve, but it’s a very important song for me.”

“Temporary Loan” by Edith Frost

“This song is a belter, actually, it’s not a belter, it hits me right in the gut! Laura Marling introduced me to Edith Frost’s music when we were touring across Europe, I remember she was in the front of the car and she played this song. I leant over and said, ‘What’s this?!’ It was “Temporary Loan” and it really struck a chord with me.

“That feels like a different lifetime. I’d just made We Slept At Last but it hadn’t been released yet and I wrote “wanderlust” between that record and I’m Not Your Man. I recorded it sat at my kitchen table, because my housemate was out and I wanted to get it down as quickly as possible. I didn’t have a mic, so I plugged my headphone mic into my laptop and did it off that, which is why it’s very lo-fi and you can hear cars beeping.

“I was listening to artists like Edith Frost and Gillian Welch at the time, the more acoustic, sad woman vibe - which I love - and “Temporary Loan” was an inspiration to that world. I love that world and the time that I spent in it, but I’m always looking for a new bubble I can hop into and see what happens.

“That kind of music was the mindset I was in when I was coming out of We Slept At Last - which had a very introspective, brooding vibe - and “wanderlust” was the last part of that mindset. I didn’t put it on I’m Not Your Man because I wanted to change things up, but what was amazing about Any Human Friend was I could be ‘Here’s an opportunity for this to be alongside “the one”; there’s a narrative and it makes sense. That was the old me, this is the new me and we’re playing with this perception of who I am.’

“Temporary Loan” is a nice nostalgic song; it makes me remember everything I loved about being in that space and kind of wallowing. It’s important to wallow and I think I’ll go back to doing some wallowing, because I really miss it. It’s a good release to tap into a shared thing and be ‘Oh my God, why is this killing me!?’ And then you feel better afterwards… or worse!”

“Arpeggiator (Demo)” by Fugazi

“There’s a backstory to this one. Whilst I was making Any Human Friend, when I was still single and ready to mingle, I was talking to a girl on an app. She’s the only person I’ve ever spoken to on an app and I find it terrifying, it’s not a world I’ve really entered into. But she lived in America, so it was perfect, we basically became modern day pen pals and I made a friend.

“We sent each other playlists, she’s got really good music taste and what a great way to get to know someone’s inner workings. This song was on one of her playlists and normally I’m a big fan of lyrics, voices and being pulled in by the presence of a person, so an instrumental isn’t usually my bag, but I got totally hooked into it. I love the way it’s repetitive but mathematical, where everything locks together. It’s really clever but it sounds scrappy and really in your face.

“It was a huge inspiration for “conventional ride”. I wanted to do something a bit mathy, that would fuck with timings but be super-tight and grungey. I wrote the opening with the riff and the drums coming in where you don’t expect them to whilst I was listening to “Arpeggiator (Demo)”in the middle of the night on my headphones.

“That song took me absolutely ages to finish because I was intimidated by the intro I’d written. When you write something, you want the moment where the inspiration hits to happen when you’re writing a chorus, because that’s your peak. If it’s an intro, you think ‘This slams, I’m a genius!’ but then it’s ‘Where am I going to go from here?’ That’s when you have to come back into your brain and work hard to finish a song. It was a case of keeping the pace up, keeping that driving energy and trying to keep the immediacy you get with the Fugazi song.

“Coming back to apps, apps and me aren’t really a thing. I don’t like talking to people through a screen. I made a friend, which was awesome, but it felt a bit like being at school, where you had your pen pal in France and said ‘Bonjour! Je m'appelle Marika!’”

“Can We Still Be Friends” by Todd Rundgren

“The first time I heard this was when I saw Vanilla Sky. Tom Cruise was in it and I found the film really weird; it made me feel really strange, but I was probably too young to watch it.

“This song got caught on a loop in my head though, maybe because the song itself is a loop that keeps going around. I hadn’t listened to it for a long time, but obviously going through a breakup and being friends, I was listening to a song like that and coming back into it. It suddenly had much more meaning than when I was a 10-year-old.

“Really weirdly, it slightly influenced “blow”, which on the whole record has got my favourite melody going through it, and I think that’s because I was listening to this song and really focussing in on the tune. I was getting distracted with drum parts and basslines, but then I got back to ‘I want to write a really nice topline’.

“There’s something about the sentiment of “Can We Still Be Friends”. Even though “blow” isn’t a love song - it’s about wanting to look after my friend, because she takes too many drugs - there’s a caring element, where he’s saying ‘This has happened, can we move on from it?’ It’s not being forceful - a lot of breakup songs are aggressive, bitter or reflecting back in a nasty way - and this isn’t that at all. There’s a sadness to it because ultimately it’s ‘No, we probably can’t be friends’, but it’s done in a way that feels very caring and that sentiment really pulled through for me.

“In terms of the post breakup element, there was a sadness to it and moments where things were hard for me and Amber. If you’re going to work hard to be friends with each other - the song is called “Can We Still Be Friends” - you can hit bumps in the road, but if you both have the same aim in your head, then it will work. I never felt it wouldn’t happen, that we wouldn’t be able to be friends, but in certain moments it was ‘Can we actually do this? Is it going to be too hard?’ It was worth it, but it is hard.”

“Break for Lovers” by Men I Trust featuring Helena Deland

“I hadn’t heard of Men I Trust until last Spring. We were playing at All Points East and we had a lovely guy filling in for our sound. He drove us to the gig and played their album and I was ‘This is great, it’s so groovy.’

“When I find a new band or a new song that I really love I get quite obsessed, and I’ll listen to it on heavy rotation. Also, bear in mind I was having to curate playlists for my New York pen pal, so I was looking out for more music than I’ve ever done and I was swimming in London Fields lido all the time, I’d walk all the way up the canal and listen to songs on repeat. “Break for Lovers” was one of those songs and I’d listen to it over and over. It’s a fifty-minute walk and the song has a really good walking tempo.

“The song really stuck with me. It’s sad but it’s groovy, and that’s what I was talking about with “blow”, that sad groovy thing. I love it when there’s a juxtaposition between the music making you feel you want to dance, but when you listen to the lyrics, they make you feel it’s pretty dark. That’s something I’ve done right from the beginning, but the more I’ve gotten into writing and arranging on different instruments, the more my capacity for groove has widened.

“This is a theme with a lot of these songs. It’s that very cool, almost slightly disengaged vocal, but its sitting over something that’s funky and pulling you in. It makes me feel like my head has room to breathe but my body is absorbing the music. This song gives it an amount of space and for someone who has an incredibly noisy head, I see it as a clear blue line. There’s the voice, but the rest of it is working elsewhere and I don’t have to absorb all of this information that’s coming at me all the time.”

“Erotic City” by Prince

“Erotic City” is a banger, my friends always play it at every party we have. When I was halfway through writing Any Human Friend, one of my managers said ‘You need to listen to a lot of Prince, because I think it’s going to make a lot of sense to you’, and it really did.

“Prince has this dialogue between the instruments. Everything has a place; nothing is filler and every instrument is given its voice. It’s quite mathematical, like the Fugazi song, where everything locks in and it all makes sense, but there’s actually only four things going on at the same time. I took that and thought ‘How do you do that?’, writing something really complex, where it’s all locking together. It’s like a big puzzle and I like puzzles a lot, I’m a very much a logic based person and I love problem solving.

“I took that from listening to Prince - ‘This is going to be my template, everything needs to have a point, I’m not going to shove anything in just because it feels like it should be.’ Space is really important, you need room for your head to absorb what’s going on. I got obsessed with how basslines were locking in with drum parts, how the guitars would interact with the vocals and sit behind them and everything all interlocking at the same time. It was really great to pull myself off a guitar and think of it in a broader sense.

“Erotic City” is sassy, all of these songs are very sassy and sexy and that’s another thing, it’s very sexy music. My record is quite focussed on sex, but “Erotic City” is the song I kept coming back to. It’s one of things where you can’t really explain why, but it’s the song that’s at the top of my list when I’d go on my walks, strutting down the canal.

“With Prince it’s all about the confidence; pulling that off and being self-assured, where you know exactly what you’re doing and you don’t give a shit. Debbie Harry’s got it, Prince has got it and how inspiring is that? Don’t we all not want to give a shit and be really confident? That’d be quite nice!”

“Dance Like U” by Okay Kaya

“Okay Kaya is really cool, her voice is amazing and there’s a lot of space in her music. It’s weird and accessible and it’s very relaxed, with that kind of not giving a shit thing, yet it’s heartfelt, there’s a sadness to it that twinges a little bit. It’s almost like I haven’t quite worked it out yet, but I think that’s what I really like about it.

“I think Amber introduced me to her music; there were a few bits of music before she released her album a couple of years ago. My bassist Jelly sent me the album - she’s really good at sending music my way - and “Dance Like U” stuck with me.

"It’s a fantastic song. There’s this melody going along that’s pushing it and it’s not going where you expect it to. You’re getting pulled along on this journey and then there’s that lyric in the chorus - ‘Do you dance like you fuck?’ - and the drumbeat comes in, but the chords are kind of sad. It’s just her voice, which is so crystal clear and there’s really not much else going on.

“Hearing a lyric like that really hits you. It doesn’t sound corny or gross, it sounds sexy, but it also sounds kind of sad. It’s like someone’s whispering into your ear and being really direct. I really appreciate directness in lyrics, I think it’s really important and that’s what I wanted to try and do with Any Human Friend. Being so direct and really honest always strikes a chord with me and that was something I was really playing with on the album.

“Being direct doesn’t mean you have to swear and be sexual all the time. You’re talking about an experience, but you can use language like that and not make it feel like it’s being seedy.”

Any Human Friend is out now. Marika Hackman's UK tour starts in February
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