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Becoming A Woman

08 March 2017, 11:00
Words by Kim Hillyard
Original Photography by Hollie Fernando

As Semper Femina hits the shelves, Laura Marling opens up to Kim Hillyard about taking ownership of her femininity

Laura Marling has just turned 27. For ten years the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter has carved her loves and losses into an exquisite body of work. Prepped to release sixth album Semper Femina, Marling discusses how she turns personal revelations into poetry: from gender and sexuality to songwriting, success, and playing the guitar.

She’s back. Teenage folk prodigy, critically acclaimed acoustic provocateur, award-winning literary English heroine Laura Marling. There’s been no more than two years between each of her albums since her 2008 debut Alas, I Cannot Swim. Written at 17, released at 18, it turned the snivelling reality of teenage heartbreak into a fable-like fantasy world of lyrical symbolism with a wit that cut far beyond her years: “Lover please, do not / fall to your knees / it’s not / like I believe in everlasting love.”

Marling is now prepped to add sixth album Semper Femina to her celebrated canon. So far she’s pushed the boundaries of English folk, toyed with Americana, and noticeably developed as a guitarist. Still, each record remains no more lauded than the last. Fans have their favourite, Marling does too (more on that later) but her continued ability to offer up intimate revelations of her psyche as poetry keep critical consensus the same as it ever was; Laura Marling is a rare talent.

For all the lyrical revelations, Marling remains extremely private. She agrees to only a handful of interviews. Her social media accounts are run by management save for a handful of one-word Instagram posts and her mesmerising live shows are only lightly dusted with conversation. It’s a luxury permitted by constant success: being judged on your art alone. But it’s not exactly handy for bridging the fan to artist divide. Even those of us who bulk at the idea of lives curated online first offline second can’t help but concede that five, now six albums in, we don’t really know who Marling is.

Laura Marling

Latin for “Always Woman”, Semper Femina is an abridged phrase from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid – a staple of classic Latin literature – that runs “Varium et mutabile semper femina” / “A woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing.” The album’s title has been tattooed on Marling’s thigh for over a decade (yes, even her teenage tattoos are well read).

If fifth album Short Movie can be surmised as an analysis of Marling’s integrity as an artist, Semper Femina is an analysis of her integrity as a woman. Both albums were written in LA following a period of near solitary, personal exploration. Still grappling with her worth as a musician, Semper Femina came from a far deeper excavation of self, one that arose from Marling’s realisation she had been on “a trip of abandoning any sexuality.”

“It wasn’t a conscious process,” she clarifies. “It wasn’t a zeitgeist-y abandonment of my sexual identity or anything. For me it was just this sort of neutral position I found myself in. Because I was in LA I felt like I could use that time to explore a lot of things and the thing I became most concerned about was my lack of femininity. That I’d lost a sense of femininity.”

“I’ve sort of felt like I’ve had to leave my sexuality behind in my career…and I resent that.”

Marling became close with an English friend also living in LA who was working as a doula and female sexual therapist. “She is a walking womb!” laughs Marling. “I’ve never met anyone more feminine than her. And she helped me through a lot of it, that deep exploration of feminine essence.”

Naturally solitary, Marling forced herself to re-engage with her female friends - her sisters included - and as time went on a resolution emerged. “I somehow hooked on to the idea that my sexual neutrality had come from being praised and misunderstood,” she explains. “Being praised for something that I felt I wasn’t worthy of being praised for and um… and therefore feeling misunderstood and disconnected from my persona.”

Marling has quite literally never received a bad review. Self-doubt is a necessary evil for any artist but for one of her stature the fact that she should experience a complete disconnection from her persona, coupled with an inability to accept any praise at all, is quite the self-criticism.

The 27-year-old’s early formation as a musician can be partly explained by the privileges of her upbringing. Born in 1990, the youngest of three sisters, her dad Sir Charles William Somerset Marling, the 5th Marling Baronet, ran a recording studio. Marling won a scholarship to attend Leighton Park School, a co-educational independent Quaker school (whose alumni are so notable they have their own Wikipedia page) and after completing her GCSEs moved to Kew, London to live with her sisters. Notching up only one AS level pass to her name (Music Technology), her plans for further education were scuppered by the album deal and her prowess and participation in the latest musical craze sweeping the nation.

Cast your mind back to the hazy days of 2008. It’s the nu folk revival! Tweed waistcoats are a thing. You’re learning “Harvest Moon” on the ukulele. Everyone’s pleased nu-rave has been replaced by a new nu and Laura Marling is on the radio for the first time along with then-boyfriend Charlie Fink and his band Noah & The Whale, singing a primary coloured paean to the half decade, “Oh well, in five years’ time we could be walking round a zoo.”

“I’m making no secret about it, I basically had an ego death”

Exactly five years on? Marling’s just scored her second Mercury Prize nomination with fourth album Once I Was An Eagle (which has nothing to do with a zoo) and has won Best Female Solo artist at the 2012 BRIT Awards. Noah & The Whale seems to have inadvertently prophesied its own demise and has just released its last album while fellow nu folk poster boys Mumford & Sons – fronted by another of Marling’s former partners - have packed up their bindles and gone stateside.

Marling has clearly and defiantly outstepped the early peers of her scene in both sound, vision, and release schedule but the clutches of success - her loves, her look, her lineage - became so well reported they loomed over her every move. Or so she thought.

Pre fifth album – eventually 2015’s Short Movie – the weight of all this success caught up with her. “I’m making no secret about it, I basically had an ego death,” she says. She moved to LA and embraced anonymity. When songs for her fifth album didn’t feel up to scratch, she ditched the whole record and took some time off. She applied (anonymously) for an upstate New York poetry course and was bluntly rejected. She was close to giving up. “It was sort of a moment where I woke up and I was like, ‘what the fuck is going on?’”

Named in honour of a world weary hippie Marling met in a Californian bar who ended every tale with “it’s a short fucking movie, man” her fifth album eventually transpired. “A slightly frayed masterpiece,” heralded The Guardian. “I’m a woman now, could you believe” Marling sings on “Don’t Let Me Down”, the artistic breadcrumbs to what would become sixth album, Semper Femina.

“I’ve tussled with whether I’m going to devote my life to being a creative or not because it’s not always that fun, letting your psyche run wild like that”

The record is Marling’s first album out of the five album deal she signed with Virgin Records at 16. “I was signed to a pretty terrible deal,” Marling tells former Epic Records executive Amanda Ghost in Episode 4 of her Reversal of The Muse podcast – an eight episode series of interviews held by Marling with women in the music industry. “My dad did my contract because I didn’t have a manager then. He used his lawyer from the ‘70s and we got the most incredibly bad deal which we couldn’t get out of for five albums. And to be fair, I wasn’t bothered, they never bothered me and I never bothered them.”

Finally on the other side of that deal, what can she do now that she couldn’t before? “Essentially, nothing of great difference,” she shrugs. “There’s benefits to having record labels as a cushion. They have huge amounts of money, but the thing is, it’s your money and they spend it willy bloody nilly. Now it’s interesting because the weight of financial responsibility is direct. And it’s not a great weight, I have to say. I’m very lucky.”

Marling self-funded Semper Femina’s creation before selling the finished album to independent label services, offering all the mechanisms of a label but allowing her to release the album under her own offshoot, More Alarming. Why the name? “Oh. I always thought it would be a good name for a punk band if I was in one,” she smiles. “Laura Marling, more alarming.”

“I was exploring my internal relationship to my central self, which doesn’t really have a compartmentalised gender, it’s more like two gases that intertwine”

In 1949 when Simone de Beauvoir famously declared “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” she succinctly concluded the idea of one’s gender as an action not a biological given. We now understand gender as a social construct and thanks to a growing (but still woefully marginalised) platform for voices who have experienced this first hand, we are hyper aware of how pervasive, destructive, and violent society’s emphasis on binary gender roles can be.

Re-engaging with her femininity has forced Marling to evaluate the effect her portrayal as an artist – both by her own doing and that of the industry at large - has had on her.

“I don’t do fashion shoots or have my make-up done because I think that is not the point of me. It’s a very respectable point of some people, but not me,” she says. “But as a result of that, I’ve sort of felt like I’ve had to leave my sexuality behind in my career. I feel frustrated that I can’t express a feminine quality in my career. And I resent that. It’s not a huge part of my private persona but it is a part of it and it’s so weird that it’s not a part at all of my public persona.”

Taking ownership of her gender, she concluded that her masculine and feminine traits need not remain mutually exclusive. “I think I would have got to that eventually,” she nods, as we ponder the depths she has scoured to reach such a conclusion. “It’s something to do with the societal effects of my upbringing, that I found it not obvious. I found it difficult to manage, through no one’s direct fault. But yes, that is exactly what I was exploring, my internal relationship to my central self, which doesn’t really have a compartmentalised gender, it’s more like two gases that intertwine.”

This realisation revealed a flaw to Marling early on when writing Semper Femina. Poised to explore femininity and female relationships in each of the album’s songs, she realised halfway through writing “The Valley”, the first song written for the album, that she had naturally started writing as if she was a man rather than a woman with masculine characteristics.

“It was a lightbulb,” she says. “I was like, this sounds like a man going to rescue a woman. At first I thought, yes, OK. Sometimes you do reflect yourself as fantasy in a song. But then I was like, no. This is not me turning around fantasy. This is me…this is me.”

“My songs aren’t dedicated to each emotional experience. They tend to be a culmination, a coagulation of lots of different experiences”

The song was inspired by Marling seeing a close female friend mourn the death of her father. “Watching her mourning and being quite isolated and the beauty of that,” she explains. “And I qualified that initial stance as me wanting to embrace someone in a masculine way. To be able to give her that security.”

Once she realised this could be achieved from her own perspective, how did the other songs for Semper Femina form? “Oh, they started to form a little bit, like…one a week. Then four would fall out in one week,” she admits. “But I don’t write loads. Which is funny because people think I’m prolific but actually I’m not. I write like, twelve songs a year? That’s not a lot.”

Laura Marling

I suggest the assumption Marling feverishly fills her time with songwriting is due to the semi-autobiographical, heavily emotional, and literary nature of her songs, which amuses her greatly. “Hahahah! That I can’t get through an emotional experience without writing a song? Haha. Right. Well, to some extent that’s true. But my songs aren’t dedicated to each emotional experience. They tend to be a culmination, a coagulation of lots of different experiences.”

Her advice to budding songwriters is equally assertive. “It’s gotta come easy,” she says. “That’s the difficult truth. I hear from other people who labour over music for years and you know, Rilke would write a poem in 20 minutes and then he wouldn’t write for six years and then suddenly it would all just fall out of him. Every time. You’ve got to wait for it to fall out of you. If it’s laboured it’s not happening.”

Did the songs on Semper Femina come easy? “Well, yeah, none of them were that hard to write, I have to say. Whereas Short Movie, pretty much all of them apart from “How Can I” and “Warrior” took a long time. They felt sort of paint by numbers, but this record, they just…came out.”

The same happened for fourth album Once I Was An Eagle, she confesses. “Part of my malaise in life was that I felt it was my best album. Similar to this album, it fell out of me in that sort of pregnant way. When Short Movie came out I was like, ‘ugh, Short Movie is rubbish.’ But then it got the same reviews as Once I Was An Eagle. So now I’m like, there you go. Something is wrong. I distrust all of it! If they’ll give me as good a review for that as they will for this then they’re not listening! Or I’m not listening!”

Though public opinion and reviews still hold meaning for her (“I do care, I really do care”) they no longer drive or define her work. What to show and when - in terms of her gender, sexuality, and music - is now a far more internalised decision and the result is an invigorated sense of personal freedom.

Semper Femina is the exponent of this. Led by guitar and strings, it’s sonically gentler than previous albums but no less incendiary thanks to a noticeable increase in lyrical refinement. Part of Marling’s love for Neil Young was always based on his ability to make the simple so profound. It’s the same cutting emotional havoc wreaked by a track like “Heart Of Gold” that echoes out here: a bolder kind of poetry, less intricate storytelling.

“I found the beauty of that image of women so overwhelming that I thought it might kill me”

For the new record, Marling was set on working with producer Blake Mills, whose credits include Fiona Apple, John Legend, Jesca Hoop, and Alabama Shakes’ exquisite second album Sound & Colour. “Eric Clapton called him the greatest living guitarist and he’s 29 so he’s a wee prodigy,” she says of Mills. But their initial meetings didn’t go as planned. “We couldn’t really figure out a way of communicating, which is normal with a new producer.”

Marling invited her band to the studio in a bid to build a working relationship. “Blake’s ideas filtered through my band felt better to me,” she explains. “Everyone was so responsive to him.”

Her songs might fall out in a matter of weeks but Marling has consistently sought out guitar lessons with notable players throughout her career. “You gotta sharpen all your tools,” she nods. In 2016 she spent time in Nashville “learning a lot of country, old style finger-picking, and slide guitar. I don’t really love that sound,” she adds, referring to the slide guitar. “So I’ve sort of adapted it for the record.”

Mills’ prowess as a guitarist made a significant impact on both Marling and the album. “Blake is the current muse of using guitar for both bassline melody and accompaniment. Which is a real…ahhh…it’s a lot of rhythms at once, it’s a lot of tonal knowledge. I think my tone of pallet has expanded. Because my finger-picking had improved I was able, on a basic level, to keep up with Blake’s tonal accompaniments. So the central songs are all my guitar playing but there’s Blake’s fucking fucked up crazy amazing accompaniment guitar behind everything.”

The paradox of isolation in mourning – its reverence and pain – is felt in “The Valley” thanks to a cyclic turn of guitars. Describing the track as her “English nostalgia trip”, ethereal vocal layers (“she can’t face seeing us / she sings in the valley”) spin above Marling and Mills. “I’m playing in 4/4 and he’s playing in 5/4 which is an unbelievable head fuck,” she says. “That’s what gives it that never ending feel because there’s never any resolution to any bar. It’s very Pentangle.”

The seductive, percussive caress of lead single “Soothing” was another Marling and Mills moment of genius. “I wrote it on guitar with Blake,” she says. “But there’s no guitar in there now. It’s double bass, electric bass, and a Guitarrón.”

What other production tricks did Mills employ? “Just…stuff that’s not quite obvious,” she replies. Such as? “Well, my drummer has a standard set up, a tambourine, whatever. And Blake would be like, ‘can you play this metal tin on top of the snare drum if we Sellotape it down?’ So that’s where you get that metallic resonance in ‘Wild Fire.’ How about her vocals? Marling has famously never recorded more than two takes for any album to date, can she still claim such a feat?

“Ha!” she retorts. “I’ve held on to that, so that was hard because Blake was not shy of doing 20 or 30 takes of something and not telling me why.” How did she keep it, “keep it sassy?” she says, finishing my sentence. “Well, I guess I sort of learned that’s not a thing that I have to do.” Which takes did he end up using, I wonder? “Ha. Exactly. Probably the first one. I didn’t ask!”

Marling’s progression as a guitarist and songwriter has also been matched by her debut steps as director for Semper Femina’s accompanying videos. Much like her albums, the videos are formed from a delicate palette of colours fired up by symbolism: allegorical tales twisted in fantasy.

“Everything in the videos are images from dreams,” Marling affirms. In “Soothing”, dancers in latex leotards slide across a white bed, their bodies slowly contorting closer until the frame expands to include a stony faced, smartly dressed audience stood silently watching the pair intertwine. These sound like some pretty great dreams, I tell her. Where did the latex come from?

“Haha. I had a dream about latex and I thought…’what the fuck? How did you get in there?’” she laughs. “And I thought, well, latex is this funny, fetishised second skin. It’s this synthetic outerwear that covers us but is still really sexy. And there’s a watery quality to it, it’s slippery. All these qualities have relevance, symbolically.”

One of the dancer’s outfits, a black latex corset hung up alone against a concrete wall, has since become the album’s cover art. “The photo was taken during the filming,” says Marling. “And I just thought that it was so…that it was very sweet out of context, hanging up there, waiting for its time. And I thought, isn’t it funny that women wear this skin? Women and men. That we put on this weird protective layer?”

As Marling shreds protective layers of her own there’s one question she still wrestles with: the emotional weight of life as an artist. “Can you love me if I put up a fight?” Marling sings on “Don’t Pass Me By”, a tale of a woman torn by choices. “Take my old guitar / and sell it off for parts / as you should / take my old tune / turn it into something new / something good.”

“Yes certainly I’ve tussled with whether I’m going to devote my life to being a creative or not,” she says. “Because it’s not always…that fun. Letting your psyche run wild like that.”

I ask her to explain what an artistic psyche run wild feels like. She quickly reverts to one of her poetic idols, Rilke, answering with a direct quote from his Duino Elegies, ten elegies written by the Austrian poet between 1875-1926, famed for their lyrical complexity and intensity as he weighs up beauty against existential suffering.

“Who among you if I called out would hear me among the rushes?” says Marling, channelling Rilke’s intensity. “He was in Duino in Italy,” she explains. “There was a huge storm. He was staying there to sort of recuperate from some mental breakdown and um…he describes in one of his biographies how he fell down, with the trees blowing around him and he looks over this cliff edge and, finally giving up, he shouts into the ether: ‘I don’t know the answer. Who is going to listen to me anyway? Angels are so terrifying that I couldn’t converse with them, they would obliterate me.’ That’s the rest of the poem, this idea that beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror. Because it’s so awesome that it feels like it wants to consume us.”

Marling is suddenly quiet. Is that how she feels about her own emotional response to life, I ask. Is it so intense, it verges on the beginning of terror? “Well, that image, actually all of Rilke’s poetry but particularly that poem, has really resonated with me. I found the beauty of that image of women so overwhelming that I thought it might kill me,” she says, staring directly at me. “It was the idea that there’s this wilderness and this woman and her relationship to the wild. That theme continues throughout the record.”

“There’s much more floating around our heads, quite literally, than we’re aware of. But that’s why it’s dangerous to give so much reverence to creatives because it’s not them”

“You are wild. You must remember.” Marling sings on “Wild Once.” It’s lines like these that define Semper Femina. To what extent are they mantras written to herself? “Wild Once” seems particularly evocative of her self-awareness as an artist. How accepting is she of her poetic and emotional sensitivity? She might be at odds with her role as a revered musician but her desire to write, sing, and perform doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

“I don’t try and pick it apart,” she responds. “I have tried to pick it apart and I don’t anymore. There is nothing to pick apart. It’s like, conceptual. It doesn’t relate to semantics it’s beyond, beyond…physical understanding of the world I think. Which sounds really highfalutin but…that’s the truth of it. There’s much more floating around our heads, quite literally, than we’re aware of. But that’s why it’s dangerous to give so much reverence to creatives because it’s not them. Which is a funny irony.”

For a young woman growing up on record, Marling has conducted herself with spellbinding grace, carefully coagulating intricate personal revelations into award-winning songs. It’s no surprise the gifts of maturity have taken their toll on her, neither that she should react to them with such poise and reflection. With more resilience through self-awareness than ever before, can we expect her to take bolder steps into the limelight or shy away from it further still?

“Well I think that I have no excuse but to be aware of the time that I’m in now because I’m 27,” she nods. “And I see stuff and I’m observing stuff but I’m not really part of it, no. I’m not really part of Twitter, I’m not really part of that world, but I see it. I can see what’s happening. And…I just think it’s time to employ some critical thinking to everything. And I think that is what I can offer. That is all I can offer. You know, I don’t have any fixed opinions or agenda. I just want people to think from lots of different angles. And look, I don’t know any answers. And I think…that’s OK.”

Semper Femina is released this Friday, 10 March via More Alarming
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