The opportunity to hear Laura Marling perform in the kind of intimate setting her complex, tender music demands is becoming an ever-rarer thing. After emerging into the industry nearly a decade ago with 2008’s Alas I Cannot Swim, over the course of four more studio albums Marling has proven herself an artist who hasn’t so much exploded as settled into all veins of the singer-songwriter constellation. Her sound has become in demand for the headlining slots of festivals like indie-folk haven Green Man, and her latest promotional tour sees her play two centrepiece shows in London’s 1,700 capacity Roundhouse – yet today she sits composed, if a little guarded, in a room of no more than 100.
The singer’s latest LP, Semper Femina, due for a March 10 release on her own More Alarming Records imprint, follows in Marling’s tradition of taking a train of thought as its conceptual core – a trait that’s established her as one of the few remaining ‘album artists’ in a market saturated by viral videos, streamed singles and 30-second chorus clips. The title, she explains, originates from a line of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid; “varium et mutabile semper femina” or “a woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing.” Shortened to just “always woman” and now tattooed on her upper leg, the phrase poses the central question of how we define, view and write about femininity and female creativity to which Marling offers a series of exploratory yet non-committal sonic answers.
Marling has always penned songs that skirt the boundary between private and public address, to the point the lines crossed out for revealing too much can nearly be heard.
Originally intending to write about women as if she were a man, Marling explains “we’re somewhat accustomed to seeing women through men’s eyes, and naturally that was my inclination to try and take some power over that, but very quickly realised that the powerful thing to do was to look at women through a woman’s eyes”. Indeed it’s this push toward a change of perspective, a switch in an artistic understanding of the female, that is the album’s lasting power. During a stripped-back performance of ‘Wildfire’, the song’s lyrics take on a new resonance, considering female creative processes and companionship in a ways previously limited to a male-female dynamic:
“She puts a pen behind her ear/Because she’s got something she really, really needs to say/… She’s gonna write a book someday/Of course the only part I want to read/ Is about her time spent with me.”
It’s a marked development from the more traditional, Gothic-influenced tone struck by earlier songs like ‘My Manic’ and ‘I’: “He greets me with kisses when good days deceive him/ And sometimes we’re scorned and sometimes I believe him.” What has remained constant is their near-confessional styling. Marling has always penned songs that skirt the boundary between private and public address, to the point the lines crossed out for revealing too much can nearly be heard.
The tautly plucked elasticity of new-time collaborator Blake Mills’ production lends her voice a new slinking quality with which to express the warring contradictions of desire.
In the run-up to the album’s composition, Marling hosted a series of podcasts titled ‘Reversal of the Muse’ during which she interviewed female musicians, producers, and sound engineers from Dolly Parton to HAIM “about what’s happening in music and feminine creativity and their relationship to one another – why there aren’t more women working in studios or more women executives”. Asked if it’s a project she would like to continue further, Marling replies: “I want to go in next time with less of an agenda, because what I realised from having those conversations is that they were so much more complex and more biological than I realised… I’m interested to investigate other industries as well – particularly visual art, film and television as these are the mediums by which we understand the world around us now.”
These are also the mediums into which she has made her creative debut, having recently directed the music video for first single ‘Soothing’. “The directing was amazing. I don’t often get the opportunity, or I’ve never been inclined to give visual representation to my music personally. It’s become the way that music is released now, to have a visual accompaniment. So to give a lucid dreaming quality to this, which is where I get a lot of my imagery from, was an amazing experience.” ‘Soothing’ is a song that, while not being the thematic heart of the album, is certainly the strongest indication of Laura’s changing sound. The tautly plucked elasticity of new-time collaborator Blake Mills’ production lends her voice a new slinking quality with which to express the warring contradictions of desire.
It’s a sound startlingly different from the distinctly British pallor of the late 2000’s nu-folk scene out of which Marling materialised, the traces of which are fast fading. In fact, Marling’s crystalline school-girl soprano, the hallmark of her previous efforts, is now just one tool in the ever-growing arsenal of Americanised swoops, inflections and idiosyncrasies with which she lulls her listeners. There are obvious comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen here, but by wearing them on her sleeve Marling still brings enough of herself to the table to avoid becoming a pastiche.
“Innocent creativity had a little flourish in the last ten years. Now I think ‘What use is that? It’s not rooted, not pointed, not political'”
Mills, who recently produced the Alabama Shakes acclaimed Sound and Colour and has “an incredible tonal palette”, is the first time someone other than long-time collaborator Ethan Johns or Marling herself has produced one of her albums.
Yet Semper Femina’s new sound bares the influence of another, more physical change. Marling, she says in a proud exhaustion, has been on tour for ten years now, and this period has seen a transatlantic relocation from London to LA. “I love America and find America very infuriating for the same reason. I love it because they give a lot of value to artists – everyone is an artist – and that’s nice if you’ve devoted your career to being one. But it also gives a very strange reverence to people who have lived very self-indulgent lives and demand to be called artists. And that represents my own inner tussle over whether [music] is an indulgence or a compulsion… it gave me a lot of freedom to express myself without self criticism that I should be doing something more important, or more useful rather.”
The foregrounding of Femina in the newly polemicised arena of female identity is also in part owing to this move. Situated in an age of an increasingly polarized gender gap – one that particularly intersects with political divide in the US – the cumulative effect of this quietly raging collection of songs is somewhat paradoxically that of calm if steady intervention. “Innocent creativity had a little flourish in the last ten years. But also I’m getting older and now I think ‘What use is that?’ It’s not rooted, not pointed, not political. For me right now I feel like it’s more important that I have a practical use.”