If expectation carries a weight, it doesn’t seem to concern Laura Marling, six LPs into a somewhat understated yet still stellar career, this super-talented artiste gracefully rising above genre labels amid major music press analysis and hyperbole.
I tried to get a ‘one-to-one’ with this innovative 27-year-old when news of her nine-date Spring UK tour and the release of new album Semper Femina surfaced, but word has it she’s super-shy when it comes to media intrusion. And who can blame her. Maybe next time, eh. Instead, what follows is a cobbled-together appreciation of the new LP and its creator, complete with quotes from the interviews her publicity people found me and a little background. You may have seen parts elsewhere, but I felt the strength of the album and Laura’s career to date justified a tad more web-space devoted to her recorded endeavours.
On the face of it a folk artist, Laura was always much more, her 2011 Brit Award for Best British Female Solo Artist followed by further nominations in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Meanwhile, three of her first four albums were Mercury Music Prize-nominated, including 2008 debut Alas, I Cannot Swim and 2010 follow-up I Speak Because I Can.
It took me a while to catch on. I’d heard tracks here and there and the inevitable hype, but through finding a copy of the latter platter at my local library I got to realise first-hand the strength in depth, not least on stand-outs like Rambling Man and Goodbye England (Covered in Snow). From there I went back – drinking in the might of tracks like Tap at my Window – and forward, with so many gems unearthed, so much ground covered.
I’ll spare you much of the back-story, but the youngest of three daughters, Laura was brought up not far from my old patch, between Berkshire and Hampshire, learning guitar early, moving to London to make her name after her GCSEs. She featured in an early line-up of Noah and the Whale, but left after splitting with lead singer Charlie Fink before their debut LP, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, took off. And yes, It took me a while before I realised just who supplied those backing vocals on a great if not thematically-miserable album.
Work followed with The Rakes, Mystery Jets, and another innovative outfit at the vanguard of a new indie folk movement (for want of a better description), Mumford & Sons – including a relationship with front-man Marcus Mumford – but by 2008 Laura was defiantly striking out on her own. You’ll either know the rest or can find out for yourself, but less than a decade on there’s a mighty clamour surrounding her latest LP, a typically-mature set of songs by one of our more prolific talents.
Its title drawn from Virgil’s The Aeneid, roughly translated as ‘always a woman’, something she also has tattooed on her leg, apparently only deciding on the shorter version late on, rather than ‘Varium et mutabile semper femina’, which translates as ‘A woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing’. That phrase about a woman’s prerogative springs to mind there, as does Kathy Lette’s assertion that ‘whim is the plural of women’.
Body-etching and changes of heart aside, Semper Femina seems a fitting title for an album seen as ‘an intimate sonic exploration of femininity and female relationships’. Written largely on the road during a tour for her fifth LP, 2015’s Short Movie, and released on her own More Alarming Records label, it was recorded in Los Angeles with much-feted session player turned producer Blake Mills, whose credits also include Alabama Shakes’ second LP, Sound and Color.
I’ve been living with the results of Blake’s work with Laura these last couple of weeks, and Semper Femina certainly offers that ‘compelling collection of songs’ promised, one ‘run through with Marling’s fierce intelligence; a keen, beautiful and unparalleled take on womanhood’.
I was hooked from the moment I heard the beguilingly-sultry, somewhat claustrophobic yet ultimately uplifting Soothing. That bassline certainly gets beneath the skin, those stirring string and keyboard touches hitting the spot while Laura rising above it all and banishes us with love. Yet there’s nothing like it on the album, and while the threads of the album come together so well, there’s so much scope within. The Valley is a perfect example, those glorious harmonies between Laura and herself highlighting her folk roots, and while Joan Baez comes to mind in places there’s far more of a Nick Drake influence for me.
Wild Fire offers a further gear shift, her American influences coming on strong, as if tackling New York era Lou Reed in a Chrissie Hynde style down in Paul Weller’s Wild Wood. Lyrically, it’s the old theme of ‘if you love something, set it free’, yet this is far removed from any Sting pastiche, the keyboard touches transporting us from country to Memphis soul.
The Pretenders-like vocal comes through again on Don’t Pass Me By, but again this isn’t straight-forward rock, carrying an ethereal John Lennon vibe, transported to Portishead maybe. After that we need the more straight-forward sweet if not mournful folk-country of Always This Way, and Laura reflects, ’25 years, nothing to show for it’. We’ve all been there, right? Yet she concludes with a more wistful, ‘At least I can say that my debts have been paid’. Yes, time to move on.
Wild Once is as nostalgic as she seems to get on this record. Her explanations suggest it’s about a ‘more masculine phase’ in her life involving ‘hiking and bouldering, scrambling up trees or whatever’, ‘running through a forest by Big Sur with no shoes on’. Yet for me there’s a quintessentially English spirit. The album notes further suggest The Valley is more of a nostalgia trip, but for me this nod to the ‘archetype of the wild woman and her unrestrained physicality’ is more so.
Next Time retains that sense of outdoor exploration, underpinned by a fitting acoustic strum yet again beautifully constructed and subtly orchestrated, retaining its ‘out on the porch’ vibe. Think Michelle Shocked’s Texas Campfire Tapes with Beatlish undertones.
Nouel is lyrically the key to it all, but musically maybe the closest we get to Joni Mitchell here. This is no tribute act though. It’s every bit Laura, her ultimate ‘fickle and changeable are you, and long may that continue’ line a joyous celebration of pride in yourself.
Then we’re away with some glorious touches of blues electric guitar underpinning part-Dylan, part-Hynde masterpiece Nothing, Not Nearly, its searing six-string touches taking us to a climactic coming together, so to speak. Besides, ‘Nothing matters more than love’. Again, I hear it as a hymn of hope for the future, about making the most of the limited time we have here. ‘We’ve not got long, you know, to bask in the afterglow. Once it’s gone, it’s gone’ she reminds us, then adds that final rider, ‘Love waits for no one’.
In short, Semper Femina is as intimate and personal as we’d expect from Laura, yet strewn with mature touches showing us just how much she’s picked up along the journey. The accompanying interviews go deep into examining the psychology and female psyche, but don’t let that guide you or deter you. For me it’s more about friendship, romance and everything we hold dear. But what’s Laura’s take on it all?
“I started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman, then thought, “It’s not a man, it’s me! I don’t need to pretend it’s a man to justify the intimacy, or the way I’m looking and feeling about women. It’s me looking specifically at women, feeling great empathy towards them, and by proxy towards myself.”
The LP follows Laura’s Reversal of the Muse podcast series, ’10 conversations about what’s happening in music and feminine creativity and its relationship to one another’. From high-profile singers Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to female sound engineers and guitar shop owners, she sought to openly discuss female creativity, with no pre-conceived conclusions.
“I would say feminine creativity, the feminine part of the brain is in both sexes, but is inherently different to the masculine. For me, playing guitar has always been tied up with my identity, it’s always been involved in myself, rather than enticing people in. There’s a lot more to catch up on for women in this industry and I’m interested to investigate other industries, particularly visual art, film and television. The imbalance needs to be rectified so we can have a more balanced understanding of the world.
“I started the Reversal of the Muse before I started this record, although my interests in femininity and the origins of that fuelled both. I’ve been asked a lot to have firm opinions about felinity and feminism and still don’t know enough about either of those subjects. But what I really enjoyed was that it allowed me to keep asking questions. That’s what I want to keep doing.”
Semper Femina too questions how society views sexuality and gender, although Laura offers no definitive answers, instead perhaps more concerned with expressing her own voyage of self-discovery while developing and learning as artist, performer and individual. Explaining further the concept behind the album, she tells us it came from a particularly ‘masculine time’ in her life.
“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 I quickly realised the powerful thing to do was look at women through a woman’s eyes. It was a little stumble at the beginning of the record – a self-conscious stumble.
“I read a lot of poetry. Gothic romantic literature used to play quite a big part in my vocabulary of emotional experience. Now I have my own emotional experiences I like drawing on them and delving into poetry as well as literary fictional and fantasy. My favourite poet is Rainer Maria Rilke, who was a bit of a hopeless romantic. He’s the reason I got to writing this record in some ways, as I was researching his life for writing the libretto for an opera. He was dressed as a girl until he was eight, which had quite a profound effect on his relationship to women and made him somewhat of an obsessive woman-fancier.”
Laura also directed the videos for the album, starting with the stirring, latex-lavished Soothing promo, taking on the dreamy premise behind the first track I heard off the album, still as powerful as on those early listens.
“I’m more comfortable talking about the directing than the music. The directing was amazing. I’d never been inclined to give visual representation to my music personally. It’s become the way music is released now to have a visual accompaniment. So to give my lucid dreaming quality to this, where I get a lot of imagery from, was an amazing experience.
“It requires a lot of people to be in that image with you, so you have draw so many people in to that image with you. That annoying extra prop that costs lots of money has to be there because it has symbolic value. I found it quite stressful, but that’s in my nature, and one of the more creative things I’ve ever done.”
If Short Movie gave a glimpse into Laura’s spell living in LA, the new album suggests further change since. So where does she go from here?
“I don’t know! When I wrote Short Movie it felt like I was writing about something I was going to experience rather than something I had experienced. Creativity has a funny way of being ahead of you. I don’t know where I am now, because maybe it’s still catching up to me.”
“I was all over the shop. I suppose there’s a bit of English nostalgia in there too, because I was in America a lot lot last year and the year before last.”
Having produced Short Movie herself, why bring in Blake Mills this time, and how did that influence the album?
“I’d become accustomed to working with Ethan Johns, who – like Blake – is also an extraordinary musician. We made five records together so have a very established way of working. Working with Blake was quite a shock to the system. He has a very different way and is incredibly innovative. He’s not very far in age from me so we kind of met at a similar level.
“I’d go home every night from the studio and practice guitar. I wanted to be as good as him. Over the three weeks we were playing together my playing improved a lot. He’s someone who has spent a lot of time playing and it made me think I need to spend some more time playing guitar. He’s got an incredible tonal palette and a cool cat, so it was a great honour.
“I really enjoyed producing but it’s just not my calling. I’d love to do it for someone else, but for myself it was too difficult to play both roles. Making the podcasts I discovered I play off the vulnerability of being a solo human being, playing a very vulnerable song in front of a microphone with six people in a control room.
“It’s a weird dynamic, but has always worked for me. A lot of songwriters I know can’t bear to be overheard when they’re songwriting, but I quite like it — I write in venues or dressing rooms when there are eight people in the room. There’s something thrilling and weirdly voyeuristic about it. But I like the idea that it will be heard, whereas if I’m producing it feels like it might only be heard by me.
“I think Blake was very sweetly not sure what to do with an English girl. It took a week or two to shake off the very set image of what I was in his mind – a ‘romping through the countryside’ delicate character from Emma. I’ve had that so many times. In some ways you can keep that image of me, but in others I have to break it in order to get work done, because it’s a really heavy block between you and what you want to get done. Also, because I’d just come from producing a record myself I had to get rid of that idea of delicacy.”
“I love America and find it very infuriating for the same reason. They give a lot of value to artists and that’s quite nice if you’ve devoted your career to being an artist. It makes you feel good about yourself, but also gives a strange over-the-top reverence to people who have lived very self-indulgent lives and demand to be called artists. That represents my own constant inner tussle over whether something is an indulgence or a compulsion.
“America gave me a bit more freedom to indulge in that and I got pulled in again. In that way it gave me a lot of freedom to express myself without self-criticism that I should be doing something more important, or more useful.
“LA makes me feel very different to England. Now my love affair with LA is at a point where I don’t really leave my house and all my friends are English. It’s a great place to be, but it’s not an enticing fantastical adventure anymore. I think the election brought that home.”
Does she ever think about what her life would have been if she hadn’t chosen music as a career?
“Constantly, right now more than ever! I think I would have always had music in my life, but probably would have been a chef or a writer.”
And how have her recent experiences shaped the writing of Semper Femina?
“I’ve done a lot of travelling on my own and touring on my own. It can sound super-romantic and glamorous, but dragging three to four guitars around and throwing them in the back of a car constantly, it’s a big mental and physical exertion and it can be a little bit scary. Being alone, getting paid, doing all that stuff, I’ve been aware of that restriction of women traveling and that’s been the most relevant thing to me. I have this great fear of traveling alone now and that innate sense of fear is really quite constricting and perhaps more of an affliction to women than to men.
“The falling in love you experience with friendship is so less defined than romantic or sexual love. I’ve been obsessed with that always. Because I have sisters maybe, and a mother. I think because of that there’s a high standard of trust and care that I place on myself and that I feel in my female friends as well. We have quite a high empathetic standard for each other.
“There’s a lot of that on this record, that trying to make amends for those sort of broken channels. The time and the political climate that we live in, we’re coming to a point where there’s no need for this sort of artistic expression that I’ve been a part of. Innocent creativity had a little flourish in the last 10 years. But I’m getting older and now think, ‘What use is that?’ It’s not rooted, not pointed, not political. For me right now I feel like it’s more important I have a practical use.”
To catch up with the videos for Soothing and The Valley, for all the latest from Laura, and how to get hold of the new album, head to her website.