Always a woman, Laura Marling on finding her female voice
PUBLISHED: 16:49 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:59 20 March 2017
Fresh from releasing her sixth album, an exploration of gender and femininity, the acclaimed folk songstress is coming play two special solo shows in Bury St Edmunds and Norwich.
Approaching the writing of her new album, acclaimed singer-songwriter Laura Marling imagined she was a man writing about a woman, and then I thought; “it’s not a man, it’s me.”
The result is Semper Femina, her sixth studio album in a little over nine years, which takes this loose lyrical thread and strings together her keen, freshly observed take on womanhood, and what she describes as a particularly ‘masculine time in her life’.
Largely written out on the road, and follow-up to her Los Angeles-made 2015 album, Short Movie, which channelled Fleetwood Mac, this is a record that addresses questions of how society views sexuality and gender, but without seeking to provide definitive answers.
Gentle, graceful and muted, it’s an album of spare, yet highly crafted songs that disassemble and examine perspectives of women.
She will be playing from it at solo shows in Bury St Edmunds and Norwich, part of a short tour that will she her perform in an intimate setting without her usual band.
The West London folk songstress has explored musically since her largely folk 2008 debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim. That album, its follow-up I Speak Because I Can, and her fourth album, Once I Was an Eagle, were all nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
On this album, which saw her working with American musician/producer Blake Mills, folk dissolves into country tones and fuzzy guitar, while other tracks are intimate and tender, while raw and exposing lyrics reverberate with questions.
Where does the title of your new album, Semper Femina, come from?
It comes from a Virgil poem, and the full quote from the poem is “Varium et mutabile semper femina”, which I might be pronouncing wrong but the translation is: “fickle and changeable, always a woman”, so it’s better off as just “always a woman”.
You’ve previously said that the album came from a particularly “masculine time” in your life and that you approached it as if you were a man writing about a woman, but then realised that you didn’t need to write it from a man’s perspective?
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 very quickly realised that the powerful thing to do was to look at women through a woman’s eyes. It was a little stumble at the beginning of the record, a self conscious stumble - but yes that’s where that came from.
How do you feel your experiences as a female musician in a male dominated industry shaped the writing of the album?
I think my experiences in that 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 or 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 you know. Literally being alone, getting paid, doing all that stuff. I’m sure it’s scary for men as well, but I’ve been aware of that restriction of women travelling and that’s been the most relevant thing to me and I have this great fear of travelling alone now and I just noticed that innate sense of fear is really quite constricting. And perhaps more of an affliction to women than to men.
Your lyrics are always so romantic and literary. Do you draw any inspiration from literary fiction, if so who or what?
I used to read a lot of fiction and I don’t any more, but I read a lot of poetry. Gothic romantic literature used to play quite a big part in my vocabulary of emotional experience. Now that I have my own emotional experiences, many of them, I like drawing on them and delving into poetry more, as well as literary fictional/fantasy. My favourite poet is Rainer Maria Rilke - who was a bit of a hopeless romantic. He’s the reason that I got to writing this record in some ways because 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. It was his misguided perception of felinity that led me to try and investigate more about that.
Short Movie was a glimpse into your life in Los Angeles and how you coped with that. The title Semper Femina suggests change since then. Where are your stories heading next?
I don’t know! [laughs]. When I wrote Short Movie it felt like I was writing about something I was going to experience rather than something I had experienced. And music has a funny way, or creativity has a funny way of being ahead of you. So I don’t know where I am now, because maybe it’s still catching up to me. I think whereas Short Movie was more based on a landscape, this album was more based in thought.
This album was written on the road. Rather than having one home turf to base it from, you must have been all over the globe?
Yes I was all over the shop. I suppose there’s a definitely a bit of English nostalgia in there too because I was in America a lot last year and the year before last.
How do you feel that your experience of living and working in America has influenced your writing?
I love America and find America very infuriating for the same reason. I love them because they give a lot of value to artists and everyone is an artists and that’s quite nice if you’ve devoted your career, inadvertently in my case, to being an artist. It makes you feel good about yourself. But it also gives a very strange over the top reverence to people who have lived very self indulgent lives and demand to be called artists. And that represents my own inner tussle, a constant tussle, over whether something is an indulgence or is it a compulsion.
How has your collaboration with producer Blake Mills influenced you making this album?
Blake is an extraordinary musician and I’d become very accustomed to working with Ethan Johns who is also an extraordinary musician and we’ve made five records together, so we have a very established way of working. And working with Blake all of a sudden was quite a shock to the system because he has a very different way and he is incredibly innovative. He’s not very far in age from me so we kind of met at a similar level which I’ve never experienced. I would go home every night from the studio and practice guitar because I wanted to be as good as him. Over the three weeks we were playing together my guitar playing improved a lot. He’s got an incredible tonal palette and he’s a cool cat so it was a great honour.
You’ve made your directorial debut with the video for the album’s opening track, Soothing. How did you find that?
I’m more comfortable talking about the directing than I am the music, which is weird. 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 is to have a visual accompaniment. And so to give my lucid dreaming quality to this, which is where I get a lot of imagery from, to give that form 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. It was fun, really fun.
Do you think you’ll do more directing in future?
Yes. I would love to yes.
What song of yours do you enjoy playing the most?
This is a nice question. I think the one that’s never been off the setlist, and the setlist has been going for 10 years now, is Rambling Man. That’s my favourite song to play and it might be my favourite song I’ve ever written.
Is there any particular reason?
It’s very satisfying to sing and it’s quite fun to play.
Do you ever think about what your life would have been if you hadn’t been a musician? Do you have another dream life or career?
Yes, I think about that constantly. Right now more than ever! Yes I do think what my life would be like without music. I think I would have always had music in my life, but I think I probably would have been a chef or a writer. Hopefully, or maybe not.
Are you good in the kitchen? Do you have a speciality?
Something vegan. That usually impresses people! I could see that being a fun way to make money, if I didn’t have to be the head chef of a restaurant - that’d be scary!
• Laura Marling, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, March 22, 8pm, returns only, 01284 758000, theapex.co.uk/Waterfront, King Street, Norwich, March 28, 7.30pm, returns only, 01603 508050, ueaticketbookings.co.uk
• Semper Femina is out now