An Interview with Laura Marling
By: Michael Simon
Last October, Laura Marling performed an impromptu set in the street after being barred from her own gig at the Soho Revue Bar. The folk singer/songwriter (who hates that term) wasn't barred for rowdiness — the then 17-year-old just happened to be a year under the club's strict over-18 policy.
Marling first started getting attention when Jamie T invited her to tour with him after seeing her second solo show. But despite having only been on the scene for two years, Marling has plenty of material behind her. As well as being a member of Noah and the Whale before going solo, she's also collaborated with the likes of the Mystery Jets and The Rakes. Railing against the disposable music generation, she initially released her first album as a strictly limited edition and chart-ineligible Songbox, containing gig tickets and mementoes of each song. Now, Alas I Cannot Swim is nominated for the Mercury Prize alongside records from The Last of the Shadow Puppets, Radiohead, Elbow and Robert Plant.
Ahead of today’s announcement of the winner, Marling spoke to SoundProof about the evolving soul of music and the problem of folk.
SoundProof: How does it feel to have the nomination?
Laura Marling: It's very exciting. It's quite scary! It's a good fear. It's very daunting.
SP: Was it your ambition to do things like this?
LM: It's one of those things you don't really think about until it happens, but it's great.
SP: Based on your album title, can you swim?
LM: I can yes. Yes.
SP: Is the title a reflection on your experience of going solo?
LM: No, not really. It's about people expecting what you want out of life and it actually being something else.
SP: How has it felt to move to the forefront of public attention?
LM: It's strange; it is strange. I loved being part of Noah and the Whale because there was just no pressure. I didn't write the songs, so there was absolutely no pressure and I just got to stand back and watch and these amazing songs came out and I loved it so much. I love doing the solo thing just as much, but it's just a little bit more scary. But because of that it's a little bit more exciting.
SP: Have you gotten used to it yet?
LM: I think I'll always be daunted by it and I'll never get used to it, but I think that's a good thing because I fear if I ever got used to it and I found playing live easy, I'd become complacent and that would be terrible.
SP: How do you categorize yourself? I imagine the singer/songwriter tag must be intensely annoying.
LM: I do hate the term singer/songwriter because it just brings to my head a lot of whiny things. I'm not really folk, but people have just started using that and I don't mind it. I think it's nicer than singer/songwriter, it's very honest really.
SP: Do you mind the fact that people tend to describe acoustic guitar as folk? Do you aspire to be folksier?
LM: I think the next album’s going to be more that way, more leaning towards traditional folk than whatever the last album was.
SP: What's the next album going to be like then?
LM: It's a bit more . . . I can't describe it, not because it's particularly indescribable, I just can't think. I'm writing a lot more with a band in mind, now that I play with a band.
SP: Are you looking at things in a broader scope?
LM: It's stuff I'd never thought before, and you can be a lot more creative with things.
SP: Are you dealing with different themes?
LM: I'm at a different point in my life now, so it'll be different anyway. I don't want to be repetitive.
SP: How long did you spend writing the first album?
LM: I didn't want the first album to just be a best of so far, so I scrapped everything I had and wrote “My Maniac and I,” and just wrote the whole album around that song because it had all the themes and the imagery that I liked and it was representative of where I was at the time.
SP: How have things changed since then?
LM: Well, I was slightly less happy than I am now. I was doing lots of things and meeting lots of people, and the people that you meet and what you're doing to yourself have a huge impact on what creative output you have and just now, it's different to how it was back then, so it'll be a different output.
SP: In the Songbox each song came with an item representing it. How did you go about that?
LM: It was one item in the box for each song. I worked with this friend of mine, a woodcut artist. And he's fantastic, he's a really quiet guy and I just spoke to him about it, and gave him some sketches and he listened to the songs and came out with these amazing images that you'd never expect — this guy, what's going on in his head is just brilliant. It's just this darkish imagery from the songs, and it's all quite scatty and a bit rough.
SP: How did you come up with the Songbox?
LM: I am part of the iPod generation and I can't stand it. I love getting an album and reading the notes and the thank-yous and the artwork, and I think it really has an effect on how you interpret or how you feel about an album. It's sad that that sort of special feeling can't really be had any more with buying an album straight off the internet, or not even buying, just getting it. I'm sure there are plenty of people who think that as well and it's just the pleasure of having something to treasure, and I love that.
SP: Do you think people have an increasingly superficial view of music?
LM: I don't think everyone does and there are some circumstances where it's very useful to be able to quickly click and get a music download and take it with you anywhere, but it has become like musical wallpaper that follows you everywhere you go and blocks out the world and I don't think that's what most fun music is meant for. Some music is meant for that.
SP: So do you try and make your music accessible, or is there more to get if people pay attention?
LM: I don't do anything with intention. It's all stream of consciousness, I can't really control it.
SP: How many of your lyrics are autobiographical?
LM: It's at arms length, it's always the way I've written.
SP: Is that to protect yourself or the people around you?
LM: I don't think my little old heart could take it if I got up and sang something very personal every night, it'd just be too much.
SP: How do you find touring?
LM: I love it; I absolutely love touring, I mean I'm in a constant state of panic, but it keeps me going, it keeps my adrenaline going. I love traveling, I love being in a different place every morning, so I'm lucky. I know a lot of people who don't like touring, but we don't do heavy tours, we do a few-night tours, so it's not hard work at all.
SP: And you've been touring churches lately?
LM: Yeah, we did a UK tour of churches and that was just amazing. I'm not religious, but I'm quite spiritual and just being in a place like that – there’s no lighting so the lights are always on and it feels like you're one of the audience even when you're performing and you're all in it together. There's something incredibly easy about playing in a place like that, it feels like you're not on a stage at all.
SP: How exactly did it work?
LM: They were evening gigs and it was just at the beginning of the summer so the sun would be coming down, and all churches are built in a certain way so that when the sun comes up and goes down the light shines through, and we managed to get it so that the sun was setting at about 8:30 when I went on stage. It was so beautiful, just amazing places.
SP: Were they quite proscriptive for what they would let you do?
LM: We had to do some compromising and convince them that we were a wimpish folk group and we weren't going to cause any trouble. Which of course we didn't.
SP: What’s your inspiration?
LM: It’s ever changing, and my fickle mind won't stick on anything, but it's the constant search for happiness and perfection and whether those are meaningless.
SP: Do you model your sound on anyone?
LM: I try and avoid it, but sometimes it unavoidable. You can't help but be influenced and then suddenly realize after you've written a song that it’s been written a million times before.
SP: Do you drop it at that point?
LM: I'm pretty good at thinking, hmm, I can't really get away with that.
SP: Music runs in your family, though.
LM: My dad runs a recording studio and he's a guitarist, so he taught me guitar when I was a nipper, and I've got two sisters who are a lot older than me and they're both really into music, so I was quite lucky in that respect.
SP: What do you think of your co-nominees?
LM: Radiohead obviously, amazing, Elbow I think are fantastic, but they're not really influences.
SP: How do you feel about your name being attached to Jamie T’s? Is there any creative partnership?
LM: No, it's really strange. I went on tour with him, but that was it. I was just really lucky to have played a certain night and he was there. It's funny what people pick up on, and how it comes back. He's amazing though and I love Jamie and his album.
SP: Have you got any more collaborations in the pipeline?
LM: Umm, nooo. I think I should probably calm down on the collaborations. I'm singing on Mumford & Sons new EP, but that's not really a collaboration, it's just because I can do a low-female vocal.
SP: So you're going to America in the near future?
LM: I am, it's terribly exciting. Next weekend.
SP: Is that going to be short and sweet?
LM: No, for America it's going to be a big one. If you're not paying, you're playing. It's going to be so nice there, it's me co-headlining with Johnny Flynn, who’s another British songwriter, and Mumford & Sons supporting, two of whom are in my band, but they're their own band in their own right, and they're amazing as well. And it's just going to be 14 of us on a bus driving around the States for three weeks. It's going to be great. We're going to have to take it as it goes, but if I think about it any more I'm probably going to freak out.
SP: When can we expect the next album?
LM: Hopefully, early next year. That's the dream. I haven't got all the songs yet, so it might be a Christmas-time recording.
Video: New Romantic by Laura Marling