TAS In Session: Laura Marling
Laura Marling's first two albums garnered her critical huzzahs, Mercury Prize nominations and even a Brit Award, but her third release, the astonishing A Creature I Don't Know, is not only her masterpiece to date, but one of the best albums of the year.
A Creature i Don't Know is out today, September 12, in the UK and tomorrow in the States on Ribbon Music/Domino,
The album's process marked a period of personal turmoil for the 21-year-singer, which she weathered wielding powerful songcraft as both a weapon and source of solace. Songs like "The Beast" or "Night After Night," reflect the painful unraveling of a love affair while "Salinas" muses on the complex relationship of novelist John Steinbeck and his wife Elaine. Collaborating again with producer Ethan Johns, Marling's maturity as a songwriter, vocalist and arranger takes dynamic leaps on A Creature I Don't Know, with assured declarations like "Sophia" or "My Friends" unfolding from mere murmurs to full-throttle revels.
The Hampshire-born singer visited WFUV and The Alternate Side for an intimate, acoustic session earlier this summer, pensively playing a quartet of songs, including "Night After Night," "Don't Ask Me Why" and "Salinas." You can hear (or stream) the session in its entirety on TAS' sister station, 90.7 WFUV, tomorrow, September 13, at 9 p.m. EDT.
Kara Manning: We last spoke in May of 2010 and at that time, you said that you were well on your way to the third album. But this is not that album.
Laura Marling: No ….
Kara: Can you explain why you shifted away from it? Pushed the original songs to the side?
Laura: When we did the second album we had songs kind of left over and we decided not to put them on. I was writing all the way through recording the last album, I Speak Because I Can, so I thought I’d probably carry on writing and perhaps we can go back into [the studio] and finish another album. But when I finished I Speak Because I Can, it felt very complete, like it didn’t need any extra things said about it. Also, I kind of realized that the songs didn’t make it on the album because they weren’t good enough to be on the album. It was nice to wipe the slate clean and start again, start thinking from scratch.
Kara: For your last album there were things you were fascinated by, like The Odyssey, World War II letters. But songs like “My Friends” [are different] and seem part of a suite of three songs and this album is divided into sections. Are there divisions and chapters to this record?
Laura: Yes, the order of the songs is quite important to the flow, but there is meant to be a flow in this album, kind of the pinnacle of which is, I guess, the end of “The Beast” and then the calm waters, and then a bit of a storm again.
Kara: “The Beast” is a thunderstorm of a song. And “Night After Night” has that terrible feeling of the next morning, when you’ve had a horrible fight and you’re utterly drained. It feels as if you’re telling a story very clearly in this album … true?
Laura: Yes, I think so. It’s almost hard for me to say because I don’t feel that I write with much awareness of what I’m saying even. That’s quite dangerous, I guess!
Kara: I read something that after you’d listened back to this album for the first time, you were surprised by some of the things that you had written.
Laura: I was. There were some lines that I hadn’t registered before and were a bit of a surprise to me. I guess that’s a good thing in a way, a good progression of my songwriting. I’ve always felt to an extent in control of candid the music is and though I don’t feel that I’ve broken any of my own personal boundaries with this album, there’s bits of it where I thought, well, I wasn’t completely in control of that. In a way, this album is sort of … quite a scary thing to do.
Kara: The pain the you can go through with a personal relationship, sometimes you can come out the other end with something masterful like this album. This next album, which I see as the morning-after kitchen table conversation, you see as more placid?
Laura: More the eye of the storm!
Kara: Was writing this album helpful, a refuge? Or did you feel a great deal of pressure to have a third album. These songs feel very personal.
Laura: I guess … I’m very lucky in that I don’t have a lot of pressure on my shoulders which is nice. I write constantly, I guess. As I was saying before, I don’t totally feel in control of what I write. Songs seem to come whenever they want to come and there’s no way I’ll be able to sit down and go, I’m going to write a song today. I guess the only pressure is not knowing when you can tell your band that you’re ready to go into studio because there’s no way of knowing when an album is going to be finished.
Kara: Are you still working with the same backing band? Same people?
Laura: Slightly different lineup this time. We’ve got a cello player, a trombone player.
Kara: So when you sad down with [your producer] Ethan Johns and he first heard the songs, do you remember his reaction? So many of these songs have such intricate arrangements.
Laura: This time I demoed all the tracks from the album with the foundations of the arrangements and backing vocals. Then I too them to the band who added their magic to them. We rehearsed solidly for a week before we went into the studio. Ethan hadn’t heard half the songs when we got into the studio and we just did them in sequence and recorded them live, all in a room together. We were done in ten days and we couldn’t quite believe it. Amazing.
Kara: When did you go into the studio?
Laura: Towards the end of March.
Kara: This is so recent! Do you remember which song was the first you wrote?
Laura: I Speak Because I Can was chronological, the way the tracks appeared on the album. This one I slightly messed around with a bit. “Rest in the Bed” was the first song written for this album and in a way, quite a lot of the themes in that are represented throughout the other tracks, but it’s slap bang in the middle of the album. And the last song to be written was “The Muse” which is the first track.
Kara: There’s a lot of reference to Sophia, who is the Gnostic goddess of wisdom. Was that a character that fascinated you for a particular period of time?
Laura: I was reading a lot of Robertson Davies, a Canadian writer and he speaks about her a lot, but he’s got this funny way of writing. There’s a theme in a lot of his books - he reveres and worships women, but is also incredibly afraid of them (laughs). I just thought it was so brilliant! This character Sophia or what she became to me in my head, was this alma mater, this all terrifying, all knowledgable, the everything. I was just drawn to it. She became a character, I guess, and less omnipotent and more human.
Kara: There are four songs that are not on this album that you’re going to be releasing as an EP. You are prolific!
Laura: I just had two months off! I’ve been sitting on my bum in West London for two months.
Kara: Are you prepared to field the battery of questions from journalists that you’re going to get on this record?
Laura: Yeah, it’s a horrible way to say it, but if people have got, shall we say ….
Kara: The backstory?
Laura: If people have the guts to ask those personal questions … I think most people know personal boundaries. They can ask the questions, but I don’t have to answer them!
Kara: The Brit Award. Where did you put it? Were you shocked to get it?
Laura: I was pretty shocked, yeah! It was a bit of a surprise. It’s currently on my mother’s mantelpiece. I was was genuinely completely gobsmacked.
Kara: Who is your muse these days? What is “The Muse” for you?
Laura: I dunno. I realize that I’m increasingly becoming more and more of a magpie and sort of taking things out of newspapers and underlining things in books and living other people’s lives, I guess.
Kara: Do you tend to obsess about things? Like the author Robertson Davies?
Laura: I got pretty obsessive with Robertson Davies. He’s Canadian and I nearly got on plane to Toronto, but sadly he died, like, 20 years ago. It would be hard to meet him.
Kara: [Regarding the title of you] album, A Creature I Don’t Know, are you speaking of yourself?
Laura: Um … I don’t know (laughs).
Kara: The songs that are tied [together], did you feel that there was a concept or did you feel that you wanted every song tightly bonded with the song before?
Laura: There definitely, as you say, links between the songs that tie them together and some more than others. But particularly with these next two songs, “Don’t Ask Me Why” and “Salinas.” They were written within a day of each other and they felt like they couldn’t be separated. A lot of this album is written in the same key as well. Pretty much all of it is written in the same tuning and I guess that gives it a sense of connection. I don’t know why but they seemed, in my head, that they needed to be next to each other and also linked on the album. We were going to have it as one long track, but they are two individual songs.
Kara: [John] Steinbeck obviously informs “Salinas.” I love the fact that you were born in February and he was born in February. Was he a kindred literary spirit?
Laura: I don’t know, I’m kind of torn. The reason that I found out about Steinbeck and Salinas being linked is that I was reading a short biography of him written by his second wife, I think. She’s writing about him - and a lot of wives of famous writers seem to do this - like he was untouchable in some way. Like some sort of absolute genius. Obviously I’m not going to say that Steinbeck was anything short of a genus, but there was something interesting about that. I don’t think that he was probably that nice of guy.
Kara: Over the years watching you perform, your confidence and sense about yourself as a vocalist has grown profoundly. Are you very self-critical or pleased with your voice?
Laura: I never, I don’t think I have the best voice ever. But I’m also not in any way a perfectionist I guess. I think when we we doing the album, I can pretty much only do one good take (laughs). And then I’m spent! I can’t do it again. So I don’t really have time for self-doubt in that way. When it’s a whole album, I’ll have a good freakout about it, but individually, no.
Kara: Do you tend to think while you’re singing? I’m always amazed watching you because you tend to go somewhere else and then you come back. Do you go into another place entirely?
Laura: I think I’m slightly split in two. I think that’s how I cope with it, I guess. I definitely do feel like I go off into another world when I’m singing. I guess when I started playing and I was quite young and quite nervous all of the time, I would do that. I would try to remember where I was when I wrote the song or what triggered that song being written and I guess I now do that every time I play.
Kara: You went to Nashville and worked with Jack White - and last time you were here you did the Jackson C. Frank “Blues Run The Game.” You did that as a single for Third Man Records. What was it like working with him?
Laura: I think he found out we were working in Nashville and got in touch and we went down to his studio. That was amazing. I’ve been a huge fan of Jack White; not just his music, I think he’s doing brilliant, brilliant things for music. And for the value of music. He’s doing it all because he’s really passionate about it. Becaues we all know, it doesn’t make us any money! No matter how much we value music! That was really, really exciting and he’s such a nice guy.
Kara: Did you talk about maybe doing a project down the line?
Laura: I was only there for half an hour actually. I’ve only got one take in me! So I didn’t get to chat to him much, but I’d love to work with him again; I think he’s phenomenal.
Kara: Do you feel that when young songwriters come up to you, young women especially, that you’re an artist that women can admire and not live up to a certain image? Do you feel that’s a responsbility or don’t think about?
Laura: Yeah, I don’t think about it … I think if I did think about it, it would probably freak me out quite a lot! But I definitely do feel that there’s a want from people for sincerity. I think people want people being honest with them. Some people do, some people don’t. It’s exciting. I feel that music comes round on itself all of the time.
Kara: You’ve been doing this since you were 15 or 16. You’re so young and you’ve done so much. Do you ever wish that you had less of a spotlight on you? That you were less known and could be quieter in pursuing what you love?
Laura: I do. I battle with it quite a lot actually. It’s not like I walk down the street and get recognized. That literally never happens, so it’s not that kind of anonymity. It’s just the kind of craving for normality that is difficult to come by in this line of work, as it were. I guess everyone has those battles in whatever they do. I’m in no way saying that I’d rather work 9 to 5. But it takes you very far away from normality and relatability and that can be a dangerous thing, especially if you do what I do and you’re hoping to reach out to people. Then I guess, we’ve all got the same problems in many ways.
Kara: When do you become selfish and say, “I need to look after myself and this is what I need to do?” And what do you do?
Laura: Well, I’m quite good at it! I need quite a lot of alone time in order to keep some sort of sanity but I do a lot of wandering. I do like a good wander. And I do like a good cup of coffee, so I’ll usually wander to a good coffee shop and sit there quietly.
Kara: What would be an ideal day for you?
Laura: Whenever I have a day off I probably will sit somewhere all day and do a crossword and read a book. And then probably see my friends in the evening for a glass of wine.
Kara: What are you reading now?
Laura: Robertson Davies! I’m totally obsessed!
Kara: What’s your musical Robertson Davies? A guest DJ pick of something you’re obsessed by?
Laura: Somebody gave me this album a couple of weeks before I went into the studio to record, actually. It’s by a guy called Jim Sullivan. It's called UFO and I think he did one album, released in 1969, and then he wandered off into the Mexican desert and no one every heard from him again. There’s a song on it called “Rosey” that I think is incredible. The whole album is incredible, but that track in particular.