Forget Rihanna… Marina’s Diamonds Are Where It’s At

Two years ago, Marina and the Diamonds (a big title, but really just a stage name for petite Welsh-born Marina Diamandis) materialized seemingly out of nowhere: a series of innovative and slightly discomfiting video clips toeing the line between slick and low-fi popped up on YouTube, each featuring a raven-haired, big-eyed beauty with a buttery voice that went from brassy to Kate-Bush-crackle between breaths. Her music, a refreshing mash-up of splintering Depeche Mode-esque synth pop and baroque carnivale flourishes that would give Jon Brion a hard-on, quickly developed a hardcore following she always suspected it would (she’s often said her “diamonds” are her fans, yet she christened herself as such long before her first LP release) and her debut album The Family Jewels became one of 2010’s biggest international word-of-mouth sensations. Lyrically and musically robust, the album was like the strange lovechild of Peter Murphy and Fiona Apple — a niche few knew needed tending to, but many were grateful to see carved out.

For her sophomore album, the high-concept Electra Heart, she’s a bit poppier, a lot blonder, and is now on a second “victory lap”, making a sooner-than-expected return to North America to sell out even bigger venues than she did last spring. PopMatters caught up with Marina on a short break before she gears up to head back out on the road to talk field trips, Katy Perry, and underwear models.

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PopMatters: Before we begin, I have to tell you I’m a writing professor and I often use your music in my classes. So, you know, you’re already being taught in universities.

Marina: No way…

PopMatters: Absolutely. I’ve actually organized for about a dozen of my students to accompany me to your Terminal 5 show [in New York City, on December 6]. We’re calling it an international arts event.

Marina: So, I’m basically the new field trip.

PopMatters: Basically.

Marina: Well done! I love it. That’s such a cool thing to do. I wish my professors had been cool enough to do something like that.

PopMatters: Right? Who needs Plato’s “Allegory of a Cave” when you have “Bubblegum Bitch”?

Marina: [Laughs] Yes!

PopMatters: But back on task: I saw one of your first North American shows a few years ago at The Bell House in Brooklyn and I saw you more recently this past summer at Webster Hall. The evolution of your live show and the confidence in your performance was unmistakable. Is that a product of gaining so much popularity in such a short time?

Marina: That’s an interesting question, and a very valid one. I’ve really enjoyed touring this new album much more than the first, just because the type of music I’ve written on this album lends itself much more to who I am as a performer. I think that’s one of the conflicts I have, this split in my personality I’ve always struggled with as an artist. My artistic spirit is much more drawn towards the sad ballads, you know, the singer-songwriter stuff at the piano. But my personality is much more pop. Therefore for this album I really wanted to try to bring both worlds together, and I think I’ve succeeded in that. Show wise, it’s just about going from strength to strength, really. I’m just really happy now that I’m at a minimum level of production, where I can go into any venue and have this production [ready to go]. It’s not like me just sitting there with a CD holder in a hamburger case — which is my new fucking prop on stage actually. And I bought that myself. It’s not like the label has given me a budget or anything. So yeah, things have gotten very interesting…

PopMatters: There’s a noticeable difference sonically between The Family Jewels and Electra Heart, the latter sounding a lot more like conventional American pop, although when one listens closely, it seems that structurally and lyrically, you’re really turning those conventions on their heads. What brought about that transition?

Marina: I know people hate to think of artists in a business-like way because art is meant to be about romance and fantasy, of course. But I didn’t go and work with [producer] Dr. Luke for an album track. I wanted to get some singles, because I recognized that I needed to be opening myself up to a broader audience. Not to get them to like me for singles, but to introduce them to my past work and my current work as well. And that really did help a lot. And I think without having transitioned to this sound I’m not sure where I would have gone. I probably would have gone deeper down the indie rock path and maybe continued to fill some venues in the UK, but I’m not sure I would be doing the same numbers in America and managing to sell out these big theaters now.

PopMatters: Of course. The Family Jewels is brilliant, especially for a debut, but American radio isn’t going to play something like that.

Marina: Exactly. It literally got no radio play. Honestly nothing. I think there was on radio show I performed at and that was the only play I ever got.

PopMatters: Thank God for the internet. Now a tricky question: a lot of people were surprised when you opened for Katy Perry last year. Naturally, it makes good sense for exposure, but many would argue she’s a strong example of what’s “wrong” with the music industry today: an almost cartoonishly-attractive woman with a voice that wouldn’t get her past the first audition rounds on American Idol who is about to dethrone Michael Jackson for most number one singles because of a slick writing and production team — including Dr. Luke, who produced your single “Primadonna” — and the gift of auto-tune. Your records both pretty blatantly critique this very thing. How do you reconcile the content of your music with the choice to go on that tour?

Marina: It’s quite a controversial question and maybe the answer I’m about to give is as well, because it really was quite hard for me to make the decision. I had been kind of rallying against that [very thing], and I had to ask myself why I was doing the tour. [Katy] asking me to support the tour really made me question a huge amount of things I had been thinking about music. I was one of those people really who was like ‘oh this kind of music is not good, it doesn’t have weight or credibility.’ But I don’t think that’s something she’s ever claimed to have. And I think people who love her know that she is a real artist, maybe just not in the way you or I think of it. And also, let’s not forget, she’s only on her second album. You don’t know, in ten years what kind of music she’ll be making. So I kind of weighed it up and thought, well, the thing that’s stopping me from going is that I feel slightly hypocritical. And then the thing that makes me want to go is that I think I should go, and kind of challenge my own previous beliefs. So I did go. And it did change a lot of things for me. Not necessarily her and her show, but just the whole experience of it. And yeah, I think she’s fabulous. I think she’s fucking excellent at what she does. I don’t think career wise we’re on the same trajectory at all, though.

PopMatters: Good answer. And, well, if she’s listening to you at least we know she has great taste, right?

Marina: Well, sure, but she’s also genuinely supportive as well. I’m really quite fond of her.

PopMatters: So many of your songs seem to be about success — desiring success, obtaining success, the downfalls of success. How has this preoccupation informed your work?

Marina: [Laughs] Well, it is a big deal to me, but it’s not even about success in the financial or fame sense, it’s about having a relationship with people and feeling like people will understand you. I think in the beginning I interpreted it as being about [money and fame]. And I think I was always questioning what was going to be my career path. To be quite honest, I still don’t know. I think I will always be around and I will always have a hardcore fanbase, but I don’t think I will ever reach that kind of superstar fame that I always really had imagined. I think I will have fame in some sense of the word, but I think it will be different for me than it is for some, and I think accepting that has made me not so interested or obsessed with that anymore. While I think Electra Heart included a bit of it, but it was much more about… love, really, and the kind of “doomsday” impression of love I had at the time. So, success too in relationships. I think that carries over a bit into the new album.

PopMatters: Beyonce has said “Sasha Fierce” is her alter ego when she performs, Tori Amos became “The American Doll Posse”, and Lady Gaga is at turns either a man or a monster. The concept for Electra Heart has you investigating and embodying different archetypes of the pop starlet — the homewrecker, the Su-Barbie-A, the teen “idle”, and primadonna. What compelled you to be “next in line”, so to speak?

Marina: It was gradual really. If you have an album with a central theme, everything usually comes at once. For me it came over six months. The whole [archetype concept] came to me after I’d written the record. I was trying to understand what I had written. Most of the time, I don’t really know what I’m writing, or why I’ve written it so I have to sit back and think about it. And I thought ‘oh ok, I’m channeling certain archetypes here, and it’s not a parody of them, it’s just more of me trying to understand what society is like at this time, or what my generation of females are sort of reflecting and putting out there. It’s just like art, just like painting, and plays, theater, film, whatever: they always transport what’s happening in our times to the public. And that’s what I see art as anyway, and that’s how it came about.

PopMatters: Final pressing question: In the video for your new single, “How to Be a Heartbreaker,” has you singing while mostly naked men shower in the background. Is that a pretty accurate description of what life is like for you now?

Marina: [Laughs] You know, I had this funny feeling when I was doing the treatment, and I thought, ‘what if the next album, I just go totally in the opposite direction, and I’m not even close to being a pop artist at all? What if I never get money from a label again to spend on a video?’ So, I decided, ‘I shall buy men.’ When was I going to get the chance again to spend $50,000 on some Danish underwear models? So it’s kind of making hay while the sun shines!

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Marina and the Diamonds perform at Terminal 5 in New York City on Thursday, December 6.

Joe Vallese currently teaches essay writing at New York University. He is the editor of What’s Your Exit? A Literary Detour through New Jersey (Word Riot Press), and his writing appears in North American Review and Southeast Review, among other publications. He is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee and he was named a Notable in this year’s Best American Essays anthology. He is a frequent contributor to PopMatters, most recently coediting the Performer Spotlight on Tori Amos. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.