Laura Marling Makes Magic By Flipping the Script

Steve Knopper
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Laura Marling says she attempted to flip the idea of the omnipresent male gaze on Semper Femina and focus on what it’s like for women to look at women.

Move to Los Angeles, Laura Marling advises. Then leave. “It opened up a whole … weird world,” says the British singer-songwriter, who has been touring the world since she started her music career as a 16-year-old. “In London, it’s very wonderful, but very cynical, and alcohol-based, pub-based poetry. In California, it was all … hallucinogenic, multicolored vegan. All very new to me!

“And that was great,” adds Marling, who just put out her sixth album, an erudite and soulful collection of folk musings about femininity called Semper Femina. “But it was a lot to experience in a short time. And without having anybody around who knew me before, so nobody reflects you back at yourself, you lose touch with who you are and what you believe in. Which is a good exercise. But yeah, I had my time there.”

Marling returned to London last year, not long before she began working on Semper Femina -- hiring a producer for the first time, Blake Mills, who’d worked with John Legend and Alabama Shakes. It’s a soft, meticulously arranged album full of soft string sections, acoustic guitars, and upright basses, and Marling’s deep voice often has the feel of early Leonard Cohen albums. The album is named after a tattoo she bought when she was 21 -- it translates to “always a woman". “It’s on my thigh, and I was into the thigh being an area of particular feminine strength because women have incredibly durable thighs and pelvises,” Marling says in a half-hour phone interview from a Seattle tour stop. “So it was like I was obsessed with that notion of a uniquely feminine strength.”

Marling grew up on an Eversley, England, family farm, where her mother, Judi, was what she once called her “poetry czar” and her father, Charles, ran a music studio out of a barn. The acoustics were so good that Black Sabbath spent time there when Laura was a little girl, and the La’s showed up to record their 1990 hit “There She Goes". “I don’t remember anything,” she says. “But there’s a picture of me with the La’s when I was a baby.”

Her father shut down the studio when Laura was four, and she remembers the family selling the equipment. Charles worked hard and sometimes didn’t have a lot of time to spend with his family, but she found a way to connect with him by taking up guitar. “I don’t want to get into pop psychology, but it was a reason for him to sit down and play with me,” she recalls. “My dad’s the sweetest man alive, and he was a great father, but this connection to him was very important, and we communicate best together through this medium.”

At 16, Marling posted a few songs on MySpace, and she earned enough exposure for key performances such as the City Showcase: Spotlight London in 2006. Although she has said her first record deal was “awful", she has put out six excellent albums, all dealing with heavy concepts such as anger, freedom, and solitude. She likes all of them, although she has tough things to say about 2015’s Short Movie (that’s the one about solitude). “It was like an ill art. It was like a bit of a nasty, dark, not-nice color,” she says.

By contrast, Semper Femina, although lyrically challenging, was easy to write and record. Marling has said she attempted to flip the idea of the omnipresent male gaze and focus on what it’s like for women to look at women -- and not only that but for herself to look at women. The album starts on a bleak but powerful note: “Oh, my hopeless wanderer/ you can’t come in,” she sings in “Soothing". “You don’t live here anymore.”

“It was written very quickly -- half of it was written when we were in the studio, and then Blake Mills’ arrangements are just perfect,” she says. “Playing it every night is absolutely a pleasure.”

Marling’s routine for writing a new album is to spend eight months “reading and trying to take in things,” then another two months attempting to “breathe out". By this calendar, she’s due to write new material, although she hasn’t yet, focusing instead on a collaboration with somebody named Mike due in 2018. In the meantime, she sounds over the phone as if she is in a coffee shop or kitchen of some kind, with teacups clanking in the background. The setting makes sense, as Marling, like her father, is an introvert.

“I definitely thrive better not in groups. And I get very exhausted,” she says. “Over my years of touring, I’ve learned to take myself away -- and I don’t need to apologize for that -- because otherwise, you’re constantly in a group. I love being around people, but I definitely need time to recover.”

That’s not to say she gets stage fright. “I’ve never been funny about playing shows. That’s always felt very natural,” she adds. “Introversion doesn’t necessarily mean shyness.”

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