Marling discusses love, life, psychoanalysis and her new album, Song for Our Daughter
By Jeff McCord
We’ve all found things to do during the shutdown. Instead of livestreaming, Laura Marling has been. among many other things, teaching guitar lessons online. And doing interviews to support the release of her new album. I spoke with her at home on a London afternoon. Our discussion was wide-ranging but far from rambling. A serious reader and lover of language, Marling would pause before formulating her precise and measured replies.
It’s been three years since Semper Femina, the British singer’s Grammy-nominated release, and her new album was slated for release later this year. When the pandemic hit, Marling decided to get Song For Our Daughter out there early. I asked her why.
“It was a product of realizing that this could go on indefinitely, and indeed it is going to. And that it might turn out to be quite a good time to listen to music, particularly music that’s not likely to be played in a loud party.”
You’re not likely to hear Marling at a party – when they exist again – but in the course of seven albums in a little over ten years, she has become one of the most creative songwriters working today. Dogging her is a lazy comparison to Joni Mitchell; you know, both blonde females with guitars and voices that glide into upper registers. But Marling is too much of a feminist to write “A Case Of You”. And she’s no Laurel Canyon folkie. In fact, she abhors the term.
“I don’t feel totally comfortable with belonging to the folk genre because it implies a tradition that’s been done over and over and over and over again.”
Marling is careful not to repeat herself. After Femina was released in 2017, she spent a lot of time writing and rejecting songs she felt too similar to her past work, a self-awareness uncommon to an artist who just turned thirty. Instead, she detoured, moving back from LA to the London neighborhood of her youth, collaborating on music for two plays with playwright and director Robert Ickes, and on a new band with Mike Lindsay from Tuung, an against-type duo they call LUMP. Their eponymous debut was released in 2108. Did all this help her to relate differently to her own work?
“Sort of unintentionally, I mean, a combination of two things, one, on Semper Femina, I worked with Blake Mills, who’s one of the more extraordinary living musicians. And his sonic palette had a huge effect on me and made me want to up my game. I also in that time had moved back to London and decided this is where I was going to be for the next while, and set up my own studio in my house. And so for the first time, really, I was able to really sit in a room of my own and think about the structure of the song in the album and the production as a whole.”
Daughter’s sound is lush, layered background vocals, a couple of string arrangements, varying settings and tempos each designed to frame the stories she tells. The opener, “Alexandra”, seems to refer to titular character from Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving”. “I need to know.” Marling sings, “Where did Alexandra go?” I asked Marling if she realized her open-ended tales had the same effect on her fans.
“No, I’m not aware of that. But I like it. I’m glad that’s the effect because the things that I pick up on in my life, my observations of other people’s lives, are all these tiny little passionate moments. Even though the setting of the scene can seem mundane, the emotional graphic is at its peak.”
There’s deep emotion throughout the new album, lines ranging from “Some love is ancient and lives on your soul” to a phrase borrowed from Ickes, “Love is a sickness cured by time”. There’s a resoluteness to move on that surfaces again and again. “I love you, goodbye” comes at “The End of the Affair”. “Now let me live my life.”
“[There’s] a particular interest in the madness of love and how passionately it’s felt, and how passionately it leaves its mark on you. But also that love is a construction, you know, that it is this kind of madness that will leave you, and inevitably your life becomes mundane and even your relationship with that person will become mundane. Those moments of passion are vivid and worth capturing.”
This might all feel confessional. Yet the title track is a sad and knowing tale of letting go of your grown-up daughter, letting her live her life. Marling doesn’t have a daughter.
“There’s a part of me that is sort of an antagonist. I really protect the accusations of biography that get thrown at me about my songwriting. It takes away from my artistic capabilities to be the creator of a story and it puts me more in sort of a feminine confessional space that’s expected or demanded of women sometimes.”
“There’s also a part of me that knows that I am intrinsically weaved into the narrative of all the songs. What also changed in the last couple of years is that I’ve been living in London, back where my identity is very grounded because I live around my sisters, I live around the people I grew up with when I was a kid. And I can’t escape. And I think that’s the nature of the narratives. You know, they’re not all things that I’ve experienced. I haven’t had an affair. I don’t have a daughter. They’re all kind of fantastical expressions.”
While making this album, Marling has been doing something rather extraordinary for a musician. She’s pursuing a Master’s degree in psychoanalysis. Marling made her first album at seventeen, born into a musical family. I asked if this was an effort to do something new or a way to add to her art.
“Definitely both. I think psychoanalysis provides a really accurate language for the experience of songwriting, I guess any kind of creativity – bringing things past the epidermal level, beyond your experience, your inner version of you to an outside form that has to conform to multiple societal expectations and pressures. That is inevitably a frustration, because it’s never the true expression of what’s inside. It does meet in my work a bit.”
“But I am constantly thinking ‘what I would do if I wasn’t a musician?’ because it feels like quite a precarious occupation. I get very frustrated with it, as a thing that has to inevitably meet a commodity. I find that very uncomfortable.”
That might be true, but Song For Our Daughter is another remarkably accomplished set of songs from Marling. There’s not a single weak track, but the sorrowful “Fortune” stands out as one of her finest. In it, she references a real-life event, a stash of money her mother kept for ‘running away’. I tell Marling that I love this generational touchstone; that it seems so uniquely.. English.
“[laughs] I think it is very English. You know, just the act of it. In some ways my mother was radical in that she was a character. She also spent the better part of her life bringing up three children and not having any income of her own. And that’s a choice that she made. But the idea that this little pot of money would perform the task of giving her the confidence that she could leave if she wanted to, I think that’s such an important concept to me. I don’t know whether I inherited that from her, but in order to sink into anything, I have to feel like I could leave.”
Laura Marling’s Favorite Thing
image courtesy of the artist
by Jeff McCord
Maybe it’s because I was just reading an oral history of the HBO program The Wire, which took its time over five seasons telling an absorbing and complex story. Or maybe it’s just the frantic pace that has kicked off 2020. Whatever reason, the Friday performance by drummer Andrew Cyrille and his quartet (Ben Street on bass, David Virelles on keys and Bill Frisell on guitar) seemed to wash over the sold-out audience like a tonic. The eighty-year-old Cyrille, best known for his work with Cecil Taylor, is enjoying a late-career renaissance. Live musical performances are often about building to peak moments. Most seasoned performers, including those in the modern jazz world, learn tricks and techniques to incite and involve the audience. Yet Cyrille and quartet seemed completely uninterested in that. For the most part, tempos stayed in the medium range. There were no hair-raising solos. Even with monstrous talents like Virelles and Frisell on stage, everything felt in service to the music. Cyrille’s six minute-plus drum solo in tribute to Art Blakey was more about melodicism than flash. It took a couple of songs, including a frantic Coltrane-penned opener, to shake the rust off. But by the time the group hit its stride, on a transcendent reading of Julius Hemphill’s “The Painter”, it was clear what the evening held in store. Throughout the ninety-minute set, which included a mournful piece written by bassist Peter Dominguez about the indigenous Tsimsciam, a loose-limbed meditation by Cuban pianist Virelles translated as “Prayer”, and “Baby” a joyous Frisell composition, the band refrained from grandstanding. As a result, nothing drew attention away from the compositions (each of which Cyrille prefaced with lengthy contextual remarks). I was reminded of what Houston composer Pauline Oliveros termed “deep listening’. I found myself completely enveloped in the music. Of course, not everyone in the audience had the same feeling. There were numerous evacuees of the less patient between selections. And some of the season ticket holders didn’t show up at all. Jazz music, in these days of fewer recordings and sales, has become all about live performances. The magic happens on stage. There are no known recordings of this particular lineup of Cyrille’s quartet (well, by me, anyway). On nights like this, you want to capture this lightning-in-a-bottle and keep it with you, and plant all your absent music-loving friends in the empty seats. Instead, you’re left with fading memories. It’s always a sign you’ve been through something extraordinary when you’re sad that it has ended. I could have easily sat through another hour or two of this entrancing performance. Even slowed down and given room to breathe, music of this caliber can still leave you breathless.
Presented in partnership with KUTX’s Sunday Morning Jazz
(Andrew Cyrille returns to Austin on April 19th with Texas saxophonist Billy Harper at the North Door.)