Originally published in The Irish Times, April 2nd, 2010
ASK LAURA Marling any question, and the likelihood is that she’ll answer it with a playful chortle. The folk singer seems to radiate geniality. It’s all a bit perplexing; on one hand, it seems implausible that someone who writes such serious, soul-stirring songs could be as affable and laid-back. Then you remember a vital detail: Marling is still only 20 years old, a fact that makes her output to date all the more remarkable.
That’s not to say that all young artists are possessed of a permanently sunny disposition (Jonas Brothers excepted, of course), or that folk musicians are dour, woolly-jumpered types, but Hampshire native Marling has separated herself from her peers on at least two counts.
Her Mercury-nominated 2007 debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim , was almost universally extolled by critics. Now album number two, I Speak Because I Can , is sweeping the board with five-star reviews – and with good reason. The album details the forthright, sure-footed advancement of Marling’s writing and vocal skills, and establishes her as an artist who could go on to have a long and fruitful career.
“I think I’m a bit more confident in my decisions, and there’s a bit of a kick to the album in that sense,” she agrees. “It was a mix of having had the experience of the first album, and quite simply, just being three years older. I do feel in a more positive place, but at the same time, I think it’s just feeling a bit more like an adult, and a woman, as opposed to a girl. I feel like I have more important problems than I did when I was 16 or 17. And I think that is the theme of the album – the constant conflict between the two sides of my personality.”
Ah yes, the “age” issue: much fuss was made of the Marling’s tender years when her debut was released. In one sense, it’s understandable; in another, it’s an irrelevancy. Yet it seems that the past three years have mellowed her on a lot of issues.
“I remember, at one stage, I found it very difficult because I didn’t want people to think I was a gimmick. And I did feel in my head that I was like a 45-year-old in a 17-year-old’s body. I found it incredibly patronising that people kept pointing out my age,” she laughs.
“But now I’m a bit older, looking back, it wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it was. I don’t mind. It’ll never go away, I don’t think . . . Well, it will when I turn 21, and they’ll call me an old bint.”
Marling’s “old soul” personality meant that working with a producer such as Ethan Johns on I Speak Because I Can was a no-brainer. Johns uses only analogue equipment in his studio, which lends the thrum and crackle of the singer’s acoustic songs an authenticity that is difficult to replicate on a hi-tech sound desk. His work on Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker was the deal-clincher for Marling, who describes Johns as a “very clever, gentle guy”, and the West Country recording sessions as “idyllic”.
It’s no surprise, either, that she thrives on being away from the hustle and bustle of London. Her heady concoction of rustic folk melodies, fiery vocal deliveries and startlingly detailed lyrics embodies a particularly serene British sound, perhaps last convincingly heard in the 1960s or 1970s with bands such as Fairport Convention. Growing up with a father who was a musician and producer meant that songwriting staples such as Mitchell, Taylor and Young were constant features in the Marling household, but like many musical wordsmiths, literature also played a part – a fact made clear on her debut, with songs Ghosts and Night Terror proving especially striking yarns.
Its follow-up opens with the brilliant Devil’s Spoke , a song that sounds like it was recorded late at night on a misty Yorkshire moor; no surprise, considering that she cites classics such Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a big influence. It’s a by-product of being a “soppy old git”, she says.
“I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a musician,” Marling explains. “I never thought I’d be a musician. The only reason I kept going to school was because one day I hoped I could be a writer. Luck would have it that I had a guitar, and that was it, really.
“I’m not very good at lyric-writing; the melody comes much more naturally to me than constructing a story from start to finish. I find the way that words or sentences are formed in the books that I love – that’s what has an impact on me. In all the books that I’ve loved, there’s been something in the way that they’ve been written that has inspired me, not just the story.”
The flipside of that soppiness is a vulnerability that even a character as seemingly strong-willed as Marling can’t really deny. The chasm between first and second albums is something that people can’t warn you about, she agrees.
“Luckily, I didn’t feel stressed out about it when I was writing it, and not while I was recording it either, because you just get so absorbed with what you’re doing,” she says. “But as soon as I’d finished it, and we were starting to work on artwork, and stuff, I had this wave of terror come over me. Because y’know, that was it – I had to make sure I had total confidence in this thing that I was going to give to the world to criticise. But then, that’s what I do. And I wouldn’t have gone all that way if I didn’t like the songs. And I have to do that in order to keep playing music, and music is what I love doing. It’s kind of a self-motivating circle, I guess.”
She may protest that songwriting may not come easy, but there’s already a third album written and ready to be recorded and released later this year.
And she’ll probably deny it, blush a little, and perhaps even giggle at the notion, but Laura Marling could well be one of the most important British songwriters of the next 20 years, even if she remains under the mainstream radar for most of it. Three years ago, she described how one of her ambitions was to “bring the music industry back down to earth”. Does she think her mission has proven fruitful thus far?
“I definitely haven’t achieved it – that was my teenage arrogance coming to the fore, I think,” she says with a hearty guffaw. “But I’ve done it to my own career, I suppose. I’ve got a very real life. I don’t live in la-la land. I don’t bother the record company, and they don’t bother me, and it works really well. I’m never gonna make them loads of money, and they know that. So yeah, it’s all good. I’m perfectly happy where I am, I think.”