The idea that an artiste as private as Laura Marling should offer herself to the mercy of student journalists would never have occurred to me, so to discover she intended to do exactly this, on February 13th at Goldsmiths, University of London, elicited surprise and some excitement.
Her early albums are a formative voice for many squandered youths, speaking to the pain of failed romance and the struggle of womanhood in an arcane manner that oft reaches the Medean. Once I Was an Eagle, her fourth studio album, is the apex of her work thus far, and might be her limit, with its startling first four tracks more like bitter streamed consciousness than music. Whilst good and interesting, her subsequent albums, Short Movie and, now, Semper Femina, have not yet achieved the intensity and lyrical brunt of what preceded. Perhaps, though, Marling has entered a new musical cycle, where carnal dark gives way to electric nebulousness.
My impression of Marling live differed greatly from my listening to Semper Femina at home, and the blame for this division rests partly, I think, with my hectic London daytrip. It reflected that small Kafka parable in which a messenger must rush from the deathbedded Emperor to the furthest reaches of his lands… but, such are the crowds and the structural complexity, the messenger cannot escape even the innermost rooms of the palace, whose packed stairways and courtyards stretch like mazes carved into infinity. London, to me, is similarly labyrinthine: a composite of busy contrasting blocks that seem connected only by that dense Underground, which one must master immediately or else be lost to the backstreets and alleyways. However, unlike that poor messenger, who never reaches their destination, I arrived overheated but on time. The quiet dim conference, presented so mysteriously beforehand, disappointed my high expectations and was an anachronism in that mad city where each moment brimmed.
The full video of the conference can be found on her Facebook page, and it is quite brief, lasting for perhaps half an hour overall. This brevity made me feel underwhelmed, seeming too little too quick at the time. Rewatching the conference, Marling, though evidently reserved in temperament, was open to each question and answered well. Even when she stumbled, as with an early question on her realisation that she need not assume a masculine perspective whilst writing Semper Femina, Marling rounded her answers into interesting reflections on her creative process: “We’re somewhat accustomed to seeing women through men’s eyes, and naturally that was my inclination to try and take some power over that, but very quickly realised that the powerful thing to do was to look at women through a woman’s eyes.” Indeed, the conference provided insight into her understanding of femininity and its relation to Semper Femina that is rather implicit elsewhere. Elements of “pop psychology”, as she admitted in her i-D interview, evidently inform much of her understanding since, whilst she has been “asked a lot to have firm opinions about femininity and feminism”, she does not know “enough about either of those subjects to have firm opinions about them.”
Maybe it was this unsystematic approach towards her subject that made her live rendition of ‘Nouel’ grating for me, with her alteration of the album title to “semper feminal” sounding gimmicky and saccharine. It is not that being unsystematic is an inherently negative trait, at least with regard to creating art; it is only if it leads to crudity that the ear is offended. Again, though, rewatching the conference endeared me more to her approach: she is neither giving definite answers nor seeking an axiom to grind, but is merely an artiste finding artistic expression.
Several questioners targeted matters auxiliary to her work as a whole, particularly the kind of literature she enjoys. “I used to read a lot of fiction and I don’t anymore,” Marling responded, “but I read a lot of poetry. So Gothic Romantic literature used to play quite a big part in my vocabulary of emotional experience. Now that I have my own emotional experiences, many of them, I like drawing on them and delving into poetry more, as well as literary fictional/fantasy.” What is interesting about this is what it reveals about her sudden change of style, from the vivid imaginings of other lives, à la ‘Salinas’ and ‘Made by a Maid’, to the sparser Short Movie. Clearly, rather than running out of stories to invent and tell, Marling has come to a stage of creative self-confidence where her influences no longer tell the story: she feels she is becoming her own story to tell. Marling also said at the conference: “When I wrote Short Movie it felt like I was writing about something I was going to experience rather than something I had experienced. And music has a funny way, or creativity has a funny way of being ahead of you. So I don’t know where I am now, because maybe it’s still catching up to me. I think whereas Short Movie was more based on a landscape, this album was more based in thought.” Of recent literary influences, who might have aided this change in Marling, the diaries of Anaïs Nin and poetry of Rilke were added to the mix. Mentioning them was particularly pertinent since the diary is a confessional genre and Rilke is a mystical poet, a dynamic seemingly omnipresent in her work. Mysticism teeters into the New Age in recent songs like ‘Gurdjieff’s Daughter’, but works well in several tracks in Semper Femina, above all the strange and as yet unreleased ‘The Valley’, which might be the only song that achieves transcendence in her new album.
Marling also discussed her venture into film directing, with her directorial debut being a music video for her song ‘Soothing’. “I like talking about the directing more than […] the music, which is weird. The directing was amazing. I don’t often get the opportunity, or I’ve never been inclined to give visual representation to my music personally. It’s become the way that music is released now is to have a visual accompaniment. And so to give my lucid dreaming quality to this, which is where I get a lot of imagery from, to give that form was an amazing experience, it requires a lot of people to be in that image with you, so you have to draw so many people in to that image with you. That annoying extra prop that costs lots of money, has to be there because it has symbolic value. It was fun, really fun.” The music video, like her new creative cycle overall, is obscure and experimental. Though I am unsure of where this shall lead her, I look forward to seeing what she will create in the future. If this conference taught me anything, it is that Laura Marling is an artiste who is always interesting and rarely fails to surprise.
The release date for Laura Marling’s Semper Femina is March 10th, 2017.