“I’ve always been told that I’m an old soul. And I’m not. I just have a deep voice and a stern face. I am actually young. I hadn’t had chance to stop and think about that before.”
A little over a year ago, Laura Marling came off the road after touring her hugely successful fourth album Once I Was an Eagle, and immediately set about recording its successor. “I literally rolled out of the van and into the studio — a decision made by my own stubbornness,” she recalls. “And then I just stopped cold turkey.”
Marling’s fifth album, Short Movie, is the result of an extended period of stopping and thinking. “I realised that I hadn’t been in a place for longer than two or three weeks since I was 16,” she explains. “I thought ‘I wonder what will happen if I try and root myself somewhere?‘ Look back over the past eight years.”
Shelving the album she had written and begun, she gave herself six months away from anything related to music, to explore and learn new skills, to try other kinds of writing, other ways of thinking. “It was definitely good for me,” she says. “But it was also absolutely horrible and I’ll never do that again.”
Uncertain whether she wanted to continue songwriting she had redirected her energy into poetry, only to have her application (under a pseudonym) to study at a writing Centre in upstate New York turned down. “I think,” she says, “it was the first time anybody’s ever said no to me.”
And so Marling returned to Los Angeles, where she has lived for the past few years, and sought new direction. “LA is literally the worst place to not have a job,” she says. “It’s so drifty anyway. It’s the kind of place where you can either skim the surface, go with the tide or be dragged down to the stagnant waters. And you don’t want to fall through the cracks here, I guess. Not that you’re in danger of doing that if you’re somewhat sane, but I felt really on the edge of sanity.”
Exploring the worlds of mysticism, yoga and psychedelics, she began to feel the isolation of her city, to notice “people talking about good vibrations in a concrete jungle”, the people on the street who “just seem to let the light come in a bit too much to close it off again. And you can’t look at them without knowing that you’re capable of doing that too.”
The days began to blend together. “Everything, every day seemed really banal,” she remembers. “If I was in France we would have called it ‘an existential crisis’ and got on with it. But here they treat negativity like it’s something infectious.”
Simultaneously, for the first time in her adult life, she was trying to integrate into a community. She chose not to tell people she was a successful musician, or even a musician at all. “Not that I’m a somebody somewhere else, but I’m very much not a somebody here,” she says. “And for six months when people asked me what I did I would tell them something else. And it was nice. It was hard, but it was good. And I had nothing, I had to go on actually who I am — which I haven’t had to do for a long time, since I was 16.”
Community had become suddenly important to Marling. The nature of being a songwriter had necessitated a certain observer’s distance in herself, and prompted a certain amount of projection onto her by others, a combination that had left her quite removed. “I was attached to being alone,” she says — living alone, touring alone, spending time out in Joshua Tree where she remembers she “used to wake up and be so excited by the isolation.”
But then something changed. “I just got the fear all of a sudden. I saw something that I couldn’t unsee. I felt something that I couldn’t unfeel. And then I had to really face the reasons why I like being isolated. And I understood why people fear loneliness”
She had also “fallen out of love with touring” she says. “I did a lot of touring on my own. I wanted to do that, but it ran me into the ground. I felt I’d lost all the elegance of music; it had just become this really rough, hard thing. I think I had wanted to prove that there’s no reason why feminine can’t mean strength and endurance. In the end I discovered there was a greater point to be made to myself about femininity, that of quiet grace, quietly knowing when to rest, which is not opposed to strength.”
Along the way, she had also shed a certain amount of naivety. Where once she loved the thrill of driving into the desert at night and sleeping under the stars, suddenly “romantic behavior like that stopped being appealing to me.” It was, she says, “a shame, realising I can’t behave like that anymore because I saw through it, I’d found the roots to all peoples strange behavior which was a fear of loneliness that I hadn’t understood before. I saw the violence of that act, ripping away from reality to do whatever you want and saw danger in it. I just couldn’t do that anymore. Or I didn’t want to. And so I just stopped allowing all of that stuff to happen.”
Slowly out of the “chaos” of that time Marling began to find a kind of order. She enrolled on several online courses to study literary criticism, immersed herself in the writing of Rilke, Chris Kraus and Jodorowsky. “I got really obsessed with getting educated,” she explains. “And then I realized it’s not actually about being educated it’s about being wise.”
Her intention was to “take the mysticism of songwriting and tame it in a way. Or take control of it. I wanted some whipping into shape. And I think that by whatever means I have done that. And that’s why I think this crop of songs is different.”
These songs are different — in mood and sound and temperament. They reflect a time of great exploration for Marling, and so encompass doubt, magic, hope, humanity, salvation, rage, peace, place and being alone.
But they also show a striking new confidence.
Marling produced Short Movie herself, spurred on by a desire to “demystify production”. She was aided by two studio engineers, Matt Ingram (who also played drums) and Dan Cox.
She describes the experience as “pleasant but anxious.”
Recording at Urchin Studios in London, she was joined by her long-time collaborator Ruth De Turberville on cello, Nick Pini on bass and Tom Fiddle from Noah and the Whale.
I think I understand sounds in a different way now,” she says of the experience. “I understand more than I used to how tones interact with each other. How sounds literally send things vibrating through your body. And I wanted to have a particular sound on the record, which the strings are fulfilling, this weird soft discordant noise.”
The discordance of course reflects the strange but revelatory time she spent away from music, the introspection and confusion, the cacophony of a city like LA, “where there are helicopters everywhere, things that sound like they’re from Blade Runner, or you’re getting on the freeway in your car, it’s all overwhelming sound,” she explains. “I wanted to incorporate that background chaos that was going on all the time, as well as the little bit of sense I managed to make out of it.”
If Short Movie proves anything it is that stopping, thinking, and making a little sense out of life has had a profound effect on both Marling’s songwriting and how she views herself: “Underneath the noise I was thinking most of the time what the process of creation is,” she says. “I would never have called it creation or art before, what I do, it seemed aggrandizing. But now I see it differently. Because there is something divine about how things are done and created out of nowhere, we are only a means for them, they are therefore beyond us silly humans.”
All photos © 2013 by Claire Dunderman and published here with kind permission.
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