Laura Marling revisits her own records: “It was a magical happening”

From the 2008 debut to 2020's acclaimed Song For Our Daughter

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A follow-up to this spring’s Song For Our Daughter may be a little way off, explains Laura Marling. “If I’m on the road for an extended period of time, I tend to have written an album by the time I get back,” she says. “Obviously that’s been completely scuppered by coronavirus. When I’m at home I play the guitar but I don’t really feel the need to write – I mean, I’m at home, I’ve got nothing to miss.”

For now, though, there’s her extensive back catalogue to enjoy, and it’s this body of work that the songwriter is taking us through here; from her first studio experiences to orchestral arrangements for three bass guitars, via her own personal highpoint, 2013’s Once I Was An Eagle: “It’s just one of those things, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Along the way, Marling ponders her time in Los Angeles, being one half of Lump and her mission as a solo artist today. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” she says. “As much as I love Blake Mills’ production on Semper Femina – and I would take that any day – really it’s about whether I’m a good songwriter. That’s all I’m really interested in.”

TOM PINNOCK

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ALAS, I CANNOT SWIM
VIRGIN, 2008
Marling’s debut, produced by Noah & The Whale’s Charlie Fink

We had four weeks at Eastcote Studios, two weeks doing my record and then a further two weeks back-to-back doing the Noah & The Whale record. We laid down the bass, drums, guitar and vocal all at once, and then we did overdubs – this is the same for all albums I’ve done, pretty much. My dad ran a recording studio which shut down when I was quite small, but I remember growing up around all of that outboard gear at home. So I guess I was slightly more familiar with the studio than the average 17-year-old, but still it was my first proper session. These were all my first songs, written from the age of 16-17. There was a batch of songs before that that were on an EP, “London Town” – I didn’t like them very much by the time I got to making this. I haven’t listened to this for a long while, I very rarely play any of those songs live, so it’s a bit of a distant memory to me now. And the production was very much of the time I guess, that ‘new folk’ world – glockenspiels and banjos and whatever – which is good, that’s what it was supposed to be then. I don’t really think of this as part of my catalogue.

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I SPEAK BECAUSE I CAN
VIRGIN, 2010
A leap forward, with Marling inspired by British folk and The Odyssey, and working with producer Ethan Johns

 

The difference between being 16 and being 19 is quite a shift, isn’t it? Ethan was very intimidating, but I quickly realised it was nothing but a type of shyness. He turned down the first record, but I tried again with the second one – he seemed to be more impressed with the songwriting. I went down to meet Ethan at Real World Studios, where he was working at the time. He came and picked me up from the station, and he was wearing triple denim and circular pink sunglasses, like John Lennon, and he had his crazy California hair. I thought he looked completely mental. I was very shy still, I didn’t really say much. As we were walking around Real World, he said, “It’s never really worked out for me, working with female artists, I seem to not do well with it.” So, being in my tomboy/late teenage years, I was like, “Well, I’m not like every girl, it’s going to be a totally different experience”, and it was. We started at Eastcote, but Ethan didn’t like the sound of the room, so we moved to Real World. I took my band with me, and we all stayed there at probably horrendous expense. We got driven in our splitter van from Glastonbury to Real World, we stayed there for two weeks and it was really magical. I’d read The Odyssey, and I obviously thought I was quite clever because of that, so a lot of it was based around Penelope and Odysseus, and Hera – there’s a lot of Greek mythology and Classics, I was really into it then. I had discovered tunings after the first album too, and a lot of I Speak Because I Can was in major and minor open-D tunings. I was also going through the unbelievable intensity of anybody’s late teenage years, I was so full of fucking hormones and excitement. I remember writing a lot, it was a good time.

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A CREATURE I DON’T KNOW
VIRGIN, 2011
The more expansive third record, again produced by Ethan Johns

 

I went from touring I Speak Because I Can straight into the studio to make this. That was the cycle that I was on then – I made the album, put it out, toured it for a year and then went straight back into the studio with a new crop of songs. It was a natural progression; the sound of this album was dictated by my touring band at the time, as we had been playing all these songs in soundchecks for the previous six months. We did all the pre-production away from Ethan because everybody was too scared to play in front of him. My drummer and my keyboard player, they’re proper musicians who’ve been playing with me almost since the beginning, they’re proper trained incredible musicians, but everyone else in the band didn’t really consider themselves a musician. So I had a slightly ragtag band. Of course Ethan’s got the little black book of every musician you might want, but I only wanted people that I loved on the records, that I knew were on my side. Maybe that was a bit paranoid of me, but I was a bit paranoid then of everybody, and I wanted to make sure that ultimately I had control of everything. It was also very important for me to keep my musicians employed, which I did manage to do for those four or five years, which felt like an achievement. So what I was doing was because of a mix of paranoia and economic anxiety!

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LIVE FROM YORK MINSTER
DIVERSE, 2012
Marling’s only live album, including a cover of Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run The Game”

There are a lot of churches to play in Europe, but we decided to supersize that to cathedrals. We organised it through some quite intense logistical negotiation, literally talking to the bishops and persuading them it was a good idea, because I don’t think they do it very often, particularly somewhere like York Minster. It was such a spectacularly beautiful venue. We were bringing in our own sound system, and the acoustics in some of the cathedrals were much more tricky than others – Liverpool was completely wild and very hard to tame, but we were in a smaller room in York Minster, not in the main atrium, and luckily it was a good one to record. A completely stone room with wood on the ground has a particular quality to it. I think Charlie Fink had played “Blues Run The Game” to me, and I figured it was in the same tuning as “Goodbye England…”. I added it to the set because it was such an unusual tuning that there were not many songs I could play in it.

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ONCE I WAS AN EAGLE
VIRGIN, 2013
A stunning 16-track folk-rock epic, and Marling’s own favourite

I discovered smoking weed before this album, that’s the reason the first four songs are one. It’s like a nice lull, where you’re off on another planet. I’d had some intense emotional growth since the previous album, and I’d started to feel like I very much wanted to be on my own and not with a band. Though they’re still my band and I love them very much, it felt like I couldn’t get any time on my own, like I was always on tour or in the studio, and it started to feel like people recognised me a little bit, and it all overwhelmed me. So with this album I went back to Ethan on my own. It was a really amazing experience. I think he had wanted to get his hands on my music without all of those people around, so he could do with it what he really wanted. By that point we were friends, and I entrusted him with this really emotionally intense album. I went and recorded everything for him, in order, at his house – just me and a guitar with his engineer Dom Monks, who’s also brilliant – and then I went away for a week. When I came back he’d done most of the instrumentation on it, and he’d started to paint around the tracks.

I still think of it as a magical happening. People were trying to say it could have been shorter, and maybe a couple of songs could have been B-sides, but that was the story I wanted to tell. Ethan was into it too, he wanted to do a double record.

Ruth [de Turberville, cellist] came to play on the record towards the end. There’s a bit in “Pray For Me” where her cello line sounds like it’s rising above me, wrapping itself around my neck and pulling me down – there was some emotional quality to it, just as what Ethan did on it had an emotional quality. There was a sense that something was about to peak, it did feel like that. I felt like it was the best record I’d ever made, and I could sense that it would be harder to carry on from then.

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SHORT MOVIE
VIRGIN, 2015
Self-produced in London, Marling’s fifth was the quickest she’s ever written and recorded

The funny thing was that the magic from <Eagle> didn’t last, because Ethan and I ended up making a record afterwards that we threw in the bin. It was a big financial mess, and that was quite a shock to me. I don’t have a lot of money to play with, I’m not a multi-million selling artist, so scrapping an album was a big deal. There were a couple of reasons for it, it wasn’t totally the songwriting. I was living in LA, so Ethan had come over to do it, we rented Sunset Sound which was also really expensive. The nice thing is that on that record we had Jim Keltner, so I got to hang out with him for two weeks – he was amazing. It took me a little while to get over the shock of that, and the disappointment that me and Ethan felt. I came back to London and said to my drummer [Matt Ingram], “I need to do an album for cheap.” He said, “Come and do it at my studio.” I ended up producing it with him, and that was an amazing experience. Short Movie was a very quickly written batch of songs, because I’d scrapped everything from the album that we threw away. So this was a very concise timespan, just a very short period in my life. I actually don’t really like the album, but I get why I wrote it and why I had to write it. I needed to keep moving or I was going to drown in the sorrow of having failed. It’s the first time I played electric guitar on a record – a friend had a bungalow in Joshua Tree that they weren’t going to be in for a couple of months, so I took all my guitars out there. I had guitar amplifiers all around the house, and there were no neighbours so I could play as loud as I wanted. That’s how that sound arrived.

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SEMPER FEMINA
MORE ALARMING, 2017
A return to form, produced by Los Angeles wunderkind Blake Mills

It was so interesting working with a different producer, he couldn’t be more different to Ethan. And I was such a huge fan of Blake’s already, so it was weird to go in and be so in awe of somebody. He’s my age too. The main thing he inspired in me was that if you worked hard enough you could be as good as him – there was no mystical quality as to why he was so good, other than that he worked really fucking hard. Ethan is from an older time where there was more money in the music business, so he works from midday until nine o’clock and he doesn’t work at weekends, which is fine; but Blake works from 10am until it’s done! I took three members of my band with me, because I was a bit worried that Blake would intimidate me to the point where I wouldn’t be able to get my point across. I’m glad I did that because it just about kept it from becoming a Blake Mills record, which it could have easily become. In those three weeks, I’d come back home at like 3am every night and play guitar in my backyard – I’d practise every night so that the next morning I’d come in and he wouldn’t be able to play my parts better than I could. I just couldn’t believe that someone could work so hard for someone else’s music, it was amazing. He’s quite a force to contend with, though, he doesn’t fuck around and he doesn’t banter, he just works. Blake literally seems bored when you’re playing him a song, when he feels it’s not sonically interesting. On “Soothing”, he started changing the chords so they were more interesting inversions, and then he orchestrally arranged this three-piece bass part for it.

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LUMP
LUMP
DEAD OCEANS, 2018
A collaboration with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay created Marling’s “greatest pleasure”

We were doing some Neil Young support shows and at the London one my guitarist Sam said, “Oh, my friend Mike’s coming down after the show, he’s quite weird and he wants to ask you a question.” He is a weird guy, in the best possible way, and he’s got an unusual manner. He said quite bluntly, “I need you to come into my studio in Shoreditch, I have something and only you can do it.” I was recently single at that time, feeling quite free about possibilities, so I said yes. I was renting a flat in Dalston, so I walked down on a very hot day to his basement studio in Shoreditch. It was absolutely boiling, no natural light. After a bit of awkward small talk, he played me 36 minutes of music without stopping. I had just started reading the Surrealist Manifesto and I’d underlined a bunch of words, and I started singing them over the top – Mike had demarcated where he thought songs were, and verses and choruses, and after the first day we’d done “The Curse Of The Contemporary” and “May I Be The Light”, and by the third day we’d almost finished the record. I knew when we were making it how special it was – there was no buddiness or communication, just like when Ethan worked on Eagle… and I left for a week. Lump had that quality too. Mike and I have now made two albums and toured, but we don’t really know each other too well, and are paranoid about maintaining that distance between the two of us, so we don’t lose that quality. Lump is the greatest pleasure in my life now, because it doesn’t feel like mine. There’s a second album done, it’s probably coming out this year but I don’t know when.

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SONG FOR OUR DAUGHTER
PARTISAN/CHRYSALIS, 2020
Marling’s classic-sounding latest, returning to her roots with Ethan Johns co-producing

I didn’t enjoy producing Short Movie myself, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to do that again – you can’t get a good enough perspective on your own, being both inside and outside the record at the same time. I thought Dom Monks and Ethan Johns as co-producers would just give me that security, but I think it was challenging for Ethan to change his role. I’d had to do a lot of random admin stuff earlier in 2019, which meant I’d sat on these songs for a while, which was hellish for me. But in that time I’d also moved back to London, set up my own studio, demoed everything extensively, contacted everyone I wanted to play on it… Ethan was the last part of the puzzle actually. He wanted to use this studio in Wales because he likes to record to tape, but I’m not a purist in that way. Dom Monks is the zen master between two nutbags, though, so he held the sessions together. I wrote the album while I was travelling around Europe for about four months, mainly the south of France and Italy, living in a campervan and staying on farms, very late twenties. It was really nice. I always feel like my albums are on/off – I Speak Because I Can was good, A Creature I Don’t Know was OK, Once I Was An Eagle was good, Short Movie was whatever, Semper Femina was good, and I sort of felt this one might be whatever… I don’t know, though! I never know what people are going to think, but people seem to really like it. I wasn’t expecting it to do so well. I thought I’d lean back into just being a songwriter which is all I really want from Laura Marling, from my solo stuff. And then Lump provides me with this whole other experience.

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