Beats, Strings, and Other New Things

21 March 2017 Doug Wallen

Beats, Strings, and Other New Things

If you think Laura Marling is just a folk singer-songwriter, the Londoner’s new album will surprise you. Semper Femina opens with ‘Soothing’, a stripped-back oddity that hinges on a slinky bass line. It’s accompanied by a sensual video clip lingering on long shots of two female models in latex suits who dance and caress each other atop a bed. Marling directed the video herself – a first for her – after the cryptic scenes came to her in a dream while recording the album.

“I was having a particularly bountiful dreamtime,” she recounts, “which I’m very interested in because I think songwriting opens up that deeper bit of your psyche. All these incredible images are coming, which would be too random to put into song, but I’m glad they had a form to be expressed in.”

As for the song’s sultry, off-kilter minimalism, she proudly announces, “It’s the least Laura Marling thing I’ve done.”

It’s also her first-ever co-write with another songwriter: she penned it with American solo artist Blake Mills, who co-produced the album with her. Marling credits him with many of the record’s adventurous sonic touches, which give her songs a thrilling makeover.

That includes a subtle mingling of string arrangements and programmed beats that blur the line between the two, opening up Marling’s much-celebrated songs to brave new possibilities. ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ taps the lo-fi rasp of a distorted beat, while album closer ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ wields a scrappy, clipped hook that makes you listen twice as closely to figure out just what you’re hearing.

“He’s interested in innovation and not doing anything that people have done before,” Marling says of Mills. “When you put that up against my guitar style, which is a very traditional kind of songwritery guitar, you get that more integrated arrangement. It removes that well-trodden path a bit.”

And how about her songwriting this time around? What’s changed? “In a narrative sense, I was definitely approaching songwriting differently,” she answers. “I was writing more purposefully, but in an observational way. Actually, that’s kind of always the case, but more pointedly on this one.”

Semper Femina – it means “always a woman” – is Marling’s sixth album in a decade, though she says “it hasn’t felt crazy quick” to her. Both her 2008 debut Alas, I Cannot Swim and 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle were nominated for England’s prestigious Mercury Prize, and she’s built a global reputation for gorgeously penetrating lyrics and a mercurial vocal delivery that swerves between an aching murmur and playful chatter. Then there’s her intricate guitar playing, which looks to English finger-picking greats like Bert Jansch – yet detoured into electric rumbling on 2015 album Short Movie.

Marling and Mills actually recorded Semper Femina in late 2015, while she still had several months of touring left to do for Short Movie. It was finished in three weeks, but Marling held it back from release until enough time had passed between the two albums. “I didn’t want to release it straightaway and have it be the next chapter of Short Movie,” she explains, “because it felt very, very, very separate. So we just gave it some time to percolate.”

The album was written on the road, a common practice for Marling that she attributes simply to “the energy of travelling”. It was cut in Los Angeles, where Marling lived for a few years before returning to her native London. While Mills puts his experimental stamp on every track, Marling shines as brightly as ever on the spindly and simmering ‘Always This Way’, the soulfully sung ‘Wild Fire’ and the string-kissed love song ‘The Valley’.

Marling can’t quite take a string quartet along on tour, so she’s been in rehearsals where she and her long-time backing band are accompanied by backing vocalists singing the string parts. It’s one more fresh approach to spring from an album that captures Marling’s artistic restlessness. She’s also started her own label to co-release her work; named More Alarming, it’s a play on her name and a pseudonym that she never got around to using. But she doesn’t plan to sign any other artists. “I’m not sure I’ve got a business mind,” she says with a laugh.

Despite her steady stream of albums, Marling has recently found just as much creative fulfilment outside of her songwriting. She started the podcast Reversal of the Muse to discuss the feminine presence – or lack thereof – in most recording processes, featuring guests such as Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. She has also directed another couple of videos since ‘Soothing’, penned music for a theatre company and developed a secondary band project, all of which she will unveil in coming months.

For that reason, and due to the obligations of touring the new album, Marling hasn’t even thought about writing material for the next one. Instead, she’s been relishing the role of collaborator. “I have no plans to write and record another record for a while,” she admits. “It’s been really nice.”

by Doug Wallen

Semper Femina is out now.

This article first appeared in Ed#532 of The Big Issue.