Thoreau may have gone to the woods when he needed a change of artistic pace, but acclaimed singer-songwriter Laura Marling went to Los Angeles. The young Marling (already a three-time Mercury Prize nominee) became aware of how many years she’d spent in a haze of writing, recording, touring and clinging to her identity as a musician. With her move to L.A., Marling found freedom from the trappings of that identity. Immersed in poetry, yoga, hiking and inspirations from literature and film, Marling began to form the songs that make up "Short Movie," out March 24 on Ribbon Music.
Once it was time for Marling to re-emerge, she was ready to take up an electric guitar for the first time, as well as make her debut as a producer. Her band and string section were encouraged to keep a loose feel, and Marling instructed her string musicians to play blind, seeing the music only once before recording it. If there is any sign of rawness on the final product, it is in the intimacy of Marling’s timbre and the urgency of her strumming.
Prior to the album’s release, Salon talked to Marling about what it means to have an identity and to feel intimidated by the contemporary art world.
Was there a certain moment for you when you knew that you needed to change your routine?
Not that I can sort of isolate. I think I became aware that I was in a large-scale routine with recording albums and then touring. I suspected that that needed to be disrupted if I was going to progress as a human. And I didn’t really anticipate it having as profound effects on me as it did, actually.
How did it change you?
Well, I sort of got my first taste of reality. And, weirdly, it was an incredibly surreal reality. But you know, I never floated around with nothing to do, since I was a kid. And I had a gap in my empathy about what that feels like. Now my empathy has deepened. I know what that feels like. To get it being so close to the flame of not having a process, it actually made me appreciate my process more. Which is good.
In the midst of all of the changes to your routine, did you feel like you discovered anything that was fundamentally constant about yourself? Or did you feel like your identity was shakier?
Yeah, I felt like my identity became a very clear construction to me. Sort of a chosen selection of personality traits that I put together to suit my circumstances. And, funny enough, when I began this two years, which I count as [beginning] when I moved to Los Angeles, I was actually working on writing the music for a stage adaptation of "Persona," the Bergman film. And I was doing lots of research about "Persona," and reading lots of Bergman’s writing on it. And I just remembered that. It very strangely coincided with the breakdown of my own persona.
Do you think that’s what made you look into that project to begin with?
No, I mean, that project was brought to me by a friend of mine. But it never happened, though. See?
While you were assessing your own identity, did that teach you anything about the nature of identity in general?
Yeah, definitely. Because I mean, just by what I happened to be interested in [during] that time, in this last two years, which has become since a tense time for the world. There’s a big threat of violence, I think. More so than I’ve ever felt. I’ve always been interested in how people identify with their nation, or with their religion, or -- I spent a lot of time calling myself English.
And I feel like that’s not a productive thing to identify with. Not because England isn’t productive, but by saying I am English, therefore I behave this way or that way, you are excluding people. By saying that you identify with a particular religion, you’re negating someone else’s. That’s how I sort of began to see things. So yeah, the idea of identity became a much more difficult subject to me than I had realized.
Your press release mentions Jodorowsky and Chris Kraus and Rilke as just three of the artists that inspired you. Were there any of those artists that you felt like maybe you were more open to during this time than you would have been otherwise?
Absolutely. I think I would have horrifyingly overlooked something like Chris Kraus. Because I was quite intimidated by that world. That kind of contemporary art scene. Anything that I don’t understand intimidates me. That’s why blowing myself out and blowing out my identity and moving to Los Angeles -- somewhere where I absolutely never, ever thought that I would live -- was such an amazing thing to do. Because I experienced all of these things and became familiar with these worlds that I was so intimidated by before.
Some part of my ego wanted to bring them down. The ego in me would want to – when I was kind of brushing up close to those things that intimidated me -- like, wear them down in some way. Like, rationalize them to take away the mystery. But actually, when I got up close, I realized that the myth and the mystery and the subjectivity of them is what is so special about them. And it kind of opened up my idea of reality in a really positive way.
Was it jarring for you to come back to the process of recording and doing the next tour?
I think I was definitely ready to. I’d had a pretty float-y couple of months. And I was ready for some structure. But the thing that I was trying to prepare for was applying what I’ve learned to my new sense of right and wrong. How I was going to approach doing another year of living the life of a musician. It was nice to have had some time to dedicate to considering how I was going to conduct myself and my career.
I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot about using the electric guitar on this album. I think of instruments often as being sort of languages. And I wondered if the electric guitar, to you, felt like it spoke a different language that when you play acoustic?
I see them — yeah, like different languages, or different tones of voice. And I definitely have a very different relationship with the electric guitar than I would with an acoustic. An acoustic usually resonates onto your chest, and an electric, you hear from all around you, somehow. Yeah, they definitely are different voices to me.
And your string players, you had them play blind. Did you do anything differently, in terms of your recording yourself to try to keep things more loose and improvisational feeling?
Yeah. I mean, I have only ever done two takes of the songs. So every song that’s been on any album has always been the first or second take. Which is why there tends to be a couple of bum notes, or a fluff word. I really like doing it that way.
Did knowing that you were producing this record as well change the way you approached the recording part, as a musician?
Yeah, it did. Producing is sort of like directing. You just have to keep everybody feeling safe, so that they are able to feel comfortable enough to do their best. I wasn’t actually expecting that to be the kind of role, but that turned out to be what it was.