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Laura Marling interview: 'I've started to find women beautiful'

"My most useful revelation in the last few years was to permit myself to find women beautiful": Musician Laura Marling
"My most useful revelation in the last few years was to permit myself to find women beautiful": Musician Laura Marling Credit: Hollie Fernando

Shivering from a bike ride through the London sleet, Laura Marling rubs her palms across her frozen thighs. On the pale skin above her femur, there are two words tattooed in scarlet: “semper femina”. “I got it done when I was 21,” she tells me. By that age, the shy daughter of the fifth Baronet Marling was already the shining star of England’s nu-folk scene, with two arrestingly mature albums and a Mercury Prize nomination under her belt.

“I was reading Virgil,” she says, “because I’d been told it would help me with crosswords.” She was drawn in particular to the Roman poet’s verses – “Varium et mutabile semper femina” – which she translates as “fickle and changeable always is woman” and had shortened in the tattoo parlour to the more committed: “Always a woman”.

"I’m thinking about my own boundaries and taboos. I don’t just mean sexual boundaries but extreme intimacy." Credit: Hollie Fernando

Six years later, Marling is using the Latin tag as the title of her sixth album, her first since completing the five-album deal she signed with Virgin/EMI when she was only 16 years old.

A direct and philosophical exploration of femininity, Semper Femina was written last year during what she describes as a “particularly masculine time in my life… when I’d gone on this trip of abandoning any sexuality”.

She began writing the album “as if a man was writing about a woman, and then I thought, I don’t need to pretend it’s a man to justify the intimacy, or the way I’m looking at and feeling about women”.

Marling’s early love life is a matter of very public record. In 2009, Charlie Fink – the Noah and the Whale frontman who produced Marling’s 2008 debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim – poured his heartbreak over his split from Marling into his band’s second album.

Next, she dated Marcus Mumford of banjo-wielding stadium-filling Mumford & Sons (who started out as her backing band).

When she moved to Los Angeles for a couple of years in 2013 – slotting in a brief existential crisis, hanging out with drifters and stoners, even considering giving up music to work in a coffee shop – she was “following another boy”, although that affair ended soon after her arrival.

But this talk about “looking at women”, alongside the release of her self-directed video to the single Soothing last November, featuring two women writhing across a bed in leotards, led to some intrusive speculation about her sexuality.

Protective of her privacy and admitting to taking a “sick pleasure” in confounding expectations, Marling hesitated before breaking her silence, but recently told a reporter from an online magazine: “I’m straight.”

Warming up over a cafetière of strong coffee, she tells me that on the new album she “hoped to play with ambiguity. I’m thinking about my own boundaries and taboos. I don’t just mean sexual boundaries but extreme intimacy. I’m into…” she pauses, laughs.

“Rather, I’m interested in the revolution in sexual fluidity. In LA it’s particularly prevalent. And that’s an interesting revolt against our homogenised identities. My most useful revelation in the last few years was to permit myself to find women beautiful.”

My writing is very much connected to my female existence. There are times of the month that I’m really emotional and it links up. My cycle is my creative wave.

Born in 1990, Marling is the youngest daughter of posh, hippy parents. Her father ran a recording studio from their old farm in Berkshire, where he recorded the La’s jangly 1988 hit There She Goes. Black Sabbath came to stay when Marling was six months old and one of her earliest memories is of crawling over the “chaos” of cables.

The Marlings’ studio failed when they didn’t digitise and the family moved to rural Hampshire, where she winces to admit they “didn’t really integrate”. A sign at the end of their street read, Welcome to Jane Austen Country.

“We had dogs, a pond and a forest right next to our house, that was nice,” she says. “I think about my friends bringing up their kids in London, which is a really stimulating environment with all the access to culture and museums and people.

"But I think it would have completely overloaded me. If I’d grown up in London I would have sunk into the undergrowth.” She pauses. “I like not being from London. I’m obstinate in that way.  I don’t like to be associated with anything. People were shocked when I decided to move to LA and I was like: ‘Ha! Can’t pin me down!’”

I ask if a rural childhood also put less pressure on the three Marling sisters to conform to gender stereotypes and Marling nods.

“Exactly, although my eldest sister is extremely feminine and glamorous. She’ll get up two hours early to do her hair. My other sister is a tomboy. They were playing off against each other, which gave me space to be something else. To ask questions. I was very quiet. Solitary.”

Performs as part of the Celtic Connections Festival in January Credit: Ross Gilmore/Redferns

Looking back, she recognises the value of having learnt to be content in her own company, free from what she sees as a widespread “obsession to never ever be lonely. Loneliness and isolation, being cast out of the group, is the fear that drives most of us.”

When she was five, her father taught her to play guitar, passing on his distinctive finger-picking style. “Guitar is a comic instrument in some ways, it’s sort of silly, self-indulgent,” she says. “But my guitars are my most treasured possessions and I feel most comfortable with a guitar in front of me.”

She took up a music scholarship to a private Quaker school in Reading but was “unenthused” by the work and felt socially alienated. After “scraping through” her GCSEs, she quit school at 16 and moved to London to pursue a career in music.

Within months, on the advice of “one of my dad’s lawyers from the Seventies”, she had signed what she later came to see as an “awful contract” with a major label but was determined to maintain control of both her music and her image, and refused to be packaged as just the latest “pretty pop star”. 

America is so traumatised in so many ways. I’ve been walking around with my sisters, my friends and my five-year-old god-daughter thinking about that man who can see a person as a pussy.on Donald Trump

“Don’t get me wrong,” she says, primping her fringe ironically. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being pretty, or wearing make-up. I wear it myself. But I really rejected beauty at the beginning; I was against being objectified. If you’re interested in, or talked into doing those fashion shoots – and I’ve done a few – then it does make you feel vulnerable. Awful.

“I like to feel beautiful. But I don’t want anybody messing with my hair, or smothering my face in make-up and dressing me in ridiculous clothes. I did an interview with Vogue Brazil the other day. They asked what designers I liked and I couldn’t think of a single name. I don’t own any designer clothing. That’s not my jazz.”

The way other women embrace high-end glitz can leave her “bamboozled”. It’s a subject she’s broached on Reversal of the Muse, the feminist podcast series she began last year when it struck her that, in 10 years of making records, she had only come across two female engineers working in studios.

For one episode, she interviewed Dolly Parton, but admits now that she failed to “get to the bottom of her psyche”. In fact, for many years the “comic caricature” of Parton’s appearance had deterred Marling from listening to the country star’s music until a session guitarist gave her an album “and I realised what crazy s--- she was doing as a musician. She’s an incredible guitarist. So I still wonder: why the accoutrements,” she mimes Parton’s bust, “when you’ve got all this talent?”

Performs at Meltdown Festival in 2016 Credit: Rob Ball/Redferns

Marling reins herself in. “I guess we all have to work out how  much our aesthetic matches up to our understanding of ourselves,” she says, conceding that she needed an analyst to help her establish the “difficult balance” of her public persona and her “real, inner self”.

She adds: “I’ve got my own feelings about whether people look at me and see me as an artist or a woman. Do they see me as a pretty woman? That’s something I need to figure out for myself.”

In one podcast, she looks back on the experience of first walking into a studio with male producer Flood – “I mean, he was lovely, but in what other circumstances is a 16-year-old girl left alone in a room with a strange man like that?” – and admits she would have been “too intimidated” to have self-produced her fifth album, 2015’s Short Movie, if she’d had to do it with a group of all-male observers at a major studio.

“This is a delicate subject,” she tells me, “but I truly believe that men and women are different. Equal but different. After making my podcasts I realised it’s not unfeminist of me to conclude that women’s drive toward creativity is different from men’s. My writing is very much connected to my female existence. There are times of the month that I’m really emotional and it links up… I only made that connection a couple of months ago. My cycle is my creative wave.”

"It’s not unfeminist of me to conclude that women’s drive toward creativity is different from men’s" Credit: Hollie Fernando

The songs on Semper Femina were inspired by an historic trio of women who all made significant waves as both artists and muses.

“I was thinking about the sculptor Camille Claudel, Rodin’s mistress, and about the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, who we often hear about in the context of her relationship to Max Ernst, but who famously said she didn’t have time to be his muse,” says Marling. “And I was thinking a lot about Lou Andreas-Salomé who wrote biographies of Freud, Nietzsche and Rilke and had complete, god-like control over her life and people seemed to be fine with that.”

This isn’t standard chat from a 27-year-old Brit Award winner. But then Marling is the kind of girl who “likes to be up at 7am, in bed by 10pm and find time for at least an hour with a book and a crossword every day”. She’s not into drinking and puts pressure on herself to make up the intellectual ground she lost through dropping out of school so early.

After the widescreen electric American storm of Short Movie, Semper Femina sees her returning to a more acoustic, pastoral sound that nods back at the undulating dreamscapes of Nick Drake or Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.

She also steps back from production duties, handing over to Blake Mills (a producer best known for his work with John Legend and Alabama Shakes) after realising that, “as a producer you need to be inspired by what’s at the centre of the process and I found it quite hard to be inspired by myself!”

The album coincides with Marling’s move back to London although she retains a studio in LA.

“It’s great if I need to go and do any writing. I did all my recent writing for the Almeida theatre there,” she adds, referring to the score she wrote for Robert Icke’s production of Mary Stuart. “It’s actually cheaper for me to fly to LA when I need to than to keep a space in London, although it doesn’t do much for my eco credentials.”

Although it was by no means the reason for her leaving the US, Marling says that Donald Trump’s election victory has leavened the fantasy of her Californian experience.

“All of my friends there, my bizarre cats, living off grid and smoking weed in their weird canyon homes, were so shocked,” she says.

“America is so traumatised in so many ways. I’ve been walking around with my sisters, my friends and my five-year-old god-daughter thinking about that man who can see a person as a pussy.”

Are things much better over here, I ask? Marling shakes her head. She tells me that she’s finding it hard to write on this side of the Atlantic. Her boyfriend (who she is reluctant to discuss) leaves for work every day at 5.30am, and so she has an unfamiliar schedule to fit into.

“And there’s an English version of that American locker-room talk. It’s here. It’s different, less explicit. But the view of women is squiffed,” she sighs. “We haven’t nailed it yet.”

Semper Femina (More Alarming Recordings) will be released on March 10