At 22, with three albums, two Mercury Prize nominations, and a couple of paparazzi worthy relationships under her belt, Laura Marling has condensed a full music career into five very active years. Rather than rest on this already impressive resume, Marling has shown, particularly on her third record, 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know, that she is determined to continue her development as an artist, but only if she can dictate the terms. As she prepared for an upcoming tour of the United States, Marling discussed some of the drawbacks of asserting control, how to cheat at guitar, and her forthcoming fourth album.
Even though this is your third album, could you make a case that this is the first real Laura Marling album.
That’s interesting. I think in some ways this is the most comfortable that I’ve felt with an album. Yeah.
What are some differences that really show you asserting yourself and your voice on the record?
I think I gave more consideration to specific lines on this album. I decided what phrases I wanted to draw attention to, and then also which ones I didn’t want to draw as much attention to. I think there’s more of that intent and purpose in this album than there has been in the others.
What was the most satisfying part of taking a bigger role in the production of the record?
I’m a very neurotic human being, so it calms my nerves in some ways. On lots of varying scales with what I do as a singer and a songwriter and also as a performer, the more you’re made vulnerable, the more satisfying it is when you’re successful. Having put quite a bit of effort into the production on this album, and having only myself to blame if it all went wrong, I felt really good about it when it turned out, you know, okay.
Was there anything that ended up being too much?
There were several points when that happened. I didn’t do all the production; Ethan (Johns), who also produced the last one, was very much at the helm. His best attribute is knowing when to stop, and I don’t know when to stop. He’s very attuned to subtlety, and has a tendency to rein things in when they could go over the top. I think, especially in the culture that we live in, that understatement is much more noteworthy than overstatement. When I listen to albums that I love, I’m drawn to the inner strength of the artist, not whether they choose to garnish the song with a lot of garish instruments.
You’re described as folk artist Laura Marling. Is that a fair label?
I think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s accurate. I would have to say that I prefer folk to singer/songwriter or acoustic. I think folk comes with a more palatable image than acoustic. But I’m sure there are some traditional folk musicians that aren’t so happy with me having the label.
One thing that separates you from traditional folk is your varied instrumentation. How did you decide to go with a larger sound palette this time around?
I did decide that, and I think it was the byproduct of having been playing with the same musicians for the last couple of years. I picked them all up along the way. They were all playing in other bands, but they went on tour with me. I liked the way they sounded, and I did everything I could do to keep them around, and they all very kindly agreed to play on this album. We rehearsed at night before we played, so that sound is very much a result of the band.
There’s a distinct classical guitar sound on A Creature I Don’t Know. Is this one of the musicians you added, or is this a sound you brought to the table?
You’re absolutely right about it being there. I found a guitar in a shop in London and absolutely fell in love with it. The first six years that I was taught guitar, it was classic, so it was like going back for me. It has such a beautiful sound that I’ve started playing it live as well. It’s also a bit of a cheat; whereas on a normal acoustic you might need to play three notes, on a classic you can play one and it’s so massive. I have a lot of fun with it.
Your phrasing is also decidedly different on A Creature I Don’t Know. Was this a conscious decision?
We recorded the album in order as it appears on the record, and in my head it was such a clear story to me. I also feel like my songwriting has become very conversational. Songwriting is my form of expression, and I was conversing with myself as imaginary characters. It’s sort of a self-flagellating exploration of my psyche, which is something that I do as a writer. When it came to performing it, it was like having a cheeky word with myself as the other character.
Are you listening to anyone in particular that is influencing your singing?
There are several singers that I grew up with that I love. The most obvious one is Joni Mitchell. And then in recent years, there’s a girl named Nina Anastasio who has a vocal style that is just penetrating. And I grew up with the phrasing of Bob Dylan and the growling of Neil Young and all that stuff. I think they both had a huge effect on me as a singer, because I really only became a singer because I wanted to perform my own songs.
You say that you get a lot of your ideas from books. On A Creature I Don’t Know, there is “Salinas” and “Sophia.” Tell me a little bit about how John Steinbeck and Robertson Davies influenced you.
The simple fact is that those are the books I was reading at the time, and each author had an effect on what was going through my head as I was writing. Steinbeck is a phenomenal user of imagery and personification of inanimate objects, which I find really fascinating. And then Robertson Davies is so playful with his language. It adds a lot of humor to his darkness. He also puts women up on this pedestal, which is a very dangerous thing. Of course he was a very conflicted human being, but I find him very interesting as a writer.
Are you writing currently?
Before this tour, I’ve been in London doing the fourth album. Hopefully that will be released at the beginning of next year.
As you prepare for your tour, is that taxing at all? Do you enjoy playing live?
I used to get very nervous and find it quite a difficulty. I also used to worry that if I ever didn’t have that fear that I’d be complacent somehow. Now I don’t really have that fear. My heart beats very fast, and I suddenly wonder if I ever knew how to play guitar, but it’s nerves more than fear. I find that I love the touring now as long as it remains simple. When it becomes more elaborate, I feel worse about it. I’m kind of a home bird that way.
Do you enjoy touring in the States?
I love traveling, and I love traveling in the States when it’s just me in a car going from show to show- me in a rental car with two guitars; that’s the way to do it. I get to see everything that way and meet all these bizarre people. American audiences are so much more open. You feel like they’re in charge, whereas at an English gig the artist has to be in charge, or the audience really won’t know what to do. They are very different, but as an artist I’ve come to like them both.
As you progress as an artist, how have you adjusted your live show?
This time around, I’m playing the first half of A Creature I Don’t Know essentially as one long song, but I shouldn’t really say that because people might not come. We’ll just be playing different songs now; that’s all I can think of saying without scaring people away.