Singer-Songwriter Laura Marling on Her 'Anarchy in the U.K.' Moment and 'Breaking the Shell' of Her Former Life
3/24/2015 by Harley Brown
"You can't be found if you're not on all alone," Laura Marling murmurs within swallowing distance of the microphone on "Easy," a finger-picked trip down memory lane on her fifth studio LP, Short Movie. This thought -- the perspicacious U.K. singer-songwriter hesitates to call it a revelation -- came to Marling upon revisiting her Brit Award-winning and Mercury Prize-nominated discography, which she's been building since she was 18. Increasingly alienated in her new home of Los Angeles, Marling realized she had to feel this way in order to find herself as a musician.
"Listening back to old records, I'm like, 'You were willing it, you wanted this to happen.' The sentiment of all of them is, 'Get me alone enough to figure it out,'" she tells Billboard in the green room of Brooklyn-based Polish bar/restaurant and venue Warsaw, sipping a glass of volcanic water and wearing a suede jacket that would make Penny Lane proud. "It's the beginning of the next phase in my life; I'm breaking the shell of the last phase, if I were to put it in Donkey Kong terms. I'm the new chimp with the red cap and the yellow pants. I'm ready."
Contrasting philosophically sound self-realizations with references to Nintendo 64 and intricate acoustic riffs with electric exegeses on her Rickenbacker are just several aspects to the multifaceted Marling. Short Movie, which arrives in the U.S. on Tuesday, via Domino imprint Ribbon Music, could be called her Bob Dylan moment: she literally left her acoustic guitars behind in England, bringing with her to L.A. only her father's cherry-red Gibson, with which she wrote the album's 13 tracks. "It brought out a different sound," she says. (It also brought out an hour-and-a-half-extra-long soundcheck at Warsaw, which was Marling's first "proper show" with her new plugged-in setup. "We have a lot more fun with it, so we do get carried away," she admits.)
With the help of drummer, engineer, and longtime collaborator Matt Ingram, Marling produced her new set of emotionally and sonically snarled songs herself in London, where she's been living for about three weeks now. Though Marling comes from a lineage of musicians (her mother was a music teacher and her dad, the imperiously named Charles William Somerset Marling, ran a recording studio and introduced her to records like Neil Young's The Needle and the Damage Done), she's "not much of a gearhead." "There's language you have to know about how you ask someone to do something to get a specific sound, and what I do know a lot about is mic placement and landscaping sound, but I don't know anything about the technical side of how you do that," she explains.
Before she got to that point, however, Marling attempted to forget everything she had spent her formative years learning. After 18 months on the road behind her last record, 2013's Once I Was an Eagle, she suffered a few setbacks: Marling scrapped a studio LP she made immediately after the tour ended and was rejected from a writing program she had applied to in upstate New York. And Los Angeles, the city of perpetual sunlight and cheap bungalows, started to become "harrowing" for Marling, who roamed the wide, empty streets in a pack of fellow British expats. "I lost the plot for a little bit and completely lost my grip on reality," she says.
To find it again, she took a break from playing music and sat on the sidelines, training to become a hatha yoga instructor, admiring L.A. musicians like Ariel Pink, Laurel Canyon staples Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and the "Largo [at the Coronet] set" like Jon Brion, and hanging out with others like retro art-rockers Kera and the Lesbians. "They would do all sort of cool shit, like screenprinting T-shirts at shows, all the grassroots stuff I never did or don't remember doing," says Marling. "I used to tour in a Ford Ka with a drum kit on my lap, but I wasn't old enough to put any creative thought into what I was doing."
So she had her "Anarchy in the U.K." moment driving up and down the California coast playing solo shows, writing a socialist touring manifesto, and hanging out at Joshua Tree, where she wrote much of Short Movie. "It's like you're on another planet," she says of laying against the park's jagged rocks and looking up at the looming sky. "That place is full of vibe. Something seriously funky is going on there."
While experiencing real-life mysticism and reading about it in the works of "esoteric Christian" philosopher George Gurdjieff, a major influence on The Holy Mountain visionary Alejandro Jodorowsky, Marling had another realization about her honest yet oblique lyrics, which she admits skirt "the very raw thing in the middle," her relationship with a now-ex-boyfriend who inspired her move to California. "I became extremely aware that the thing that writes is my impersonal ego," she says. "It's like me, here on earth, or me, as the physical Marling, became aware of the vulnerability of the actual physical me."
Marling has also been called an impersonal and distant performer, but in person she is clever and thoughtful and charming, and on Short Movie she sounds at her most confident and self-possessed. You can hear the influence of Led Zeppelin, whose raw, "magic" riffs she consumed to get better at the electric guitar. "Strange" revels in a teasingly confrontational spoken-word style a la "Once In a Lifetime," Marling's voice slides up and down at unexpected intervals; and "False Hope" growls with electricity, her gasps and gulps so close they send chills -- which she feels, too. After deciding to take her hiatus from music, Marling saw the number of yoga instructors scrabbling for a living in L.A. and was reminded how lucky she is to have another job. "It's some scary shit trying to figure out what you're going to do with your life," she says. "It gives me chills just thinking about it."