Laura Marling's Feminist Evolution: How Her Brilliant New Album Dissects the 'Difficulties and Strengths' of Womanhood

Hollie Fernando
Laura Marling

In a celebrity culture full of artifice and constructed persona, an elegantly confessional musical personality like Laura Marling’s is a refreshing one. And yet in conversation, she’s often quite guarded. Or shy. Or both.

“I understand that it’s necessary, especially as I don’t make very commercial music,” Marling tells Billboard, commenting on the need for her to do interviews and promotion. She doesn’t much enjoy it. “It’s not my favorite thing in the world,” she admits. “In fact, I think it’s very damaging for artists to have to analyze themselves all the time with other people. It makes their personality split. I don’t know. Everyone’s all playing the game.”

Marling much prefers to leave her inner dialogue on the lyrics sheet. The preternaturally gifted folk singer’s latest album, Semper Femina, is a sonically beatific work — winding and pastoral (“The Valley”), orchestral (“Soothing”) and stuffed full of stunning acoustic yarns (“Wild Once”) — but in its explorations of gender boundaries and taboos, vulnerability and fear, topics she feels are very much “the zeitgeist of the conversation right now,” does it feel decidedly of the times.

Despite writing Semper Femina — a phrase which roughly translates to “always woman,” and which she has tattooed on her upper left thigh — prior to Donald Trump’s election, when Marling went back and pored over the songs she’d put together for the Blake Mills-produced LP, she couldn’t help but notice these relevant themes coalescing.

“I was thinking a lot about femininity and its relevance to me,” she explains. “It seems all the more prominent now. And it crept its way into the songwriting.”

Marling says she’s never felt it a duty of hers to make art that serves as social commentary, but that "there’s times where art has to represent exactly the now in its darkest forms,” she says. “It feels like now we’re in the middle of two phases. We’re between really needing to be present and relevant because the times would dictate that, and we’ve just come out of a time where it was innocent and dreamlike. I think music — and the world — always goes around in that cycle.”

Marling points to watching her best friend’s five-year-old daughter grow into “a proper functioning human” as a principal motivation to dive deep into issues of femininity via her sixth album. “It just made me think a lot about the difficulties and strengths,” she says. “It’s watching [my friend] bringing up this child in a time where we’ve got a president that talks about things like grabbing women by the pussy.”

Semper Femina tackles these issues in nuanced fashion. On “Nouel”, Marling grabs ahold of the traditional male gaze -- and focuses it on another female. Marling has said in the past she felt increasingly masculine when constructing this album. “What I’ve realized, after thinking in that way, is why those sort of constructions are in place,” she explains. “I understand why the extremities of our feelings towards people have to be restrained in some way, because of the way we’d be at the whim of our emotions. That’s not how we function in modern society. But I was interested to remind myself that we are basically suppressing the whim of our emotions constantly. That is our human nature.”

Gender, femininity and how women move through a world unfortunately still of patriarchal construction also led to the creation of Marling’s podcast, “Reversal of the Muse.” On each episode, the singer-songwriter interviews other females working in music — from the members of Haim to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, to female engineers and producers. It’s a fascinating deep dive, and free-flowing conversation on how Marling and her guests feel gender has affected their work.

“It had just become an interest of mine in the last couple years,” says Marling, "because of thinking about how differently my experience in the world had been — especially as it relates to the music business — compared to a man.”

She’s only 27, but Marling’s music — that lilting Joni Mitchell-style vibrato, those devastating yarns unwoven on albums like 2013’s I Once Was An Eagle and 2015’s far grittier Short Movie — feels lived-in and steeped in tradition. The daughter of a recording studio-owner father and having played guitar since the age of 3, Marling, who has released six albums since being signed to her first record deal at age 16, says her instrument is practically another limb by now.

Following a multi-year sojourn to Los Angeles, Marling is back now living in her native U.K., calling London’s East End home. Her trip west, in her early 20s, occurred concurrently with a rough patch of emotional tumult and a severe bout with depression.

It was a soul-searching time for Marling: she put songwriting on hold, shaved her head and says she lost her sense of gender. Looking back, she can only marvel at the experience. “I’m a very cynical, practical, logical person,” she declares. "And Los Angeles is not where I felt I would be. That’s not the place where those things thrive. It’s a very aesthetic-based city. And again, that’s not really in my interests.”

Songwriting, however, remains “part of my daily experience,” offers Marling. Between albums, she says she’ll practice guitar intensely for a few months at time, forever an evolving experience. “I predict there will probably come a time where I get a bit stuck in a [creative] rut,” she offers. “But I feel like it’s not up to me.”