Over the course of her decade-plus career, Marina Diamandis has challenged the sonic and lyrical parameters of traditional pop music — fusing electronica and bubblegum, exploring issues of identity and alienation within snappy hooks, challenging the limits of her mezzo-soprano voice. And on Friday (June 11), Diamandis — who previously recorded as Marina and the Diamonds, and now performs as Marina — will unveil the most thematically ambitious album of her career, with Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land.
The follow-up to 2019’s Love + Fear skews more toward dance-pop than its predecessor, yet the Welsh singer-songwriter’s fifth full-length is also her most politically pointed, touching upon wealth gaps, racism, misogyny and the climate change crisis. Lead single “Man’s World” took aim at the patriarchy upon its release last November; “Purge the Poison,” released in April, imagines Mother Nature punishing humanity for capitalistic ruin and gender disparity. And “New America” focuses on the rot of injustice underneath so much U.S. history: “America, America/ You can’t bury the truth/ It’s time to pay your dues,” Diamandis sings.
Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land finds Diamandis, who wrote every song and co-produced five of the 10 tracks, reasserting her position as one of pop’s boldest voices; she’ll get to present her vision of the new project during a livestream event this weekend, complete with a full band and desert setting. Ahead of the release of her latest opus, Diamandis chatted with Billboard about addressing social issues in her songwriting, the influence of fans in the social media age, and an ear-catching lyric about Britney Spears.
When did you start writing these songs?
In August 2019. I wrote “Man’s World” first, and then I think just like a month before the pandemic, I wrote “Pandora’s Box.” And then everything after that was in the middle of the pandemic.
How did that affect your creative process?
I mean, when I look back on “Purge the Poison,” it’s such a frenetic song — and it makes sense, because we were all just trying to catch up with these really extreme life events and social events. A lot of social problems have been unveiled for exactly what they are in the pandemic, and that’s definitely mirrored in some of the songs. “New America” was written after the murder of George Floyd. I started it, I think, around that time, and then didn’t really touch it again for six months.
I just felt like it’s such a sensitive topic — particularly being a non-American, but still commenting on racism, which is a problem everywhere still. I wanted to be sure that I was coming from a place that was hopefully not taken as preachy, but we were just as exploratory. So yeah, in short, it has affected my writing a lot. It’s really hard not to — I’m an artist who’s always gained a lot of inspiration from culture and pop culture since the start.
When you have such a visceral reaction to everything that was going on in the news last year, is it hard to organize your thoughts around topics as loaded as what you touch upon in “New America”? Just in terms of sitting down, thinking about verses and choruses and being able to be succinct with those ideas.
Yeah, it is. And, you know, sometimes I’m not succinct, but maybe that’s not the point. Like with “Purge the Poison,” I was trying to give snapshots from the past 20 years of pop culture, and how we’ve treated certain people and also how we’ve treated our environment, our planet. All of these problems are now becoming really distressing. So organizing my thoughts on that was much weirder than some of the other songs. [Laughs.] But with “New America,” I’ll be interested to see how people respond to that, because I think whenever you put out a semi-political or political opinion in a song, you are like putting yourself out there to be criticized.
Even with “Purge the Poison,” they’re saying lines back at you and being like, “Well, you’re privileged, why are you writing this?” And the thing is — someone has to write about it, you know? Particularly with racism, white people have to talk about this as well, and I’m never coming from a place of like, pointing fingers. We’re all involved in this. Songwriting has always been a vehicle for me to explore things that challenge me, and things that upset me. So it’s definitely tricky to organize thoughts on really important subjects, and at the end of the day, whatever people think, that’s just how I’ve been able to deal with that at the time. So you can only hope that it’s received in the way that it was intended.
This obviously isn’t your first album that has approached issues from a sociological perspective. But listening to it, it does feel like you’re holding back less than ever. Does that just come with time and experience?
Yeah, I do feel very free on this record. And one of the good things about me is that, when I write, I don’t worry about anything that other people are going to say. That happens later in the process. [Laughs.] But when I’m actually making a song, I never feel any censorship.
I guess it depends what kind of album you’re making, too. Love + Fear did touch on a few of those topics, on songs like “To Be Human,” but it was generally a different type of album. And I felt different as an individual at that time in my life, whereas this time, I just felt like I didn’t have anything to lose artistically.
You touch upon the world at large, climate change and the crisis we’re all living in. Is that something that you’ve been thinking about, and wanting to write about, for a long time? Was there something that recently triggered wanting to hone in on that in your songwriting?
I mean, I think there’s a lot to be said for what’s happening collectively, and I’m just like everyone else where climate change is at the back of my mind, all the time. I’m sure you feel the same. It’s like this gnawing thing that has steadily gotten stronger over the years. And I think with COVID, with the pandemic and being able to step back and see what kind of situation we’re living in socially and politically, it just feels like there’s nowhere for those issues to hide anymore. And that’s why they’ve come out in the songwriting. So it’s not I haven’t thought about it before, to put it in songs. But I think everything just reaches a tipping point, sometimes.
On “Purge the Poison,” you sing about the idea of a sisterhood reshaping society that has failed, in part due to misogyny. There’s a line about Britney Spears: “Britney shaved her head, and all we did was call her crazed.” Was that inspired by the recent documentary?
No. Weirdly, that was written last April, and completed then. I think it’s really interesting how we are able to look back on that. And I just think it’s a really brave thing for journalists who reported on her at the time to be able to look back and say, “You know what? We didn’t treat her in the right way.” And that was linked to a wider problem: At the time, we didn’t understand mental health in the same way. We saw someone who was evidently having a nervous breakdown, and who had led a really high-stress life, and basically made fun of her for it. I mean, that’s not what “Purge” is about, but it was worth mentioning her in this commentary about femininity.
As a pop artist, have you felt the discourse around your own art — and around pop itself, around women in the music industry — evolve over the course of your career? Are things better now since when you debuted, or still too much the same?
That’s such a great question. I think it’s definitely changed for the better. Female artists are given a lot more space to experiment and to become more commercial if they choose to be. At the time, it was very difficult to switch over to pop if if you had alternative roots. It was like, I always felt like my authenticity was questioned if I wasn’t doing these albums where I’m totally writing on my own, or using live instruments. But also, women were judged by how they looked a lot more, and shamed for that.
But now, the main difference that I’ve seen just online as an artist — I feel like the media are potentially kinder to artists, but the fan-artist relationship has changed, I think. In a positive way, fans have become a lot more analytical and use critical thinking more, but they’re also hyper-critical — to the point where I think it has the capacity to dent that artist-fan relationship, because it’s just so hard to read negativity about yourself, every day.
There’s also the fact that fans have an increasingly amplified voice with social media. Before you would see fans at shows and meet-and-greets, but now you get them weighing in on every little detail, I imagine.
And you know, that’s kind of what we’ve asked for. Like, the way that social media has evolved has complemented and encouraged that. It’s just where we’re at. But I would love to see these social media platforms either evolve, or we get new ones where the opportunity to turn hateful just isn’t there as much? Because I think Twitter is now a really inflammatory place for anyone, regardless of what you do for a living.
Have you ever found yourself thinking too much about fan reaction — you see a fan community being like, “Marina should do more of this,” or “Marina should veer away from this style” — and then doubting yourself as a result?
That’s a really hard question, because I’d quite like to say no. Luckily, the only time I don’t think about that kind of stuff is when I’m writing. But now I’m thinking of Love + Fear, and I know that there was a certain portion of my fan base that didn’t connect as much because it was a much slicker, shinier record. And they like the rough edges — that’s why they’re fans of me. That must have impacted my decision to then do this wild, raw record this time around.
So I do think there is a bit of space there to be influenced, because at the end of the day, your fan base is the one supporting you. It’s not so much your label or the media or, you know, art critics or whatever. It’s like — I think you should pay attention to a certain degree. [Laughs.] Don’t give them all your power! But I think it’s good to notice.
You’ve announced a global livestream event for this weekend, and you’ll be working with a full band. How much will the livestream preview your next live setup?
It’s definitely a sampler of what’s to come. I’ve got a full band back, and I haven’t really performed in that way for six years now, since [2015 album] Froot. Love + Fear was more dance, theatrical, and I didn’t have a band on that tour, just one drummer. So I’m looking forward to being able to, like, free myself up as a performer. This is definitely a reintroduction.