In June of 2016, as Marina Diamandis finished up the promotional cycle for her third album, 2015’s Froot, with an intimate show during New York City Pride Week, she was hitting her breaking point.
It was true that the singer — who until recently performed under the moniker Marina and the Diamonds — needed a break from the intense, draining cycle of promoting and touring that many pop artists face. But the Welsh-born artist, now 33, had been working practically non-stop since she was 22 and was also mourning the passing of two family members she never had time to properly grieve. “It actually took me quite a long time — almost two years — to feel like I could rest,” the singer says in March, perched on a couch at the New York City office of her label, Atlantic Records, with a cup of tea in hand. “It was really hard to switch off after being so on for so long. I wasn’t very used to having time off and to properly relax, to genuinely do things that are nourishing.”
Yet the very project she had created to express herself had also become constricting. Since her 2010 debut, The Family Jewels, Diamandis had become a cult-favorite pop star thanks to her brand of lush synth-pop and instinct for operatic melodies, yes, but also her elaborate visuals and stage characters. She took it to the extreme on 2012’s Electra Heart, a concept album that explored classic female archetypes in American culture through a heavy dance-pop sound that she crafted with hitmakers like Diplo, Dr. Luke and Greg Kurstin. But by the end of touring Froot — which peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, Diamandis’ highest-charting album yet — these personas had become what she calls a “really unhealthy” construct. “It’s hard to get up on stage and deliver this show, where you’re pretending to go through different characters that you’ve created,” she says. “In the end, it comes back to bite you.”
So Diamandis all but disappeared from the public eye. She shared periodic updates on social media, but took breaks from Twitter for months at a time. She surfaced for the occasional collaboration (“Disconnect,” a track with Clean Bandit, arrived in 2017) but she mostly kept to herself as she embarked on a private to journey to figure out how to be a healthy, functioning pop singer in an industry that’s rife with all kinds of pressures and rewards turning personal struggles into ear candy. The result of that journey is Love + Fear, a double album whose sunny first installment, Love, arrived this week. It’s also her first release under her new moniker — just Marina, no Diamonds — that represents an entirely different relationship with herself as an artist.
“I’m really behind this idea or this message that artists can have healthy and happy lives, and still create meaningful, interesting work,” she says. “I really don’t like the idea, the stereotype, of artists being damaged or destructive, because I just think it’s inaccurate. It’s actually destructive in its own way. Like, you need to be in pain to make good art? [We shouldn’t be] romanticizing what is essentially mental health problems.”
Her philosophy now? “I’m pro-happiness.”
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Here’s how Diamandis spent her time off: She hung out extensively with her family. (And her two cats, Mavis and Jupiter.) She traveled around the world for pleasure. (A trip to Japan was “mind-blowing.”) She tried to write songs, even going on a few writing trips to try and spark her creativity, but nothing felt right. It wasn’t until she started taking classes in psychology at the University of London, which allowed her to explore a version of normal life completely removed from music, that she saw a path to songwriting. “That was actually the first time that I thought, ‘Shit, maybe I actually can come back to music,’” she recalls. “I felt like something had shifted in me. It was a really positive experience…I didn’t care what people thought about me anymore. I didn’t need for people to say, ‘You’re good,’ in order to feel good about myself.” (The change freaked her out at first: “I was like, ‘Oh, God, if I’m not being motivated by that, then maybe I shouldn’t be an artist. Maybe you need that to be a good artist.’ But I really feel like I couldn’t have been more wrong.”)
When she finally returned to the studio, she set about making a modern pop record on her own terms. She built on the songwriting confidence she developed during Froot, which she wrote entirely herself and only worked on with producer David Kosten (Bat For Lashes, Everything Everything), but returned to the more collaborative approach of her previous records. In pursuit of what she calls a “spacious, clean-sounding record,” she recruited the likes of producer Joel Little (Lorde, Khalid), New Zealand duo Broods, and Oscar Holter and Oscar Görres from Wolf Cousins — the songwriting collective of legendary pop producer Max Martin.
“I went hard and did loads of writing with people who I’d struck up good relationships with,” she says. “It wasn’t like Electra Heart, when I really experienced co-writing on a large scale, working with people who were a lot older than me in a different peer group. That didn’t feel as comfortable. This time, it was my peers, all the same age and some of whom were friends.”
Last summer, Diamandis confirmed that her stage name would no longer include “and the Diamonds.” The Diamonds, she’d always said, represented her fans. In the wake of her new moniker, some observers wondered if she was trying to distance herself from them. “It’s nothing to do with fans or fanbase,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s more about how I felt internally. ‘Marina and the Diamonds’ felt like a theatrical construct.” Meanwhile, she has figured out a new relationship with social media and is learning how to keep in touch with her followers while filtering out the negativity and criticism that’s so commonplace: “I know that people who are making comments like that, they feel powerless and their version of feeling stronger is trying to take down people who are in the public eye.”
She hasn’t totally lost her love for ambitious concepts, however. Love + Fear is a two-part album inspired by the psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross — best known for outlining the five stages of grief — who wrote in an essay, co-authored by David Kessler from their 2000 book Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living, that all emotions can be traced back to those two feelings. Each installment is eight songs — “Kanye had put something out and it was seven tracks and I was like, ‘This is the perfect listening experience right now,’” she says of the track lists — with the second chapter, Fear, arriving April 26. “My tendency was to package things, and I still do like to do that in terms of artwork and the ‘love and fear’ theme,” she says. “But I don’t think I have to do that anymore. I don’t think it’s helpful. I think I’m of more use being as I am as a human.”
It shows in her lyrics. “Life Is Strange,” a bubbly standout from Fear, reflects her new perspective with a striking directness. No longer interested in wrapping things up with a neat little bow, she’s instead embracing uncertainty, singing, “Don’t know what I’m doing with my life/ But maybe there’s no wrong or right/ ‘Cause everybody feels the same/ And all we know is life is strange.”
Meanwhile, “To Be Human,” which Diamandis has said is “the most political song” on Love + Fear, references civil unrest in America and the destruction of war. “It feels important to be part of a wider discussion about women and social politics,” she says. (She’s thinking of starting a podcast, to that end.) “I think all of us [can’t] afford not to be engaged in that. It’s not just about spreading your own word, but about planting seeds in people’s minds. We all need to be challenged in different ways, and if no one presents different ideas to us, how are we meant to grow and learn?”
These songs are the kind of songs she probably couldn’t have written a decade ago, when Diamandis had put out her debut single “Obsessions” and was just “a tiny baby” figuring out what she had to say.
What would Marina then think of Marina now?
“I think I would love me,” she says, then lets out a surprised-sounding laugh. “Not to big up myself, but I think I would’ve been like, ‘Wow, what a confident, assertive woman.’ I didn’t feel like that at the time, and I do now.”