Laura Marling: “America has become a bit more sinister now that it’s Trump-addled”

How Britain’s most bewitching singer-songwriter’s latest album, ‘Song For Our Daughter’, became a soothing balm for troubled times

There’s a painfully relatable moment on ‘Song For Our Daughter’, the title track of Laura Marling’s exceptional new album. “Taking advice from some old balding bore / You’ll ask yourself, ‘Did I want this at all?’” she sings ruefully of the sort of dodgy situations so many of us have found ourselves in – not least Marling herself.

Given that the folk singer has been in the limelight since she was 17, the line holds deep personal significance for her. “It is essentially a letter to my younger self,” she explains. “I think it’s part of the human condition to long for a mentor, and I wish that someone had instructed me in my ability to say no, or to walk out of the room if I felt uncomfortable.”

Is that something she feels she didn’t do enough of when she was younger? “Definitely,” says Marling. “I don’t regret it, but I’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of experiences now that have informed how I conduct myself.”

Of course, nothing could prepare any of us for the current situation: we’re two weeks into coronavirus-induced self-isolation when NME calls Marling at her home in north London. Everyone’s coping in their own way, and one of our foremost musical talents has gardening and canines on the mind.

laura marling nme cover interview
Credit: Justin Tyler Close

“I’ve never been at home long enough to grow anything or have a dog, and now I want all of those things,” she reasons, considering the possible benefits of being largely housebound for the foreseeable future. “I’ve been sending emails out to adoption agencies. I’ll take anything, but the fantasy pet is a mongrel with a missing leg,” she says. “I want a dog with a story.”

Stories, you see, are what Laura Marling does best. Her lyrical and emotionally devastating songwriting has intrigued and enchanted for over a decade now; to date there have been three Mercury Prize nominations and four Top Five albums. She released her acclaimed debut, ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, three days after she turned 18. Now, just a couple months on from her 30th birthday, comes her glorious seventh. Hailed as her greatest yet, ‘Song For Our Daughter’ has scored five-star reviews across the board, with NME declaring it “an absolute triumph”.

Though written and recorded well before the global pandemic, it’s a soothing panacea for troubling times. The record sees Marling play with pop melody more than ever before, losing none of her uniqueness in the process. “It’s still not in any great danger of becoming mainstream… or successful!” she says – quite wrongly, we might add – with a self-deprecating laugh. “But I guess it is more poppy for me.”

laura marling nme cover interview
Laura Marling on the cover of NME

Marling was originally set for an August album reveal, but bucked the trend of a panicked industry – countless release dates have been pushed back due to COVID-19 – and pulled hers forward instead: “I only decided to do it 10 days ago. It’s so crazy. But I feel like I’m forever sitting on an album that hasn’t been released yet. It’s such a long process, because you want to give people time to set it up properly. People want to do a good job for it, but I like to get them out whenever they’re done.”

As well as offering fans a much-needed distraction during the current climate of uncertainty, the record release has also given Marling something to focus on, alongside the guitar tutorials she’s been hosting on Instagram. In them she guides fans through the best of her back catalogue, as well as some of her new songs.

“They take a lot more preparation than I anticipated!” she explains. “But in a good way. I have to remember what it’s like to be a novice and that’s really helped with my own guitar playing.” When that’s over it’s “wine time”, which keeps attempting to creep ever earlier. “I’ve been trying to keep it at 7pm,” she explains. “But it’s getting tough…”

laura marling nme cover interview
Credit: Justin Tyler Close

‘Song For Our Daughter’ was finished in December of last year, and Marling initially planned a massive solo tour of the UK and US – she would have been in New York and Chicago this week. “I was so looking forward to going and playing all these new songs,” she says, adding of the album’s early release: “I thought it’d be nice for people to hear the songs that I wanted to play to them.”

At 36 minutes and 10 tracks long, ‘Song For Our Daughter’ is her shortest but most textured album. There’s the ever-present influence of Joni Mitchell’s bright and breezy acoustic guitar (‘Alexandra’), as well as the layered folk rock of Crosby, Stills and Nash (‘Strange Girl’) and even Paul McCartney’s bewitching simplicity (‘For You’).

Of the latter she says: “I listened to ‘Jenny Wren’. It’s from 2005, on a Paul McCartney album [‘Chaos And Creation In The Backyard’] you wouldn’t think twice about – not to be harsh – but it is the most astonishingly beautiful song. I suddenly realised that there was an entire catalogue that I hadn’t paid attention to that was full of these stunningly beautiful songs. I’d never thought he was bad, but I’d overlooked him, certainly.”

This time around, Marling got stuck into production almost as fully as she did with 2015’s entirely self-produced ‘Short Movie’ album, creating sumptuous arrangements in the studio she built in her basement last year. “I indulged in lushness a bit more than I have done previously,” she says. “Lots of backing vocals and beautiful, beautiful strings.”

“The worst thing you can do is take away someone’s innocence”

Lyrically, ‘Song For Our Daughter’ is a potent thing. There are heartfelt love songs and deft break-up ballads, but it’s that aforementioned sweeping title track that really cuts deep. Ostensibly a message to the next generation, the title refers to a figurative, fictional daughter figure – at 30, Marling is aware that she could be a mother now – and “all of the bullshit that she might be told”. It’s an attempt to equip those younger than her with the knowledge and power that Marling wishes she could’ve harnessed at their age.

“I think the worst thing you can do to somebody is to take away their innocence and therefore their sense of safety,” she explains. “And I think that’s a fairly common experience in our culture.”

Marling, however, is deeply impressed by certain members of the new generation. “I meet younger artists along the way who have this incredible sense of boundary and self-worth and assertiveness,” she says, in awe of those in their early twenties who seem to navigate the music industry with the kind of ease and confidence that she once longed for.

Phoebe Bridgers is one such musician. “She’s so comfortably assertive – I just found her extraordinary,” says Marling, who’s desperate to hear LA singer-songwriter’s second album ‘Punisher’, which is set for a June release. “I met her a couple of years ago when she was in London. The craft of her storytelling is so brilliant and she’s just a brilliant human being as well.”

laura marling nme cover interview
Credit: Justin Tyler Close

It’s just over three years since Marling put out her male-gaze flipping ‘Semper Femina’, on which she sang of love and admiration for women, scoring her first Grammy nomination in the Best Folk Album category. Even with the early release of ‘Song For Our Daughter’, this is the longest Marling has ever spent between solo records. This wasn’t part of some bigger plan; it was simply a case of life getting in the way.

First there was the move back to the UK after years spent in Los Angeles, dabbling with the Californian yoga-and-tarot lifestyle. “I missed England,” she admits. “I felt like my time in LA was done. I kept my place there for a while and was coming back and forth, and then I felt like whatever had I needed to do – to take my time away and establish a new identity – was done, and now I could come back.”

Comfortably tucked away in London with her middle sister and boyfriend – her oldest sister and niece live just a street away – Laura Marling’s love affair with America has run its course, not least since the country’s 45th president slithered into power: “It has lost its mystery and become a bit more sinister now that it’s Trump-addled.”

“I’d overlooked Paul McCartney’s stunningly beautiful solo songs”

She’ll always be indebted to the country’s rich musical heritage, however, and particularly draws from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today she pays tribute to the recently passed singer-songwriter John Prine, reveals a burgeoning obsession with cosmic country king Gram Parsons and recommends soul-folk songwriter Jim Ford.

For all that, though, Marling is well and truly settled back in UK, having formed the experimental duo LUMP with Mike Lindsay of electronic folk act Tunng (they released their self-titled debut in 2018 and there will be another next year) and – in a complete change of pace – embarked on a two-year Masters degree in psychoanalysis.

When most of her peers were at university and working out how many Jägerbombs they could sink before needing their stomachs pumped, Marling was picking up her second Mercury Prize nomination for 2010’s ‘I Speak Because I Can’ and, the following year, winning a Brit Award for Best Female Solo Artist. Yet she doesn’t feel that she missed out on the rites of passage that is running the British uni gauntlet in your late teens.

laura marling nme cover interview
Credit: Justin Tyler Close

“I’m actually really grateful I didn’t do it when I was younger,” she reasons. “I mean, what the fuck would I have studied then? I had no idea what I was interested in. But now I’m really devoted to the subject and it’s a real pleasure.”

Even so, it must be strange to enter the world of academia at a relatively late stage and as a well-known pop cultural figure. Did anyone on her course recognise her? “No-one gives a shit!” says Marling. “But it is a weird experience being thrown back into that social environment. I wouldn’t say I’m totally shy any more – not like I was when I was young – but it did take me by surprise, how difficult I found it to approach people.”

Though she’s dealing with the ins and outs of the human condition, the course is more theory-based than hands-on (you won’t be sitting on Dr. Marling’s couch, regaling her with weird dreams about your dad, any time soon). And because ‘Song For Our Daughter’ was mostly written before her course began, you won’t hear much Freudian theory either – she reveals that will come on the next LUMP record. Interestingly, too, the title track from ‘Song For Our Daughter’ was written just after ‘Semper Femina’ came out in 2017.

“That one came out pretty quickly – the good ones always do; they just fall out,” says Marling. “My boyfriend, who lives with me, is also a musician and was playing this chord sequence over and over. Eventually I absorbed it by proximity and when I wrote the song, I realised that I’d stolen his chord sequence. So he’s got a co-writing credit.”

laura marling nme cover interview
Credit: Justin Tyler Close

Laura Marling released her debut album at 18 and ‘Song For Our Daughter’ at 30; the releases seem like bookends to two hugely significant ages. But how much has really changed? She’ll be the first to admit that shyness dictated her early career, but there was something about the teenage Marling that seemed far from timid. There was always a sense of notable, justifiable conviction in her own talent. Did she feel that way?

“It wasn’t that I was more confident back then,” she says with a chuckle. “I was a bit more like a kid on skis, when you don’t know the consequences of falling flat on your face. But now I think I have much more of an autonomous voice in terms of how things are done.”

After she’d finished up her five-album contract with Virgin – which she has previously described as “a pretty terrible deal” – that autonomous voice led to Marling to release ‘Semper Femina’ through her own More Alarming label. She released ‘Song For Our Daughter’ when she struck a deal with the iconic Chrysalis Records and independent label Partisan, the latter home to punk bands such as IDLES and Fontaines D.C.

“The closer I get to 45, the more aligned I feel”

“It’s just nice to have a fresh start,” says Marling, evidently delighted by the new arrangement, which allows for her independent spirit and unconventional way of doing things. “It’s as though an old marriage fell apart and a new one has begun.”

Marling’s voice only seems to be growing ever louder with time. She’s sometimes been pigeonholed as ‘reserved’, but in 2016 launched her Reversal Of The Muse podcast, which looks at the role of femininity in creativity, leading her to interview everyone from Dolly Parton to Haim. She tells NME that she’s more than up for doing another series, too.

And while turning 30 didn’t feel like a big deal for Laura Marling, she is enjoying edging closer to her dream age. For an artist who has consistently appeared wise beyond her years, it’s perhaps not surprising that she never truly felt comfortable as a teen or twentysomething.

“The closer I get to 45 the more aligned I feel,” she states. “That’s the age I’m supposed to be!” If you think Laura Marling’s created her masterpiece in ‘Song For Our Daughter’, just wait until you hear what she’s coming up with in 15 years’ time: “That’s when I’m going to be at my peak.”

Laura Marling’s album ‘Song For Our Daughter’ is out now.