Marina Diamandis has always been an artist like no other. Who else would turn the awkward moment when an L.A. security guard mistook her for Shakira into an indelible pop lyric, as Marina did on her 2010 hit ‘Hollywood’?
Targetting superstardom on 2012’s flawed but fascinating ‘Electra Heart’ album, home to her enduring bop ‘Primadonna’, the Welsh singer-songwriter has since recalibrated her ambitions and subtly rebranded. Since 2018, she’s been known as simply Marina, rather than Marina and the Diamonds, the quirky moniker she used for her first three albums.
On her new, fifth album ‘Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land’, Marina continues to speed down her own, unique lane. Writing totally solo on all 10 tracks, she has produced some of her most political work to date. “Need to purge the poison, show us our humanity,” she sings on storming recent single ‘Purge the Poison. “All the bad and good, racism and misogyny / Nothing’s hidden anymore, capitalism made us poor / God, forgive America for every single war.” It’s thrilling stuff, and especially stinging from an artist who now calls the US – specifically West Hollywood – her home.
For the latest in NME‘s In Conversation series, Marina joins us to discuss her songwriting process, the collaborations that didn’t quite work out and the important career decision she made to protect her mental health. Here’s what we learned.
‘Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land’ was always going to be a more political album
Marina thinks her fifth album would have contained social commentary even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, but says the global situation definitely informed her songwriting. “We’ve seen an explosion of all of these social problems that have been building for years and years,” she says. “They’ve always existed, but some of us, including myself, have not really had an awareness of them or a full understanding.” As our collective awareness of misogyny, racism and the toxic effects of capitalism has grown, Marina says “it’s impossible not to let that influence your music.”
Still, she also points out that new, overtly political songs like ‘New America’ and ‘Purge the Poison’ have obvious descendants in her earlier work. “I think I’ve always written that way,” she explains. “Even with songs like ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Oh No!’, those were socio-political, but they were wrapped in a nice bow so people didn’t realise it.”
She is no longer motivated by chart success
Marina says she only writes about 15 songs for each album now, whereas some of her contemporaries might write 40 or more. “I think it’s incredible that some artists can write so much material, but I think also they might have different aims,” she says. “Like, they might be looking for this perfect pop hook that’s potentially going to get on radio or lead to commercial success. Whereas for me, I do feel like that ship has sailed.”
Explaining why she sees this as a positive thing, Marina adds: “I feel like, you know, I’ve had those moments, but as an artist, that’s not really what excites me anymore. It’s more like, ‘What am I interested in at the time? And what do I want to explore in my songs?'”
Record labels should give artists more space to develop their songwriting skills
Throughout her career, Marina has pivoted between composing alone and working with co-writers. Having seen both sides of the coin, she says record labels should think twice before signing a young artist and blindly pairing them with a ‘hot’ collaborator. “We have so few solo writers and I always think people come up with really interesting stuff when they write on their own,” she says. “There’s no one to edit them or say that a lyric is ‘stupid’ or ‘not relatable’ or ‘too provocative’.” She thinks that if more artists were allowed to develop solo songwriting skills, “we’d have a really different musical landscape”.
Marina also acknowledges that teaming young artists with hugely successful co-writers can have an effect on their mental health. “I had the worst anxiety I’ve ever had in my life before I wrote [2012 hit] ‘Primadonna’ because I was going in with Dr Luke, who was a huge songwriter-producer at the time,” she says. “And it was hard to tell at the time whether I was so anxious because I didn’t feel like this [collaboration] was ‘me’ musically, or whether it was because he was so successful, and I didn’t feel like I was at that level yet.”
Back in the day, a recording session with Dave Sitek and Benny Blanco didn’t go to plan
“After five hours I had written one line,” she recalls. “I can tell you who it was [with] because they’d laugh about it now because it was so long ago and they’re both nice people.” At the time, Marina was riding high after scoring her first hit single, 2010’s ‘Hollywood’, and felt that collaborating with Sitek and Blanco seemed “interesting” on paper. “But in reality,” she adds, “it just didn’t work. Sometimes you just have to say: ‘I can’t do this. I’m gonna go cry in the loo, then I’m gonna leave.'”
Dropping “and the Diamonds” from her stage name in 2018 was a pivotal moment in her career
Marina says she understands why some fans found this decision hard to take – “because I’d built this amazing, unique community around that name” – but after 10 years of being Marina and the Diamonds, she felt “so stuck” and “weirdly locked in this, like, smiley, happy persona [where I] couldn’t show any other side of myself”.
“It’s so frustrating for anybody to not feel integrated – like your public self and your personal self is so separate,” she says. “And I spent many years feeling like that. So I just decided I had to make some changes. I thought: ‘Anything that’s going to make me feel more authentic and more relaxed is a positive thing.’ And I knew that the name was part of that.”
Re-establishing herself as “Marina” instantly made her feel better. “I don’t know how fans today feel about it today – hopefully they’ve accepted it – but I had to do that, just for personal reasons,” she says.
Marina’s new album ‘Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land’ is out now