When Marcus Mumford recalls mixing his upcoming debut solo album ‘(self-titled)’ with producer Blake Mills, he gets emotional at the memories of his final day in the studio: “‘Cannibal’ was the last song we were mixing… We were coming into the last 10 minutes of mixing this thing and I’m listening to the lyrics over and over again: “Help me know how to begin again…”
Talking to NME over video call from his LA home, he adds, with both a deep breath and heavy sigh of relief: “And I just start to fucking bawl my eyes out for the first time in the whole process of making this album. Blake looks up and sees the soggy mess that I am. He put his hands on my shoulders from behind and leaned his forehead on my back and he just waited until I was done. He didn’t try and rush the process by handing me a tissue, which is always so fucking annoying. He wasn’t made uncomfortable by it at all. He just let me cry.”
The tears were long overdue. Mumford started work on the album back in 2019, and ‘Cannibal’ was the first song he wrote for it; this was the first time he’d addressed the sexual abuse he’d experienced as a child, aged six, in his music. “I can still taste you and I hate it / That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it,” he sings on the song’s crushing opening bars.
Mumford says prior to writing the track, he entered therapy “after hitting a version of rock bottom in the summer of 2019”. Outwardly, he was – and remains – the successful frontman of indie-folk titans Mumford & Sons, with millions of albums sold on both sides of the Atlantic. They headlined Glastonbury in 2013, have sold out tours around the world and count folk heavyweights Neil Young and Joni Mitchell among their fans.
Behind the scenes, however, Mumford had been self-medicating and drinking heavily for years to cope with the shame he felt surrounding the abuse: “I went away and did some work on it, and I told someone about it for the first time ever. That led to a process of healing that has really changed my life… it saved me.”
He didn’t set out to write a song about what happened to him, he explains, but it just arrived once the process of addressing his abuse had begun. “Sometimes, I think the best songs do just come out,” he reflects. “Noel Gallagher talks about songwriting like you hold your hands out and you wait for what drops from the sky and if you don’t hold your hands out, then Bono or Chris Martin’s going to catch them,” he laughs. “So, I held out my hands and it felt like that one dropped. I was surprised that I’d written it, but once I had, it felt like throwing my cap over the wall – and I had to chase it.”
He says the song gave him the courage to open up more. “Blake and I kept referring to this moment throughout the record, saying, ‘Look, that’s how honest we’ve been in that song. Let’s chase that same kind of spirit and honesty in the other songs… This record is so deeply personal: it’s changed my songwriting forever.”
The song’s video is made in a similar, exposed spirit, and was shot by legendary director Steven Spielberg. “Steven and his wife Kate [Capshaw] had heard the record and written to me about it in what will be the only review I ever read of the album because it was addressed personally to me.” he says, adding that he nervously asked the Oscar-winner if he was up for making his first-ever music video: “And it was just a fucking case of, ‘You don’t ask, you don’t get.’
“They connected with the music and understood it straight away,” Mumford says, recalling a visit to Spielberg’s house. “They were so sensitive to what it needed to be…and it was super-collaborative… Steven started shooting me from underneath my chin on the close-up at the beginning. And I just said, ‘What would it look like if you shot me from above?’ Because below felt quite shameful and this is not a shameful song. This is a song that [feels] like an antidote to shame for me.”
Spielberg agreed and shot Mumford from above on his phone to keep production to a minimum on what was such a vulnerable moment for the musician. Despite the heavy subject matter, there were moments of joy too: “We were huddled round his phone, and he was looking back at the shot and said, ‘Ah, it’s just like Indie 3!’ I was like, has Steven Spielberg just referenced Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade in front of me?!” He laughs, “I was like, ‘This is a proper moment.”
Mumford started to write more songs over lockdown, which he spent in Devon with his wife, the actor Carey Mulligan, their children and his parents. Mumford’s mum heard the early workings of ‘Cannibal’ through the walls of their house and asked her son what it was about. When he told her, she was devastated, having known nothing about her son’s abuse before. ‘Grace’, the album’s anthemic second song, recalls the moment he told her.
“What’s so weird about the brain is that I was convinced that I had told her, and I hadn’t, so she hears it in a song for the first time” he explains, saying he thinks the trauma affected that particular memory. “It is objectively really funny, though,” he smiles awkwardly. “Once you get through the pain of that moment for her, it’s objectively fucking funny to tell your mum that in a song, you know.” He adds with a laugh: “It was a weird, fucked-up punchline.”
he might laugh, but it’s clear Mumford has done huge amounts of work to be able to talk so openly now. “A friend told me to do all the work on the trauma in private,” he reveals. “He told me, ‘Don’t work out any of this stuff out in public. Once I’d written that song, I’d done the work. I was able to show my mum it was OK – like, I was alright now, you know? When I first put ‘Cannibal’ out, I had a few messages from friends from people who were like, ‘Fuck… are you alright?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I am… I wouldn’t have been able to put it out if I was processing it for the first time.’
“I’ve been doing the work and I feel good now. It’s part of owning the story and not hiding any more. Part of my healing has been talking about it, singing about it… I can look at it more objectively now. I’m not reliving it when I’m talking about it, which is the real difference because to start with, when I first did, that was like proper Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”
In the same way, he’s now also able to speak about his past addictions, another topic that was off limits initially. The excellent ‘(Self-Titled)’ track ‘Prior Warning’ is a haunting, sparse song where Mumford recalls the point he hit rock-bottom, while the stripped-back ‘Better Off High’ sees him exploring the addiction.
How bad had things become? “I was unable to address it at first without some hard truths and some help,” he admits. “I gave up booze and that was kind of straightforward for me in some ways because I hadn’t gotten to the point where I needed Alcoholics Anonymous or rehab.” While he kicked that, another addiction took its place. “It turns out I just replaced booze with ice cream. The doctor told me I was pre-diabetic and then I started looking at it like, ‘OK, I’m leaning into this food stuff more than I was before because it’s a self-medicator, so I then had to look at that as well. But it’s all been part-and-parcel of my overall healing.”
Mumford says he didn’t have a “therapy moment” where he was simply “healed” after seeing a psychologist. He instead created a support network of people around him and studied the topic of abuse and trauma extensively. This topic appears on the emotive ‘Stonecatcher’, a track exploring the work that Bryan Stevenson, founder of the human rights organisation Equal Justice Initiative, has done on ‘cultural trauma’. Part of that work looked at forgiveness.
“I’ve been doing the work and I feel good now. It’s about owning the story”
“We looked at… having more mercy for people who do really heinous things and having some compassions for their story,” he explains. The work of that can be seen at the album’s haunting close, when he sings on closing track ‘How’: “But I’ll forgive you now… Release you from all the blame / I know how.”
There is much hope on the album too, as well as plenty of collaboration with the likes of Brandi Carlile and Phoebe Bridgers. The latter, he says, has been his “friend for a long time.” He continues: “We’ve had lots of conversations which have been really helpful to me over the years. I asked her whether she’d be down to come and hear something and whether she wanted to sing on it. I played her where ‘Stonecatcher’ was at and she goes, ‘Dude, did you get the word ‘heinous’ into a song?’ I said, ‘Yes’. She was like, ‘I’ll sing on it!’”
Mumford knew Carlile from a coveted group of musicians that frequently visits Joni Mitchell’s house to play songs. Recently, Carlile and Mumford were on stage together at the Newport Folk Festival when Mitchell played her first live gig since 2002 after a brain aneurysm. It topped the end of an emotional weekend for Mumford, who’d also played his solo songs live for the first time at the event.
“I think being part of that little group of people that have been to her house and really provided some sort of community for her and [us] to re-engage with the music world has been really special,” he says. “Brandi’s been like [Mitchell’s] musical physiotherapist, and I’ve watched Brandi guiding her and serving her really beautifully. Being able to present that to the world publicly [with the solo material] was pretty cool; it felt like an extension of that same spirit.”
another thing Marcus Mumford was dealing with, of course, was the fallout after guitarist Winston Marshall’s high-profile departure from Mumford & Sons, in 2021, after he tweeted praise for Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan To Destroy Democracy, a controversial book by right-wing author Andy Ngo. Mumford spoke previously about his hope that Win wouldn’t leave, linking back to the forgiveness he learned in the work of Bryan Stevenson. But it wasn’t to be. Are the band going to replace him?
“I don’t know,” Mumford replies with a shrug. “I don’t think we’re looking to replace him straight away. I don’t think you can replace someone like Win; he’s quite a unique individual. It doesn’t feel like you just sort of find a cardboard cut-out.”
Can he see himself working with him again one day? “I don’t really know the answer to that question, honestly,” he replies. “I’m sure I will in time… but I really don’t know. There’s obviously still some sadness in it, but I also think a lot of bands stay together for the wrong reasons, and a lot of bands stay together too long. A lot of band line-ups change. Some of them happen quietly [and] this one probably happened quite loudly, but now I feel really calm and peaceful about the whole thing.”
“Will I work with Win again? I’m sure I will in time… but I really don’t know”
Mumford & Son are now talking about writing new music. “We’ve been thinking about it and really at the moment; it’s just showing intent. Ted [Dwane] and Ben [Lovett] and I have said to each other we really want to do it. We’re excited to get in a room and play music together… I’ve got some songs already and I’ve shown a couple of them to the lads, so we’re starting to think about that stuff.”
He says initially, he wasn’t sure if ‘Cannibal’ and ‘Grace’ would be songs for the band’s next album, but after playing them to his bandmates, knew they had to form a solo record. “Up until November last year, I was still refusing to call it a solo record because I didn’t want to label it. I didn’t know what it was for. I played it to them and they just knew straight away. All of them were like, ‘Yeah, this feels like a solo record; it has to be a solo record…’ They were so supportive.”
While it’s undoubtedly been a huge challenge, ‘(self-titled)’ is perhaps Mumford’s strongest collection of songs to date. He circles back to his last day in the studio. “When I cried with Blake, it was really healthy,” he says. “I just had an emotional breakthrough rather than breakdown because I have this deep sense of fulfilment. I’ve never felt the same level of fulfilment around finishing a project as I have with this.”
– Marcus Mumford’s ‘(self-titled)’ is due for release on September 16 via Island Records