For many, the mention of Laura Marling’s name probably conjures up the pre-conceived image of an extremely talented (albeit slightly awkward) young girl with a guitar. Admittedly a semblance of the former two remain, but whilst Marling is a significantly young age considering the body of work she’s produced, she’s no longer a girl. The promising 17-year old who began her career a decade ago has matured into one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters writing today, developing both her uniquely feminine voice and its autonomy in the industry. This womanhood is what she seeks to address in her upcoming sixth studio album, Semper Femina.
The conference begins with the name of the album itself. Taken from a Virgil poem, the translation of the Latin ‘Varium et mutabile semper femina’ is “fickle and changeable, always a woman” – “but it’s better off as just ‘always a woman’”, Marling tells us informally. We’re sat watching in awe at Goldsmiths University of London’s student union as she, interviewed by Jen Long, explains the story behind her latest effort. The album is very consciously focused on the feminine, purposefully looking “at women through a woman’s eyes” at what Laura has called a particularly masculine period in her life. Written on the road whilst touring for her previous success, Short Movie, Semper Femina was born partly from an awareness of the restrictions on women traveling alone following the “mental and physical exertion” of an entirely independent American tour. It was a preoccupation in thought both inspired and made possible by her time living in the US. A feeling of misplacement elicited a substantial amount of English nostalgia, and LA’s reverent attitude towards art legitimised an indulgence in her compulsion to create music without self-criticism. This freedom of expression was further stimulated by her enthusiasm for poetry, drawing on it to decipher and thus convey her own emotional experiences. Favourite poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s perceptions of femininity were integral in initiating ‘Semper Femina’, as his hopelessly romantic lyricism struck a chord with Marling’s comparable manner.
This absorption in thought translates into Marling’s persona. She’s a polite interviewee, if not perhaps a tough nut to crack; she chooses her words carefully to reveal just as much as she cares to reveal, once fumbling to collect her thoughts as coherently or eloquently as she would have liked. Through her quiet charm is some deeper resilience which is unleashed in a performance of her latest single, ‘Wild Fire’.
Playing, Marling entirely transforms. Gone is the mild interviewee, obviously uncomfortable in the limelight. In her place emerges a powerful, steely-eyed woman who commands the room armed with only a guitar. The rich timbre of her voice resonates throughout the room, demanding attention. Her eyes reach some far-gone distance as her mind reaches a place beyond the context of the room, to the same searching place from which she sought answers before. And as quickly as she entered it, she leaves the trance. Back in the room, she looks towards Jen for rescue rather than basking in the adoring applause – flattered, if a little bemused by all the fuss.
What we catch a glimpse of is the “lucid dreaming quality” which Marling admits is the source of a lot of her imagery – something she gave visual form in her recent directing efforts. Remarking on how fulfilling the experience was, she maintains she could never be without music in her life (other careers she’s considered include being a writer or a chef, but only “if I didn’t have to be the head chef of a restaurant – that’d be scary”). Her fling with a different creative industry is good preparation for the future of Laura’s podcast series, Reversal of the Muse – originally run for her own self-interest, assessing “what’s happening in music and feminine creativity and their relationship to one another”, and particularly investigating the deficiency in women working in studios or female executives. The 10 episodes opened up more questions than they could answer, but Marling notes that an expansion into other mediums with a similar imbalance might prove fruitful to stimulate a “more balanced understanding of the world”.
Marling’s interest in femininity and its origins show no sign of decline. The intricacies she’s discovered in her career, both in her work and personal projects, need extensive attention. It seems the powerfully feminine will continue to have an important impact in Marling’s future endeavours and, at this point, that may be exactly what we need.By Beth Prior