HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Laura Marling

Sat, 1st January 2011

I’m competitive when it comes to Scrabble and charades, and perhaps that translates into every area.”

The buzz on the intercom unlocks the door. From thereon in, it’s just a matter of following the noise at the top of the building and, indeed, your nose. With glass of white wine in one hand and a hand-blender in the other, Laura Marling is applying the finishing touches to the soup she has made ahead of my arrival at her West London abode. “It’s from the Ottolenghi book,” she says, “Roast sweetcorn and aubergine.” In your correspondent’s 20-odd years of interviewing bands, this constitutes a first. If artists ever feel the need to prepare for their interrogators, that preparation rarely extends to catering. “Is that right?” she says, with a typically inscrutable smile. “Well, I’m going away tomorrow, so it was a good chance to use up a few ingredients.” In fact, she’s a keen host. A few weeks prior to our encounter, she had “a dozen or so” friends over for a poker game. The events of that particular day stick in her mind because, as she walked back home, a couple of youths jumped on her and stole her mobile phone. The way she tells it, the altercation was less a trauma and more of a huge inconvenience. “I was planning to make bruschetta, so I had a bag full of baguettes,” she says, “These two teenagers knocked me to the ground. I tried to grab one of their legs, but they got away with the phone and ran onto a nearby bus. So there I was lying on all my baguettes. Crumbs everywhere. Getting up was like trying to climb out of a bread bin. So, yes, we had to forego the bruschetta.”

Certain adjectives have a way of swarming around Laura Marling like bees to blossom. “Prodigious”, “quiet” and “mature” frequently do the rounds. Most pernicious of the lot, however, is “shy”. Three years ago, she found herself – under some duresse, it seemed – at the Mercury nominations which included her own debut Alas, I Cannot Swim. Downstairs in the brightly-lit press room of a Covent Garden private members club, British Sea Power, Estelle and Adele paraded before the flashbulbs, alerting the wider world to their existence. Up on the fourth floor, Marling – 18 at the time – dabbed a piece of pitta bread in a mound of houmous and decided that, on balance, she would rather not go down and join them. That afternoon, she seemed conflicted about what it meant to faithfully honour your art whilst giving your major label paymaster something they could work with. She judged herself harshly next to contemporaries such as American anti-folk songwriter Diane Cluck. “None of my heroes release singles,” she explained, “I find the way that people are promoted and sold… I just… it really sickens me.”

In 2011, it’s easy to mistake a certain reticence for that same shyness. In truth, however, the Marling readying release of her third album A Creature I Don’t Know seems far more comfortable in her own skin. She hasn’t yet achieved the global ubiquity enjoyed by her old friends and sometime backing band Mumford & Sons. But few who heard 2010’s I Speak Because I Can could doubt that her talent was soaring at an exponential rate. In describing the pitiless battleground of human relationships, songs like Hope In The Air and Rambling Man cast her as an impassive Greek chorus to the travails she wrote about with breathtaking acuity. At the 2010 Mercury awards, Paul Weller made a beeline for her and declared himself a big admirer. After a brace of European shows with Neil Young, she was called into Young’s dressing room and told by him that he was a fan of her work. Last summer, it was Young’s The Needle And The Damage Done that she elected to cover (along with Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Runs The Game) when summoned by Jack White to record a single for his Third Man imprint. And, indeed, it’s in talking about episodes such as this that you realise the extent of Marling’s snowballing self-belief. Prior to arriving at White’s Nashville studio, she says she had avoided talking to him in person “because I hate phones.” Nevertheless, she remembers it was an “awkward and bumbly” Jack White who allowed her to use his pre-war Gibson. Despite never playing it before, she nailed both songs in one take. “Was he surprised? Not as surprised as I was,” she laughs.

As surprises go however, you suspect that none will quite match the one that awaited Marling on the day she attended this year’s Brits. In the most shocking victory since Belle & Sebastian trumped Steps to bag the Best New Band prize in 1999, it was Marling’s name that Boy George got to call out over fellow Best Female Solo Artist nominees such as Cheryl Cole and Ellie Goulding. Lighting the first of several cigarettes (Marling was introduced to cigarettes, aged 13, by “a kid at our school to whom my parents were guardians”) she recalls something akin to “a drug-induced trip. It was the way Boy George announced it as much as anything. Before he called my name, he said, ‘I’d like to be a rambling man.’ I was there with an old friend of mine who is from Wakefield and has the best accent ever. I remember her saying, ‘Babe, it’s you!’ Even my manager didn’t know what to do.”

If the evening assumed a dreamlike quality at that point, the ensuing few hours did little to dissipate it. Marling was told that the only way she could get home from the ceremony was on an EMI-chartered boat moored outside the 02 Arena. “I dutifully sat on this boat for two hours, feeling thoroughly overwhelmed, surrounded by Tinie Tempah and his gang. I’d been up since 5am and, to be honest, all I could think about at this point was how cold I was.”

Hours previously, as she left for the Brits, Marling did something she had never done before. She rotated her iPod click wheel and alighted on the album whose forest-fire word-of-mouth reception had put her into this position. “I wanted to remind myself why I’m doing this,” she explains.

And did she like what she heard back? “With the first album, I sort of felt protective of my younger self. But with I Speak Because I Can, I didn’t exactly feel fondly towards it. I felt a certain distance, perhaps.” In some senses, it might perhaps seem odd if she did relate fondly to Hope In The Air with its Old Testament downpour of drums and hammering pianos or the biblical Appalachian monsoon of Devil’s Spoke. A few months prior to the release of I Speak Before I Can, her ex-boyfriend Charlie Fink had funneled his grief at their break-up into Noah & The Whale’s The Last Days Of Spring. Fink had clearly been smitten with Marling – who, for a time, had been a member of Noah & The Whale. She recalled one difficult day during the sessions for Alas I Cannot Swim, which saw her struggling to pull out a satisfactory vocal for a song. Fink – Marling’s de facto producer at the time – went into the studio ahead of her, turned off the lights and haloes the base of her mic stand with candles. A perfect take duly followed.

Unlike Fink’s songs though, the battle-hardened narratives of I Speak Because I Can steered well clear of self-pity. As if pre-empting such a reaction, Alpha Shallows saw her hiss, “I believe we were meant to be seen and not to be understood.” On the title track, she took inspiration from Greek mythology, assuming the guise of latter-day Penelope. As Odysseus’s wife, it was Penelope who found herself silenced in domesticity as her husband went off on his adventures. Increasingly, you sense a retrospective mortification in Marling that, had the cards fallen a different way, her creativity may have been silenced. The website of Leighton Park Quaker School in Reading, where she attended as a day boarder is rife with the language of “mutual respect” and “the development of individuality with a social conscience.” But Marling’s main recollection of her time there centres around a profound inability to fit in. “All I enjoyed was music and writing and reading. And I didn’t have very many people who liked what I liked.” What would she have had to change about herself to feel included? She shrugs apologetically. “I don’t even know. If I’d known that, maybe I could have got on.”

In that apartness, she found her songwriting voice. At 16, it prompted her to leave her hometown of Eversley in Hampshire and follow her two older sisters to London – the same sisters who, aged 11, she remembers being delighted when seeing on the television that PJ Harvey had won the Mercury Music Prize for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. With every passing year though, the notion that Marling’s creativity might have ever been contained within the ranks of Noah & The Whale seems increasingly preposterous. Covering similar thematic ground to her aforementioned paean to Penelope, Salinas is named after the Californian birthplace of John Steinbeck. “I picked up a book he had written about the Knights of the Round Table [The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights]. He was obsessed with that story. He came over to Glastonbury to research it, and in the front of that book – which, actually, I found a bit boring – there was a short biography written by his second wife. And it was really weird. It was like she was falling at his feet, worshipping him – and all he did was sit at a desk and write till he died.”

It’s perhaps fanciful to imagine that anyone who was obsessed with her parents’ Best of Joni Mitchell CD at the age of six was ever going to develop a straightforward view of human relationships. During the making of A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling terminated her relationship with Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford. Given the incredible year his group have had, perhaps that’s not so surprising. The nearest the pair got to a exotic holiday together was when they agreed to go to India and play with Indian musicians as part of a British Council-sponsored “cultural exchange”. Since then, another brief liaison has come to an end. Under such circumstances, any artist might question their own motives in looking for love. On the album’s opening song, a restless syncopated shuffle called The Muse, Marling casts herself as predator, scenting material where most people might merely seek companionship. “It’s a joke, first and foremost,” she explains. Albeit one rooted in experience? “Mmm, definitely. I was thinking about that a lot. It’s tempting to make life fit your criteria [as an artist], but it never ever works. That’s how I ended up writing a song like that.”

For A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling once again worked alongside Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Ray Lamontagne, Tom Jones). However, this isn’t the long-promised “second instalment” of songs from the sessions that spawned I Speak Because I Can. Marling sidelined the album that she initially planned for release in the autumn of 2010. Exhaling smoke upwards, she runs her hand through her bright blonde hair. “I realised that the reason those songs didn’t make it on to I Speak Because I Can was that they weren’t very good. The moment I realised I wasn’t going to make that album, a bunch of new songs came very quickly.”

And when those songs did come, Marling realised two things. Firstly, that – unlike her previous albums – she had to oversee every aspect of the arrangements; and secondly, that connected together, these songs formed part of a greater story – as she puts it, “an interaction between a character and [their] conscience… torn between trying desperately to be good and forgiving and failing miserably at every turn.” Some songs foreground that conflict more explicitly than others. “Where I’ve been lately’s no concern of yours,” she repeats on Sophia. Marling’s memories of writing the album’s centrepiece The Beast are bound up in the relative ignominy of her circumstances at the time. “I’d come to the end of the lease on my last flat and I was sleeping on a friend’s sofa in the middle of winter. It was freezing cold. I was lying there with their cat – a semi-wild Bengal – sitting on me, thinking, I can’t go on like this. For the first time on a Marling record, electric guitars – three of them on that song – circle in on Marling’s performance, threatening to envelope her if she doesn’t rise up to be heard over them. Echoes of Low’s 2005 single Monkey – latterly covered by Robert Plant – abound when she sings, “Tonight I choose the beast.”

“When I wrote it, I thought, ‘Fucking hell, this isn’t going to fit anywhere. But I think I was slightly blindsided by the fact that I’ve been called a folksinger so many times. So, I think at that point I decided that I’ve never really been folk. And, for the first time, I was hearing electric guitars and sticks on drums.” Marling has yet to hear this album back since she finished it. Perhaps she’s saving that moment for her next awards ceremony. When she does, she might hear what is becoming increasingly apparent to those of us gazing on at her creative trajectory: to hell with the Mumfords, Noah & The Whale, Johnny Flynn and the rest of touchy-feely, mutually-supportive artisan folk scene from which she sprang – this isn’t the work of someone happy to fit in with that milieu. A Creature I Don’t Know is palpably the work of someone who wants to outflank the lot of them. Leave them dead in the water.

Marling seems momentarily startled by the notion, so much so that fill the silence by offering to get my coat. “I don’t know if I can give you any sort of answer to that,” she says. But she’s clearly competitive, isn’t she? Wasn’t this the uncomfortable truth that she grappled with when attempting to work out what separates her from her anti-folk heroes? “Well, I’m very competitive when it comes to things like Scrabble and charades, and perhaps that translates into every area of one’s being.”

Let’s put it another way. I bet she’d be furious with herself if the next Mumford & Sons album was better than her one. “I think I probably might!” she smirks. “But that implies that, at the moment, I feel my songwriting is better than theirs.” She waves her finger, mock-accusingly, as if to suggest that she’s wise to any attempts to catch her out. Five days after our encounter, she will take to the stage in the mid-afternoon Glastonbury sun. An estimated 20,000 people update what they thought they knew about Marling as her voice rears up over electric guitar and, yes, sticks on drums. In the process, they become privy to a sonic firestorm that exceeds anything the afternoon’s other performers can summon. Her gaze alights onto the people at the front and follows the incline of the hill up to the horizon. Quietly and calmly, you can see her taking it all in, and far from being intimidated by the scale of the spectacle, her expression tells you she is ready for it. My how she’s grown.