Femininity, sexuality, and self: A candid chat with Laura Marling

On the second track off her 2015 album Short Movie, Laura Marling reveals herself. In the middle of bristling guitars and drums, she sings: “The whole downtown looks dark like no one lives there/We stay in the apartment on the upper west side/And my worst problem is I don’t sleep at night.”

For most artists the lyric would be inconsequential, but for Marling it was revolutionary. For the first time ever, we could place Marling in a concrete situation. We knew where she was, what she was doing – hell, we even knew when she wrote the song (during Hurricane Sandy, when most of Manhattan was blacked out). Marling had spent most of her career singing in riddles and abstract stories, steadfastly deflecting any attention to her personal life. But now, here she was.

Most of Semper Femina – her new album out March 10 – was written while on tour for Short Movie. Those expecting another direct view into Marling’s life will be disappointed, but there’s more of Marling in here than meets the ear. Semper Femina (Latin for “always a woman”) is a deep exploration of female relationships, the precarious balance of masculinity and femininity, and of what happens when your sexuality begins to crumble and reform. To reduce it to its purest idea, Semper Femina is a vibrant celebration of womanhood.

Unfurling over nine songs, Semper Femina has Marling gliding through jazz-inflected folk and spoken word stanzas. Her voice – which inches closer yet to the untouchable Joni Mitchell – is as mellifluous as ever, and while she flirted with electric guitars on Short Movie she’s now brought her acoustic playing back to the centre.

Down the line from London, Marling is forthcoming about the strange times that informed Semper Femina, and how – through no planning of her own – the album is arriving at a time when womanhood desperately needs to be supported.

Before Short Movie you took quite a bit of time away from music, but for this one you didn’t take that much of a break at all. What was the difference between going from Once I Was An Eagle to Short Movie then from Short Movie to Semper Femina?

I guess I took the break posthumously in the sense that I made the record a year-and-a-half ago. I’ve had a year and half to myself, which has been very nice. It felt – I don’t know what it was … but you get caught up in waves of energy. I was in a bit of a lull of energy after Once I Was An Eagle. Then when making Short Movie I garnered some back. It felt natural to just continue.

A lot of the discussion around Short Movie focused on the fact it was the first time you lifted the veil a little and placed yourself more personally within your songs. Did that puzzle you to read those comments and what critics were saying? 

Yeah … and no. [Laughs] I mean, the way that it was reflected to me was just being asked questions in interviews about it. But then, I wouldn’t have written a record that had made me more at the centre of it without knowing that that would open the book a little bit more.

I think I was ready or willing to use myself as a point of discussion – my own personal exploration as a point of discussion – and that certainly continued on this record. I’m not in any way handing my personal rights over, but it does make it easier to discuss the themes in some ways.

So on this album you were definitely more aware that you were opening it up or putting yourself more into these songs? 

Yeah –  not as I was writing the songs, but definitely when I’m preparing for talking about it. I think part of that is tied into the fact that I’m now 26. There’s not a lot about myself that surprises me now. Whereas when I was 19 or 20, I was constantly thinking of one thing and then proving myself to be the other, it’s confusing. But it’s becoming less confusing now.

You wrote that LA has an amazing knack for removing sexuality. What was going on at the time and what it did that feel like? Was it scary? 

Yeah, it was really scary. LA is such a weird city to live in. It’s so isolated, in this really weird way because you are actually next to lots and lots of people. Then it’s also a really radical place, where really radical, cool stuff happens that inevitably is taken to the completely ridiculous extreme.

I think it makes people forget themselves, in what can be an interesting way or a really detrimental way. You begin to lose your sense of reality, or an efficient reflection of your humanity, because you live in this constructed city which perpetuates a constructed idea of the world.

You said you wrote these songs in a very masculine place, that it gave you the opportunity to look at women in a different way. What do you think is the difference between how women view each other and the way men view women?

I think we have it in us to look at women from both perspectives. We can look at anything from our more masculine side or more feminine side. I think, in me, there exists an ability to look at women and want to protect and provide for them. Not just women, anybody. In me is a protector and a provider, but also a nurturer and a carer.

“You begin to lose your sense of reality because you live in this constructed city which perpetuates a constructed idea of the world.”

I also am capable of being the one who needs protection and provision and that sort of care. But I do think that those are traits affiliated with the traditional, masculine sensitivity.

It’s a perfect time for an album, celebrating women and female relationships to be released. The world isn’t being particularly kind to women. You wrote the album a year-and-a-half ago – but have you been thinking about it with the political climate recently? 

Yeah, I mean I wrote this album about a year-and-a-half ago and this couldn’t be a more ridiculous time for it to be released. I mean, it’s so stupid what is happening.

It makes me much more interested in the balance of feminine and masculine. Donald Trump – not that I want to get into a political debate – but Donald Trump does not encapsulate masculinity, he encapsulates a lack of nurture and care. What it’s doing is dangerously dividing men and women along masculine and feminine lines.

Do you find yourself becoming more political with your music?

Yeah, I do. I have personal political feelings – but in no way do I feel inclined to express them perfectly. I think my political feelings should be fairly obvious and reflect typical people.

That said, I’m throwing my hat in the ring. It’s definitely a time to protest.

There is a devastating line on Semper Femina, “Twenty-five years and nothing to show for it, nothing of any weight.” What do you think gives a life weight? What is that weight?

I’m not in complete despair. I think a slightly unique experience to my place in the planet is that I feel very lucky to be part of this generation.

This lost, identity-less, genderless, sexual orientation-less generation. It’s trying to identify itself to external means, which can be very confusing and hopefully we’ll get through it as we navigate our relationship to technology and economy and sexuality, but right now, it all feels completely up in the air. That’s what I’m referring to in an existential sense.

You produced Short Movie yourself, but you decided to enlist a producer [Blake Mills] for Semper Femina. What was the decision behind that?

At the time, I jumped into the producing experience. I found in that part of my phase – my masculine-femininity phase – that I wanted to do everything myself to prove that I could. I was literally playing both parts to make this whole movie. But it felt like it lacked the balance, that I wasn’t able to be either a driving force behind the masculine femininity or a completely vulnerable performer, as songwriters should be.

It was slightly lacking. There’s an amazing unity that happens between between the producer and artist – it doesn’t have to be a man and woman. So I didn’t want to produce it myself again.

Do you think its impossible to be, do you think you can only be either one or the other or is there a mixture between masculine and feminine? Do you think there’s a balance that can be reached?

Oh, absolutely there’s a balance. I have in me both protective, provisional urge and a nurturing, caring, multi-dimensional quality as well. That’s the way it should be and there shouldn’t be one extreme or the other. It definitely shouldn’t be extreme, that’s for sure.

Semper Femina is out this Friday March 10 via More Alarming Records/Kobalt Music Recordings.

Jules LeFevre is a writer for FasterLouder and inthemix. She tweets at @jules_lefevre