Laura Marling: “Sometimes I feel that swearing really hits the spot”

Ahead of the release of her fifth album Short Movie Laura Marling waxes philosophical with DOUG WALLEN about moving to LA, learning to play electric guitar and swearing in songs.

For someone who learnt to play guitar at an age when most of us were learning to read, Laura Marling is still breaking new ground two decades later. At age 25, the philosophical English folkie turns to electric guitar and self-production for the first time on her fifth album Short Movie, trying on a procession of different voices as well. She also reflects at length on being away from home, having done a fruitful stint in Los Angeles before moving back to London a few months ago.

The songs are meditative yet frisky, restless yet assured. “I’m taking more risks now/I’m stepping out of line,” she drawls one on ‘How Can I’. Marling has had such a good thing going for so long – signed at age 16, releasing her debut album at 17, nominated for the Mercury Prize three times – that it’s risky indeed for her to delve into these unpredictable songs led by brazen, brooding guitar threads. But the risks pay off, and Short Movie is right up there with her best work.

How do you think your time in LA shaped this album?

I think my time living away from where I grew up, and what effect that has on one’s persona, has had a huge effect on the album. I think Los Angeles has its own effect on people, and it’s quite universal. There’s a self-perpetuating mystery to it that people feel like they either have to solve or reject. And I think that’s a reflection of the internal human struggle: the personal and the impersonal criticising each other, trying to negate each other’s existence, but also wanting to be embraced by each other. That’s a very convoluted answer to your question.

Do you think you solved it or rejected it?

I think I did both. I think I pushed it and pulled it and pushed it and pulled it, and begged it to have me and then rejected it. I’d do it forever probably [laughs].

So you were a given an electric guitar by your father and that helped get things going for this album?

Yeah, I was lent one by him. Because I had a bunch of time off and I just wanted to try something different.

Do you ever write songs on other instruments, like piano?

It’s pretty much exclusively guitar, because I haven’t ever lived anywhere with a piano. I think I would like to do that, but I don’t have access to one on the regular.

Can you name some of the influences on the way you play guitar?

There’s a lot, actually. Bert Jansch. Who else? I mean, I was brought up on a lot of Led Zeppelin, so I think I get a lot of my melodic ideas from that. It’s quite often the people I’m playing with. One of the best things about living in LA is that people are always up for coming around and having a play together. So I did a lot of playing with guitarists who are a lot better than me, and that got me into fingerpicking, which I hadn’t explored really before. But I have to change my style a lot on the electric, which is a challenge.

“I was brought up on a lot of Led Zeppelin, so I think I get a lot of my melodic ideas from that”

How so?

I was taught by my dad, who was a rhythm guitarist. And so I use my left hand a lot to release the strings, to create rhythm, which doesn’t translate very well onto electric guitar. Because if you release your hand, you get feedback.

So you had to retrain yourself?

Yeah, I did. I had help from a couple of friends of mine and dived into the world of guitar pickups and guitar pedals, which is a bit of a game-changer.

There seem to be recurring themes of belonging on the new album, and being a good man or woman.

I think that’s an essential intrigue of mine. I’m interested in morality and the origins of morality. And how confining the idea of masculinity and femininity is. I spent a lot of time thinking about that with this record, because I’m at an age [25] where that becomes an interesting question: what you have defined yourself as at this point. In your mid-20s you start to wonder whether you have been defined or whether you defined yourself.

I think there are aspects of masculinity and femininity in all things, and I see a lot of frustrating confinement in men and in women, in very different ways, about the restrictions of these particular roles. Both self-imposed and societally imposed and psychologically imposed. But it becomes more and more interesting to me as I begin to observe people, like friends of mine having children of their own, [and] how they’re coping with this idea of masculinity and femininity.

I noticed there’s swearing in a few songs on the new album. Have you done that much before in songs?

I’ve never done it as brutally as it appears on this record. I’ve never made it like a central line.

Like a chorus [as on the title track].

Yeah, a chorus [laughs]. Sometimes I feel that swearing is vulgar and not useful to conversation, but sometimes it really hits the spot [laughs].

Especially with repetition, it becomes a cathartic, chanted sort of release.

Some swear words, the sound of them is very much like the feeling they express.

Your singing has a lot of range on this record. There are songs that are more talk-y, and your voice is doing a lot of different things from song to song.

I was writing a lot of stories and poetry, and I just grew attached to the use of different voices, as in character voices. I think that just seeps its way into the music.

When you were talking about morality, I was going to ask if it’s sometimes hard tackling that in a song. So it’s interesting to know that you have other mediums.

Yeah. And I do think, for that very reason, some things need to be expressed in a certain way that aren’t appropriate for one medium or another.

Do you share the non-song writing you do?

Occasionally. I’ve written stories for people. But I haven’t devoted much time to it, because it does tend to be a more cathartic exercise than songwriting. Just a more personal one.

And the album was named after a short film you starred in?

No, that was just a coincidence actually. I happened to make a short film a year before I made the record. But they weren’t linked, funnily enough, and I didn’t put it together until after I titled the record.

Again, it must be good to have these different avenues of expression.

It’s a relief, actually. Something I think teenagers could benefit from it, a lot. I realised I could do all of that when I was a teenager. It channels something I believe everybody has: this collective unconscious or something like that. It just gives people a way to get there.

“I’m interested in morality and the origins of morality”

Do you have any idea when you’re coming to Australia again?

I think, the last I heard, it was the end of the year. But I might be wrong.

Are you able to move across the albums pretty fluidly live?

Yeah. We don’t play a lot from the early record. We’ve adapted the work from the other records to fit in with the sound of this one. Which has been a very pleasant for me to do, actually, because it gives them a kind of new life. And the band can work the same way on each song. It’s been really nice, actually.

Starting to play guitar so young, did you ever have some rebellious time when you put it aside, just out of wanting to do your own thing?

Yes, that’s what I just spent my last year doing. [laughs] Delayed adolescence is what I think they call it, in Jungian terms.

Short Movie comes out March 20 through Virgin/Caroline