Laura Marling had a grim vision of the rest of her life.
“I felt like I couldn’t do another acoustic, slightly mystical storytelling album again,” she says, smiling self-deprecatingly at the term. “I kinda got this vision that that’s what I was gonna do over and over and over again.”
The English folk songstress was just 23 years old and already four albums deep into a lauded career, with three Mercury Prize nominations and a Brit Award (the British equivalent of a Grammy) under her belt. She had just released the album that critics deemed her greatest masterpiece yet, 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle. But if Marling continued cranking out more of the poetry-laden, acoustic ballads she was famous for, she’d have bored herself to death.
We’re sitting at a rickety table at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village and Marling, who recently chopped her long, white-blonde tresses into a handsome pixie cut, looks repelled by the idea of routine. “I could’ve kept going in the direction of Once I Was an Eagle,” she says. “And I would have ended up doing the same shit that I’ve always been doing: living in London, creating poetry and romance out of my life, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be uncomfortable.”
So Marling, darling of London’s new folk scene, went electric.
Short Movie, the now-25-year-old’s latest effort, is Marling’s most emotionally raw and transparent record to date. Whereas the songwriter usually remains a cipher in her own lyrics, communicating in allegories and imagery that have garnered comparisons to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Short Movie exposes Marling for what she is: a young woman, still figuring life out.
This also marks the first time that Marling has played electric guitar on a record, cutting herself off from what she describes as the “sweet maternal connection” she has with her beloved acoustic guitars. She wrote the album, produced it herself and pushed her band to record each song in one take.
“I was trying to get them to wear a blindfold, basically, and just follow the emotional content of the song—and it was fucking amazing,” she beams.
Traces of Marling’s time in Los Angeles—where she relocated two years ago, before moving back to London last December—also run throughout the record. Flashes of hippie encounters, visits to Joshua Tree, and the sting of anonymity abound. “Living here is a game I don’t know how to play / Are you really not anybody until somebody knows your name?” she sings on “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down.”
So far west of England, no one recognized Marling as an award-winning songwriter, exhausted from eight years straight of recording and touring. To most Angelenos, she looked like just another artist. And when they asked what she did for a living, she offered an alternate, perhaps more ordinary occupation (by L.A. standards, anyway): yoga instructor. “Every time someone asks you what you do, as a musician, it does affect your ego,” she remembers, before wrinkling her nose and mocking herself again. “[I’m like,] ‘Don’t you know?!’ And obviously, they don’t.”
Los Angeles seems like the last place on Earth you’d find Marling, who is so thoroughly English, her family actually has its own coat of arms. When I ask why she chose the unlikely city, she smiles.
“I think that’s why. That’s my favorite thing to do,” she says. “Like two years ago, just before I moved to L.A., I got a motorbike. I hate motorbikes. But because nobody expected me to do it, I was like, ‘I can fucking ride a motorbike if I want to!’ It’s the same with Philip Roth: somebody once told me that I would never get Philip Roth’s writing because I’ve never been a Jewish man. And I was like, ‘Fuck you! I’m gonna read all his books and then I’m gonna tell you everything there is to know about him.’”
Now, Marling is preparing to hit the road again, for her first North American tour in several years. It’s a 180-degree reversal from two years ago, when she was considering quitting music entirely. “There’s only few people that can get away with doing this into their elder years—and in musical terms, that’s not old. That’s like, [age] 30,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m not sure I wanna do it.’ I do love it and it’s a big part of me. If I’m not gonna do that, what am I gonna do? And maybe I should start thinking about that now and not when I’m 30-something.”
“But then, you can’t obstruct a part of yourself like that,” she concedes. “So I’m just grateful that I’m doing it now, instead of worrying about the future.”
It might be surreal to hear someone so young agonize about the end of her career, but then again, Marling has been a professional since she was 16 years old. That’s when she left her family’s Hampshire home to pursue music full-time in London. She sang with a young folk band called Noah and the Whale for around two years before her solo debut, Alas I Cannot Swim (produced by Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink and released via Virgin Records), hit shelves days after her 18th birthday. At the time, she was romantically involved with Fink, who took their eventual breakup rather hard. (His band’s monumental breakup album, The First Days of Spring, was written about Marling.)
Meanwhile, Marling had already earned her first Mercury Prize nomination and given a then-unknown college dropout named Marcus Mumford his first gig by hiring him as her drummer. They would collaborate (and yes, date) until around 2010, when Marling’s acclaimed sophomore effort, I Speak Because I Can, was released. (A year after Mumford & Sons’ debut Sigh No More propelled Mumford to fame in America; he says he wrote “White Blank Page” in Marling’s studio while she was out doing interviews.) With her third record, A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling nabbed an NME Award (best solo artist, 2011) and that Brit Award (best British female, 2011). And then came her opus, Once I Was an Eagle, in 2013.
On Short Movie, Marling makes oblique references to her past loves and the public’s fascination with them.
“They know that I loved you but they’ll never know why,” she sings on the album’s eponymous track. It’s as open as she’s ever been on the subject, but don’t try asking her about it in real life. She’s been famously reticent with journalists when it comes to her personal life.
“You’d have to be a pretty big music nerd to be interested in my personal life,” she says. “I guess because of the type of person I am, people don’t seem to overstep the mark very much. Occasionally they do, and I tell them where they can stick it.”
Marling has been described as an old soul since she was a teenager and she does sound world-weary when looking back at her career. “When I listen to some of the older stuff and the way that I used to speak—I don’t recommend it really,” she laughs, before continuing. “It’s like I was possessed or something. I think a lot of the beautiful naivety of young creatives is that they don’t know where it’s coming from. And they have this kind of arrogance, like, ‘Oh, that’s just me.’ It’s not you, I’m afraid. It’s something else.” At 25, Marling says her time in the phase has passed. “I’ll never have that naivety again,” she says.
As for the future, whatever it brings, the singer has a few words to live by, passed onto her by a California hippie and translated into song: “It’s a short fucking movie, man / I know / I’m going to try and take it slow.”