Laura Marling on How She Lost Her Mind and Then Found It Again

This time last year, she was applying for waitressing jobs. Now she's about to release her fifth album, 'Short Movie.' We went to her house to snoop at her stuff and find out where she's been for two years.

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Feb 17 2015, 12:59pm

As I walked to Laura Marling’s house on a terraced street in East London, all I really knew was that she had spent the last two years leading a somewhat nomadic life in America, from driving the entire country to living alone in LA.

I'd made a load of stereotypical assumptions based on what I know about artists who move to California to get away from it all. Particularly folk singers. And I half expected my morning to be all spicebush teas, peace symbols, Tom Robbins quotes, cherry acoustic Fenders, and vintage Joni Mitchell twelve-inches. She did have a color-coded book case, but the rest was unfounded.

Instead, she sat in her narrow home among a spread of old, weathered Playboy mags, smoking rollies out the window, necking straight black coffee, and orating choice quotes at me from a 1972 Jack Nicholson interview, as our photographer takes shots of the things she points at. The interview is from just before Nicholson got really famous, so he’s speaking with the unshackled liberty of an actor not yet polluted with world-weary cynicism or conceited paranoia, and in this particular quote, he’s waxing about the positives and negatives of Hollywood’s latest fad: cocaine. Turns out Jack would dip his beak now and again during the plundering days of '72, but he says it didn’t do much for him, and “he really couldn’t see it becoming popular,” laughs Laura.

If you’re British, and whether you dig melodic, wanderlust folk music or not, Marling is a homegrown talent to be proud of. She’s managed five studio albums in only seven years, won best British female at the Brits, been nominated for the Mercury Prize three times, and, most importantly, has written and composed absolutely everything she’s ever put her name to. Unless something goes massively wrong, you can see her chalking up a 20- or 30-album career. Obviously, musicianship isn’t measured on the amount of releases, but it’s worth giving this creative fecundity a bit of context: if Marling was indeed Joni Mitchell right now, she’d wouldn’t have even put a debut record out yet.

Of course, the time she’s spent establishing herself as a superhuman soloist is time lost elsewhere. She entered the music industry—with the sobering young love poetry of Alas I Cannot Swim—at the pale age of 17, and never really left it again, with successive albums, exhausting tours and prolific writing. When, two years ago, she finally paused and exhaled for the first time since leaving school, it dawned that her actual life, those moments away from the stage and studio, had been sucked into a supermassive black hole of electromagnetic career ambitions.

“I was mentally stressed out from touring and travelling with lots of people,” she explains. “Not that they weren’t lovely people, but I had done the three albums and toured them back-to-back. I decided to do a tour alone, a U-shape of the States, just me and a guitar. I was deciding when and where to go. No Holiday Inns on the side of the freeway in Idaho. I picked up friends on the way, then a boy, and we ended up moving to LA together. I had absolutely nothing, and it felt amazing; a completely fresh start."

So you found love? "No, me and the boy obviously broke up within minutes of moving there, but I still stayed.”

Marling needed a bit of what Jack Nicholson had in 1972. Not the fringe or the unlimited supply of ching, but the period of time where she didn’t have to be fully aware of who she was—“Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter Laura Marling”—and could assume the natural role of a plucky young human exploring their late adolescence without a metaphorical post-it note of context stuck to their forehead. It’s everything that happened from hereon in that’s inspired the entirety of her new album: Short Movie. And those 70s peace and love affectations I had expected her to be carrying from her journey across America would appear to be way more Fear and Loathing.

“Drifters, professional vagrants…” she smiles, “I met so many fleeting and mysterious people. They tend to be compos mentis, interesting folk who are living outside the bounds of society. And then there was people who I would get slightly more involved with, who were living in Northern California, off the grid, part of cults. Musicians, struggling actors, hippies. It was exciting to me, worlds I’d never been involved in. I have my generation here in London, but I don’t see them as clearly because I’m amongst them. There’s desperation in many of America's young ones, those in debt thanks to useless degrees, or from a difficult backgrounds. Whether it was alcoholics, or crazy Christian families who couldn’t deal with them being gay. And LA seemed to attract those traumatized people. There were a lot of experiences for me, for what I hadn’t realized had been a pretty sheltered life up until then. It was like being close to the flame.”

Finding yourself and losing yourself are tricky tasks though. While attempting to do one you can actually end up doing the other, and so on. At one point, during her time in LA, she wasn’t making music, was hanging out with new age hippies and was unsuccessfully applying for coffee shop waitressing jobs. It turned out world tours weren’t sufficient experience for making lattes. Did she ever actually stop regarding herself as a musician?

“Yes, I thought it would be interesting for me to do that. I wasn’t playing, touring, or writing. I like to take things to the furthest boundaries of my ability to cope, because that is what makes life worth living, but those tours almost pushed me over the edge. And feeling like that in a city like LA, you start to notice things cynically. I wanted to talk to people about the fucked up stuff that is going on the world—not preach about it, just talk. But nobody wants to there. Negativity is a bad smell in LA, and you can catch it. That ended up sending me a bit loopy. When I first arrived I found the lack of cynicism such a relief. But I soon realised that cynicism is important, because that is what eventually makes you stand up and do something. I took six months without writing. When I finally came back to it, I just naturally started to pick up the guitar again. I realized that so much had happened in that time.”

With all this chat about cynicism and cults, I can’t resist engaging her on Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Mexican film director and self-professed psychomagic shaman. During her time in America, Marling became engrossed in his writings—“Sometimes it would get called the surreal, which made it sound more high brow, but in my opinion it was just weird”learning tarot as a result. And from the books lining the shelves and mantle piece of her living room, I can spot at least two of his, and a few comics. I ask if she knows the story of how George Harrison wanted to star in his enigmatic 1973 classic The Holy Mountain, but when Harrison expressed his reluctance to let his bare butthole be washed on camera for a scene involving a fountain and a baby hippo, Jodorowsky refused to let him take any further part. She hadn’t heard it, but she had a few of her own to exchange.

“I vividly recall writing the song 'Gurdijeff’s Daughter' for this record. I had moved to Joshua Tree for a bit, and that was the edge. It’s like living on Mars. I was reading an excerpt from Jodorowksy’s book about Gurdijeff, a metaphysical theorist. I was captivated by his daughter specifically. She came to meet Jodorowsky after the premiere of El Topo in the 70s, put him in a cab, took him to a hotel room, and started doing really weird sex stuff to him. Jodorowksy describes it very graphically in the most not-hot way you can imagine, about this kind of internally contracting thing she kept doing, shouting about how her mother had taught her how to do it, because, so it goes, part of a female’s consciousness is attached to her sexuality. So the more you can have control over your sexuality and virility, the more you can expand your mind. Later in the book, she takes Jodorowsky travelling across Mexico, and she’s like ‘Okay, we’re gonna go and take these mushrooms and they are going to kill us, alright?’ She kinda fascinated me, and inspired that song.”

All of these tales have been channeled into a singular sound, self-produced by Marling. She explains: “I like late 60s albums where everyone had just gone nuts for stereo, so if you listen to Safe as Milk, or any Captain Beefheart, the snare drum is up here, and the kick tom is down here, and the bass is a little here and a little there. I loved that sound, so I was doing several takes of this atonal sound, and putting it so that it was spinning around the central vocal line. It had this central tone which I wanted in there. And I was nicely able to align that tone with the craziness of my time in LA.”

Short Movie is her most subliminal, symbolic, and wired record yet; moving away from folk music, into a more specific era. It’s serpentine, electric, and tightly packed with emotional voyeurism, new experiences, adolescent confusion, and sleepless nights. And as she sits opposite me, safely back in her London flat, she strikes an unspoken mix of being totally satisfied with her achievement and seeming massively relieved that it’s all over.

Throughout our entire conversation, it felt like identity was coming up again and again, from toying with the idea of not being a musician anymore, to statements like: “I learned the importance of you in the historical context of your life.” And at this point it doesn’t feel weird to ask her if she regrets launching her entire career using her real name, and therefore sacrificing it to the project. The Post-it note on the forehead.

“I do, especially a singular girl’s name. It’s really fucking annoying, and I wish I’d done it differently. I mean, #noregrets and whatever, but I even considered changing my real name at one point. I don’t feel attached to Laura Marling anymore, because it’s not me. It’s not my personal property anymore. But I suppose that is willingly done; I did do that. I think the next thing I do will need to be something in the guise of something else.”

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Noisey will be premiering the video for Laura's single "False Hope" tomorrow, 18th Februrary.