By Sarah MurphyLaura Marling got her start as part of a British folk revival that spawned bands like Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons, but over the course of her first three albums, distanced herself from the scene and established a solid body of work. Moving away from the indie pop tendencies still resonating on her debut Alas I Cannot Swim, Marling's follow-ups I Speak Because I Can and A Creature I Don't Know saw the crafting of soulful, Americana-inspired folk songs. Now on her fourth record, Once I Was An Eagle, Marling has crafted another excellent album that opens with a verging-on-epic four-part song cycle and goes on to present a collection that shows off her writing, vocal and guitar playing prowess. She opens up about the creative process with her long-time producer Ethan Johns, lessons she's learned and how her music has been interpreted by other people.
You're getting ready for the release of the new record. Can you tell me a bit about the process of making it? This is the first record I've done without a band, so I made it with just me and my long-time producer Ethan [Johns] at his studio in his house in England. We did it in ten days and it was an absolute pleasure. I can't think of anything interesting to say about it, but yeah.
What made you decide to do it without the band this time? I wanted the process to be a bit simpler, because the songs — not the songs themselves — but the album as a whole was going to be quite complicated. It was looking like it was going to be over an hour long and the first track was 2- minutes long — all these things that were quite difficult to map out with "too many cooks," kind of thing. I've worked, I've got such a good musical relationship with Ethan, who produced the record, I was just keen for him to work his magic on it, basically. He painted a nice, simple picture around what otherwise could have been a complicated mishmash of ideas.
On the previous records had you always written by yourself and then brought the band in? Yeah, yeah, always. On the last record, I arranged the album and then the band quite rightly changed quite a lot of the arrangement. They brought their own flavour to it, which was great for that record, but I felt a bit too protective of this one. I didn't want too many ideas flying around.
Were there any specific inspirations for this one? There were a lot. There are always a lot, you know how it is. I suppose the title of the album is a nod to a Bill Callahan record called Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, and that wasn't directly musically or lyrically linked to the content of the album, the mastery of that album that he made is inspiring in that it's liberating that someone's making records that good. And then, you know, the many foundations of all the books and poems and songwriters that I've ever loved, they all have their mark on it.
Did you feel any pressure following the critical praise that you got for A Creature I Don't Know? Are there expectations or do you not really pay attention? No, the short answer is that I don't… it's not that I don't pay attention to it, it's that I'm lucky. I'm kept quite nicely away from it all. I'm also at peace with the fact that I can only do what I can do. I'm only capable of what I'm capable of and if it's not as good as the last thing I put out, well, that's a damn shame but there's not much I can do about it.
What makes a good album to you? One that you can stand back and be proud of and then move on from. I'm still learning, but the more I do this stuff and the more I'm able to move on from it once it's done, the more I feel like it was a complete project. So, let it have its time and then it's over.
Are you anxious about the new album coming out? Do you ever get scared at this point? Yeah, life is a permanent state of anxiousness for me, not particularly related to releasing an album. But I guess it comes with it. You have to talk about yourself a lot all of a sudden. It's nice to talk about yourself, it's keeps you self-aware. That's a funny side-effect of what I do, I never thought I'd have to do that.
But is the writing process itself pretty cathartic? Yeah, playing guitar and singing songs is my absolute pleasure.
Do you still get a sense of release every time you play them live? It would be false of me to say that I get that same feeling every time, because I'm just retelling a story after the initial glossiness of a song, you can only preserve it for so long. The idea of it will slow. But I get a different feeling of excitement from playing them live — a different satisfaction that they might be understood in a different way by who whoever's ears they hit.
Do you discover new things about them every time you play them? Yeah, cause it's such an unconscious process for me. There are regularly moments when I'm playing songs and I realize what I meant [laughs].
Do you get other people interpreting your songs in ways that you hadn't thought of? I actually try quite hard to discourage people from telling me what they think they might be about because one, I wouldn't want to set them straight — it's applied meaning. You apply whatever meaning you want. You manifest meaning and purpose on to anything and I wouldn't want to change that for anybody. But also, if you open that gate, the level of misunderstanding that can take place, the shitstorm that would ensue would be too much for me — you know, to debate with people.
What do you wish you knew about this job when you were younger? That you don't have to do what other people want you to do. You are your own master. I wish I'd known that a bit younger, but, hey that's life, you learn.
You live in California now. When did you move and has it influenced your writing at all? I moved out here four or five months ago. I moved out here long after I made the record, so not on this record. But I don't know how much a landscape affects your writing. I guess the experiences I have here will effect what I write about, but I don't think I'll be writing any sunshine pop hits any time soon.
Where do see yourself in the future? Are there things that you want to try that you haven't? There's lots of things I want to try. I don't think I have a good visual of where I want to be, as long as it's somewhere else.
Have you been writing new stuff since finishing the album? Yeah, I have. But that's kind of annoying because I'm only just releasing this record. They'll be locked away a really long time.
How has your outlook on your previous three records changed? I don't often think about them unless I'm playing. But I haven't toured for a while, so I haven't thought about those songs for a long time. When I play songs from my first record, which I have to admit I very rarely do now, it does feel a bit like listening to — it's a meta experience, listening to a younger version of yourself. A very naïve, very cocky younger version of yourself. I suppose there is an element of nostalgia to them because they represented the short periods of change in my life.
What's your summer schedule looking like? Well, I'm off on tour on Monday. I'm going to Portland and then I'm driving down the West coast and then I'm coming over your way I think, playing Toronto at some point. And then I'm going back to England for a bit to check in with what's going down over there. And that's as far as I know.
You're not dong any festivals this year, but you have in the past. Do you treat those shows differently as opposed to playing a place like the Cameron House? Yes, absolutely. I'll be shot for saying this, but I should not play festivals. I'm not a festival act. I don't know why whoever keeps suggesting that I do it. I don't know why I keep saying yes. But this year I said no. I so much prefer, I remember that gig in Toronto, that was so sweet. I get so much more satisfaction from that than I ever would at a festival. Festivals are fun and it's nice that lots of people come and see what is essentially a stand-still show in the middle of a festival, I'm always amazed that people come and stand still for an hour and watch it. Anyways, that's that.