At age 16, Laura Marling dropped out of school, moved from her family's home in the English countryside to the big city of London, and recorded Alas, I Cannot Swim, her stunning debut album. This spring, her second LP, I Speak Because I Can, was released by Astralwerks; though she's still only 20 years old, the new album features some of her most complex and deeply contemplative lyrical poetry to date, underpinned by shadowy folk instrumentation supplied by Mumford & Sons (her occasional backing band) and Marling's own richly finger-picked guitar. In May, before her show at First Church in Cambridge, Mass., Marling talked with Paste about touring, her first years in London and her recent drunken encounter with Neil Young.
Paste: Can you start by telling me about the tour you’re on now?
Laura Marling: We’ve been on tour for a week and a bit, and it’s ten of us in a minivan. We just did a couple of dates with this band called The Middle East who are pretty great. It’s been interesting—it’s nice that the attendance at shows has sometimes been 20 people and sometimes 200. ... Yesterday was my favorite [show], in Portland, Maine. It was at this art gallery called the Space gallery. It’s just a big square room. That was one of the bigger shows, like 200 people. Portland was just an un-intimidating city, not very huge buildings. We had the whole day there. We had lobster. (Laughs) We had a lot of seafood. We had really good coffee, which is hard to come by.
Paste: How is this tour comparing to the last tour in the US, in the fall?
Marling: Well, the last tour was me and one friend and my sister tour-managing, and we were doing it all by train. It’s nice having a van on this tour. We played a really fun show here [in Boston] at a vegan café, Club Passim.
Paste: The last tour was before this album. And this album is out on a Virgin Records; the last was on Astralwerks. Has that changed the experience of the tour, now that you’re on a bigger label?
Marling: Well, I don’t know what’s going on in America really. I just kind of go on tour and hope for the best. That’s all I know. When I was signed, I got signed all the way around the world. Which is (whispers) kind of a bum deal. (Laughs)
Paste: What’s wrong with that?
Marling: Well, because somebody might not want you on their label in America, but because you’re signed in England you’re contracted to them all around the world. But around the world they might not be interested in your music at all.
Paste: Do you find that people are more interested in your music at home than here?
Marling: Yes, well, only I think because the person who signed me is at home in England. So you know, that’s one reason.
Paste: Can you tell me a little bit about where you’re from? You’re from Hampshire, but you live in London now?
Marling: I live in London now, but I grew up in a tiny village, which was really boring, but I miss it now because it’s so calm there. I lived there until I was 16, then I dropped out of school and moved out to London, which I really enjoyed. Both of my sisters lived in London.
Paste: When you were first playing music and first living in London, what was the music community like in London? What was your experience like starting out pursuing music in there?
Marling: I was very lucky because I happened to know a few good people there. One was my close friend who I went to school with who is now in a band called White Lies. They used to be, in the early years, called Fear of Flying, and they got me my first gig in West London, where I met a friend who used to run club nights in London for country music, and from there I met a few other people, and then from there I met another band that I became a member of called Noah and the Whale. It was just really lucky.
Paste: Has there been a high point in your experiences over the past 3 or 4 years playing music?
Marling: I think recording this album was one of the best times I’ve ever had. I was just with people I was really comfortable with. I had recently become really comfortable with myself in my own skin. It was just such an easy process and it felt so much like what I love to do, and it made me realize how lucky I am to be doing it. So that was a real highlight. And then, also when we toured with Neil Young for a couple of days in Europe.
Paste: What was that like? Are you a big Neil Young fan?
Marling: Yes. It was crazy and terrifying. There was one interaction. He was really friendly, but he has been touring for forty years, so I assumed he wouldn’t want to be bothered. But my band all went up and talked to him, and then I got drunk and… he was perfectly polite! He was lovely.
Paste: On this album do you have a favorite track or one that you’re most proud of?
Marling: Yeah, I think “What He Wrote.” I wrote it and I thought we wouldn’t be able to fit any production on it, or any kind of arrangement. I thought it might be a bit boring, but then my piano player came up to me and came up with a humming arrangement for it, which I love. And he and Ethan [Jones, who produced the record] did it all, and then I did some harmonies over the top, and I just remember coming in after they’d done all of the backing and just being so happy that it didn’t sound boring.
Paste: What is that one about?
Marling: That one, actually—I read some letters published in a newspaper, wartime letters, from World War II. It was between a man and a woman, a man who had gone away to fight, and it only had the woman’s letters. They never found the man’s letters, and it was all about how the last time that they had seen each other, she had been so upset that she was, like, rigid with anger, and I started to think about his letters.
Paste: In terms of the writing and the song content, how do you think this album is different from your last album?
Marling: I don’t know I can’t really be subjective about that because I think it just went along with where I was in my life. I felt like a kid when I wrote my first album, because I was a kid when I wrote my first album—I was 16. And now I feel like... I wrote this when I was 18 and 19 and on my way to becoming an adult and that’s the difference, I think. I think the main thing is that I am more aware of and comfortable with my place in the world. Which is a really nice thing to find yourself with. It’s a lot less daunting, and a lot less of a struggle, when you have that confidence. It feels quite clean. It’s helpful.