Laura Marling: No Longer Naive

Music Features Laura Marling
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“I think I had a revelation in my life where I realized I like things to be uncomplicated,” says Laura Marling. “I like things to be simple.”

Even against the busy backdrop of L.A., where she has permanently transplanted herself and made her home, the blonde-haired British folk singer is believably sincere when she says things like this. “I had lots of things in life that I had been conditioned to believe I enjoyed or that I wanted,” she continues. “It took a little consideration to realize I didn’t want them.”

The shedding of what we think we need, what we think we know, and the curing honesty that comes in the aftermath are elements that pervade throughout Marling’s newest album, Once I Was An Eagle. Her fourth album following her Mercury Prize-nominated debut Alas, I Cannot Swim (2008), its nominated follow-up I Speak Because I Can (2010), and A Creature I Don’t Know (2011), the 23-year-old’s newest effort is an epic where love-lost defiance and aggression turns to acceptance, and a loss of innocence transitions into self-assurance. Juxtaposed against it all is Marling’s frenetic acoustic dexterity, morphing raw, Led Zeppelin III-evoking strums and riffs alongside organs, bongos and clattering drums.

Writing the record over the course of several months, Marling quickly recorded the album last June, entering the studio for the first time without a backing band. Marling instead relied on the sole support of producer Ethan Johns, who has overseen every album since I Speak. “He’s the first person I go to,” she says. “He was the first person to hear it. I trusted him before I met him because I’ve heard the record he’s made. I knew he was a force to reckon with. Making this record was such a wonderful experience because I trusted him completely. I trust his ear completely. I trust his judgment and opinions completely. Not that we don’t clash sometimes. We do. But now that we have that established relationship and understanding of one another it requires so much less confrontation. When you have a band in a studio there’s a lot of friction. There’s a lot of confrontation and you’ve got to tune in with one another and find your zone and that’s fucking hard to do with five people in a room, so when you don’t even need to say anything because you know somebody so well and they understand you so well, that’s such a pleasure.”

While the total amount of time in the studio clocked around 10 days, it was the first that would have truly stood out for anyone able to witness Marling work. In that single, 24-hour period, Marling laid down the core guitar parts and vocals of each track live, all in one take. Originally just trying to see how much of the record’s four-song opening suite they could achieve in a single play-through, Marling says she and Johns just kept going. By the end, Marling says, “Ethan decided there was no need to do anything again. Obviously that means there are bum notes and some slightly fumbled words, but since Ethan has been my primary influence in the art of recording, I like that. I like hearing the bumps and the groans and my necklaces hitting the back of the guitar and things like that. That to me—that’s me writing the songs at home almost. It’s so close to how they’re written.”

Recorded in the order in which they were written, and sequenced the same way, the skeletal songs were handed over to Johns to fill out the arrangements. Aside from the occasional creative comment, Marling says at that point “my role was to sit by the sound desk and give Ethan my moral support because I did pretty much nothing else … Ethan took it upon himself and illustrated the record.”

Eventually leaving Johns to mix and master its 16 tracks into a finished work, it wasn’t until some three months after her time in the studio that Marling first heard the album in its completed form, traveling on her own from Texas to Louisiana. “It was a completely bizarre experience,” recalls Marling. “Listening to yourself is quite a weird thing, but listening to yourself in a rental car, driving through the bayou and swamps is something else.”

With almost a year passing between her time in the studio to the day of the record’s inevitable release, Marling makes a point to explain that the person she was during the time the album was written is much different from the one looking back at its development. Though she refrains from delving into any overtly personal connections to herself within the music, she confesses that her “songwriting runs parallel a lot with my life.”

Taking such an admission into account, it’s not all that difficult to pick apart the loose concept that rails within Once I Was An Eagle, telling the story of a young woman breaking free of her own guilelessness. “I think a lot of the record has to do with coping with reality, being conscious in reality, which some people might refer to as having their naiveté removed,” says Marling. “I think it happens at some point in everyone’s life where they suddenly ask the right wrong questions and they’re not naïve anymore. That feeling of suddenly being taken from an enormous, streamlined existence to a cold, bleak reality is quite daunting. It’s harsh, but it’s something that has to be addressed. You have to find a way through it by either accepting it or perpetually ignoring it and pretending that naiveté was never removed from you. The change in tone in the record coincides with my conclusion that you can re-appropriate the use of the word naiveté and in being aware you actually open up a whole new world of questioning and a whole new prospect for understanding. The older I get the younger I feel, and the more I realize I don’t know. But I also find that exciting.”

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