Marika Hackman’s voice will lower the lights. Her spacious, atmospheric folk songs will conjure some impossible mist; her nocturnally-cast baroque-rock dirges will strike a new mood, something sublime and surreal, and something sounding somehow enlightened by its gloom.
“I often get asked about where this macabre and melancholy side comes from,” said the London-based singer/songwriter. “As much as I struggle to identify with most popular music these days, I still think it’s important that we allow darkness and light to exist side by side.”
The first lyrics on her forthcoming full-length album, dealing with the intricacies of truly knowing oneself, are harmonized with her double-tracked voice sung through a ghostly vocoder, a characteristically chilly yet enticing effect. Her voice shines with a midnight-blue iridescence, achieving an otherworldly harmony.
“I think it’s important that the whole spectrum of emotion is prevalent in every art form,” said Hackman. “And, I think we need artists to confront ideas that may be harder to swallow than the feelings evoked by your average upbeat pop song.”
The most arresting aspect of this Finnish songwriter’s work is not the macabre or melancholy, but her voice; a lightly rasped sound sometimes strikingly utilized as a wordless instrument to mold a mood over thrumming atmospheric effects. Her words bend the ear with their surprising frankness.
The singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist grew up in southeast England near Hampshire inside a household filled with music; she taught herself how to play guitar before she was a teenager and soon started writing her first songs.
This month, just as she turns 23, Hackman will release her first full length album We Slept At Last on Feb. 16 (via Dirty Hit). When she turned 18, she went to school to study fine arts, but ultimately decided to pursue music full time instead. This lead to her releasing an EP of covers in early 2013 (including a devastating rendition of Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers”) and, soon after, her breakout mini-album That Iron Taste produced by alt-J’s Charlie Andrew. (You can also hear her distinctive voice singing harmonies with alt-J on the track “Warm Foothills,” from their 2014 album This Is All Yours).
Andrew’s production on We Slept At Last enlivens the most dynamic, mystical and mesmeric aspects of Hackman’s very visual compositions. Melodies sew their way slowly through many of her songs, minimally dressed as they are, with lilting guitars, pared back percussion and a blend of baroque elements varyingly strummed, bowed or plucked.
We spoke to Hackman last week about the characteristic composition of her songs and inquired of the sources for some of her more haunting subject matter.
There’s so much space in your music. Each note, tone and timbre has room to breathe, along with your vocal melodies. Can you talk about this predominant feature and the experience of recording We Slept At Last?
Hackman: I think space is incredibly important. I spend so much time writing these songs that they need room to just exist … I don’t want to hide them under lots of heavy production. Charlie is the master of space; it’s one of the main things that made me want to work with him. My only notes before we started the recording process were that I wanted the record as a whole to maintain a raw and organic feeling.
Having written songs for half your life, what has the experience become for you? I’ve read that, for you, finding and writing the right lyrics can be quite nerve-wracking, almost draining. What does it do for you to put words to a page and release your voice onto a tape or at a performance?
Hackman: It’s 100% catharsis for me. As selfish as it sounds, I’m not thinking about an audience when I write a song. It’s a completely private and internal process, and it’s the exploration of my own head. I was approaching We Slept in quite a structured and intensive way. I was getting up early and sitting at my desk with my guitar until the evening, with only a few breaks. Toward the end I was starting to struggle with anxiety and finding it hard to sleep. That’s when I wrote “Claude’s Girl,” which is the idea of me following a melody (as this “girl with the flaxen hair,”) which would take me to sleep, but with time running out and me being unable to switch off before the sun rises. Every time I finish a song there’s quite a large sense of relief and it’s after this that I can start to think about production ideas and put it into the context of something to be shared.
“I have no head / the forest floor is my bed / the leaves that fall I use as a blanket / for my bones are as cold as lead…” Can you talk about these visual lyrics and these descriptive, guttural phrasings you employ; what inspires them or draws you to these vibes or expressions?
Hackman: The lyrics never exist just by themselves, as I’m always writing with a melody. I can’t stand it when syllables don’t fit rhythmically. It’s important that words and melody fit together seamlessly. They are the same thing. I’m influenced by many things; mainly my songs’ themes are dictated by my emotional state at the time. They all mean different things to me and represent different emotional states from the last year. I don’t mind [the melancholia] being a recurring topic of conversation, as the reason it’s present in my work is a fascination I have with the darkness that, I believe, exists within everyone. I want to explore it and I want people to talk about it.
I get the sense, in your songwriting, that you’re drawn more to the emotional power of tone and texture, rather than a catching hook or memorable chorus.
Hackman: One of my biggest gripes with so much music these days is this fear of making “hookless” music. Everything has to be so immediately accessible, rather than allowing an emotional attachment to grow in a natural way. I think many people are lazy; they want music that they don’t have to actually listen to, that will charge down some well-trodden paths in their brains and they can hum it back 10 minutes later. It’s easy to confuse familiarity with pleasure. I’m definitely pushing against that in my work. I want the power in my music to come from lyrics and melody rather than trickery of the brain.
In what ways do you think starting in music so early in life impacted your perception of the world or yourself?
Hackman: I think people are constantly striving to find a release or escape, and I think music is the most accessible way to achieve it. In terms of myself: I think that writing from such an early age helped me order the clutter in my head and perhaps kept me quite sane and calm. I think it helped me accept that feeling sad, for lack of a better word, is part of existing, and that sometimes its’ good to go into these emotions and explore them rather than suppressing them.
Marika Hackman’s debut album ‘We Slept At Last’ is out Feb. 16 through Dirty Hit.