When life came to an abrupt halt last month, Laura Marling released her new album Song For Our Daughter. It is an intimate record, on which Marling gives motherly advice to a daughter she does not yet have, but also addresses young women in general. Shortly after her thirtieth birthday, she looks back on her own childhood, which largely took place within the music industry, and she definitively grows beyond the trauma of it. “The older I get, the more comfortable I feel.”
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: Justin Tyler Close
Laura Marling radiates a contagious calm. She speaks softly and weighs every word on her tongue. Her answers aren't long; she doesn't like to say more than is necessary. But they do consist of the type of thoughtful sentences that you hardly encounter in spoken language. Sometimes Marling cuts herself off if she doesn't agree with herself halfway through such a sentence or wants to build in a nuance. Then she just starts over and tries to articulate her thought a little more sharply. It can be deduced from every answer that Marling gives that she is not just saying something, but also that she does not think she has a monopoly on the truth. No matter how many times she's thought about a particular topic, she doesn't pretend to ever be done thinking about that topic. ‘I think’, she often says. ‘Maybe’, too. In a conversation with Laura Marling, a lot is open and little is fixed.
That calmness – fostered by a total absence of arrogance and pretentiousness – has been the common thread running through Marling's life, especially since she moved back to London three years ago after a stint in Los Angeles. Of course she will always draw inspiration from American country and folk from the sixties and seventies, but her 'affair' with the United States is over. Marling no longer moves between actors and actresses, but lives with her boyfriend and older sister in a quiet neighborhood in the north of the British capital. Another sister and her niece live a block away. “I started my life here again,” she says. “I'm close to the people I love and I feel like I'm part of a community again. I feel like I'm more grounded.” Laura Marling's life does not look very different from normal during the lockdown. She gets up early and goes for a walk every day, a habit she also maintained in Los Angeles, a city seemingly built for cars. Then she listens to full albums; to Big Thief's last, or to Roberta Flack's First Take. She only makes music in her basement, in the home studio where she wrote and recorded Song For Our Daughter.
Marling's balance takes on moving forms on that album. Even when she sings about the most complex feelings, or portrays her own traumas through vivid characters, she maintains serenity. Musically, too: on previous albums, Marling sometimes let herself be carried away by her emotions. On Song For Our Daughter, she limits herself to sober folk songs with tasteful string arrangements here and there. Marling is not lighthearted and does not give the impression that she ever will be, but Song For Our Daughter does sound hopeful. “The fact that I'm able to keep it that way partly has to do with a lot of therapy,” Marling laughs. “I also think that I – like many other people – went through a period of anger. Anger dominated my life in my mid-twenties and it got me nowhere. Well, of course that's not true; it does have a function. But I think I've realized by now that you can also deal with difficult things in a thoughtful way. I couldn't have said that about myself a few years ago, I don't think."
That mature approach obviously has to do with the birthdays Laura Marling has celebrated since she debuted with Alas, I Cannot Swim (2008). Over the years, Marling bit by bit abandoned the notion that the world revolved around her, the illusion you can treasure in your teens and twenties. Not that she talks about her past with disdain, mind you. Rather, she sees that such naive narcissism is an essential part of being young. “But letting go of that idea is a growing pain, I think. Sooner or later all people realize that they are not special, although sometimes people try to maintain that illusion longer than they should. Since I gave up on that notion, I realize more and more how many special interactions are constantly taking place around me. That passion can arise and disappear without ever being expressed, and that it can happen in the most mundane of places.” It's a great source of inspiration for her narrative writings, she says, before referring to Conversations With Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), the critically acclaimed books by young Irish writer Sally Rooney. “She is the master of the mundane, of the insignificant situation with particular emotional undertones.”
The passing of time has not only made Laura Marling wiser. After all, Marling was already wise when she broke through at the age of seventeen: her poetic songs were always full of layered characters. The characters she wrote about were not heroes or victims, they hovered somewhere in between. The young singer stood out in the London folk world, which also produced Noah and the Whale and Mumford & Sons – Marling's backing band at the time. She was often described as wise beyond her years. But, as Pitchforks Joshua Love asked in his review of Alas I Cannot Swim: 'What happens when the years catch up?' Now Laura Marling answers that question. The years have not only made her wiser than she already was. They have also made sure that she has more to apply her wisdom to. “The older I get, the more comfortable I feel, and the closer I feel to my past.”
“Passion can arise and disappear without ever being expressed, and that it can happen in the most mundane of places.”
With Song For Our Daughter, Marling does not focus exclusively on the daughter she does not (yet) have, but also on a younger version of herself, a young woman who grew up not long ago, but at a time when the position of women in the (music) world was different than it is now. “I think the cultural changes of recent years have made me look back on that time. I realized that I had a lot on my plate and had to deal with a lot of difficult things early on. Somehow miraculously I managed to do this without getting too big of a scratch, without being pigeonholed, and without being pitted against other women. Song For Our Daughter contains lessons I would like to teach my younger self, but the album also proves that you can get through your trauma on your own and develop yourself as a result.”
Marling thus touches on one of the most important themes of Song For Our Daughter: trauma, and especially processing it. Although Marling, as always, keeps her distance, it makes her consider Song For Our Daughter a very personal album. “This album is more of a part of me than my previous albums, I think, because to me it represents the triumph over trauma,” says Marling. Especially closing track 'For You', a glorified demo that Marling wrote together with her partner, is dominated by that victory. The song is a kind of hopeful epilogue to the record, which actually ends with the bittersweet 'Hope We Meet Again'. Three days before the album came out, Marling changed the track list, and 'For You' ended up at the end. “It didn't really fit into the narrative of the record, but I still wanted it to have a place on the album,” she explains. “Because in that song I say, 'Love is my triumph over trauma.'”
Marling, who is currently pursuing a master's degree in psychoanalysis, is increasingly realizing that the things she writes from her subconscious mind often precede the emotions she experiences consciously. “I was particularly interested in how trauma affected my creativity for a while, especially in my twenties. That made it even clearer to me why we need to support women who are traumatized, especially in the cultural world. Trauma is breaking boundaries you may not have even known existed. That makes you feel constantly on guard, because you don't want it to happen again. Trauma affects your innocence, and that's where creativity comes from. The way women are prevented from expressing themselves is very subtle and insidious.”
Marling derived the idea of dedicating her album to a fictional daughter from Letter to My Daughter, a collection of essays that American writer Maya Angelou addressed to her imaginary progeny in 2009. In that book, Angelou describes events from her life and examines how they contributed to her own behavior. Angelou tells, among other things, how she was assaulted when she was eight by her mother's boyfriend at the time. The man was sentenced to one day in prison, but was murdered four days after his release, presumably by Angelou's uncles. “She has lived her entire life with guilt,” explains Marling. “She felt responsible for the death of someone who had done something totally inappropriate to a young girl. I think that's a very modern problem: women often feel like they have to keep quiet in the patriarchy because they don't want to harm other people's lives.”
That feeling – the fear of hurting someone who must be prevented from offending again – is what Marling sings about on 'Only The Strong', one of the highlights of Song For Our Daughter, with its simple guitar line and barely audible drums. The song reads as the story of a woman who breaks up with a bad relationship, but also as that of a woman who convinces herself to choose for herself and speak out. "Love is a sickness cured by time, bruises all end up benign," she sings. And: 'I won't write a woman with a man on my mind. Hope that didn't sound too unkind.' In the title track, she refers to Lucretia, a victim of sexual violence in Roman history who was only believed after she committed suicide.
‘Lately I’ve been thinking about our daughter growing old
All of the bullshit that she might be told
There’s blood on the floor
Maybe now you’ll believe her for sure’
Yet Song For Our Daughter is not Marling's warning to the new generation. It's wise advice, but also a loving tribute to today's teens and twenties, who have been inspired by the MeToo movement and are not afraid to share their experiences. Marling speaks full of praise - and even a form of pride - about Phoebe Bridgers' self-confidence and the way she spoke out with other women about the inappropriate behavior of fellow musician Ryan Adams last year. And about Billie Eilish, who called out the German section of lifestyle magazine Nylon to account last year when the magazine portrayed her as a naked cyborg. “I loved watching her reclaim control of her own narrative. I find the idea that people have control over their own narrative very inspiring. Then it's not just about women for me, although women have historically not had that control."
When Laura Marling talks about equality between men and women, she likes to talk about freedom. About the freedom to shape your own story and not just be someone else's canvas. “I have a very privileged position, but my freedom is still held back in a way that has to do with my gender,” she says. “I often had the experience that as a woman I was the one who had to articulate all the emotions in a certain relationship, whether it was a personal or a professional one. If you have to do that, you temporarily lose the ability to really feel your own emotions. We need to ask ourselves how this affects women and whether we are teaching young men enough to express themselves in a way that is good not only for them, but for everyone.”
"I find the idea that people have control over their own narrative very inspiring."
Marling asks similar questions in ‘Alexandra’, the opening track to Song For Our Daughter, which references ‘Alexandra Leaving’ by Leonard Cohen, one of Marling’s idols, alongside Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. In that song, Cohen describes how Alexandra leaves a man and closes the door behind her. Almost twenty years after the song came out, Marling wonders how the character has continued. ‘What became of Alexandra? Did she make it through?’ she sings. ‘Where did Alexandra go? What did Alexandra know?' “I was wondering how you survive being a muse. How do you survive that passion? How do you convince yourself that you have the right to live as you are, not as someone else sees you? The more that is projected onto you, the more you feel like you are dying because you are not actually seen. That can be a very painful experience. That's why I wanted to think about who Alexandra actually was, without filling it in myself."
Freedom is also the theme of 'Fortune', a rippling ballad that gives you goosebumps with every listen. 'Oh my, fortunes can change', Marling sings in the song, referring to fortune as the synonym of luck as well as fortune in the financial sense of the word. She based the song on her own mother, who had a pot on the dishwasher where she kept her loose change for years. It was a running-away fund. Marling's grandmother had one too, just like many women in England set aside a little money in case they ever needed or wanted to turn their lives around. “A few years ago I realized how funny and sad that is, the idea of saving a few pounds each time so that one day you can start a new life,” laughs Marling. “But it is indicative of the need that women have for freedom, or even for the feeling of freedom. It still lives on in the women of today.”
Song For Our Daughter is out via Chrysalis Records. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.