Photos by Hollie Fernando
Laura Marling considers The Empress tarot card. Tucked away in a corner of The Ear Inn, an over 200 year old pub and warm place of refuge on Spring St. in Manhattan, she wrinkles her brow, puzzled, and then smiles when I say her new record Semper Femina reminds me of The Empress more than any other card in the deck. Marling, who sometimes uses tarot as guidance, laughs, saying she is unsurprised by this choice. Part of the Major Arcana—cards with more broadly tailored symbolic guidance cards than suit or court cards—The Empress features a woman sitting on a cushioned seat in an open field near a forest with the feminine symbol in a heart lying at her feet. The Empress is usually symbolic of material and sensory abundance. The card is also often representative of mothering and motherhood, but its meaning also extends to femininity as a whole.
Roughly translated from Latin, semper femina means "always a woman." Out on March 10 via her own label More Alarming Records, Marling's sixth album isn't a declarative feminist piece. This isn't her first foray into an explicitly feminine-centric work: last year Marling worked on her podcast The Reversal of the Muse, interviewing female engineers, producers, and Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, to name a few, about working in the music industry and the limitations women so often face in it. Semper Femina is a different conversation. It is a record that negotiates the ways in which each person carries both feminine and masculine qualities in them and how each are prioritized culturally.
An avid consumer of psychological theory and analysis, Marling tells me that the idea for this record was born out of her research of Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian poet and novelist. As a child, Rilke's mother, out of grief of losing a baby girl, dressed him up as a girl until he was eight years-old—something that would profoundly influence him for most of his life. Later, the 19th century writer would come to be studied by the first female psychologist Lou Andreas-Salomé, who explored his struggle with definitions of femininity, masculinity, and self. "That story, that weird mystical story, got me really interested in our… what are our desires? Why do we live in a masculine dominated, economic functioning Western world, you know? What is the kink in our desires?" she says. "And then you reduce it to a much smaller thing: What's my relationship to femininity and masculinity? Like, to what extent have I been masculinized in order to participate in society or feminized in an effort to be vulnerable enough to write songs?"
Marling found herself in awe of Salomé and her work, which wasn't just pivoted toward Rilke; Salomé also wrote definitive biographies of both Frederich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. "I think [I had a] realization… that I love this woman and I've never met her and I'll never have the opportunity to meet her," she says. Marling channeled that creative energy elsewhere, looking instead to the women in her life she found and still finds inspirational. "I didn't sit down and think 'I'm going to write a record celebrating women or distinguishing their uniqueness to my relationship with women.' I thought why can I not be driven to be so inspired by [them.] I just hadn't really allowed that. I wondered in a sort of crass pop feminism way because I've only ever been told that women talk about romance or they are tragic."
The English singer and songwriter's career began as a teenager when she deservedly garnered praise for the sharp, intuitive wisdoms she sang and wrote on her debut Alas I Cannot Swim from 2008_._ Marling came from the London new folk scene in the later 2000s that had also produced Mumford and Sons and Noah and the Whale. Her stirring, often youthfully defiant debut was nominated for a Mercury Prize Award. She would be nominated twice more for the award for her sophomore I Speak Because I Can and her fourth record Once I Was An Eagle. Her body of work is characterized by her relationship with her acoustic guitar (and then her electric swerve on 2015's Short Movie) and the postulations, philosophies, and stories she tells on it: "Failure", on Alas I Cannot Swim, tells the story of a romance with a failed musician and the failures one can put on themself; "The Beast" from A Creature I Do Not Know produces uncomfortable mythic and demonic, yet familiar images of man; while "Saved These Words" on Once I Was An Eagle is a triumphant declaration to a lover gone away. Marling, now 27, doesn't shy away from her earlier albums, but speaks rather fondly of her past work, her past selves. "[My albums] are like old journals but they are like old bookmarks of their time. I don't regularly listen to them, which would be quite weird, mainly because, they were written to exorcise something and that has been exorcised. I don't want to re-live it."
Semper Femina is Marling's most disciplined and concise record to date. Unlike her past projects, this one was intentionally edited and structured differently. Marling says her producer Blake Mills (who has worked with Sky Ferreira, Fiona Apple, Conor Oberst, and Alabama Shakes) decided to cut out any extraneous chords she admits she is wont to add, and instead stuck to more a traditional structure that she says made her songs much more palatable than they'd ever been. Marling's sound dips in and out of folk, country, and blues, meaning her genre is often harder to pin down precisely. This is evident on the album's lead single "Soothing", which is a subtly smooth, almost jazz inspired track that opens with a deep bass twang before Marling's serene vocals come in. On the emotional "The Valley", a song about a woman watching another suffer and feeling helpless, Marling's usually terse, rhythmic guitar picking softens against swelling strings as she sings "I love you in the morning/I love you in the day/ I'd love you in the evening/ if only she would stay."
Interestingly, though, Marling doesn't use a male pronoun the album, which she says was unintentional at the time. When putting it together though with Mills, Marling says he was genuinely unaware of her feminine approach. "He never asked, so we never spoke about it. Funnily enough, we recorded 'Nouel' last. And, as we were recording the song, he was like, 'I like the song but I don't really understand why you really want this on the record' and I was like 'have you not listened to the lyrics? The lyrics are the title of the album.' And he said, 'I don't really listen to lyrics.' In a way I was like that's fucking great. He just felt the record—he didn't think the record, he felt it. It was brilliant."
Marling is quite like a psychologist: she'd rather listen and guide than outright disclose meaning. Something that is a significantly important distinction of her work compared to other singer-songwriters is that Marling wants her listeners to find a space for themselves instead of them constantly looking for her in the music. Marling tells me a story about how, earlier in the week, a girl stopped her on the street at 7:30 in the morning while she walked around the city in search of a bagel. She was struck that this girl had recognized her at all but also then that this stranger immediately burst into tears, saying how grateful it was to have met Marling. "I'm not a mainstream artist and, not until this album, there hasn't been very many pictures of me available by my design. So it doesn't happen very often to me. I was taken aback and I feel an emotional relationship. Because I'm really emotional. The reason she feels emotional listening to my music is because I'm emotional too."
She admits though that this is a business and an uncomfortable part of being a public figure is the need for definition, often at the pen of someone else. That doesn't mean Marling is at all closed off or defensive; she is, on the other hand, an incredibly warm and thoughtful person who is humble yet very aware of her position. "This is the most [promotion] I've ever done for a record because I need to pay my band and there's no money left in the music business," she says. "I'm not complaining, I am very lucky to be where I am, but I have to sell enough records to play enough gigs to have an actual career. That's the reality of the time we're living in. So I'm having to do some of the less desirable promotional things where you get asked questions by people who are doing functional jobs, you know? And I find that heartbreaking and difficult. If somebody says like 'so tell me... ' they go down a list 'tell me about that song.' People expect you to be interested in selling yourself in that way."
But Marling really doesn't need to sell herself in that way at all because she already has sold herself to her listeners. Earlier in the week, before our interview, she played with her band at the Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan's Lower East Side for a WFUV sponsored performance that will air on the station mid-March. The audience, which was comprised of maybe 100 people, excitedly chattered and whooped when she came onstage but then respectfully remained quiet as the music began. As she took the stage, she assumed a steady position, often looking up at the stage lights, before gently gliding her pick across her guitar's strings while holding tight to its neck like a scepter. Her audience was there for the musical intimacy and philosophies coming from her mind and voice. Marling, ever like The Empress, always puts her feelings first; she's intuitive, emotional, and a giver of insight and quietly delivered to the audience what they came for.
Sarah MacDonald is a staff writer for Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.