Chris Bethell

Digging Deeper with Marika Hackman

After the release of her second album 'I'm Not Your Man', we chat to the 25-year-old multi-instrumentalist about confidence, transformation and pints.

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19 June 2017, 10:35am

Chris Bethell

Marika Hackman fucking loves the pub. Specifically, pints. Specifically, cheap pints. "I hate fancy beer. Give me something fizzy, cold and tasteless," she says immediately after ordering a Kronenbourg. It's Wednesday afternoon and we've arranged to meet at east London's Pub On The Park in Hackney, chosen partly because it's in her neck of the woods and partly because of its proximity to London Fields, where we're taking her manager's dog for a walk later in the day. Why? Well, why not. Marika Hackman – despite what you may have reasonably deduced from the quiet, introspective nature of her 2015 debut We Slept At Last – is what your line manager would call a "people person". She's into going for walks and hanging out (in the pub, famously) with mates. She mentions how much she enjoys meeting new people at several points in our conversation – a pleasure I seem hell bent on destroying by interrupting several times to gasp at every single dog that enters the pub (none of them were the right dog).

"I find a lot of excitement through other things in my life," she says when I ask if there's anything happening in music at large right now that's grabbing her attention. "The more human aspects of my life are what excite me, but I'm also excited to work really hard this year and be back at a job that I love; touring and playing a very different kind of show. It's all very self-obsessed excitement."

The 25-year-old grew up in "middle of nowhere" Devon before moving to Brighton, where she studied art foundation for a year. There have been stints working in her dad's furniture shop, pubs and – almost – Dominos, but otherwise Marika was snapped up fairly early on. Just six months after ditching art foundation and moving back in with her parents to pursue music full-time, she was published.

Photo by Chris Bethell

"I never vocalised that I wanted to be a musician as a child even though I knew that I did," she tells me, "I was kind of embarrassed." You wouldn't guess it. Sitting across from me, Marika – dirty blonde hair full of product from a photoshoot the day before, where she didn't want to wear makeup because "it doesn't really feel like me" so asked if they could "just make my hair look a bit greasy" instead – emanates that sort of understated confidence that comes from being good at a thing, knowing you are good at the thing, but also being in no way inclined to shout from the roof about it. I ask what about it felt embarrassing.

"I couldn't play an instrument at that point. I could plonk around on the piano a bit but not very well... I didn't feel like I was good enough," she says, "It felt like a pipe dream. You start writing songs at 14 but when you actually say it's what you want to do for a living you're judged in a very different way. I kept it on the DL a little bit."

Incidentally, it turned out to be the music industry that would provide most of the initial judgements that were hard to shake off. There was the stigma of having attended Bedales, one of the most expensive public schools in the UK (on a scholarship), the teenage covers band she formed with Cara Delevingne (short-lived), the modelling career (not actually a thing) and rampant comparisons to early collaborator and fellow "English Rose" Laura Marling (on account of being a woman playing folk on a guitar). Marika has never struggled where critical acclaim is concerned, but it has taken a good few years and countless interviews about her social and personal life before she began to be taken seriously on her own terms.

All things considered, if Marika is stoked on her own goings on right now it's because she has every reason to be. Her second album, I'm Not Your Man, came out last week to a spread of glowing reviews: "witty, raucous and honest" (The Guardian), "arresting and emotionally charged" (Evening Standard), evidence of a "bold young British force" (Pitchfork). Enlisting her friends in London four-piece The Big Moon as a backing band for the recording process, I'm Not Your Man has a very communal energy to it. It's a departure from the sparse, spectral folk that paved her formative path and instead is comprised largely of bright, grungy pop songs that owe more to Nirvana than Nico. All the trademark graceful melodies and unusual twists are still there, but they're packaged in a way that invites you to shake your burdens off rather than dwell in them.

"I think I'm being more direct with this record, both lyrically and musically," Marika tells me, "I love the first record and I wouldn't change anything about it, but it's a very introspective, sit down and get lost in your own self-indulgent melancholia sort of record, whereas I'm Not Your Man isn't like that. It's more like: look at me!"

Two years isn't a particularly long break between releases by today's standards, but in that time Marika left her management of five years, amicably parted ways with Dirty Hit – the London-based label that released her debut – reinvented herself and signed a new deal with Sub Pop. The liberation and confidence that has come with that change is tangible, too. Lead singles "Boyfriend" and "My Lover Cindy" are buoyant and percussive; sexually charged and couched in emotional intelligence – but also playful. Album opener "Boyfriend" begins with a laugh that ended up in the take by accident and immediately recalls "Wannabe", the Spice Girls perennial ode to friendship. When I mention it Marika says, "It's so funny that you said that because we were all talking about how much we felt like the Spice Girls while we were recording it. It was never a conscious decision to have it there but Soph [Nathan, guitarist in The Big Moon] just started laughing… We all laughed quite a lot while making that so it's hard to pinpoint why, but we could see each other through the recording booths so we'd try to take the piss and put each other off."

Unpacking the psychology of a daft man who thinks his girlfriend cheating on him "doesn't count" if it's with another woman, "Boyfriend" is the smirking face emoji of power-play. It's an audible eye roll rather than a furious takedown; confident and patronising rather than genuinely angry. She even gets in a jab at men's eternally disappointing aversion to moisturising. "It's fine cuz I am just a girl / It's just a dream / A woman really needs a man to make her scream", Marika sings in a cool, calm and collected lilt. The delivery may be deadpan, but it's a playful roasting of masculine insecurity that deftly blows any We Slept At Last-fuelled preconceptions about her as coy or withdrawn out of the water. "It's one of those things that's incredibly frustrating," she says in regards to the regular brushing aside of the validity of lesbian relationships, "But it's nothing to be tearing your hair out or screaming over. You can deal with these things in a way that uses humour, and I think that's how I deal with a lot of things in my life."

As for the significance of having it as the entry point to the album – both literally and as its first single – she says, "I wanted to put 'Boyfriend' at the beginning because I felt like it really sets the tone and shows off the reinvention really well. The laugh is the cherry on top. It totally opens it up into this whole fun, tongue-in-cheek world that we created together. I also like that it begins with a laugh and ends with probably the most depressing song I've ever written."

"I'd Rather Be With Them" – henceforth known as The Most Depressing Song Marika Hackman Has Ever Written – is a moving glimmer of the songwriter we were introduced to on early tracks like "Drown" and "Open Wide". Marika sings about a relationship on its last legs in several harmonised layers over a loosely strummed acoustic guitar, backed up by subtle strings and a single, booming drum. It also features some of the most impactfully-placed swearing since Sufjan Stevens' "No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross". With its language of insects and bile, it's definitely one of the darkest songs in her discography, and makes for a particularly devastated end to a record centred on female relationships in all their stages: the bit where you are unequivocally in lust ("Violet"), the bit where you don't want to commit but also want it all ("My Lover Cindy"), the bit where everything goes south and you end up having a lot of drunken fights in car parks ("Cigarette").

What stands out the most, though, is how sexually charged it is. Whether she's fantasising about someone's mouth or holding her own tongue, the whole album has an energy to it that's very much reflected in the visuals. The artwork, designed by Tristan Pigott – who Marika met at a party through mutual friends and kept up with on social media – has a lot of David Hockney about it in its bold, block colours and stark shapes interrupted by almost photographic realism. There are various cacti, slices of fruit and other bits of imagery you're actively encouraged to read like a perv.

"There's something about his style of work that I felt very drawn to," Marika says, "We spent a really long time chatting and thinking about all the different references we could put in, to lyrics or ideas about the world. There's stuff that he puts into a lot of his work that relates back to him as well, which I didn't want him to omit that just because he was making a piece of art for me."

Along with "Boyfriend", the album announcement also launched alongside an interactive website where users could click on different bits of the artwork and dig a little deeper into its meaning. A fry up is arranged like a smiley face to "satirise contemporary culture", an open bin with a pink liner are "subtle yonic references", a sliced cucumber next to a knife… speaks for itself. All the while, you can hear the sound of dishes clattering in the background.

"It felt right to dig a deeper and show everyone what our processes really were," Marika says, "I wanted this record to be really fun even though a lot of the messages that are portrayed in it are quite serious, and I want people to have this record on their shelf and, every time they pull it out, see something on the cover that they hadn't noticed before."

The artwork neatly articulates the inherent chaos of sexuality, gender, and the politics all of that comes loaded with. There's so much detail involved, but it's presented in a very orderly and economic manner. Everything that's there is there for a reason. To me, Marika's music comes across the same way: organising sprawling feelings and overarching concepts into digestible pop songs. When I put this to her she, kindly, confirms I'm not talking completely out of my arse.

Photo by Chris Bethell

"I realised that about myself while I was at art college," she says, "When it comes to creating something I'm really meticulous about it. If I was doing sculpture, I'd be very precise and I'd like it all to be very clean, which is funny because in my non-artistic life I'm quite messy. I'm one of those people who will walk into a room and it'll be a disaster in 30 seconds and I have no idea how I've done it. Going into this record there was room for energy to be injected and room for playfulness and serendipity, but I'd still arranged all the parts and I'd written them out. I knew exactly how it would sound before we even started. I'm a massive control freak, but I think you kind of have to be. Recording live like we did this time definitely felt like a very wild step for me. Prior to that there were all these meticulous layers built up, but there wasn't space to do that this time because we were all together in a room playing and there's going to be stuff that happens, so I controlled that as much as I could before it got unleashed in the studio."

Marika wrote most of the songs for this album on bass, which accounts for the instruments prominence and pulsing rhythms present throughout. "It's actually a really refreshing way of writing because it's so full of space," she says, "You can rock out and do this whole thing that's ultimately going to gel the whole thing together and come up with a melody over that, so it's kind of like filling in the gaps." But a lot of the writing process for I'm Not Your Man involved letting go – not just by loosening of that aforementioned reign of control, but also by embracing the traditional pop structures she previously would have felt compelled to spin into something "weird". Whether it's the Feist-referencing playground chant of "1, 2, 3, 4 / Tell her that you love her more" in "Time's Been Reckless" or the creeping James Mercer-esque chorus of "Good Intentions", Marika wears her pop influence still not quite on her sleeve, but maybe on a back pocket or a sock.

Photo by Chris Bethell

There's a longing, dreamlike quality about "Gina's World" that almost feels like something Lana Del Rey might have released back in her formative "Blue Jeans" days. She spent the walk to the pub listening to MUNA and Grimes ( Art Angels, specifically). Her first ever gig was Destiny's Child, her tweens were guided by Avril Lavigne – "she was a huge influence on me as an 11-year-old, I felt like I finally had a female role-model who's a grungy tomboy" – and later artists like Fleet Foxes, Laura Veirs, Warpaint and The Shins. "It's been this long journey of very different phases but I think they've all been instrumental to my musical education and how I write now," she says, "Even Britney Spears had a huge impact on me."

It was largely a confidence issue before, she reckons. "I realised that my idea of what's poppy really isn't that poppy at all. I'd be sending stuff to my girlfriend or my manager or whatever saying 'I don't know, this feels really run of the mill...', and they'd come back like 'who the fuck are you kidding? This is still fucking weird, it just doesn't take ten listens to get into it'. I think I felt confident enough to know that my songwriting would come through, and I wouldn't have to push so hard for it to be strange."

Still, I'm Not Your Man is anything but ordinary. It's subversive but accessible; melodically unusual but still clobbers you over the heart enough times to warrant a special place in it; assertive but still relatable for those of us who haven't quite got there ourselves yet. As a body of work it's bottled that spark of closeness and excitement that bringing other people on board and bouncing off them has triggered. The Big Moon were involved for the recording process and a few shows, but now Marika has assembled a new band to play with her more permanently.

Photo by Chris Bethell

Noticing a gap between rain showers, we drain the remains of our respective watery pints and head to London Fields. Marika smokes, I gasp at the dog (the right one, this time), the dog is excited about a stick and pays no attention to me whatsoever. We chat about television and other, human things as the light drops hints that it might depart soon.

A few weeks later, a postcard from Marika lands on my desk. On the front is a photograph of a mountain, artfully jutting into a crystalline blue sky like a smurf hat. On the back she has handwritten a thank you note and a personalised poem about food. For some reason my eye wanders over to the copy of I'm Not Your Man I have stacked on top of all the shit I keep around me at work, and I catch something I didn't catch before: the same postcard, lying on the floor in the shadow of a woman with dirty blonde hair.

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Photography by Chris Bethell.