“I know I said I loved you / but I’m thinking I was wrong…” begins “New Romantic” one of Laura Marling’s first songs as a professional musician. Marling wrote these words at 16, when she was playing London pubs and bars, sandwiched between other local acts such as Emmy the Great and King Charles. Popular artists in Britain at the time included Lily Allen, the Klaxons, and Jamie T. The “nu-folk” wave of Mumford & Sons was just beginning.
Blonde and slight, Marling didn’t say much before launching into her earnest, acoustic, folk-inspired sets, but once she started playing, it didn’t matter. “He put Ryan Adams on / because I think he thinks it makes me weak / but it only ever makes me strong,” continues “New Romantic.”
At 16, Marling was precocious. Now 23, it is still tempting to describe her as such. “It is a bit conflicting,” she tells us of praise for her early work. “I was so little when I wrote those songs… it’s nice, but they might as well be saying it to anybody. I don’t feel attached to those. I barely relate to them,” she explains. “I don’t want to be rude, but I wonder whether I might disappoint them.”
Since her “New Romantic” beginnings, Marling has released three articulate and introspective albums. A forth one, Once I Was an Eagle, will come out next week. She’s collaborated with the likes of Mystery Jets, Johnny Flynn and, of course, Noah and the Whale, the lead singer of which she famously dated. Her public image is that of a decidedly English—or it was until she decided to move to Los Angeles almost six months ago.
If you’re wondering if the title of Marling’s fourth album is a prescient nod to her new life in the States, it is not. The title comes from Bill Callahan‘s 2009 LP, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. “I think [it] is a masterpiece,” Marling says. “It doesn’t really relate to the album in any other way.”
EMMA BROWN: The songs on Once I was an Eagle flow so well into each other. Did you write them in chronological order?
LAURA MARLING: Yes, I did, yeah. As they appear on the record. That’s the way I made the last two records before this. That just seems to be the way that works best for me. It’s quite an unconscious process. I play guitar every day and if a song comes, it comes, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t often write things down.
BROWN: You mentioned that you feel removed from some of the songs you wrote as a teenager. What’s the earliest song that still feels very you?
MARLING: I think a lot of the first record [Alas, I Cannot Swim (2008)]. I don’t play it very often, but that’s different—the process of making that record was really important because it was the first time I had made an album. When I play those tracks, it feels more like I’m reliving a younger version of myself rather than something I don’t recognize at all. I remember what it was like to write those songs and feel that way or what that thought process was.
BROWN: What made you decide that you wanted to live in L.A.?
MARLING: I don’t know. I think something to do with the place and obviously the weather. It’s a very, very different place to where I was from.
BROWN: Is it easy to meet people in L.A.? It’s so spaced out, I wouldn’t know how to start.
MARLING: [laughs] I haven’t found it worse than any other place. I mean, people are a lot friendlier here. I suppose people are a lot more conscious of making an effort to be social. It’s not so often that you ignore the person walking down the street because you might be the only two people walking down the street in four miles. I also live in a neighborhood where I can walk places. I think I’d feel inhuman if I didn’t walk.
BROWN: Has it made you a more cheerful person?
MARLING: I think it’s made me a bit more relaxed. I don’t know if my disposition can be changed. I think my disposition lies a bit deeper, but it’s made me more of a relaxed, open person, I think.
BROWN: Do you plan to stay in L.A., or are you just doing this for as long as it’s fun?
MARLING: No, I properly live here. I plan to stay in the States, I don’t know if plan to stay in L.A..
BROWN: Where else would you go?
MARLING: Somewhere where no one could find me.
BROWN: Are you more at home in the city or in the countryside?
MARLING: It’s interesting, because L.A.—you can be very anonymous here. You can quietly get along without coming across anybody and living in your car. Then you go out of town a little bit and there’s these tiny little communities, these tiny little towns, where everyone knows each other. It’s very sweet. But it’s also quite dense in the same way. I don’t know. I like living in the city, but I like being able to get out of it as and when I like.
BROWN: Do you find that people have similar reactions when you play in cities versus when you play somewhere more rural or suburban? Do you have any anthropological theories that you’ve developed through touring?
MARLING: Yes, many. [laughs] America is very different to anywhere else. France is very particular. English audiences, I feel very at home with, for obvious reasons. The bigger American shows like New York and L.A., I always find the most difficult—and London as well—because whenever you come into a huge city like that it tends to be at the end of tours and you feel this kind of whipped-up hysteria. It’s difficult to calm a crowd in big cities. It’s like they’re constantly over-excited or, worse, not paying attention. Sometimes that energy is really exciting, it can make it like a really euphoric show, but it’s also always exhausting. I like it all, but I prefer smaller shows.
BROWN: When you come onstage do you have something that you do to feel out the audience or do you just start playing straight away?
MARLING: No, I don’t. Maybe I should try and feel out the audience. I just get on with it. I’m trying to feel out myself, rather than the audience. [laughs]
BROWN: I read that the first song that you learnt how to play was “The Needle and the Damage Done.”
MARLING: Yeah, I used to play that and a whole bunch of other Neil Young covers that my dad taught me [in school assemblies]. That was my first-ever experience of playing music.
BROWN: Were the other children like, “What is this old person music?”
MARLING: [laughs] I don’t remember. I remember it not being wildly popular.
BROWN: What’s a song that you wish you had written?
MARLING: I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that.
BROWN: That’s probably good.
MARLING: [laughs] I don’t want for anything.
BROWN: You’re not creatively envious.
MARLING: No. No, I’m not.
BROWN: Do you get competitive?
MARLING: Yeah, I am quite competitive. In stupid things like card games.
BROWN: What sort of qualities do you look for in a friend?
MARLING: Just humor and loyalty.
BROWN: What’s the best musical cure for the blues?
MARLING: I think if you have the blues, I listen to stuff with rhythm in it. So something like Fela Kuti, “Water No Get Enemy.” That’s a good one.
BROWN: What was your biggest concern when you first started out as a professional musician?
MARLING: I had no thoughts about it because I was 16 and I just wanted to be in a tour bus.
BROWN: Were you disappointed by what you found?
MARLING: [laughs] Not at that time. And I’ve never been disappointed by it. I’ve had to adjust a lot. I’ve had to live as things ought to be, rather than the way they’ve become. There’s huge amounts of nonsense that goes with everything surrounding music and art. All the things you have to do promote yourself—there’s huge amounts of nonsense. The thing I wish I’d probably known when I was 16 is you don’t have to do what people want you to do. You have to do the thing that feels right and makes you happy. Very often, those are the things that lead you in the right direction. All the nonsense stuff can bugger off.
BROWN: When did you realize that?
MARLING: Not even that long ago. Maybe a year and a half ago.
BROWN: Was there an experience that pushed you over the edge?
MARLING: Yes, actually, there was. I was touring in a tour bus, which is nowhere near as exciting as people make it out to be, around France in November a couple of years ago. We had a day off so we parked the bus in a concrete car park on the side of a motorway in the grey rain. There was nothing, no cab company, nothing for miles, so we had to stay on the bus while it rained for an entire day. And we were all so bored. The only entertainment we could find was a dead worm on the side of the road. It was honestly the most depressing 24 hours of my life. When I got back from that tour I was like, “Fuck it, I’m never getting back on a tour bus. I’m never touring like that.” And that was it. I haven’t been back on a tour bus, I don’t have a band anymore; I travel on my own. I never want to look at a dead worm ever again. [laughs]