To Live and Die in L.A.
Mar 25, 2015 Web Exclusive
When Laura Marling lived in L.A., a part of her died. Specifically, her ego.
The British songwriter relocated to America soon after completing her fourth album, 2013's Once I Was an Eagle (which became her third album to be nominated for a Mercury Prize). She moved in search of adventure—and got more than she bargained for. Her extensive tour across the USA was, quite literally, a solo outing. The folk-rock singer/songwriter drove herself from show to show, each of which she'd booked herself and, acting as her own manager, she even counted the takings afterward.
The striking blonde with porcelain skin had hoped her road trips would provide great inspiration for her fifth album. But, when she returned to London to record with her longtime producer Ethan Johns, he intimated that her material was subpar. She didn't disagree. The recordings were permanently shelved. Upon her return to Los Angeles, Marling doubted she wished to continue a music career. Relishing her anonymity in Los Angeles, the 25-year-old explored mysticism and read a lot. But her freedom increasingly felt like a prison. In the city without seasons, each sunny day blended into the next. The languorous climate fed her loneliness and listlessness.
In a Skype interview with Under the Radar, Marling details how she got her mojo back to record Short Movie. The 13-track album—her best to date—forced her to dig deep to reveal more of herself in her lyrics than she has before. Short Movie's songs draw upon Marling's experiences on the road. She sings about nights under the stars in Joshua Tree, sheltering from Hurricane Sandy in New York, and encountering a hippie in a bar in Mount Shasta, California. (The hippie's catchphrase, "It's a short fucking movie, man," inspired the title track.)
Marling extricated herself from Los Angeles but when Under the Radar caught up with her, she'd recently landed in the city for a promotional trip.
Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): Hello Laura, you're in Los Angeles today, but where do you call "home"?
Laura Marling: Well it's been a difficult question to answer right now.
You're a bit of a nomad.
I'm a bit of a nomad. Wherever I lay my head, I guess.
Until four months ago, I lived in West Hollywood. What do you most like about Los Angeles, what do you least like about it, and how have your experiences there filtered into this new album?
When I got here, which is about two-and-a-half years ago now, it was partially that it was the right time in my life I think. It had a sense of adventure to it. After a year of living here, of course, that sense of adventure disappeared. You lived here, so you know that you can see the sea, and the mountains and the desert—all in one spot, if you find the right place. It's a place where lots of strange people congregate.
Tell me about some of them.
I just plunked myself into this strange city and met a really diverse amount of people. What I was attracted to were people who were unashamed of their creativity. And people who were unashamed of pursuing that even without outward signs of success.
I read that you applied for a poetry center in New York and you were turned down. I feel like I should send them the lyrics to "Warrior" from the new album to point out that they obviously made a big mistake. Did that rejection letter knock your confidence at all?
I am fairly, solidly confident in my artistic output—much as I loathe to put it like that. But it did knock my ego, which I think is separate. It knocked something else. It was in the middle of living here. For whatever reason I came here, it was like a long death of my ego. Which is ultimately a very good thing. It took me out of myself a bit.
When you first attempted to record a fifth album, it was a false start. You did some recording, but the songs weren't quite there. Tell me a bit about that experience. You took time off from music and weren't even sure if this was what you wanted to do. To me, it sounds like a quarter-life crisis. Was it?
Yes, that's the most appropriate surmising of that. I had planned to come off tour, touring Once I Was an Eagle, and go straight into to the studio, which is what I have done three times before. I guess the difference was I had too much on my plate to actually do anything interesting. I was driving myself around and lugging three guitars around America three times over. So as a consequence, what I was writing about—because I can only write about what wants to be written—just wasn't that interesting. Melodically, the songs were fine. My guitar playing was getting better. But it was just very clear that it was a fairly boring album to listen to. It was the only thing that I want to get other people's opinion on. I've never really looked for other people's opinion on my music. That's a big telltale sign.
I decided that I should stay in L.A. and take the opportunity to actually root myself somewhere and not travel. It was really uncomfortable. I was trying to actively stand still.
It sounds like a wilderness experience. And yet you were able to creatively rejuvenate yourself because this is your best record to date.
Thank you. I guess so, but it's didn't feel like that. It felt like a really long, slow process. But I did have a lot of time to think. I did a lot of reading and I pursued a lot of interests that I didn't have time to do [before]. I had to do a lot of stepping out of myself and my persona in order to make a life here and meet people. It was like an ego death. It was like I was a new person, or something.
What was the spark, or impetus, that made you feel as if you were back and the album was coming together?
I think it coincided with a very clear [feeling], at some point that it was just time to leave Los Angeles. It was done with me or something. As far as I can tell with people who have lived here, there is a point around the two year mark where it feels like Los Angeles is trying to spit you out. But I suddenly felt like there was no reason for me to be anywhere on the planet. I could do what I do from anywhere. It just got to the point where I missed my family too much and the linchpins of my personality that are held in my friends and my surroundings. So then I set a date to go in the studio in London. As soon as I set the date, half the record came out. Half the record had really been written and half of it came out during the last month in LA.
Yeah, it was really exciting!
Tell me about the story behind "False Hope," a song about Hurricane Sandy-did you feel as if you were living in one of those apocalyptic disaster movies set in New York?
Yeah. I did, in my very English way. It was one of my most intense experiences. I live in L.A., so I find New York incredibly scary anyway. The idea of being enveloped by concrete and being dwarfed by buildings. We were driving from a show in Boston. We got there an hour before the storm hit. We went and queued up outside Trader Joe's and all the candles were gone and all the torches were gone and all the hummus was gone. So we just had to sit in a dark West Side apartment for two days. It was really intense. Going out on the street, everyone had just walked 40 blocks to go to the Ace Hotel to charge their iPads. It was a real shocking look at what the priorities of the world are.
"False Hope" begins with the lyric, "Well is it still okay that I don't know how to be alone?" Then, a little bit later on "I Feel Your Love," you sing, "Keep your love around me so I can't be alone" and then, by the end of that song, you're pleading to be let go. It seems to me like you toggle back and forth between an instinct for rugged independence and a desire for connection and that theme seems to run through this album. Am I wrong?
No, you're not wrong at all. I've been exploring, or very interested in, the idea of the personal and the transpersonal when I was here. I was feeling on the outside of the workings of the world, and then seeing it as a whole, in some way, from my perspective. My interest was in an awareness of the world as a whole and the universal quantum entanglement, or whatever. I'm the kind of person who can forget the importance of the actual individual, as my personal self.
When I moved to Los Angeles, where I had no one to remind me of my personal self, I got lost in the ether. I lost my pegs that hold you down and remind you who you are. I think the results of that was the first time that I've ever felt alone. I have friends here, but they didn't know who I was, really. I had that feeling that if I went out onto the streets, and started behaving really weirdly—like tearing all your clothes off and shouting at a brick wall—would anyone come up to you and say, "Hey, are you okay? This isn't how you usually act." People here have their little dogs, but they don't pay attention to the humans on the streets.
You've spent a lot of time touring alone—driving from one show to the next. There's a few references to different parts of the USA in these lyrics. Did you have any crazy or memorable experiences out there on your travels?
The majority of my time was spent going up and down on the West Coast. I had to drive from Portland to Big Sur, which is 11 hours. I stopped in this little town called Mount Shasta on the way down. I remember that being the first time I ever felt really afraid. I thought I was being an idiot and had stopped in an axe-murderer town. I was staying in a motel and I went to the only bar in town. I met this really nice hippie who told me about the mouth of a river that starts in Mount Shasta. He told me to go fill up my water tankard with this water because it gives you eternal life, or something. So he gave me directions to this stream. But I couldn't go that evening, so I went really early the next morning when it was still dark. The directions led to a woodland. I had to get out of your car because you couldn't drive anymore and then walk the rest of the way. I got out of my car at 5:30 in the morning and pitch black and I was suddenly like, "Oh my God, what have I done?" I have basically given this stranger my exact location for the next morning. So I started running back to my car and I took one step and fell right into the stream. I was fine, it wasn't deep or anything. No one was with me so it was an experience by myself. I remember the change from fear to shock to realizing I was in the stream, and then looking at my hands under the water. In the moonlight, they looked like a dead person's hands. It was a really quick succession of intense experiences.
You got a great song, "Short Movie," out of it.
Thank you, I did. I filled up my water tankard and I went on my way. That was just a 10-minute experience, but a powerful one.
Would describe yourself as "lonesome" or "lonely" or neither?
I think, at that time, I was a loner. Definitely. Then I have, at times, been lonely. But I think I only experienced loneliness for the first time a year ago. Since then, I feel like it's very important that people talk about loneliness. When I went to people, like a toddler, and said, "I think I feel really lonely," everyone was like, "Yeah, we all do." I was like, "Oh, right." There's a whole thing going on that feels like such a taboo or something.
I listened to your version of Led Zeppelin's "Bron-Yr-Aur"—I'm not a guitar player, is it as tricky to play as it sounds?
The only tricky thing about it was finding that tuning, because I couldn't find it anywhere. But, yeah, it's fairly pro!
You've been doing what guitarists call "Woodshedding"—a lot of practicing your instrument. Has that expanded your musical horizons, songwriting, and ability to go new places with your sound?
Well, yeah, massively! What I've been discovering is that the better you know the instrument and can navigate the tone and theory, the simpler you can make things. Which is really useful. I've always been one, lyrically and musically, for shrouding things in complication as a method of a kind of removal. I'm really enjoying the extension of my palette.
You've done a Dylan and gone electric on this album! You've had electric guitar on previous records, of course, but now you're plugging in more. Tell me about that evolution.
I've always been more of a fan of rock of the late '60s and early '70s, than I have folk. I've never written that way, obviously, so this was an opportunity for me to do that. I never really played electric. My dad was a really good electric guitar player. So I took one of his electrics to America with me, and that's all I had. I had a small amp and a Gibson 225.
When you've got an amplifier turned up and you hit a big chord, do you get a thrill from the power of it?
Yeah, I do! We're not playing really loud, especially on the record, but we do get a bit louder live. There's actually, funnily enough, something quite soothing to the ego about being in control of something. You have to, like, put reins on an electric guitar.
It seems to me that your father, Charlie, is a big influence on your music. He introduced you to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and he recently gave you an electric guitar. Tell me a bit about your father-daughter musical relationship and what it means to you.
He taught me the guitar, which obviously means a lot to me. My mother's very poetic. She's a beautiful, emotional person. My father is a very musical person. I take elements from both of them and I'm very grateful for them both.
I'd like to go back to "Warrior"—it's a gripping story with a potent metaphor. What inspired it?
I think it was a lot of things for me. A lot of things I was thinking about at the time. A lot of things I was really interested in, like there's a bit of Tarot in there. I've always been interested in stories behind occultism. That was the imagery that was going through my mind. I was also living in L.A. There's this kind of mindfulness revolution thing going on here. It [smacked] of this strange passivity. It was like a way of pacifying people so they don't have to deal with stuff. Which is a really cynical thing to say. I was talking about it with a friend of mine who is a psychologist. He was describing it as the death of the warrior and the idea that war is the beginning of all things. Violence is a reactionary thing and passion is an action. I was so desperately looking for answers to all my moral questions in life and I was quite often coming up against people who were just like giving me a "Peace and Love" sign. I was like, "That's not fucking good enough."
You like to have a good swear in your lyrics. Is profanity a bit like that power chord I was talking about earlier—potent and powerful and fun?
I think when it's used at the right moment. I really despise my use of profanity in a conversation because I think that's lazy. But when you singing it can be kind of spot on.
In a 2013 interview, you said, "I don't see a time where I'm ever going to sit and sing with my heart on my sleeve." But these latest songs sound more exposed and personal.
Yeah. I would agree with that. They are definitely the closest to that. I still insist that they be thought of as creative nonfiction. They are expanded realities of things.
What have you been listening to recently? Any new discoveries?
I have been listening to a lot of Marika Hackman. She's amazing. She's a British girl and she's really brilliant. Kurt Vile. A ton of stuff. It's a good time. I feel like we're on the cusp of a really good age of music.
Did you enjoy producing yourself?
I did! I really enjoyed it. I was very nervous about it. I don't know if I would [produce] myself again. [Maybe] if it was appropriate. But this one was a fairly simple job, there was no ginormous string quartet or beats or anything.
Every one of your albums isEvery one of your albums is different from the last, which I love. Some artists just do the same thing over and over again. Do you have a conscious manifesto of changing things up every time?
It's been an organic thing. I mean, with this thing, we were kind of aware that it's good to be different. A very different palette. As far as I can tell, the album seemed to come as a whole, or something. I always feel very clearly when I'm finished writing. I feel, like, "That's the end of that one."
What do you still want to achieve as an artist?
I don't know. I'm pretty satisfied. Just carry on really.
Final question. You've been talking about the death of the ego and I'm wondering what that means for you going forward in terms of how you deal with success and your growing renown as an artist. Does it put you in better stead to deal with that stuff?
Yes, I think it does actually. I think one of the things that is vital—and you can only come to realize this over time—is an awareness that there's you and then there's the songs that are written. I know that sounds like mystical L.A. chat, but it's been vital for me to separate myself from the music that I write so that it doesn't affect me personally.
[Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.]
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