Music journalists love context.
Context is nearly always the Rosetta Stone to decoding an artist – once you know who they are, where they come from and what has shaped them, you have an ‘in’ into their world, and you can begin to pull on the threads of their life until the whole thing unravels and they are laid bare before you. Sometimes an artist’s context has no impact on their art, but usually that only applies to those ‘artists’ for whom you actually vocalise the inverted commas around them – no one ever asks LMFAO what the metaphorical significance of ‘party rocking’ is, or why they would need to apologise for doing it.
Sometimes, though, an artist’s context has little bearing on their art because their art transcends their context. No one really cares anymore whether Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno, or whether Bob Dylan really train-hopped from Minnesota to New York as a teenager – the important thing is that they wrote about it, and in that metaphor were able to reveal something to us about ourselves.
Musicians don’t get to escape their context much anymore. If they achieve any sort of fame they are immediately scrutinised, every detail of their lives picked over for contextual clues. But Laura Marling isn’t your average musician.
Once I Was An Eagle is Marling’s fourth album in just five years, a statistic all the more remarkable when you remember she’s only 23. She’s always seemed older than her years, the combination of her assured writing and that deep, rich voice, collecting comparisons from day one to the great songwriters. Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention were obvious touchstones, but there’s always been something about Marling that couldn’t be measured as a sum of her influences, something intangible just off-screen that we know is there, but can’t ever be properly identified.
But if that’s a characteristic of Marling’s music, it’s because that’s exactly how her brain works. She often speaks of what she sees as life’s central conflict between ‘love’ and ‘logic’, between the decisions you want to make and the ones you think you should, and that conflict in Marling’s mind has been the core of the conflict on each of her albums.
“They call that ‘the sceptic’s view’ in psychological terms,” she says. “That’s my whole kick in life, making peace with reality, and trying to find stillness in chaos. Which is probably why I’ve ended up writing the same story in a different way three albums down the line, because it’s an unanswerable question.”
The story, in this instance, is of our protagonist wandering through the wilderness, pestered and exhausted by what Marling terms “naïve love”, represented by a bird. But just as our protagonist is ready to abandon hope, the bird collapses at her feet with a broken wing, and our protagonist must save the bird and nurse it back to health before loosing it back into the wild, sending it to a figure across the sea. And of course it’s tempting, in the quest for context, to apply this to Marling’s life: she has recently moved from her native England to Los Angeles, thousands of miles across the water, far removed from the life she led. None of that is at all responsible for the content of the album, but that hasn’t stopped people ascribing to her trans-Atlantic move all manner of things.
“I wouldn’t say it was people projecting things on to me,” Marling says. “It’s people projecting things on to the record. This was written long before I moved out here, or anything like that. There’s just a lot that you can attach to the imagery that I associate with doves, and birds, and eagles – peace, power, violence – which is why I used it. But [the birds on the album] more represent emotion than they do metaphor.”
Marling’s influences have always been more literary than musical. (Although yes, that is a Bill Callahan shout-out in the title of the album.) The pastoral folk songs of her debut are steeped in the language of the Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron; her second, with its bleak, wintery emotional landscape, takes its cues from the ancient Greek stories Marling was reading at the time; her third album draws much lyrical inspiration from the west coast Americana of John Steinbeck.
“It is true that I draw a lot on what I’ve read,” Marling admits. “There’s something about the written word – it’s the plainest way, other than speaking, of communicating something. And if someone does it very well, if someone executes a sentence that’s almost harrowingly well-written, it strikes you on such a level, and rings in your brain.”
“It’s a skill I wish I had, and I don’t. And I’m not being pointlessly self-deprecating – it’s such a skill, and I think you’re born with it, that ability to communicate in whatever medium you communicate in. And maybe I was born to communicate in the medium that I do, but I have great respect for those who can do it without the protection of the guitar.”
The literary influences continue on the new album, most notably on ‘Undine’, inspired by an old Germanic fable about a water spirit that would lull people in to believing there was no danger in the world, so much so that when they walked into the water to join Undine they drowned because they didn’t remember that they could. In Marling’s song Undine’s power becomes the ability to make her prey ‘naïve’, so that they cannot comprehend the peril they are in.
It’s not the only time the concept of naivety shows up on the album, with Marling at various times either taking it on or casting it off, blaming it for causing problems or celebrating its potential. It’s hard to know exactly where Marling leaves the topic on the record, but when asked about it, she has a beautifully poetic answer.
“I find naivety an interesting thing,” she begins, “[And] I’ve reappropriated the use of the word ‘naivety’ in regards to myself. I think everybody, at a certain age – it might be in your 20s, or 30s, or even in your teens if you are particularly unlucky – has a stage where they need to mourn their naivety being gone. Their naivety has left them.
“And maybe people go through life and never have that – which is wonderful for them, lucky fuckers – but you have to face what first appears to be a very grey landscape, a world without naivety is a very cold, plain world. But then I suppose a lot of this record was reappropriating the word naivety. And in my personal life, I found such comfort in the thought of a new naivety when you enter that space, when you realise that nothing you thought you knew was true, and now I know nothing, and therefore I have the potential to know a lot more.
“I’ve opened up so many gates of possible knowledge, and that’s exciting. So naivety changed for me from meaning ‘childhood’ to meaning, I suppose, a more appropriate use for it, which is ‘comfortable lack of knowledge’ and potential for influence.”
How fitting, given Marling’s love/logic conflict, that she’s found a word that can mean both a lack of knowledge and the knowledge of what you lack. I can’t wait to see what she doesn’t know next.
BY HUGH ROBERTSON
Laura Marling plays St Stephen’s Uniting Church on Tuesday July 23 and Splendour in the Grass on July 28.