Marling moves backward to come forward
The modern world has always slightly mystified me," says Laura Marling. Just 20 years old, already an NME cover star and nominated twice for the Mercury Music Prize, Marling is about as contemporary as you can get. Yet somehow it is not in the least surprising to find the wispily graceful, soft-spoken singer-songwriter proclaiming herself at odds with the times. "I've got my laptop, but it troubles me in many ways. I don't have Twitter or Facebook or anything like that. It ruins a romantic idea, which might just be an illusion, a sense of depth or continuity. I know there are lots of positives in the evolution of technology, but I also think it will be responsible for the end of a unique character, of a specific kind of geographical culture. The world is getting so small, and mass production is getting so big. Everything is in danger of becoming the same." Marling says.
She keeps equivocating as she makes her vague protests against the march of progress, adding disclaimers and mea culpas. "I say all this as an absolute part of it, clearly, just because of the nature of the work I do." Then she starts to tell me why she prefers traditional acoustic instruments to their modern synthetic and digital counterparts. "There is an elegance in the sound of a fiddle and a banjo and a guitar, a whole tone shaped by history and the physical way they are played. And, if I might juxtapose that with the internet, there's nothing, in my opinion, that's elegant or romantic about Twitter."
She finally seems satisfied that she has explained her discomfort with modernity in terms we can all understand. "I think that's a universal," she says. "I think most people would agree on that." Marling is the poster girl for England's nu-folk movement. A precocious songwriter, she released a series of EPs in 2007, aged 17, which immediately attracted attention for the richness of her lyrics and melodious, understated vocal presence. Her debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2008. Having moved to London from her family home in Hampshire, Marling was quickly identified as a shining star in a vibrant scene, framing contemporary songwriting ina more traditional musical background. "I'm sure there are some old trad folk musicians somewhere shaking their fingers at us all, but I like it being called folk," says Marling.
"I think it's the most appropriate way of describing it. It gives it a more communal feel than singer-songwriter, it suggests it is something shared and open." Marling is also the centre of what might be considered a nu-folk love triangle. Her debut album was produced by her boyfriend, Charlie Fink, and performed by his band Noah and the Whale.
Marling and Fink broke up shortly afterwards, and last year Noah and the Whale released their own second album, The First Days of Spring, which explicitly (and rather beautifully) documents Fink's heartbreak.
Meanwhile, Marling started dating Marcus Mumford, of Mumford & Sons, who played on her follow-up album, I Speak Because I Can, one of the year's best albums so far. Mumford & Sons have gone on to be the breakout success of the nu-folk scene, with their debut album Sigh No More selling well in the UK and the US and also nominated for this year's Mercury prize.
Marling's own album has an almost ancient purity to it. She jokes that she doesn't understand how it was nominated for a prize that emphasises "forward-moving" music, "because I'm moving backwards". Its greatness lies in its quiet intensity, the precision and flair of her language, the complete conviction of her voice and playing, as she weaves mysterious, timeless, self-questioning narratives of moral choices to flowing, fluttering melodies in songs that reference the Odysseus myth and the letters of wives left at home during theFirst World War.
In person, Marling still seems very young, and expresses herself tentatively, in short bursts, but her art seems to come from a deep place. Her album, refreshingly, is not about heartbreak but about transition into adulthood and responsibility. "I do spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a good person - not that I often put it into practice. I am slightly fascinated by the question of whether humanity is capable of change. I may have come to the conclusion that we're not, but we keep trying."
Marling has actually changed a huge amount since the first time I met her, when she was 17 and awkwardly shy and self-conscious. "I have grown in confidence in myself due to knowing my
place in the world a bit more, knowing what I like and dislike, what defines me."