When I first spoke to an 18-year-old Laura Marling in early 2008, she talked of her disinterest in stardom and of how creating great art meant more to her than fame ever would. She absolutely had no desire to be the Next Big Thing.
Fast-forward three years and she has managed to gain critical acclaim, winning Best British Female Solo Artist at the Brit Awards and Best Solo Artist at the NME Awards while also capturing the hearts of the record-buying public. Although there is no doubting she has stuck to her guns – her beautifully-crafted folk music still bursts with the same honesty and integrity that has been so important to her since the very beginning – there is also little denying that, in 2011, Laura Marling is a big deal.
“It doesn't feel that way, from where I sit in a café in London,” she chuckles. “It's very lovely to hear...” She pauses, half-starts another couple of sentences which try to make sense of her career trajectory, before settling with, “I try not to think about it too much.” Regardless of the awards and big-selling records, it's very apparent that we are talking to the same polite, gently-spoken and completely unassuming young lady that we were three years ago.
As, according to Marling, England “crawled to the end of what has been a miserable summer,” her third long-player, A Creature I Don't Know, was released to the general acceptance that it was her finest work to date. Considering the plaudits she had already received, that's quite the achievement. While the album deals with the themes that Marling is best known for – strength, weakness, love, womanhood, desire, yearning – the most noticeable difference between this and her previous offering, I Speak Because I Can, is that there is a touch more levity this time around. “When I made I Speak Because I Can, I felt like I had to do myself a service and make a point, for my own sake,” she says of her incredibly solemn second record. “This album felt like it was just going to be a lot of fun to make. Some of the lines I came up with for The Muse and All My Rage make me chuckle when I sing them now. Yeah, it's not so serious.”
While A Creature I Don't Know, which Marling demoed at home before giving the full band treatment, is her most expansive sounding album, lyrically, it is still weighty, intelligent and challenging. Happy to let the listener decide which parts are autobiographical and which are fiction, her inspirations are far-reaching. “It comes from a lot of different places now. Maybe more so than before. I'm not more of a magpie, but I'm more willing to accept that I'm a magpie now. I take a lot from books and from conversations that I overhear.” For instance, lead-single Sophia was inspired by Rebel Angels: Robertson Davies' novel about God's female counterpart. Meanwhile, the song Salinas refers to an “obsession” Marling had with John Steinbeck's wife which manifested itself after reading the biography she penned about her husband. Yet the refrain of the song (“I am from Salinas, where the women go forever,”) refers indirectly to a friend's girlfriend who died when their baby was a year old. The song perhaps acts as a microcosmic example of how, rather than handing straightforward lyrics to the listener on a plate and delivering a tale from start to finish, the album as a whole uses themes and ideas to create a story. “When I was putting the songs together, there seemed to me to be a narrative. I think when I got to writing The Beast, I'd already written half of the album and it became apparent that the themes in it had cropped up in other songs. So, it's organic to a point, until I become aware. Then I know there are things that I want to deal with.”
Just as the themes develop naturally, so does the music. “I have a guitar wherever I go and if I've got a spare moment I pick it up. Sometimes a song comes and sometimes it doesn't. I don't tend to write things down. An idea or an emotion will crop somewhere and it will plague me for a while until I've written a song about it. As I pick up a guitar, I'll tinkle around and put it in a different tuning until I find the tone that I feel is appropriate for the mood I'm in, and then they just kind of form, I suppose,” she says of her technique almost dismissively, as though she were talking about some half-baked ditties rather than the beautifully constructed folk music that has critics clambering for superlatives. “I wasn't taught guitar professionally – I was taught by my Dad – so I've never really known what key I'm in or what chords I'm playing. I think that's been the biggest bonus, because I don't tend to think about chord structure or song structure. So many of my songs don't have middle-eights.”
A new album, of course, means a tour, and after playing around the UK and the US she'll be taking her band to Australia in the new year for a series of dates that includes a slot at the Laneway Festival. After a debut visit over four days in 2008 which saw her “completely insane with jet lag,” she returned with her band in 2010. “I remember playing at The Famous Spiegeltent [in Hyde Park] and I was amazed by how different the audience was to other audiences I had played for. They were really attentive in a different way than I'd come across before. It was really good.”
When talk turns to the longer-term future, unsurprisingly there seems to be no big master-plan. Already so lauded and with such an impressive back catalogue at just 21 years of age, there's the genuine prospect that Laura Marling could go on to become one of the all-time greats, yet, of course, she plays the idea down. “I think I'll do it as long as I have stuff to write about and then at some point I hope somebody will tell me to stop, if needs be,” she laughs. “For the moment though, I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing.”
Interview by Bobby Townsend. It first appeared in Sydney's Drum Media.