Late last month, Deputy Music Editor Ellen Kemp took an excursion out to Goldsmith’s University in London for a press conference with Laura Marling – one of the purest songwriters this nation has produced. Here, she heard an exclusive preview of Marling’s etheral new album Semper Femina, which she glowingly reviews and discusses its place within modern feminist sensibilities.
“We’re somewhat accustomed to seeing women through men’s eyes, and naturally that was my inclination to try and take some power over that, but very quickly realised that the powerful thing to do was to look at women through a woman’s eyes.”
Though it can be, tentatively, said that the gender imbalance of the music industry has been slowly tilting away from the extremes in recent years, as in so many other industries (as well as in life itself) feminism still has much to desire and much to achieve. There have always been various disposable, short-lived attempts by musicians and other figures in arts and popular culture at claiming themselves patrons of gender equality. Very few can be said to have had a lasting impact, and according to PRS only 14% of songwriters and composers in the UK are women.
It is necessary for me to start on this note of cynicism, for the sake of contextualising the world in which Laura Marling’s new album, Semper Femina, has been written. It is a world still crowded with prejudices, yes, yet increasingly seeping into this world is a wealth of discourse around the perceptions of gender identity, its fluidity, contradictions and the grating struggles that we all have to face, however we see ourselves or find ourselves to be seen.
A little while ago, Laura Marling held a press conference at Goldsmiths Student’s Union to speak about her new album. Ever the literary enthusiast, she described the titling of the release, taken from one of Virgil’s poems.
“The full quote from the poem is Varium et mutabile semper femina, which I might be pronouncing wrong but the translation is: ‘fickle and changeable, always a woman’, so it’s better off as just ‘always a woman'”.
As any fan would tell you the album is by no means the beginning of Marling’s exploration of femininity. It is a theme explored with fervour in her earlier work, as well as in a string of podcasts entitled The Reversal of the Muse in which she discusses female creativity with other members of the music industry. Marling hinted at the possibility of creating more of these podcasts on a more varied array of topics about women in the arts.
“I’m interested to investigate other industries as well, particularly visual art and film and television, because I think the imbalance needs to be rectified in whatever way it can be, so that we can have a more balanced understanding of the world. Because these are the mediums by which we understand the world around us now.”
Asked about her literary influences, she had many recommendations including Anaïs Nin and Joan Didion, but singled out Lou Salome, “any biography of hers that you can get your hands on will be of great benefit to your life.” However she also states, unsurprisingly, that the majority of the literature she surrounds herself with is poetry. She explained how the roots of the album converged with her interest in the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The notion that femininity has been ill-defined, misunderstood and unfairly established throughout the ages seems to have sparked Marling’s curiosity.
“He’s the reason that I got writing this record in some ways, because I was researching his life for writing the libretto for an opera. He was dressed as a girl until he was 8, which had quite a profound effect on his relationship to women and made him somewhat of an obsessive woman-fancier. It was his misguided perception of femininity that led me to try and investigate more about that.”
The notion that femininity has been ill-defined, misunderstood and unfairly established throughout the ages seems to have sparked Marling’s curiosity. The lyrics of Semper Femina brood with an investigative poetry that delves deep into the social and emotional core of her subject matter, such that through means of her ever superb musical expression, Marling evokes the consequences and implications felt because of the chaotic concept of womanhood.
One of the first things you may notice on listening to the lyrics is the unusually frequent use of the feminine third person pronoun: these songs concern female friendships and relationships, self-perception and shared experiences between women, and the plenitude of emotional range that can be found within them. The thinly veiled misogyny in the quote of the “fickle and changeable” woman haunts each song ever so slightly, which Marling cites with an air of doubt and contradiction in the lyrics of the penultimate (and, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most beautiful) track ‘Nouel’. But she ultimately finds strength in being “always a woman”.
It is pensive and moving, and is crafted with the same delicate, nuanced touches she has applied to her theoretical and philosophical investigations. Abounding with considered empathy, nothing about this album feels rushed or forced.
“Whether femininity begins on biological level or a psychological level or an emotional level or whatever, and the answer is there is no answer.”
With 10 years’ experience making music it would be a little trite to claim that Marling’s music has become “more mature”. Yet the intelligence and intellectual vigour of this record far surpass her previous output. Marling herself observes that “whereas Short Movie was more based on a landscape, this album was more based in thought”. It is pensive and moving, and is crafted with the same delicate, nuanced touches she has applied to her theoretical and philosophical investigations. Abounding with considered empathy, nothing about this album feels rushed or forced.
Musically, Marling continues to dazzle, showcasing her mastery of composition as well as (of course) her skills as an accomplished guitarist. The new album is filled with intriguing musical nuggets, from the gentle tonality of the double bass on ‘Always This Way’ or the hints of Simon and Garfunkel that come through in the harmonies of ‘The Valley’, to the slick, jaunty minimalism of the opening track ‘Soothing’. Produced with her contemporary, Blake Mills, the album also takes on a new flavour in terms of the style of its production.
“Working with Blake all of a sudden was quite a shock to the system, because he has a very different way and he is incredibly innovative…I would go home every night from the studio and practice guitar because I wanted to be as good as him.”
Marling also made her directorial début alongside this release, with videos released recently for ‘Soothing’ and ‘Next Time’. Both take on a similar aesthetic which is seen in the album’s cover artwork too, which she describes as a ‘lucid dreaming quality’. Through slightly unsettling, witchy expressive dance and careful set design Marling builds on themes of isolation and intimacy in these videos, lending further insight into her overall artistic vision.
These many diverse and profound elements of Semper Femina give irrefutable evidence that Marling is a brilliant creative thinker, providing a fascinating, multi-layered record which is surely one of her finest to date. It is emotionally powerful, but also intellectually progressive in its analysis of a collection of neglected topics.
Have you been spell-bounded by the new Laura Marling? Did you see her last week at Colston Hall? Let us know in the comments below or via social media.