Early on in her still-young career, which included a stint with London folkies Noah and the Whale, demure English singer-songwriter Laura Marling copped to a stage fright that turned adoring audiences into forbidding challenges. Even with the approval afforded by Mercury Prize nominations and widespread critical acclaim for her first two solo efforts (2008's Alas, I Cannot Swim and 2010's I Speak Because I Can, both of which featured members of Mumford & Sons), Marling maintained a youthful awkwardness — mumbling through banter at shows and evincing a general discomfort with the attention that came alongside her successes.
Marling's newest LP, Once I Was an Eagle (Ribbon), produced by Ethan Johns and out May 28, shatters that fragile image. Poised and resolute, the album, full of muscular, Led Zeppelin III-styled guitar strumming, traces the softening of a heart recently hardened by romantic turbulence.
The 23-year-old — a recent transplant to Los Angeles — spoke to SPIN during a break from her North American tour about the strong new album and her blossoming self-assuredness.
The album sounds far less delicate than what's come before. Was the songwriting process different this time?
There's not much of a conscious process to my songwriting. I wish there was. Outside influences and inspirations dictate what I write. At the time [she wrote the songs for Once I Was an Eagle] I'd been traveling a lot and listening to a lot of records made in 1969. I can certainly hear that aspect of it on the album. It sounds like I'm not at home and I wish I lived in 1969. I was collecting records made in that year. I had quite a selection but there was a Captain Beefheart record that I loved and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood and David Axelrod. It was a wide variety of quite strange, liberating records.
How specifically did those records affect your music?
They were made around the time that the Beatles were using Eastern-sounding instruments and atonal scales. Those influences freed my guitar playing a lot, and I tend to write melodies on guitar as well. So the melodies were a little bit more free and uncomfortable sounding at first. [On the song "I Was an Eagle"], there's a hurdy gurdy, which isn't Eastern but does have that atonal feel.
Given that you're not particularly conscious about your process, were you surprised by what you heard when you listened back to the songs you wrote for the album? Did it seem like there were any unconscious connective threads?
I didn't actually hear the record start to finish until three months after it was mixed. I was on tour and I was listening to my record in a rental car driving through Texas. I was elated by the stuff I hadn't noticed or I had forgotten was on there and what recurring things kept coming up. That's been the way it was for all my records. I don't really realize what I'm saying until it's all put together. It's interesting to me what recurring things run through this record. I'm still obsessed [lyrically] with water, I still use the word "running" a lot, but this one had a feeling of acceptance to it that has been lacking on previous records. This one is more comfortable.
Where did that feeling come from?
I'm not an awkward 18-year-old anymore and I don't feel like an awkward 18-year-old anymore. I'm more comfortable in my skin than I used to be. And that's a great relief, my God! And also, I care a bit less. I'm not as self-aware as I was when I was 19 or 20, when I either wanted to fit in or to stand out. Now I know where I fit in and that brings a bit of comfort.
Unlike your past albums, you recorded this album without a backing band. Why?
Simplicity. I've realized I like simple things in my life. That's why I don't tour with a band anymore. That's not because of the people but because of the nature of having a band itself. It's a fucking shitstorm of complications for an already complicated existence. Simplicity is Ethan's style, and that's easier to hear when there's no band drowning it out. This was the first record that I recorded all by myself in a tiny little room and then Ethan added instruments on top of it.
On the first few songs, it seems like you're tackling the subject of love in a more defiant way than you used to. Then things change over the course of the album. What can you tell me about its structure?
Near the end there's a big change of tune, a quite literal change of tuning. That was interesting to me: the album was written in three different tunings and they all ended up representing something different. At the end of the record there's this curiosity again about what it means to assimilate the idea of love into your life and how you can't ever define it. So yeah, certainly a song near the beginning like "Master Hunter" represents a petty projection of love, but there is some relief when you get to the end.
So if the first part represents the "petty" version of love, how would you characterize the other sections?
The first part is this confusing ball of chaos and frustration, defiance and aggression. The middle section is sinking into acceptance — a morbid acceptance of reality. The third part is a rebirth, not necessarily bright and hopeful, but innocent again. I'd say that the first part is a mess of color, the middle is gray or silver, and then the third has a nicer more pastoral feeling.
That's the album. What about in life? How does one go from the gray back to innocence?
It's possible to feel a second naïveté; to feel that the only things that matter within us are love and happiness. But it takes the right situation and the right moment for someone to put it clearly for you.