Marina & the Diamonds Shatters the Pop System’s Ceiling on ‘Froot’
"The most important thing is that people understand who you are. If they don't, then the rest is all bullshit."
On her new album Froot, Marina & the Diamonds sheds the remnants of the sugar-pop persona — there’s no Dr. Luke or Diplo here — that she adopted on her 2012 sophomore LP, Electra Heart. Over the course of the new album’s 12 tracks, Marina writes from the perspective of someone emerging from the wounds of a breakup, bravely adopting the persona of the instigator, not the victim. Throughout the album’s concise, hyper-aware songs, the Welsh star (born Marina Diamandis) offers keen insights on love and self-worth, while maintaining the well-crafted blend of pop, dance, and instrumentally driven rock she’s become known for.
In January, Marina visited the SPIN offices to help us dive deep into the ever-bountiful, oh so succulent Froot — due on March 16 via Neon Gold/Atlantic.
When your last album cycle ended, you talked about wanting to leave behind your Electra Heart persona. What was your headspace like then?
I think I just wanted a break, to be honest. I stopped touring in June 2013, I had been writing Froot by then for the past year. So I was kind of over halfway in the writing process. I just realized that I had been on the road for four years and I hadn’t really had a break. It was time to stay in one place. And I was just a different person as well. I was a bit tired of trying to pop all the time, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
So I just went off and made this on my own. I wrote everything alone and I co-produced with one guy. It was a very different experience than what I had done before, but I really needed to take a turn and do this because it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time. Perhaps I didn’t have the confidence to do it beforehand because I was always like, “If I like make my own record and it’s not commercial, what is the label gonna say?” They’re very standard thoughts for any kind of artist, but I’m happy that I was able and that people gave me the space to do so.
Björk recently said that although she’s so well established in this industry, people give men a lot more credit when it comes to authorship of their recorded and written work. Do you ever feel that? Is that like the fear that you’re talking about?
Yeah, kind of. Actually, I’m making a point of talking about the fact that I’ve written absolutely every single thing on this record, because I feel like for whatever reason, whether females are good at writing or they’re not, it almost feels like people never really believe that they’re the creators. It’s like, “Well, she looks like this and she appears to be like this, so she can’t actually be talented or have a brain.” It’s really strange. And almost to a degree where I sometimes think, especially with female pop stars, it’s quite hard to figure out whether that persona is something that is true to them or if there are multi-layered and they have depth to them.
Perhaps it’s more a visual thing. For example, if I had started my career with no makeup, looking pretty normal in like a white t-shirt and jeans, I wonder if I would be more credible because of that. I feel like the visual component is extremely significant in how you are judged and if people think you’re talented or not.
Concerning the visuals, what have you tried to do differently this time around? You’ve said with Froot you’re trying to strip back a bit, so how do videos and the album cover come into play?
I think that the actual music and creating the visuals align in different parts of what I do. I think, in terms of the album, it’s actually not stripped-back sonically speaking, except for “Happy.” It’s very lush and multi-layered. But in terms of the visual, it will still feature strongly, but it just feels much more effortless. Whereas with Electra Heart, I felt so fenced in because I had created a character and I couldn’t deviate from how it looked, really. It was putting on this wig every single day, having to wear the heart. I didn’t want to be caught shopping in the mall without the getup, and then someone takes a picture.
So in a way it’s really cool to do, it’s really fun, but it also has its drawbacks cause then you’re kind of chained to that. Now I feel so different. I wouldn’t care if I didn’t put on any makeup, because that’s just my look, so it’s okay. [Laughs.] I’m still pulling from the same references. I love the ’70s. I love strong feminine looks, but blending them with futuristic elements.
You announced the record in early October, and decided to drop a song a month until April, before changing the release to March following a leak. Why did you choose to go the slow-but-sure route, knowing almost certainly that it would leak?
Well, I came up with the strategy and I presented it to my label. I just said I wanted to do something different, something that makes sense for me as an artist so I don’t have to be pushed into trying to follow this Top-40 route again where I’m having to release songs I don’t necessarily think are saying the right message about me, at a time when people need to know who you are. I’m always really fascinated with single release strategies because everyone wants to go for the big pop banger first, but sometimes that’s not the right thing to do, because for an artist, the most important thing is that people understand who you are. If they don’t, then the rest is all bullshit.
This is primarily a breakup album, written not from the perspective of the scorned lover, but from someone who broke things off and is dealing with the repercussions.
Yeah, because everyone has got to be the dumpers and the dumpees. Sometimes you’re one, and sometimes you’re the other, but you never really hear many songs about someone who has really hurt somebody else and the pain of not wanting to be with someone, but also not wanting to completely destroy them. It’s very hard.
As a songwriter, did you feel any responsibility in adopting that voice, since it’s not something singers often do?
No, not at all. I just write about whatever is happening in my life. You know, if you just take away the industry aspect of it, I see albums being a chapter of your life. As a songwriter, that’s how I chronicle things. We document things. When I’m writing, it’s never a calculated thing, but that’s what came out.
One of my favorite lines on the album on “Forget” when you sing, “I was born to be the tortoise / I was born to walk alone.” I love the way you pronounce tortoise. Did you ever ask yourself, “why did I pronounce it like ‘toy-toys?'”
[Laughs.] No, but my A&R always jokes and sends me the tortoise emoji all the time.
Was the mentality of being “born to walk alone” something that was always part of your psyche, or did it arise as part of that relationship dissolving?
I suppose it was more to do with like the tortoise and the hare concept. I felt like I was always rushing through life. I felt I was lagging behind, particularly in my career.
I don’t know… I think I just wasn’t very happy as myself. I just didn’t feel good enough and I never felt like I was progressing in the way that I wanted to, whereas now I feel completely black and white. Sometimes you’re the tortoise and sometimes you’re the hare. Sometimes people you know explode on their first album. I’m sure in your industry, you know what I mean, you’ll have mates that have gone really far, but really quickly, and you feel like, “Well, when is that going to happen for me?” So that’s very connected to that, but “I was born to walk alone,” that was more about doing things on my own and being independent and creatively so as well. It’s about growing up and looking after yourself. It sounds really basic, but it is. If you don’t like yourself, you’re not going to look after yourself.
Were you nervous at all to go so deeply personal with the lyrics on this album?
So few people have asked that, because “Happy” is very visceral. It’s kind of a painfully, almost embarrassingly true song. Actually the first version, like my demo, I did change a few lyrics because I went a tiny bit too full-on. [Laughs.] It’s really satisfying looking at YouTube comments this time. It’s very different to Electra Heart, whereas these ones — “Immortal” and “Happy” — people are very thoughtful about it and they seem to have really hit a nerve with the fans, which is interesting. I love reading responses. With “Happy” one of the common comments was, “I’ve been waiting to hear this song all my life.” That’s an incredible thing to hear. It’s also satisfying for a songwriter because really all you want as a human… you want to know that you relate to people and you’re not the only one feeling those things.
Last year, Charli XCX talked about how easy it would be for her to be this big pop star with all the proper dance moves, but that it wasn’t a concept that appealed to her. Have you ever felt that push and pull between label expectations and what you actually wanted?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. It was a different situation. For example, my first album was quite successful. I didn’t really know that it was gonna be pop. When I first signed, I was a slightly chubby person and I definitely did not look like a pop star. For the label, it was a very natural ascent to being popular. I guess what they saw off the second album was, “Well you know, you’ve got a lot of potential to grow,” so I don’t think they expected me to some generic pop star.
I think there was the acknowledgement that to be popular over here, though, I had to follow certain routes with the Dr. Lukes and Stargates, and part of that is depressing because you think, “It’s so limiting.” It’s also not encouraging for a true artist. If you’re working with a manufactured artist, then that’s fine, give them the song, but if you’re working with someone who is actually in this for the real deal, it’s really, really limiting. So yeah, I don’t think it’s quite the same situation as Charli, but it’s another type of situation where they expect you to be something that they hope that you are. And you gotta explain it to them or not.
How does that conversation go?
It doesn’t. It didn’t go. I think if I had been more of a confident person, then I might have fought back. But also to be truthful, at the time, my own songwriting had felt a bit stunted because I had always written on keyboards and written lyrics and melodies simultaneously. Whereas now I don’t do that anymore because Electra Heart taught me a lot of things.
When I was co-writing with people, I was much freer and I was doing different things melodically. I was like, “Why is that?” Then I thought, the difference is that like Diplo or Dr. Luke, they’re giving me like instrumentals to write to, so I’m not chained to the keyboard. When I started the third album, I knew I was just gonna start with instrumentals and beats basically, and I was just going to write on those. So really, I needed that second album, even though part of me sometimes was stressing. It was definitely the right decision.
You’ve got quite a busy year in front of you. How are you hoping things will turn out for you and Froot?
My only wish is for it to be actually fun. I want to enjoy it. In the past, because you kind of have your blinkers on, you don’t realize what’s actually happening to you. You’re living your dream. So I want to have lots of fun. I want to make lots of people happy. What else could I wish for?