Marcus Mumford looks like he’s on a tropical vacation—even though he’s just at home in Los Angeles. This is partly because Mumford is sitting against a background of bamboo blinds that filter the light, and it’s partly because he has the relaxed air of leaving his cares behind. Credit for this newfound energy can be given to the Grammy-winning Mumford & Sons’ frontperson’s debut solo album, self-titled. With self-titled, Mumford has put aside the sing-along folk-rock of his multi-platinum group for inward-facing, confessional songs that address his longstanding demons.
Mumford came to Los Angeles and Blake Mills’ studio at Sound City for self-titled, working with several high-profile songwriters including Phoebe Bridgers, Brandi Carlile, Monica Martin and Clairo. Many other key producer/songwriters also came through Sound City, among them, FINNEAS, Ezra Koenig, Cass McCombs, Soundwave, some of which ended up on self-titled, many who didn’t. One of the noticeable things about self-titled is that its features are all women, which isn’t intentional, but doesn’t surprise Mumford who says, “Every time I’ve hit a wall, a woman’s lifted me over it. That’s been true behind the scenes as well. It’s for good reason that this record is dedicated to my wife.”
Mumford’s wife is Academy Award-nominated actor Carey Mulligan, whose support got Mumford through the scoring of the Emmy-winning Apple TV+ series, Ted Lasso, and who made it possible for Mumford to “receive” the songs on self-titled, which he says, “Drop from the sky.”
“You don’t have as much control over songs as you’d hope. Noel Gallagher talks about having a disposition towards catching them and having your hands out because if you don’t have your hands out, then Bono or Chris Martin are going to catch them,” says Mumford, on the record.
SPIN: You wouldn’t know it to listen to self-titled, but you initially had writer’s block?
Marcus Mumford: Yeah, I’d found myself in a position where I was using any excuse I could get my hands on to not write songs. TV scoring got me through the hardest lockdowns in the UK. It was helpful to be able to play music and record it and use it. My friend Jonathan Dickins, who is a manager [Adele, Glass Animals] said to me, “You might score TV shows, or pretend to be doing lots of other things in your life, but, at the end of the day, you’re a songwriter first and foremost, and you need to write songs again. You need to write for the sake of writing because you need to exercise the muscle, otherwise it goes into atrophy.” His advice was, “Follow the creative wherever it leads you.” January 2021, I started writing. The first song I wrote was “Cannibal.” The second one was “Grace.” That’s where it started.
It seems like there were lots of things you were dealing with, including unhealthy habits, right before the pandemic.
My life had changed significantly since the summer of 2019 when I hit a version of rock bottom. I’d quit booze, which had become quite a big part of my life. I quit before I absolutely had to, so I didn’t have to do 12-step stuff. I have huge respect for it and lots of friends engaged in it, and I totally believe in it, it just wasn’t necessary for me. I removed that medicator and started leaning into ice cream really heavily.
I was able to use the songs to help me guide the way. I’m acutely aware of how difficult the pandemic has been for so many people, but, for me, it provided a structure of routine, of connection with my family, of connection to place, which I hadn’t had since high school. That gave me the foundations and the safety to then start this process of writing the record.
Your reveal on “Cannibal” about being sexually abused broke the internet.
I can totally understand why that is. Sexual abuse is so fucking common that it shouldn’t be shocking, but men don’t talk about it a huge amount. I chose to put “Cannibal” first on the record and to release it first, but it’s not what the whole record is about. It’s a record about freedom. It’s a record about healing. It’s not a record about trauma.
But, in order to access freedom and healing, you have to look more closely at trauma. That’s one of the mistakes I have historically made. I don’t think it’s cowardly to not talk about trauma, but I do think it might not be healthy. Sometimes, the opportunity hasn’t arisen yet, or the circumstances haven’t aligned, or the support hasn’t been there to be able to talk about it. I don’t think that’s cowardice in the same way that I don’t think it’s bravery to talk about it. It’s taking the opportunity in front of you.
I went through every line in the songs that deal with trauma, with trauma specialists because I don’t want to go around activating people and fucking with their shit. I wanted to be responsible in the way I talked about trauma, and I got the approval from the specialists. Then I felt okay. Now I can play. Now I can write. It culminated in “Go in Light.” Getting Sounwave involved was playful and fun. Then Monica came in and blew us all away with her vocal performance, to the extent that she’s higher in the mix than me. Accessing that playfulness reflects some of the freedom I now feel and makes me look forward to what’s next.
Had you already confronted the trauma of being sexually abused when you wrote “Cannibal,” or did that come out when you were writing the song?
I had already done a lot of that work. As a creative person, I think it’s natural to write songs as a way of processing and expressing what’s going on in your life internally. It was an extension of the process and I’m not sure I’ll ever complete it. I’ve learned that it’s such a journey. It was a natural part of the process to write about it, and a healthy part of the process to then release it and still feels like a healthy part of the process to talk about it.
Did additional traumas come out while you were writing the album?
No, most of it I had processed before I wrote—but there was a sense of catharsis in writing. On “Stonecatcher,” I had to think harder about things I’d already been attracted to philosophically: the idea of not labeling victims and perpetrators in a binary way, because, historically, most perpetrators are victims. I had to emotionally lean in and say, “Okay, I have written that lyric. What do I really mean?” Blake [Mills] and I would dissect a song we’d written and examine it in an objective way, like someone else had written it and we were trying to grade it. “Is that as honest as it can be? Is there poetic license being taken there?” We came back to this consistent theme of trying to be as honest as possible. Those ended up feeling like therapy sessions.
It sounds like Blake Mills had a big role on self-titled.
I’d always wanted to make a record with Blake. We wrote “Only Child” together six years ago. He not the kind of producer who will shy away from challenging the artist. He’ll ask you to justify your choices, and he’ll expect to have to justify his own. Sometimes he’s wrong, and sometimes you’re wrong. That’s the wonderful thing about a partnership. Every song, we would chisel and hone and hold it up to the glass and say, “Is it honest? Is it right? Let’s be uncompromising.” Blake is uncompromising and that’s why I’m so glad I got to do the album with him.
Was there a freedom in your songwriting because there weren’t any Mumford & Sons expectations pinned to it?
There really was. Blake commented a number of times that I was down to try things, even if they didn’t work. I didn’t want to set too many restrictions. Even with lyrics, I would try a really leftfield lyric that I would normally never sing. With Julia Michaels, we’d done five-and-a-half hours together on an afternoon. We were so close to throwing in the towel. I said, “Let’s give it one more go.” We went to the live room. She said, “Sit down at the instrument you feel most comfortable.” I sat down at the piano, which makes zero sense because I don’t play the piano. And she was like, “Now write the story you want to sing about.” I wrote it down. And she goes “Okay, now sing that.” That’s pretty much word for word how “Prior Warning” was written. That taught me so much about songwriting. Historically, I haven’t had the confidence to access that kind of freedom within the band setup, and now I think I will.
I respect the record making process more than I ever have. I’m stoked about what’s next and I have no idea what it is.