LAURA MARLING: CANTANTES LICET USQUE SEMPER FEMINA
(Let us go singing Semper Femina)
The shorthand version of Laura Marling’s sixth album is it is a record about women – as friends, inspirations, potential lovers, and always as flawed but vital people – by a woman exploring her own sense of femininity.
A slightly longer version is that the 27-year-old Marling, a fiercely cerebral songwriter who traverses folk and pop not unlike Joni Mitchell at the same age, began the process writing, as she put it, “as if a man was writing about a woman”.
That is before accepting that there was no need to hide behind such a conceit “to justify the intimacy of the way I’m looking and feeling about women”.
The upshot is Semper Femina, or always a woman, a deeply fascinating album whose songs have no need for men in the narratives or the opinions on sex and love and pain, or the worth of female friendships.
Without need for them in its construction, is there something, anything, which a male listener or reviewer can bring to or take from Semper Femina?
“Even though by the end of the record I thought what’s the point in saying this is written from a male perspective, that is what I was trying to understand,” says Marling who speaks quietly and never hurriedly.
“I was trying to understand femininity through masculine eyes. But that is an interesting question because what I learned from making this record is how necessary the balance between and the difference between masculine and feminine is. It’s wonderful and I needed to understand that: I needed to understand more about masculinity as well.”
Does that mean learning more about the masculine she observed or also the masculine within her?
“I think the masculine within me needed a run around the park or something. To get out a bit,” she says, laughing lightly. “Because I was trying to cut through the bullshit bits of femininity, the shallow, Hollywood idea of femininity and also masculinised femininity. Which is where I was, in this adopted masculinity version of femininity.”
But what is this masculinised version of femininity that she says she “appropriated” in her personal and professional life? Especially a four year stretch where she moved from London to Los Angeles and then took herself off on a kind of permanent solo tour with little more than a bag, a guitar and a phone, with no permanent home?
“On a sunny, light-hearted level I was trying to provide everything for myself. I went on this trip before years of travelling from myself, carrying my guitar, counting my own money. I just wanted to see how far I could take independence, I wanted to have no help,” Marling says. “And I think that is the manifestation of masculinised femininity.
"I wouldn’t engage in a political debate about this, I think a lot of people would disagree with me, but my experience was that as I began to feel that ease up, as I began to go ‘I don’t know if the world is just for me to battle for myself’, and I allowed help and to be that little bit more vulnerable, I felt better.”
You could say that one of the side effects of seeing just how far she could go with that independence was at least the appearance that she was separating herself from lovers and friends, or being willing to do so.
Across Semper Femina it’s possible to read some of the songs as suggesting more than isolating herself she looked as if she had been actively casting aside other parts of life.
“Not friendship. I think I’m a pretty good friend. But in other more complicated relationships, I just wasn’t interested in them because I was more focused on my inward journey, trying to figure out myself,” she says. “That was necessary but it probably didn’t make me a particularly pleasant person.”
To the question of friends there is a line in a new song called In The Valley, about a friendship foundering without an obvious explanation – at least to the listener - where Marling says at the end, “I’ll do my very best”. It’s not a big demand or a big declaration, but it feels true.
“Now you point that line out I remember more about how friendship is referred to on the album. It does refer a lot to loss or distance, which is an inevitable part of growing up,” she concedes.
“But I do my very best in relation to the whole nature of this album which is that women are changeable … but they are also like wild animals and that became interesting to me because I had never thought about the animal nature of women. I’ve done a lot more thinking about the animal nature of men.”
The animal nature of men after all is the more “acceptable” and we value the perceived aspects of that: strength, fierceness, instinctual rather than intellectual or emotional. But all of these are on display in Semper Femina.
The strong, sensual feel of the album musically blows through almost every track, especially in the first single, Soothing. In the filmclip for that song, one of several for the project directed by Marling, a woman moves almost carnally across a bed, the combination of image and the viscous rhythm representing a physicality more evident here than any of her previous five albums.
“Absolutely. What would the reason for that be?” she says. “I think part of my exploration and understanding of women had a sensual nature to it and because I was trying to engage in a masculine viewpoint the way I began to see women was beautiful, different to my usual experience of seeing women.
“And there is power in that and I thought of falling in love with women in this new way that I had never experienced. I think a lot of that is in the feel of the record.”
Laura Marling will play Vivid Live at the Sydney Opera House, on June 12