Pic by Justin Tyler Close
“It won't change how I'm feeling but you can try to help me understand/If she loved you like a woman, did you feel like a man?/ I need to know/Where did Alexandra go?”
It’s 7.30 in the morning in her London home, and Laura Marling is already immersed in talking about Henrik Ibsen and Leonard Cohen, escape and the male gaze.
That seems excessive, pre-breakfast, but it’s her own fault.
At the end of her 2017 album of contemporary, American landscape-influenced folk rock, Semper Femina, a record which eschewed the male perspective for a set of songs about women outside any male context, Marling made an oblique reference to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
The last song finished on the sound of her walking out of the studio, leaving us with only silence - much as the play’s central character, the married mother of three, Nora, yearning for a life that could breathe, leaves her family at the end and the audience sits in stunned silence.
(I’ll confess that despite seeing the play again about a year earlier, I didn’t get the reference at the time, only grasping the significance when she explained it in a later interview.)
At the beginning of her new, more melodic and almost pop-lush album, A Song For Our Daughter, Marling picks up on the character Alexandra, from Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving (“Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving/Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost,” Cohen sang) to speculate on a life for the woman who walked out and who says now “I had to try a fuck to give, why should I die so you can live?”.
Both Ibsen and Cohen are renowned for their perceptiveness about human experience and the complexity of their female characters, but that’s more often really a perceptiveness about the male experience or the male perspective of women. Can – should? - Marling correct this assumed knowledge?
“I don’t know, but I think that my interest in someone like Leonard Cohen is because he wrote beautifully about women,” she says. “And then there is the aspect of him that is a product of his time: the aspects of how women were portrayed as a function of his time. Things like that have to be read contrapuntally.
“And Ibsen is the same. Someone who wrote incredibly vividly about the interior, well not the interior lives of women, but showed that they had an interior life. I also have to stop myself from being a colonial rescuer of women from their time. I feel that I am prone to do that but it’s not my place.”
In one sense, A Song For Our Daughter is attempting in some way to tell another generation what has been learned, what has been endured, and that what Marling – whose first album was released when she 18 - or other women have encountered is not the only way to be a woman.
Also, that it doesn’t matter what the male gaze or the male perspective is.
“I don’t think the album answers those questions or suggests solutions to that, really. But that doesn’t mean that is not the experience of my life and something that I want to talk about, and have used the album as a mouthpiece to do that,” Marling says. “I think what’s not spoken about quite often, because there’s so much charge to gendered conversation, is learning the ability to defuse that charge. Diplomacy is something I’ve learnt very late in life, and I wish I’d had the courage and self-worth or whatever to know, to very comfortably set, my boundaries from a younger age.
“But also I wish I’d had the diplomacy to negotiate my way out of situations, or negotiate my way into situations that I deserved to be in.”
Should you have to have a level of diplomacy to negotiate your way out of or into situations? Is it required of men?
“I don’t know. I can only speak from the experience of being a woman, but I think perhaps it is a shame that it might be required. It is also the fact of how society functions,” she says. “I was reading a book about the female experience as portrayed in The Iliad recently, and somebody talking about warrior culture. Talking about how The Iliad was all about the kind of nobility and the graceful sportsmanship of war, and the understanding of when it’s time to give your opposition’s son’s body back, when it’s time to be a good sport. And how that’s all played off women’s ignorance of the nobility of war.
“All the women in the book account are saying ‘why do we have to go to war?’. That’s a long, ancient, ingrained misunderstanding about women not understanding warrior culture and I feel that that’s still present: the noble values of business, i.e. diplomacy, are considered something that women don’t need to understand.”
Not only do they not need to understand, but it is an aspect of a particular masculine trait or a particular masculine facility that is embodied in the language of business and sport, and works also to mask the real emotion behind a façade of nobility, respectfulness and honour.
This is not unfamiliar territory for Marling who has often discussed the level of emotion, or visible emotion, that is expected of women and the criticism of her for not displaying an “appropriate” amount of it. Is she any more comfortable with that notion, or indeed expressing overt emotion in her art?
“I certainly … I certainly [long pause], I certainly don’t feel like that in any way affects the mystery or the deluded sense of privacy that I might have about my job,” she says eventually. “I think that is, ironically, a product of being less self-involved now that I’m older. I realised that there really is nothing to protect.”
There was a perception that she felt particularly vulnerable to those standards and those criticisms being applied to her because she was a woman who chose to be more observer than participant, more notetaker than diary writer.
“That brings us to a different side of what it is to be a woman, and that is that I think there is so much unconscious gendered criticism,” Marling says. “It seems to me, from what I’ve correlated over the years, from what I’ve understood about what people feel about my music, what seems to enrage people …is the fact that I keep a distance from the story and keep it at arm’ s length. I don’t know that that’s particularly gendered but I think people don’t want obscurity from women.”
It is absolutely gendered. It is most often assumed that a woman is writing from a personal, emotional experience, while men are more often allowed to present from a character perspective, to affect the omniscient air, and conveniently to deflect personal questions. So when someone like Marling steps back, saying in the song itself “I’m observing, this is not me”, it can be very disconcerting for people who want her to be a particular kind of artist.
In what may be related territory, I feel A Song For Our Daughter is an album where she is more comfortable with musical attractiveness in sound than ever before, most noticeably in the sometimes creamy backing vocals, but also in the freedom to be purely melodic. Allowing her Paul McCartney, or Carole King, to sit alongside her John Lennon, or Joni Mitchell, you could say.
The back story to this she explains begins with cutting ties with her management and label after Semper Femina, taking off to Europe for six months of travel and writing. The songs were completed by the time of her return but contracts remained elusive for another year and a half.
After releasing six solo albums and a side project called LUMP, with Mike Lindsay of electro-folk group, Tunng, between 2008 and 2017 it was the longest time she’d had between releases and “every month that was going by was breaking my heart because I wasn’t making the album and moving on with my life”.
The one saving grace was that in this downtime she built a studio in her basement where she could meticulously arrange and record the album. It was an important move.
“Because I was alone, and I had my own space, all of those backing vocals were done there and then,” she says. “Because it’s really embarrassing to do backing vocals in front of other people, you’d generally never spend that time building those big choral arrangements.
“I had worked with Rob Moose, the string arranger, on Semper Femina, and we’d become quite good pals as he’d been with me on the journey in this year and a half that I was a bit at sea. So he’d had this time to prepare, to think about it all, and I think there’s a part of his arrangement that was [reflecting] my weird at sea-ness.”
While that sense of drift she describes in the year and a half it took to complete the album may seem to contradict this, Song For Our Daughter very much reflects a growing sense of self and self-confidence as a songwriter and performer. While she has always been in many ways an artist confident enough to go further, this album really does seem like the full flowering of a mature songwriter, 12 years into a career.
“See, I thought people were going to hate this record,” she says with a small laugh. “I always get this wrong. That sort of half the reason why I didn’t think twice about bringing it out early [from its original release date of late in the year], because I was like I just want to have this done, over with, and I can move onto the next one.”
Get all the criticism and bile out now so you can have a cleared deck to start again?
“Exactly,” she laughs. “I felt like the songwriting was too simplistic but I’m at the mercy of whatever comes out: it’s luck of the draw. I didn’t think the songs were bad; I just thought it’s a bit simple maybe. But that doesn’t seem to be the general consensus.”
It may be that Marling – like the rest of us - just doesn’t know anything about what’s right or best when it comes to music, or art. After all, there’s nothing wrong with simplicity sometimes if it’s a reflection of confidence in material that doesn’t require embellishment or complexity and fussiness that often comes out of fear. Sometimes an artist feels the pressure to show that they’re smarter or deeper out of weakness.
Take the relative simplicity of her new song, Fortune, about a woman who secretes money through the house as part of an “escape” fund would be familiar to many of us, not just from a difficult or abusive relationship but, latterly, mothers and wives made insecure by encroaching dementia.
Not everybody has had the chance or took the chance at what seemed an inevitable end to a relationship, to say, as Marling, who turned 30 earlier this year, sings here “at least we agree that we’ve wasted time”.
“There is this sinister edge to normcore behaviour, and I guess I’m at the age where I feel these people making these very sinister decisions, about how to protect themselves from loneliness for the rest of their lives,” she says. “I think in the song, for the deeply figurative person that I’m talking about, the idea of loneliness is too unbearable, is more unbearable than the misery.
That’s something I, as a personality, have defended. I’ve kept those turrets well defended.”
So she understands the temptation, or the need to flee? To be a Nora?
“I’m in a very happy relationship, and I have been for four years, but I think the scariest thing about being in a functioning, happy relationship is, what if I want to leave all of a sudden? And I have to explain it to everybody, and everybody likes us - you are in this double bind. What if you just want to leave because you want to be free, or you just prefer to be on your own? What is that justification? And you have to have really good justification to leave a long marriage, with children and everything, so that’s scary shit.”
Yes, you have to have a good reason, a well understood motivation, but you also have to believe it. And that’s a situation that many women of a generation past, if not even still today, found themselves in, not believing their freedom or their need to be elsewhere was sufficient justification, always feeling that they didn’t have the right to be free.
It wasn’t just a fear of being on their own but, bringing us back to Ibsen, asking themselves what right did they have to choose a life of themselves ahead of the lives of others dependent on or connected to them.
“The impotence of women in that era,” says Marling, “And it’s such a close era to us, is heartbreaking.”
“Lately I’ve been thinking ‘bout our daughter growing old/All of the bullshit that she might be told/There’s blood on the floor/Maybe now you’ll believe her for sure.”
A Song For Our Daughter is out now.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.