At the tail-end of the Summer, just before work began on her second album, Laura Marling sat down with producer Ethan Johns to discuss her ambitions for the record. She gave Johns just two instructions: „This is very much my stepping stone,“ she told him. „And this is England.“...
I Speak Because I Can is indeed a coming of age, its 10 songs imbued with a richness and a ripeness and a sophistication. It is also an album marked by its quintessential Englishness. For all its American instrumentation, its shades of Crosby Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, these songs are no pale Americana interpretation; rather they are tales of snow-covered England, of blackberries and cold noses, songs that are deeply rooted in place. It is as if in the months since we saw her last, Marling has sought out her own identity, and found herself to be thoroughly English, unapologetically female, and a fully-fledged musician in her own right.
Marling was, after all, just 17 when her debut Alas, I Cannot Swim was released in the Winter of 2008. Alive with stories of past lovers, night terrors and hearts that tick away like hourglasses, Alas was an exceptional record, revealing Marling to be in possession of not only a voice that was pure and bright and uncommonly beautiful, but also a remarkable songwriting talent that belied her years. Its successor, recorded during Summer 2009 at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios near Bath and Eastcote Studios in London, revels in a new maturity, at points, Marling’s voice sounds a little harder, a little world-wearied, alongside a lyrical bluntness, a thematic darkness, a realisation that, as Marling puts it: „I’m not good all the time, but I try to be.“
Marling, credits many of Johns‘ earlier records (among them Ray LaMontagne, Kings of Leon, Emmylou Harris, Sarabeth Tucek) with kindling her interest in music, had long admired his way of working, his use of reels, his quiet, traditional methods of production. Recorded live, Forgive Me, Hero includes contributions from many of Marling’s peers among them Pete Roe, Marcus Mumford, Ted Dwane, Tom Fiddle and Winston Marshall, who provide a robust musical counterpoint to Marling’s lyrical introspection. „As much as I love those boys, I’m not in control of them; they want to play fast and hard,“ she says. „But I think that’s what’s nice about the record: I have my bit of incredible self-indulgence and then they kick it back into real time.“
Perhaps it is a sign of Marling’s growing maturity that there is a strand of womanliness that runs throughout this album: „I think it was feeling the weight of womanhood, or the greatness of it, coming to terms with it is something that I thought was quite interesting,“ she explains. She was inspired, she says, by „the changing role an idea of Women throughout history.“
Accordingly the album’s penultimate track, the exquisite title track I Speak Because I Can, is in part rooted in the story of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. She says „the idea of her waiting for him to come home, and the very old-fashioned sense of man and woman, and monogamy, that’s quite amazing and truly fascinating. That is probably the most pretentious thing I can say about the album.“ In What He Wrote, we find a song inspired in part by a series of wartime love-letters and diary entries Marling saw published in a newspaper: „The writing that they did, I love that, the way their passion is expressed. And you could feel in their letters, a longing to be with each other.“ There was one diary passage in particular that stood out to Marling: „It was about letting him go, physically letting go, how you can’t let go, and about turning to stone. And I suppose it’s like what a break-up is you just can’t let go of it, no matter how much you want to. And I thought it was such a beautiful thing, as a metaphor for forgiveness, and letting go of things that you need to, or confronting things that you need to.“
Alongside these broader themes, I Speak Because I Can also addresses more intimate subjects; the intriguingly-named Alpha Shallows, for instance, Marling explains as „Kind of a codename, because this was kind of personal. And not that I don’t write personally, it’s just that I do it mostly at arm’s length. I think when I wrote it I was worried that perhaps it was almost a bit too pathetic. And so in my diary I was referring to people as Alpha Shallows and stupid codenames and… God forbid anyone ever read my diary.“ She says she has „forgiven“ her younger self for writing the more obviously personal songs that appeared on her first EPs and even her first album: „the first songs you write are always going to be about yourself. It’s about finding the right balance of experience and turning that into something that’s very much meaningful to you but not too blood guts and hearts.“
One of the album’s undoubted highlights, however, is also one of its most intimate songs, Goodbye England, a rumination on love and independence and also a wistful tribute to the English countryside that seems to hinge upon the line: „And I never love England more than when covered in snow.“ „All of this album is a lot about my childhood,“ Marling says, „and I grew up in the countryside and you can hear a lot of the countryside in this album. I feel very English. And I obviously look bloody English. And I’m away on tour a lot and sometimes, especially in the Winter, I want to be at home, and I want to live in the house that I want to live in when I grow up, with a fireplace on a farm.“ She has, she says, a very vivid memory of walking near her childhood home up to the local church, „When I remember my Dad saying ‚Please bring me back here before I die.‘ I was probably about 9 when he said this to me and I remember thinking ‚What an horrific thing to say!‘. But I hope I go back there before I die. I’ve got quite long roots in England, and because I grew up here, the beauty of England resonates with me more than any other kind of beauty. And I think that ends up defining you as a person, where you’re from, and you can acclimatise to anything, but the wind of England shakes my bones.“
A couple of years ago, Marling recalls, she was gripped by a quite crippling fear of death, a subject that surfaces subtly throughout this record. „I don’t think you ever get over that fear of death, but it was causing me panic attacks which became uncontrollable, so I had to face it,“ she explains. „With a fear of death comes a fear of insignificance, and I thought well, whatever happens I’m going to be ok because I’ve done some things. It’s not about being something as in being famous; it’s being something as in being something to someone. And for me, the idea of being something is actively doing something with your life that positively impacts other people. If you can make people’s day a bit better. You don’t have to fix their problems, but you just have to make them feel a little more secure.“