Perched upon a bar stool, Laura Marling’s unmistakeably clear, nostalgic voice rings out into the Goldsmith’s Student Union, as she winds her way through ‘Wild Fire’ the second track to be released from her sixth studio album, Semper Femina. The record’s title is drawn from a Virgil line, “varium et mutabile semper femina,” which translates as “fickle and changeable, always is woman” – a fitting title for a record that, in examining femininity, discovers the struggle that exists in ever trying to locate the center of what it means to be a woman. The lyric contained within Wild Fire, “of course the only part that I want to read/ is about her time spent with me/ wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen?” appears pertinent as Marling explains the process of writing the record, particularly focusing on the gaze of the artist. “We’re somewhat used to seeing women through men’s eyes,” she explains, “and so naturally that was my inclination, to try and take some power over that, but very quickly I realised that probably the more powerful thing to do was to look at women through a woman’s eyes.” In creative cultures structured by the patriarchal norms of society, a self-reflexive examination of womanhood, unfiltered through the male gaze, is a rare phenomenon indeed. In subverting this trope, Marling tackles femininity in her own, distinctive manner; suggestively, even aggressively, but ever balanced within the beauty and whimsical imagery of her songwriting.
Much of the conference deals, in one way or another, with the notion of growth – how Marling herself has matured through the making of Semper Femina, via her creative and travel experiences, collaborations and engagement with literary influences. “I used to read a lot of fiction,” she starts, “I don’t any more, but I do read a lot of poetry; where gothic romantic literature used to play quite a big part in my vocabulary of emotional experience, now that I have my own emotional experiences, many of them, I like delving into poetry more as literary fantasy.” This poetic quality weaves it’s way throughout Semper Femina, particularly in her dreamlike performance of Nothing, Not Nearly, in which she deliberately trips and redoubles over phrases through her lyrics, providing a disorientating glimpse into the vignettes of her imagination, while maintaining a focused vocal quality and a simple acoustic backing. “Left him north of where we met, thinking better of going west, yes we’ve lost each other in a river stream,” sings Marling; she transmits the experience of wandering beautifully, and invites us along for the journey too. Later, she discusses her experience of touring solo as a female artist, saying “it sounds super romantic and glamorous, but actually entails me dragging three or four guitars around, throwing them in the back of a car constantly; it’s a big physical and mental exertion. It can be a little bit scary being alone – I’m sure it’s scary for men as well but I’ve been aware of the restriction of women travelling, and I have this great fear of travelling alone now. I’ve just noticed that that innate sense of fear is really quite constricting and perhaps more of an affliction to women than to men.”
However, ever focused as she is on affirming her, and female artists’ autonomy more widely, within the creative industries, she also discusses the manner in which she has reclaimed her vision through the process of directing her own trio of music videos. She says “I’m more comfortable talking about the directing than I am the music which is weird, but directing was amazing because I’ve never been given the opportunity or I’ve never been inclined to give visual representation to my music personally. It’s become the way that music is released now, so to give my lucid dreaming quality, which is where I get a lot of my imagery from, to give that form was an amazing experience.” In an industry filled with restrictive recording contracts and gendered expectations of performers, to see and hear from an artist such as Laura Marling, who has such clear intent and hope for her work, is as incredibly refreshing as it is inspiring.
Marling often seems to take the long way round, verbally, when explaining her ideas or processes in creating Semper Femina, but there is never more clarity to her voice than when she discusses her passion for investigating femininity and womanhood, particularly in relation to her ‘Reversal of the Muse’ podcast series, that discusses feminism within the creative industries, particularly music. She states firmly that, “there’s a lot to catch up on, for women in this industry… I think the imbalance there needs to be rectified in whatever way it can be rectified, so we can have a more balanced understanding of the world, because these mediums [music, visual art, film] are that by which we understand the world around us now.” She does however mention that “in the lead up to this album, because of its subject, I’ve been asked a lot to have very firm opinions about femininity and feminism, and I still don’t know enough about either of those subjects to have firm opinions. So that was what I really enjoyed about Reversal of the Muse and making this record, was that it allowed me to keep asking questions about those things, and that’s what I wan to keep doing.” Semper Femina, despite it’s clear subject matter, is not a project that seeks defined conclusions or to enforce a worldview. Marling defies the impulse to state firm beliefs, despite having an audience that would surely embrace her message, in a move that reveals the innate curiosity that shapes her artistic brilliance.
Marling proves herself to be every bit as highly self-reflective and intellectual as her music displays her to be. With regards to her own creativity and career, she discuses her “own inner tussle, is [making music] an indulgence or is it a compulsion?” Even in her most candid moments, she seems to be in an almost constant state of interrogation; questioning her own musical inspiration, the industry, the place of the female creative, the authenticity of the artist. In her final performance of the session, she sings album track Nouel, a track that seems as much as a devotion to the female ‘condition’ whatever that may be, as it seems to be yet another question. “Fickle and changeable” she references, in a refrain that lasts throughout the song, we as an audience are forced to reflect on the multiplicity of the record’s subject matter. However, at the very core of the song, and even in it’s last lyric, we are left with one central doctrine that remains constant. “Semper Femina, so am I,” she sings. Always woman, so am I.
Laura Marling’s sixth studio album, Semper Femina, is released on the 10th March 2017.
– Sarah Turnnidge