“Only The Strong”
On Laura Marling’s
“Song For Our Daughter”
words: katie cutforth
photography: justin tyler close
I fell in love with Laura Marling’s music when I was sixteen-years-old. As a teenager I was never exactly a misfit, but someone who struggled to relate to many of the opinions and tastes of my peers. Demoralised by the shallow, disposable pop that seemed to me to be everywhere, I delved into the music of my parents’ generation – Bowie, Dylan, The Velvet Underground – meaning I was often labelled precocious by adults and pretentious by peers. Truthfully, I wasn’t either – I simply wanted to find music that could teach me something, make me feel something. Nonetheless, it saddened me that many of my idols were men in their sixties, unlikely to release anything new and who I would never get the chance to see perform live.
At some point, a friend introduced me to Laura Marling. I had been vaguely aware of her for some time, a few of her better-known songs had made their way to the peripheries of my music taste. But, on taking the time to sit down and listen to Marling’s first three records, I was utterly entranced. Here was the timelessness: the heartfelt guitar playing and poetic lyricism of my heroes from days gone by, coming from a woman only a few years older than me.
I devoured her records; scoured the internet for unreleased tracks; poured over interviews and live sessions. I listened on the way to school and at break-times; in the library where music was banned I would write down lyrics from memory when I got bored or pensive. I put her on the speakers as soon as I got home, feeling that I was learning much more then than I had in any of my classes. When everything around me seemed mundane and unvaried, her music led me into a world of sailors and maidens and beasts; more the stuff of mythology than the musings of an English teenager. At just nineteen-years-old, she sang “Why fear death? Be scared of living” – such aphorisms from one so young may seem grandiose to some, but I saw her as simply a remarkable thinker and storyteller.
Her quiet energy was exactly what I needed to discover at that age. She showed me that a woman can be powerful without shouting, that shyness shouldn’t be something shameful, and about the value of solitude. Listening to her music was like moving a muscle that hadn’t been used for years – satisfying in its simultaneous familiarity and innovation. To hear such wisdom and power from someone I could relate to so strongly was utterly invaluable to me as a confused, emotional sixteen-year-old.
Marling is remarkable, not only in her talent as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, but in her ability to evolve as a musician. The growth across those first three records is undeniable, both in maturity and musicianship; but her fourth, Once I Was An Eagle, marked the arrival of something completely new. The record is opened by a four-track ‘suite’, with lyrical and melodic motifs running throughout, the arrangement minimal and raw. In contrast with her earlier work, Marling chose to record the songs without a full band, and live performances at the time found her similarly alone but for her open-tuned guitar, working through her songs in an almost trance-like state of concentration. Her vocals were changed too, stripped back and heightened by deadpan spoken sections reminiscent of Lou Reed or Bob Dylan. “I will not be a victim of romance,” she implores. “I will not be a victim of circumstance.”
She is also an incredibly erudite and self-aware songwriter. During the composition of Once I Was An Eagle, Marling stated that she only listened to music made between 1969 and 1972, highlighting her extraordinary capacity to deeply appreciate music and turn that appreciation into precise and contemplative output. Marling is also rigorously critical of her own music, having once thrown out most of an album because she was unsatisfied with the recordings. Her fifth record, Short Movie, emerged from a period of intense upheaval in Marling’s life, which saw her relocate to Los Angeles, exploring interests outside of music whilst trying to find her feet on a new continent. This uprootedness is certainly reflected in the record, which she described in a radio interview as “the middle of a thought, rather than a conclusion”. Written mostly in the USA, Short Movie is set apart from her others, by its production in particular: sparse, expansive soundscapes conjure images of a stifling desert, while a low, electric rumbling reminiscent of urban noise seeps its way into the record’s quieter moments. Other inspirations Marling brought to the record include her experience of being in Manhattan when Hurricane Sandy struck, time spent in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park, and the work of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Feminism and femininity are strong themes throughout Marling’s work, taking many guises. On her second album she sang, “I tried to be a girl who likes to be used / I’m too good for that / There’s a mind under this hat”: a brave message for a teenage girl to profess at a time when feminism was still a dirty word. For me, it was a mantra, which I said to myself every time I felt I was being treated badly or underestimated.
Marling’s sixth studio record, Semper Femina, is dedicated to exploring issues of femininity. Its title is borrowed from a passage of poetry by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, which translates to “woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing”.
A twenty-one-year-old Marling adjusted this somewhat harsh observation, tattooing the words on her leg the words ‘semper femina’, meaning something like ‘always woman’. While not necessarily attempting to convey a grand feminist or political narrative, which she has stated is not within her realm, Semper Femina explores Marling’s own nuanced understanding of being a woman.
In 2020, aged only thirty, Laura Marling’s seventh studio record was complete, due for release in August. Then suddenly, all of our lives were changed. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have forced everyone to think differently, and for Marling, it didn’t make sense for her to sit on the record any longer. “I saw no reason to hold back on something that, at the very least, might entertain, and at its best, provide some sense of union,” she said in a statement. “I want you to have it.”
Entitled Song For Our Daughter, the record is written to a theoretical daughter, a continuation of Marling’s quest to understand what it means to be a woman in this world. “How would I guide my daughter, arm her and prepare her for life and all of its nuance?” asks Marling in her explanation of the album. “I want to stand behind her and whisper in her ear all the confidences and affirmations I had found so difficult to provide myself.” Lavish melodies and tentative, thoughtful arrangements fill the record, as well as a confident quality that renders the vocals more tender and more powerful than ever before. Marling’s words are carefully chosen, wise and perceptive as ever; some now salient to the point of seeming almost prophetic: “No one was prepared,” she sings on ‘Blow By Blow’, “But we all performed / Like we’d done it all before.”
Marling’s maternal guidance takes many forms: she counsels and warns, marvels and criticises, all with the promise of unconditional love and acceptance. The title track speaks to a young girl in the music industry, imploring her not to trust too much, to make sure her decisions are her own. On the Joni Mitchell-esque ‘Strange Girl’ she seems more to be addressing her younger self – cringing a little at the stereotype of the anarchic, tortured, narcissistic teenage girl, but showering her with love nonetheless. Marling’s reminiscence of her teenage years is particularly touching to me as I look back on my own, and recall how her music helped me navigate some of the most formative years of my life.
On Semper Femina, Marling sang, “Twenty-five years / Nothing to show for it / Nothing of any weight”: a strange and critical thought coming from someone with six studio records to her name. Perhaps with her latest release, Marling is able to accept her remarkable achievements and ready to pass on what she has gathered and learnt – helping, sharing, guiding, loving, through the good and bad parts of life. Song For Our Daughter confirms Marling as what she has always been to me: a mentor.
Nowadays, I don’t listen to Laura Marling every day, or even every month. But I still think of her music as some of the most important I have ever known. I grew with her in so many senses; she helped to shape my taste and taught me what it was to truly fall in love with music. It’s like the bond you have with an old friend: I know that if I went years without hearing it I could put on her music and it would be like no time had passed.
Her music fits into a groove in my psyche, significant of a time and a place in my life which I will always carry with me. And it’s as enlightening, comforting and profound for me now as it was all those years ago.
‘Song For Our Daughters’ is out now,
via Chrysalis / Partisan