Three years ago, Laura Marling’s sixth album, Semper Femina, ended with the sound of her putting down her guitar and walking out of the studio and into a garden. Then a door closed and the listener was left alone, in silence.
It was a cryptic reference, the singer explained, to Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, in which with a woman walks out on her husband and children in an effort to discover herself.
Marling continues the theme on her new album Song For Our Daughter, which was released earlier than planned, as a response to the coronavirus lockdown.
The opening song, Alexandra, is a response to Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving that wonders where Cohen’s lover went after she left.
“What became of Alexandra? Did she make it through?” asks Marling. “What did Alexandra know?“
“There’s no mention of her interior life,” in Cohen’s song, the singer explains. “There’s no suggestion that she has an interior life that’s anything more than [being] alluring.
“And that’s interesting to me as an autonomous young songwriter who has an interior life, and who has been projected on and survived, what can be quite an overwhelming passionate experience.
“So I wanted to give Alexandra a voice of her own, or to find out what happened to Alexandra and the consequences of surviving that relationship.”
‘I am my escape route’
Marling returns to the subject of departing lovers on Fortune, a deceptively pretty ballad where a woman ends her marriage with quiet devastation: “I had to release us from this unbearable pain.”
The song was inspired by the revelation that her music teacher mother used to keep a “running away fund” in case she ever felt the need to flee the family.
“I was having dinner with my sisters one night,” she recalls, “and my eldest sister said, ‘Do you remember that our mother used to keep one pound coins in a pot above the washing machine?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah.'”
“It added up to like £350 or something – by no means enough to run away with – but that was her collection over a lifetime.
“And I just thought that was so tragic in a perfect way, that generation’s attempt at carving out their own little bit of freedom.”
Marling, who turned 30 earlier this year, has never felt the need for a running away fund of her own.
“I am my escape route,” she says.
Which is why, at the end of Semper Femina, she wasn’t walking away from anyone or anything; but setting off to find a new approach to music.
The songs she came up with after that last album seemed too familiar, “like a writer who’ll write the same book over and over again,” she says. “I think I was in danger of being bored of myself.”
So she left her record label and her management, collaborated with the theatre director Robert Icke, wrote original music for Peaky Blinders and formed a duo called Lump with fellow musician Mike Lindsay from Tunng.
Working on Icke’s play Mary Stuart changed her approach to lyrics. “The way he directs and the way he writes and rewrites plays, are very much based around rhythm, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the rhythm of language,” she says.
Lindsay, on the other hand, introduced a new spontaneity to her music. With Lump, a lot of the vocals are recorded in one take, “and I can hear myself stumbling over lyrics because they were written 30 seconds before”.
But Song For Our Daughter is wholly Marling’s album. Her preoccupations – the complexities of desire, archetypes of womanhood, art, romance and wanderlust – are threaded through the songs, but there’s a newfound economy to her melodies and lyrics.
“That was definitely on my mind: How you reduce everything down to its essential parts together to get the sentiment across,” she says.
“And I don’t think that’s my necessarily my forte. My forte, I think, is ambiguity, which is definitely still on there, but on some of the songs there’s just a very straightforward sentiment.”
The approach is most apparent on the album’s closing track, For You, a simply-strummed love song, written at home with her boyfriend.
“I thank a God I’ve never met, never loved, never wanted / For you,” she sings. “I wear a picture of you, just to keep you safe.”
The song, she says, is a “little homage” to Paul McCartney at his warmest and most open-hearted.
She’s a late convert to the former Beatle, having previously been a steadfast Lennon fan.
“I had a fight with a friend of mine, weirdly, defending Lennon against McCartney,” she says. “And I took it so personally.
“For some reason I felt like Paul McCartney was the good one and Lennon was the bad one and I was somehow embodying the bad one – so I thought it’d be interesting to see why I felt that strongly about it.”
After falling down a YouTube wormhole, Marling “had a full awakening” after hearing McCartney’s 2005 song, Jenny Wren, a companion piece to Blackbird, whose lyrics depict a female musician’s struggle to hold on to her talent amid poverty, societal oppression and heartbreak.
“I always knew he was a great songwriter but when someone played me that song, I couldn’t believe it,” she says.
It’s likely that McCartney’s lyrics resonated with Marling, who has consistently challenged the narrow categorisation of female musicians. She never casts herself as simply the femme fatale or the lover scorned; the heroine or the victim; the mystic or the guardian angel. Instead, she throws herself into the murky complexities of real life. As she puts it on one new song: “I love you my strange girl, my lonely girl, my angry girl, my brave…”
Recently, the songwriter looked back at her emergence in London’s nu-folk scene at the age of 16 – at how men would advise her to “lose the guitar” and become a traditional frontwoman, or how early press coverage defined her in terms of her relationships with Marcus Mumford and Charlie Fink from Noah and the Whale.
She came to realise and realised that “innocence being taken away prematurely” had been a major theme of her life, which is why the songs on her new album are intended “arm the next generation in a way that I haven’t been armed”.
“I thought, ‘If my daughter went through any of the stuff that I went through, I would find that so emotionally difficult to to comprehend’.
“And that’s not to say that my parents didn’t do their very best to try and produce someone who was capable of looking after themselves in the world, but the culture didn’t. The culture didn’t provide that.”
It’s striking that her previous album, which dissected the male gaze and celebrated the strength of female relationships, emerged just before the #MeToo movement took hold.
How did Marling feel about those revelations, given her own experiences?
“That’s a big question,” she says. “I’d obviously been thinking about all that stuff – and I felt like I was late to it – but then, the culture was even later.
“I think it’s unfolding on a mass scale in the same way trauma unfolds. You’re trying to get the story straight, and then [you realise] the story doesn’t matter, it’s just what the experience was.”
The title track of her new album depicts a woman whose “clothes [are] on the floor, taking advice from some old, balding bore,” a cautionary tale, based on stories she’s heard from “every single female friend, and a fair few male friends too”.
But she sees hope in the musicians “half a generation younger than me” who “are much more ready to call out stuff that I wasn’t ready to do when I was in my early 20s”.
“Their understanding of trust and consent is very different, in a good way, and that is radical. I feel incredibly heartened by it.
“I think it’s going to change everything.”
Laura Marling’s new album, Song For Our Daughter, is out now.