After releasing her fourth album Once I was an Eagle in 2013, English singer-songwriter Laura Marling took time off from the routine of touring and writing songs, which had been her life since she was seventeen. She fell in love and moved to L.A., fell out of love and worked in coffee shops, and generally lived a very different life to the one she was used to. At parties in L.A. people would ask her what she did and she’d reply anonymously “I’m a musician” to a mixed response of admiration and condescension.
During this time Marling started exploring the weird and wonderful that California has to offer. She became interested in the occult, in an environment where Tarot readings and taking shrooms in the desert were not unusual pastimes. When she did tour, she did everything solo – literally everything. She played without a band, booked the venues, and collected the dollars. She was playing the proper troubadour.
Marling’s music has always had a literary edge to match her lifestyle. Her third album A Creature I Don’t Know is infused with John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley – conjuring angsty images of James Dean from the film version of East of Eden. The latest album Short Movie is influenced by the diverse reading from her American hiatus, ranging from Alejandro Jodorowsky to Walt Whitman to Carl Jung.
What will be a minor footnote in Marling’s creative life occurred around this time, when she applied for a poetry course in Saratoga Springs (up-state New York), under a pseudonym – and was rejected. There is the obvious irony of an extremely talented and successful singer-songwriter being told she doesn’t cut it creatively. It has echoes of the world class violinist Joshua Bell playing to an oblivious train station. However it also raises questions about the differences between lyrics and poetry, and gives us a reason to look how these American journeys became the poetics of her lyrics.
With her breath-taking voice and excellent guitar playing, it can be easy to overlook Marling as a lyricist. The slightly twee folk beginnings of her first album Alas I cannot Swim covered many of the insecurities and naïve complexities of youth, but it still contained many great lines: “the Gods that he believes, never fail to disappoint me”. Yet through the years, shehas developed as an ever-more assured and accomplished lyricist. Marling channels a Bob Dylanesque sneer in her new song “Strange”, where she tells a hopeless boy who’s fallen for her that he ain’t her babe: “Should you fall in love with me, your love becomes my responsibility”. A cutting remark on how self-indulgent our ideas of ‘falling in love’ can be. “False Hope” sees the new Marling geared up with her electric guitar, dwelling on the alienation and loneliness of modern city living, “we stay in the apartment on the Upper West Side, and my worst problem is I don’t sleep at night”.
Short Movie’s greatest poetic note comes from an encounter during her American travels which gives the album its title. In a bar on Mount Shasta, sipping wine and eating fries, Marling was approached by an old bearded hippy who had stepped straight out of the sixties. He was a flute player and a shaman, happy to wax lyrical about life, magic, and music. He would finish almost every sentence knowingly with “it’s a short fucking movie, man.” Marling lifts the exact words for the crescendo of her title-track, in a phrase which suits her down to the bone. It expresses both the fun and the serious sides of the singer, a sense of possibility in life even if it’s short. There’s a willingness in Marling to explore new paths even if she does not believe in them – like her desire to understand Tarot cards for their symbolism if not for their accuracy. At the age of just twenty-five, her fifth album lyricizes a world-weary cynicism and sense of wonder which go hand-in-hand.