By Nathan Lloyd
It’s hard not to be bewitched by the soulful timbre of Laura Marling’s voice which swells to fill every corner of the boxy room of the student union with its haunting, melodious tone. Greeted by ‘Wildfire’, the second single of her new album Semper Femina and surrounded by Kånken backpacks I knew I was in good company as we settled down to listen to her play. Whereas her previous album, ‘Short Movie’ was based on the landscape of her travels in America, the new album was born on the road and sets out to explore, what Marling describes as a more English nostalgia and deeper questions of womanhood. Literally translated as ‘always woman’, Sempa Femina is a catalogue of observations, thoughts and stories from the female perspective that spins out of a ‘particularly masculine time in her life’.
Like many in the audience I was curious as to the approach to the new record and she said that she started to look at it through a very male gaze before concluding that looking at it through a woman’s eyes was, ultimately, more powerful. I found it curious that there was a natural default to the male gaze even from such an established and thoughtful artist as Marling, but such is the insidious nature of the patriarchy’s hold on our everyday assumptions that even our strongest female voices sometimes catch themselves out. Never judging nor providing the whole story, the lyrics of Sempa Femina are there to challenge the audience with a thought and leave it there to be mulled over.
When looking for inspiration, she turned to literature, in particular poetry. The title, for example, comes from a poem by Virgil. But she also drew on gothic literature and the life of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was curiously confined to girls’ clothes until the age of six. Gothic literature, famed for its stifling depiction of women – from the madwoman in the attic of Jane Eyre to Kathy, consumed by her love of Heathcliff – provides the lens whereby Marling explores various definitions of womanhood. Each track presented during the afternoon posed the issue from the perspective of a particular voice, with Marling painting a picture of a single woman’s personal struggle per song, contextualising her story by placing them side by side for consideration.
Typically, Marling finds discussing the more technical matters easier than the subtext and nebulous meaning of her work. On the subject of her directorial debut with ‘Soothing’ she admitted that she found the process stressful but enjoyed the creativity. It’s clear from the intertwining bodies in the video, both male and female, that this idea of the positions of women in society is at the heart of her current work. Her “Reversal of the Muse” podcast further explores feminine creativity and why aren’t there more women in music and other industries. In her writing she is trying to explore a more balanced understanding of the world.
In just shy of a decade Marling has produced six studio albums and is still very aware of her personal need to continue growing and challenging herself as an artist. After switching guitars and playing ‘Nothing Not Nearly’ she spoke of a love hate relationship over working in America, keenly aware of the dangers of self indulgence. Shy and a bit awkward under the spotlight, it’s clear that Marling’s popularity has been carefully earned by her honesty and self critical nature. There’s nothing pretentious about her and it’s when she closes her eyes and sings that her inner confidence and natural ability to communicate fundamental human truths really comes out. Ending, perhaps aptly, with ‘Next Time’, Marling left the audience in no doubt that the journey is far from over. The joyous part comes from the fact that we are all, implicitly, invited along for the ride.