What a journey it has been for Laura Marling; a burgeoning goddess of folk who has steadily gained credibility, having released six albums in the space of nine years. All the while maintaining elusiveness in her ethereal, emotionally weighted music, she moves from youth, constantly hinting at deeper complexities, to a beautifully developed mouthpiece of ancient feminine wisdom (she is 27).
It is worth spending a moment on Laura Marling’s debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, released in 2008, to see just how far she has come. It harks back to a simpler time, there is jauntiness in her rhythmic step and she devotes nearly two whole minutes to the chirping of birds in the albums finale, Your Own Doll. The album’s opener, Ghosts, whilst high-spirited in its quick pace guitar and piano chords, spoke of Marling’s disbelief in everlasting love. Back in 2008, Marling might have frolicked around in major key more frequently, but her enigmatic sadness was always at the sidelines as she sung about failure, heartbreak, emotional instability and recalled ‘two lovers crying on each others shoulder’. Nine years on, the angelic-faced Brit singer-songwriter has undoubtedly reached maturity in the majestic concept album that is Semper Femina, with its ripened, melancholic sound and intensely pensive narrative.
I cannot help but self-indulgently find parallels between my own journey through adolescence and Marling’s musical development. Marling’s progression from music that was energetic, slightly more naive, yet still questioning and tinged with sadness to her current maturity of sound, understanding herself, other women and appreciating beauty and love, in all its forms, undeniably speaks to me as I imagine it speaks to many young women. Marling’s album is beautifully timed for myself and my peers, coming to terms with what it means to be a young woman in our society, on both a personal and cultural level. It also resonates with the discovery of deeper, more complex, emotions that inevitably happens as you move into through your twenties. Whilst Marling doesn’t offer solutions, she sings about desire and pain from a place of sheer understanding, and for that, I am grateful.
The album is femininity embodied and this is at the forefront of Marling’s thoughts. In an email exchange with Fader magazine, Marling said: “I started out writing ‘Semper Femina’ as if a man was writing about a woman and then I thought it’s not a man, it’s me — I don’t need to pretend it’s a man to justify the intimacy of the way I’m looking and feeling about women.” Furthermore, she has also spoken on the influence of literature on her work. Her favourite poet is Rainer Maria Rilke, who was dressed as a girl until he was eight, which had an intense effect on his relationship with women and led to his misguided perception of felinity. Playing on this, the original context of the phrase ‘semper femina’ (which Marling has had tattooed on her leg since the age of 21), meaning ‘always a woman’, comes from Virgil’s Aeneid in a warning that ‘woman is always fickle and changeable’. Contesting and even celebrating this perception, Marling’s female gaze gives power and tenderness to women, sometimes fickle and changeable, but as she playfully reveals in Nouel, ‘so am I’ and ‘long may that continue’. Between albums, Marling has been producing a podcast series: ‘A Reversal of the Muse: An Exploration of Femininity in Creativity’, conversations with various women artists, musicians, executives, engineers. Surprisingly, the producer of Semper Femina is a male, Blake Mills, who recently worked with Alabama Shakes, yet he adds an interesting texture to the album that can only be praised.
The album opens with Soothing. It prowls along a corridor of strings and a half-jazzy bass, from the impossibly low pitch of her ‘brooding’ god to the powerfully tender assertion ‘I banish you with love’; Marling is both commanding and vulnerable at the same time. Continuing her rumination on love, The Valley sees Marling accompanying fluttery guitar with a love poem, full of yearning and worship for a golden haired woman, evasive and angelic. The once again female subject of Wild Fire is a prospective writer with the charming idiosyncrasy of keeping a ‘pen behind her ear in case she’s got something she really really needs to say’. Marling hypothesises about projecting a certain image of oneself to the world and its distance with reality, asking ‘are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?’ Her reverence for women is persistent through the remarkable absence of men, save someone’s callous father; man is no longer the gravitational centre of Marling’s world, or those of her female subjects.
In Always The Way, Marling is graceful and confessional about a female friendship that has inevitably come to an end, she laments, ‘twenty-five years, nothing to show for it/nothing of any weight’. It is perhaps the album’s more anxious and insecure, but ultimately the song ends on a note of resolve that ‘at least I can say/I made my own way’ and a pleasant instrumental.
Nothing, Not Nearly, the last, but by no means least, song of the album recognises the redemptive power of love, ‘nothing matters more than love’, but, as usual, Marling brings us back to the melancholic reality of love’s ephemerality, we might have time to ‘bask in the afterglow’, but ‘once it’s gone it’s gone’.
She sighs, she speak-sings, she oscillates between English and American accents; determinedly nuanced, Marling’s melodious maturity and control engage the listener for all nine songs, with a second and third play seeming absolutely necessary. Her aching, soul-baring tones stay with you as you ramble, but what ultimately prevails in Semper Femina is her delicacy and respect of women. Marling’s initial hesitancy to write about women from a woman’s position is not all that surprising; to sing about other women is almost to sing about the self, and the self is far from understood. Vulnerable, powerful, strange, familiar, beautiful, flawed; to say women are complicated is no understatement, yet nor is it an insult. Semper Femina is a feeling rather than an answer; Marling has by no means reconciled herself with her world-weariness and emotional complexities, but here she is self-assured, elegant and unique.
words by Lorna Powell