By Sam Chapman
Laura Marling looks fragile.
It’s a Friday afternoon and the sun’s finally shining outside, but at the moment, the KEXP performance space is illuminated by hundreds of small bulbs that dance behind Marling and her band as they play. She wears a skirt and a red blouse- floral-patterned, feminine, borderline frilly. When she speaks, her face placid, she seems thoughtful but reserved. She doesn’t smile much.
Marling and her band fly through a short set, watched attentively by the large crowd who’ve waited in line to see her perform. I have spent a fair amount of time in the KEXP space, and I can’t recall seeing many lines as long as the one the that formed before this set. Later, that night, a much larger crowd will also line up to see her at the Showbox. They will stand rapt as she plays through an album’s worth of new material.
It’s difficult to write an introduction for Laura Marling, mostly because introductions are the sort of things that presuppose an entry point, and Marling is the sort of artist who seems to delight in confounding those.
An attempt then: In the mid-2000s, London witnessed a brief folk-revival from whence an eighteen-year-old singer named Laura Marling sprang, apparently fully-formed (her drummer in those early days was Marcus Mumford, that mastermind of shout-folk, jam band phenomenon, Mumford and Sons). After releasing three albums of delightful but conventional singer-songwriter material, she took a hiatus and moved to Los Angeles.
Her return, in 2013, was marked by the release of the glacial Once I Was and Eagle – one hell of an album – which netted her a third Mercury Prize nomination. Whereas previous releases had tended towards an accessible brand of pop-inflected folk, OIWAE saw Marling stripping back to the bare essentials – voice, guitar, and featherlight production. That album was followed by 2015’s Short Movie, which added electric guitar and a slightly fuller sound to the mix, but which retained Marling’s newly-honed lyrical sharpness.
Which brings us to now, and the release of her sixth album (for the record, Laura Marling is 27, a fact that, when I remembered it, made me feel like a lazy slob), Semper Femina. The title is taken from a verse in Virgil’s Aeneid, “Varium et mutabile semper femina.” Roughly translated: “Varied and changeable always is woman.”
Despite Virgil’s douchebag sentiment, it’s actually a fitting title for the album, which almost exclusively concerns relationships between women. As Marling said in an interview with The Fader, “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. It’s me looking specifically at women and feeling great empathy towards them and by proxy towards myself.”
This empathy illuminates everything on the album. Over the course of nine songs, Marling ruminates on the subtleties of of femininity and female relationships. “The Valley” is an ode to a friend’s loss, nestled amongst delicately plucked guitars and strings. “Don’t Pass Me By” explores the minimal space between friendship and attraction with the help of (GET THIS) a drum machine and electric guitar. Album opener “Soothing” is perhaps the most composition-ally ambitious song Marling has produced to date. After years of watching her prove her virtuosity, it feels satisfying to hear her create something as complex as the song’s jazz-infused arrangement.
To be clear though, Semper Femina isn’t especially experimental. Marling is far too earnest for that. It’s that kind of naked sincerity that can make her seem precious at times, but watching her live at both KEXP, and later at the Showbox, it becomes clear that it is also the thing that makes her so compelling
Her voice, always lovely, has become what one might call rich, both when she sings and when she murmurs her thanks in between songs. On “Wild Once,” her voice swings low in a singsong chant and I want to dare anyone to try and tell me that she’s not dead serious. The audience (who sport a fair amount of tweed and almost universally good hair) sway back and forth gently. If Marling’s earnestness is wrong, I’m not interested in what’s right. If women are fickle and mutable, Semper Femina offers a compelling reason why that might not be a bad thing at all.