Laura Marling's literate folk-pop may enjoy critical acclaim and plentiful overseas accolades, but the fact is she's British. As such, she requires more advanced billing in the land of burgers and fries than the land of bangers and mash. To that end, we've appropriated the American style of the listicle to explain why this whipsmart British singer and her music could be as essential as, say, a food delivery startup, or Life Alert.
The youngest of three children born to a fifth-generation British barony — her family has its own coat of arms — Marling learned guitar from her father, who ran a small studio in Hampshire, England. The influence of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and John Martyn flows from him through her. Marling played in a variety of combos, including U.K. nu-folk sensations Noah and the Whale and with members of Mumford and Sons (both led by former flames) before going solo. In 2008, at 18, she released her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim. It was nominated for the Mercury Prize, awarded to the year's best U.K. album. So were her second and fourth albums.
In releasing six full-length albums, she's never recorded more than two vocal takes of any track, simply trying to capture the moment. That doesn't exactly scream perfectionism, but it's probably a form of control (over producers). She credits her indefatigable attitude for the prolific turnout, telling The Guardian in 2015, "I can organize the shit out of anything ... I'm very practical; I get stuff done; I'm very rational. And all of that is a form of control."
3) Hates L.A.
Marling moved to L.A. to break new ground for her fifth album, going electric for the first time and visiting Joshua Tree as part of a spiritual quest that resulted in 2015's Short Movie. It's inspired by a hippy acquaintance from the period that kept telling her, "It's a short fucking movie, man." Unsatisfied with the album, which she produced herself, and the positive reviews for what she felt was an inferior effort, Marling endured an existential crisis. She shaved her head, lost weight and started teaching yoga. She was socially isolated and felt almost asexual with her new "boyish" look. "I'm a very cynical, practical, logical person," she told Billboard in March. "Los Angeles is not where I felt I would be. That's not the place where those things thrive."
4) Knows thyself
That experience of being almost genderless and lost in Los Angeles led Marling to delve deeply into what she saw more as roles and masculine and feminine characteristics. She regretted how much she'd avoided discussing her femininity to keep the focus on her music. New album Semper Femina grew out of embracing it in others so that she might learn to better appreciate it in herself. Amplifying this are several podcasts around the release called Reversal of the Muse, with Marling interviewing other female artists, including Dolly Parton, about their experiences as women in music. The album title is taken from Virgil's Aeneid, 'varium et mutabile semper femina,' which translates as 'fickle and changeable always is woman," shortened and redefined as "Always Woman." Marling tattooed the doctored phrase to her thigh.
5) Concision and clarity
From an early age, Marling was a huge fan of Neil Young, particularly his ability to make something simple so deep (see: "Heart of Gold"), creating stories driven less by narrative than by powerful emotions. A similar impulse drove Semper Femina's more sensation-driven songs. Marling also tamed her instinct to add extraneous chords — opening up the songs' windows, as well as the door to her life. She's doing more promotion than ever before "because I need to pay my band and there's no money left in the music business," she told Noisey earlier this year.
6) Accepts responsibility
Marling has long demonstrated wit and wisdom beyond her years while excavating anxieties and fears that spread like hairline cracks from youth onward. On the Semper Femina track "Next Time," she balances refusing to be constrained by past failures with their needed acknowledgement over trilling folk guitar, strings, and rough loping percussion. "It feels like a long time since I was free; it feels like the right time to take that seriously," Marling sings before facing her larger debt. "I can no longer close my eyes while the world around me dies at the hands of folks like me; it seems they fail to see there may never 'Next Time' be."
7) Carpe Diem
On one of the prettiest albums this side of Elliott Smith's entire catalog, Marling saves the best for last. Semper Femina's closing track, "Nothing, Not Nearly" refers to the solitary thing Marling learned during that "gap year" in L.A. Peels of slide guitar and ringing acoustics teeter-totter over a slowly exultant melody as Marling warns, "Nothing matters more than love, no nothing, no, not nothing no, not nearly. We've not got long, you know, to bask in the afterglow. Once it's gone, it's gone. Love waits for no one."
Laura Marling performs at the Magic Stick on Tuesday, May 9; Doors at 8 p.m.; 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; $20 in advance, $25 day of show.