Photo by Richard Etteridge
Not for the first time, I had a moment of realisation last night. There’s an endless list of reasons why I love gigs so much but I think a big one is the utter immersion of it. You’re in a dark room, with strangers. You don’t have anything to worry about, you leave (you should leave) your work/life stresses at the door. You’re shut in. Sound and visual stimulation sweep the space. Anything could be happening outside that room and you wouldn’t know about it. An asteroid could have knocked out half of Europe, austerity riots could be in full swing, a lake of fire could be where the Thames was, or a politician could have nearly done the full Madonna and stumbled off a stage on Question Time. Ok, that last one actually happened. But nothing matters outside the room. It’s like a football match, it’s the most pure here and now of a moment. You’re transported somewhere. Of course, not all gigs are the same. The average, good and sometimes even great ones can cause my attention span to wander (that’s what nearly two decades of being online will do to you)… what Tube route should I take home (for the South Bank I’ve taken to walking across the bridge by Embankment station, it’s lovely)? I wonder if I will get any work in tomorrow? I wonder if that person will reply to that email? Should I get a snack on the way home (I shouldn’t)? I hope I get Dylan tickets in the morning (I did). Some of it boring detritus, some is important thoughts that you wish you weren’t thinking. But not last night, not with Laura Marling. There was no distraction that floated in. I was immersed, rapt, dazzled, by this gifted young woman.
In the current age, where media training faces off in a heavyweight battle with the over-share, we both dread and desire the knowability of the famous. It’s not a new thing, prying into the private lives of people whose creativity has a crucial presence in our lives. I’m sure that admirers and benefactors hounded Mozart about his marriage, while Lennon’s wife and child were hidden from the public in the white-hot glare of early Beatlemania, and this was all before the advent of the internet. Yet, women in music seem to occupy a more studied, criticised, judged place. Perhaps the ground zero for this is Joni Mitchell, an article about whom is never written without mentioning the men she’s slept with and been disappointed by. In her rare but always compelling interviews (try to ignore the interviewer, a now-disgraced Canadian journalist, Google him at your peril) she seems to constantly exist in a state of bitterness at being treated a certain way by the music industry (meaning: men). This is how she is defined – by the male gaze. It’s how she’s defined by others and, despite being brilliant and insightful and worth more, it’s how she defines herself. She always has a bad word to say about her treatment, not without cause. And Marling has been subject to the same clichés, as each article and interview mentions how many folk band boyfriends she’s had (the singers from Noah and the Whale, and Mumford and Sons, articles are keen to tell us) and how she moved to America because she fell in love with a boy, and then they broke up and she’s back here now and she might be single, might not be… and so on. Is this newsworthy? Only if you care about that kind of thing. Does it matter even a tiny fucking amount when you listen to her songs? No.
On stage, it is only about music. Nothing else matters. She barely speaks to the audience. Dylan, incidentally, almost never says a single word between songs. Saving his voice perhaps? (eyebrow raise). She says hello about 20 minutes in, after the first suite of songs, played without breaks, has ended, as the applause and energy that has built up over those minutes explodes. The only other time she speaks is 10 minutes before the end, where she gives a short speech about how she did an encore for the first time the other night, didn’t like it, isn’t going to do it again, and if you want one, well, it’s about to happen right now. She said she had been giving variations on that ‘encore’ speech for the last 8 years. It was charming and the audience lapped it up. Perhaps they had been crying out to be verbally connected to? I hadn’t. I don’t need to know her. I was inside the songs, mesmerised by her voice and the film playing on a big screen behind her. I thought at first it was a photograph of a desert vista: a late afternoon, a low mountain range in the background, with two trails of sandy footprints leading towards (or away from, if you want to think of it that way) the camera. But when I would lose track of it just for a minute or two a small thing would change, like a time-lapse tableau; a half-moon appeared in the distance, the lighting changed, at first imperceptibly, and then the sky started to get darker, glacially slowly. Near the end of the show, time started to move faster – car headlights appeared in the distance, snaking from left to right across a northern California highway. The moon disappeared, and then real darkness fell. The camera started to tilt up inch by inch as the stars came out. By the end the mountains and sand were out of sight and a million pinprick holes glittered, like a shot from the Hubble Telescope. By the time the stars had arrived, and as she sang the aching, poignant Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), given added meaning now she has returned to live here, I felt myself well up and wondered if I could experience a more pure moment than this.
She exudes a kind of icy diffidence; she knows how good she is and isn’t wasting time and words by pretending to be your pal, your mate. She’s not in it for Spinal Tap-style ‘Hello Cleveland!’ sucking up. Without appearing arrogant, or the wrong side of aloof, she projects a mix of toughness and vulnerability. She also manages, remarkably, to not fall prey to the class-based bias that seems to affect artists whom the media designates as annoying or unworthy of success since they are felt to have gained an unfair advantage because of their white middle/upper-class-ness. Anyone else – she is actual aristocracy, the 5th generation of baronets and knights from affluent Hampshire – would get it in the neck for being a toff. I guess you have to be this good to bat away that kind of classist nonsense seemingly without any effort.
Most of her new album, Short Movie, was played. The title derives from a hippy, who turned out to be a shaman (of course, if you will live in California…), she befriended in a bar; he would say, at the end of sentences, ‘It’s a short fucking movie, man’. You get the sense she doesn’t have an interest in wasting a single minute. In a sense, the songs run into each other, but that doesn’t mean they don’t stand out. There’s just a beautiful flow to the evening, tracked by the level of control she exerts over every breath, every word. She runs through a litany of perfectly formed songs, relying heavily on Short Movie and its predecessor, Once I Was An Eagle. Time is also found for a gorgeous, delicate rendition of one of the great blues standards, Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Run The Game. Having a go at, and nailing, a song covered by everyone from Nick Drake to Simon and Garfunkel, Bert Jansch to Sandy Denny, puts you in rarefied air, where she sits with ease. Looking at the setlist, the song titles are quite bland, without much personality. Titles like How Can I, What He Wrote, You Know, Breathe, False Hope, Walk Alone, I Feel Your Love. Nothing titles. It’s hardly The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores (oh Moz, master of the pithy song title, so much to answer for). I listen to her albums while I work and that means I know all the songs but aside from the odd one, like Master Hunter, I tend not to know what they’re called anyway. It doesn’t matter. She’s building a collection. It always feels like a privilege to sit in a room and, speaking as a non-creative person, have an artist express themselves at you, to you. I could never tire of it if I went to 1000 gigs.
At the best shows, I sometimes am overcome by a heavenly feeling. Not that I believe in it, a literal version of heaven. Of course I don’t. But if it existed, that’s what I would want it to be. The music I love, surrounded by happy strangers and friends, playing for all eternity. I’ve felt that way hundreds of times. That if I was stuck in one day, I’d want it to be this one day. This one great night. At its best, that’s exactly how music should make you feel. Add up all those great nights, and you can make a great life.
Take the Night Off
I Was an Eagle
I Feel Your Love
How Can I
What He Wrote
Love Be Brave
Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)
Blues Run the Game
I’m always game for a bit of adventure and a weird night out so off I went to darkest Hackney. The venue, which was cryptically referred to in the email as ‘opposite 212 Victoria Park Road’, turned out to be a former school. Lined up outside were gentlemen in tuxes, and ladies in evening dresses and flapper garb (I was dressed smartly, but no ball gown for me), many of whom were holding bunches of flowers for the lady of the house Josephine Undine (took me ages to realise that Undine is a track from Laura’s new album).
The place was huge, with about 400 people filling every corner. You were taken in in groups to your ‘hotel room’ and, after a few minutes of looking around and rifling in drawers, which were stuffed with dream journals, a slim, pale, vacant-looking lady in a red dress and no shoes came in and danced around a little – was she supposed to be a disturbed guest? A ghost? Shortly after, one of the smartly dressed maids ushered us into a room with a bar, where I partook in a fabulous cocktail (sadly not at 1927 prices) with a couple of people I’d gotten chatting to. It was all tremendous fun, I must say. There were many rooms – a library with typewriters, where people were invited to write their secrets (and add the books they’d brought, which I did); a full dining room with high-end catering; a study with a snooker table, more cocktails and canapés; many rooms with beds and ornate furniture; an attic that housed birds behind netting (I rather wanted to free them); and even a converted classroom with an arts and crafts table to paint portraits, all on three floors of faded glamour, found through winding staircases, and so on. At about 8.30 everyone rushed to the central hallway to see and hear Ms Marling and her guitarist sing an unannounced, and very Natasha Khan-ish, version of Dancing in the Dark (just like they did in olden times). But I must admit, after about 90 minutes of all this I was starting to get a little fidgety and nobody would tell us when, or even if, there was a main event. The place was teeming with tight-lipped chambermaids, bellhops, waiters and socialites – all of whom remained completely in character – so it was with a small amount of relief that a weary middle aged chambermaid (this is no way to make a living for an out-of-work actress) let slip that ‘the Ball starts at 9.30 I believe, don’t be late!’ It was all quite charming but I was ready for a concert. Sure enough, after an odd bit of performance art where an origami bird was handed from one socialite hostess to another in the main hallway, we were soon told that the Ball would begin as soon as we assembled in the ‘Grand Ballroom’.
We were led en masse into the school assembly hall/converted gym (with added chandeliers and red velvet curtains) next door to the main building, where the stage was filled with a double bassist, the gent we’d seen singing briefly before, and a cellist, all in evening dress. It was time for the inventive supporting act to end and the main event to begin.
There was a ripple of excitement as she quietly walked on stage and began to tune up. When I was younger I remember knowing everything about new artists that I liked. I’d read interviews, I’d taped their videos off the telly, and I’d put up their posters. Now, I’m not saying that I hadn’t set eyes on Laura Marling before. But my sum total of visual contact had been one Later… appearance and my personal knowledge totalled one Uncut interview from last month, in which she came off as shy but determined, in control and keen to create a world around herself away from influence – she’s moved to Silver Lake, which is, in essence, the Hoxton/Shoreditch/Dalston of Los Angeles, to find a new path. Moving over there, to sit in a bit of sun, get some space and be unknown, seems to have done her the world of good. New York is intense, and no good if you want to vanish. Los Angeles, if you can afford it, is the perfect place to disappear.
The only thing I really knew about her was that I loved her music. My relationship to this artist was entirely aural. I just listened and listened. When I got her second album, and found out to my horror and envy that she was only a teenager, I thought it was too good to be true, surely a fluke. When she released her third record, at barely 21, I was blown away, because it barely seems possible to have a talent so mature yet precocious. I got her debut, which is lovely, if unpolished, just before her new record, Once I Was An Eagle, came out at the end of May, just after she turned 23. It’s a masterpiece, which is not a word to be used lightly.
So on she walked, this little elfin thing dressed in black, an angelic porcelain-skinned small-town Hampshire girl, descended from the knighted founders of the English Liberal Party. She looked shy yet confident, and thanked us all for coming, hoped we’d enjoyed the unusual evening thus far. And then she proceeded to play 70 minutes of some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard. She played the new album in entirety; the first section was 15 minutes without pause, melding the first four songs into one long piece, after which the band left the stage, leaving her alone. I was almost open-mouthed, being confronted by the beautiful complexity of these songs, whose lyrics I was really hearing for the first time. I listen to music when I work and, because of my focus on the written word, I often tune out lyrics. So I knew she was able to write incredible songs, breathing new life into the hugely overdone genre of the acoustic singer-songwriter. But her lyrics, diction, expression, voice and tone control: what a revelation.
Many of the songs are about an ended relationship, and it seems ridiculous to think that a 22-year-old has the emotional depth to be able to express so completely her feelings about what happened, what went wrong, but she can, she did. The best singer-songwriters are the ones who are relatable, either because you’re lonely, or in love, or they have a worldview that’s worth listening to and so on. Sometimes the songs go by the wayside, because the lyrics are the attraction, and sometimes the opposite happens. Very rarely do you get a satisfying marriage of both. In such relationship songs, the protagonist may apportion blame, and may lash out angrily, but in Laura Marling’s case she manages to walk a perfect line between vitriol and disappointment. The partner of which she speaks does not come off well, in these songs. You get the sense that she feels let down, but also that he just wasn’t on her level, which should come off as dismissive but doesn’t. She parses and expresses her feelings about the natural end of relationships, when you’ve moved forward and he hasn’t, and has no qualms about admitting to moving on, in hope of finding the right equal. She seems to already know in her early 20s what most people only realise in their 30s about adulthood and starting to become the person you want to be. It does speak of being young, and thinking you know it all, like we all did at that age. But it rings true, and such maturity beyond what you’d expect is quite something to witness someone going through, so publicly, so nakedly.
She commands the room, her beautiful, expressive voice weaving around immaculate guitar playing. For nearly an hour she held a crowd of women in painful high heels, men in stifling tuxedos, everyone a few glasses of wine down the line, in rapt attention. She is the closest thing to Joni Mitchell I have ever seen, and I’ve never thought that about any songwriter. Her fourth album was Blue, and while I don’t think many albums are on that level, Once I Was An Eagle is certainly as good as Ladies Of The Canyon or For The Roses. Joni’s love songs were heartbreakingly sad and transparent, which allowed you to feel warmth for her predicament, but Laura’s versions are a little tougher, a little more sonically slight but thematically strident. She hides behind a shy awkwardness on stage, because the songs certainly don’t ask for permission. She slips into and out of character, leaving you unsure as to how much of the confessional is true. The progression from the wallflower of album 1 to the confident artist on album 4 is stark and staggering. This delicate girl has everything; I thought, as I watched her, that I could see her in her 30s, 40s, 50s, just getting better with each record. I’ve seen a million of these types, the earnest acoustic troubadour, but, frankly, only the old ones (barring Elliott Smith and a few others) are worth a damn. This one, I can’t believe I get to join her at the beginning of the journey.