Secret Cinema

Laura Marling :: Secret Cinema, Hackney, 13-6-13

I’m just so out of touch with all the 20-something East London hipsters. Apparently, since 2007, Secret Cinema have been putting on event ‘experiences’, which look a little like those murder mystery weekends in stately homes they used to (hardly ever) give away on The Crystal Maze. One previous event, I was told, was Shawshank Redemption-themed, with attendees turned into orange jumpsuit-clad inmates and imprisoned for the evening (before a screening of the film of course). Last week, I started to receive mysterious emails written by the ‘master of the house Thomas Undine’, telling me about a 1927 ball at The Grand Eagle Hotel. I was instructed to dress my finest, bring unwanted books, a gift for a stranger, a photograph of an old lover, and so on.


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.