Laura Marling tried. She really, honestly did. For over two years, in fact. But the gossamer British folkie just didn’t make a very good American.
After touring her last album, 2013’s Ethan Johns-produced concept piece Once I Was an Eagle, the singer attempted to compose a follow-up. But after hearing the tracks, Johns wasn’t satisfied. So his protégé decided to take a six-month sabbatical in Los Angeles, where a beau of hers was residing. They broke up after two weeks, and she was left alone, knowing hardly a soul, in the glittery entertainment mecca. “And I, uh, stayed for way too long,” she now clearly understands. “It was fun for a while. And then it kind of became…not so fun.”
Although the 25-year-old emerged with a new fifth album to show for her trouble—Short Movie, a bold stylistic leap forward in the spirit of mid-‘70s Joni Mitchell— she’s not sure where her plan to find new inspiration went horribly awry. “But just being one person in a huge country like America was humbling,” says the singer, calling from the familiar confines of her two-story, terraced house in London, where she returned last Christmas. “Especially a country where things like healthcare are still an issue. There was a homeless man who lived outside my building in L.A., and I was chatting with him one time. And he had broken his back and that’s how he ended up on the street—medical bills had forced him into bankruptcy. And that was completely terrifying to me.”
At one point, Marling even snipped her long blonde tresses into a Mia-Farrow-circa-Rosemary’s-Baby pixie cut and set about recreating herself, assuming a whole new identity. Ergo, she says, she was perfectly anonymous in Hollywood—she was residing there so randomly, no one ever suspected she was England’s Mercury-Prize-nominated, BRIT-Award-winning national treasure. Which allowed her to become a casual, coffee-house-frequenting observer, studying people from the shadows. “The only time I was recognized was by my neighbor at my apartment,” she chortles. “She came over to apologize for making noise or something, and I opened the door and she gasped, ‘Oh, my God! You’re Laura Marling!’ She’d been living in London for several years—that’s how she knew me. But we ended up becoming really good friends.”
Finally, Marling began to comprehend the sheer folly of her undertaking. As feelings of loneliness and depression swept over her in California, she says, “I just got so sad about being there. And I don’t know what I thought would happen there—I guess L.A. had this weird sense of promise, that if you somehow dedicated yourself to it, that it would reap rewards for you, whatever they may be. So I guess I was staying out of curiosity, just to see what would happen if I did.” She sighs. “But basically, it turns out that if you don’t believe in L.A., then L.A. doesn’t believe in you.”
Yet the tunesmith was jolted into a higher consciousness there, leading to the electric-leaning Short Movie. It opens with a cold, clinical farewell to someone, perhaps that SoCal paramour: “I can’t be your horse anymore/ You’re not the warrior I was looking for.” Other softly strummed dissertations follow—“False Hope,” “Walk Alone,” and the bluesy “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down,” which contains a tell-tale couplet: “Living here is a game I don’t know how to play/ Are you really not anybody until somebody knows your name?” And along the way are surreal interludes like the galloping, spoken-word burst of venom aptly dubbed “Strange,” a stark late-night rumination on leaving Los Angeles called “Howl,” and a final, feeling-her-oats declaration of faith couched in a subtle confessional, “Worship Me.” Her tone has grown more conversational, her voice aglow with a new hearth-ember warmth that’s both neighborly and reassuring. You’d hardly recognize her as the woman performing on her rare UK-recorded live album Verses From the Union Chapel, on which her only attempt at crowd interaction is a near-whispered “Hello, I’m Laura. It’s very nice to see you all here.”
Marling was raised on a Hampshire farm that also housed her father’s recording studio, so she grew up around instruments and equipment. She produced much of Short Movie herself, with helpful telephone input from Johns. So it was no surprise when she issued her Sandy-Denny-reminiscent, neo-folk debut in 2008, right after she turned 18. She was less secretive about her relationships back then—she had brief romances with Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink and Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford. But she plays everything closer to the vest now—no naming names, no pointing fingers. One of the key skills her time in Hollywood taught her, she says, is not to shy away from shouldering some blame herself. She realized she’s a lone wolf who savors the chance to disappear on her own at least twice a day, which isn’t always easy for prospective boyfriends to fathom.
And Marling did fully disappear into the States. Restless, she began taking road trips—sometimes with friends, but mainly solo—up the West coast, stopping in Joshua Tree (inspiring the finger-picked childhood reflection “Easy”), San Francisco and Portland. She then ventured to the East, where she shivered through the frightening Hurricane Sandy and penned “False Hope” shortly thereafter. She explored painting, adorning the cover of Short Movie with her fluid watercolor. She tried her hand at poetry, which she found to be much different from writing lyrics. “I tend to begin writing a poem with a purpose, but I sit down to write a song not knowing what’s going to happen,” she explains. Marling even dove into the world of cinema, appearing in an actual short movie, Woman Driver, which was filmed and edited in 72 hours. “I had time to explore all my other artistic pursuits, and it was great just to have that opportunity,” she says.
Additionally, the innocent abroad grew increasingly fascinated with the occult, especially in connection with recent California history. “And I’m very sensitive to the idea that there’s an otherworldly power or force that we can’t comprehend,” she says. “I even took a trip to all these spiritual spots, like Big Sur, which was amazing—I felt like I was really living it. But I found that my interest in that was rooted in the idea that humanity is not the center of the universe, even though humanity’s got this desire to confirm its own centrality. So I found a little comfort in the idea that we are just a small, small part of a truly infinite universe.”
Marling breathed a huge sigh of relief when she finally returned to British shores last year. She hung out with her sisters, had dinner with old friends, and fell back into familiar routines, like doing her daily crossword puzzles. (She laughingly admits that one of her proudest moments was being featured in one as a clue.) “Just today, I woke up, walked down the street, and got a coffee on this very simple, rainy day,” she reports, cheerily. “And I grabbed a book of old English poetry on my way out, to enjoy at the café—it was all very…very comforting.”
This sense of ease contrasts sharply with the one Stateside trauma that Marling can never quite erase from memory. In order to drive across the country, she needed to visit the dreaded DMV. “That was one of the truest American experiences that I’ve ever had,” she shudders. “I don’t know how I survived it, actually!”