Whenever I see Laura Marling live I’m always reminded of a performance she did on Jools Holland way back in 2007. It sticks with me – the way her eyes never stray from the floor, except to glance at her guitar to occasionally correct herself. I was once again reminded of this as I watched her perform songs from her sixth album, Semper Femina, at a livestreamed Q&A session at Goldsmiths University. She rarely made eye contact with any one of the 50 or so people in the room, but despite this, her gaze is stoic, confident. Perhaps it’s unfair to make such a comparison; naturally one would change over 10 or so years. But it seems with this album that Marling is ready to ponder questions about her own work that she previously never has, and the resulting songs are both self-assured and probing.
The event itself was put together for Student Press, that is, members of student media institutions from universities around the country. As luck would have it, it took place at Goldsmiths University, which makes it the only time I’ve become giddy with the thought of an event at the Students Union. Invited media congregated at the bar for a tense wait before being led through to sit before the stage itself. In another stroke of luck, we managed to get seats on the front row amongst the privileged students who were allowed to ask questions to Marling. After a slight delay (and an awkward too-early introduction by Jen Long, who acted as a sort of interviewer at the event), Marling took the stage, immediately picking up her guitar and launching into ‘Wild Fire’, the second single from Semper Femina.
As always, her performance was pristine – if you closed your eyes you could have been listening to the record itself, which is testament to how pure her recordings are. Afterwards came the questions, which offered a special insight into some of the influences behind Semper Femina, beginning with where that Latin inscription actually comes from. Interestingly, it is from Virgil, where the full quote is varium et mutabile semper femina – ‘fickle and changeable, always is woman’. Marling adds with a smile that she got ‘semper femina’ tattooed when she was 21, an interesting piece of info for any fan. These ideas surrounding womanhood and femininity, then, are not recent in Marling’s life, which makes you wonder if a retrospective listen to her previous albums would provide any more insight into the new album. Expanding on her approach to Semper Femina, which was written during a ‘masculine time in her life’, Marling says that although it was initially conceived as a way of looking at women through a male perspective, she realised that “the more powerful thing to do was to look at women through women’s eyes”. Hence, Semper Femina: woman always.
The previously unheard songs from the album which Marling also performed, ‘Nothing Not Nearly’ and ‘Nouel’, are beautiful encapsulations of this attempt to describe the experience of womanhood. In ‘Nothing Not Nearly’, she muses over lost love; “we’ve lost each other in a river stream”, she says. ‘Nouel’ is arguably much warmer, a song in which Marling takes ownership of Virgil’s damning consideration of women by asking if this is really so damning at all. “Fickle and changeable though I may always be”, she sings at the opening of the song, which by the end has metamorphosed into “Fickle and changeable are you, and long may that continue”.
Moving past the album, Marling describes how her time in America has shaped her songwriting. She attempts to explain her “inner tussle” with America, and more specifically how it views artists. The thing that she loves about the country, and which she simultaneously finds infuriating, is the value Americans give to artists. This “inner tussle”, she says, is the eternal question of whether being an artist is “an indulgence or a compulsion”. She adds that Short Movie was never planned, but arose from being in that kind of environment in California, where she has the freedom to indulge in a kind of compulsion, which in itself is a self-indulgence she struggles to embrace.
In some easier, but similarly enlightening questions as the event comes to a close, Marling tells us that ‘Rambling Man’ is her favourite song to play live, and possibly her favourite song she’s ever written. Additionally, we are given an insight into the Marling that never was – her career choice if she hadn’t been a musician. “A chef or a writer”, she says. When probed by Jen Long on her cooking speciality, she reveals that although she eats meat her speciality is probably something vegan, because “that usually impresses people”. These little facts give an insight into a Laura Marling that would likely not be seen at any ordinary performance, which was a privilege to see.
I believe everyone there was made intensely aware, in the eloquence and passion that Laura Marling spoke with, that Semper Femina will be an album with issues to raise and questions to ask, and it was a delight to hear her attempt to answer some of these in person.
Semper Femina is released on 10th March, and the livestream of the session is available to watch back on Laura Marling’s Facebook page.