Hollie Fernando

Laura Marling’s Female Gaze

How the British singer decided to write songs about women on her new album, ‘Semper Femina’

The title of Laura Marling’s sixth album, Semper Femina, comes from a line by the ancient Roman poet Virgil: “varium et mutabile semper femina,” meaning “woman is a fickle and ever-changing thing.” On the airy, beautiful folk record, she explores this idea and others through an assortment of wild female characters inspired by people in her own life. “We love beauty ’cause it needs us to,” she sings on the nimbly picked acoustic track “The Valley,” a song about a golden-haired female singer whom Marling lovingly watches from afar.

MTV News spoke with the 27-year-old singer-songwriter about the themes behind Semper Femina, the power of feminine creativity, and more.

Before your last album, 2015's Short Movie, you took a break, moving to L.A. and thinking about where you wanted your career to go. What was your mindset going into this record?

Laura Marling: Living in L.A., I was completely lost — and I enjoyed it. But with this album, I wanted to touch something solid. I had spent a lot of time not doing that. It was like, “Enough of that, now time for some crystal thinking.” I wanted to make something real and less ethereal.

So much of the record is about women and female intimacy. Why have you been thinking about that recently?

Marling: My best friend has a 5-year-old daughter, and she's a single mom. It made me think about her reality and the reality of what she's trying to protect her daughter from or teach her. It became very real to me, what young girls take in. It just got me thinking about female unity and the power of it — the power of shared experience. And also the sadness of the way female friendships break down. That’s legitimate, but it gets trivialized. As a songwriter, I tend to focus on more existential things or romance, which is trivial as well.

Was there anything that your friend's daughter was experiencing that made you realize how vulnerable young women can be?

Marling: It sounds silly, but my friend has not let her watch Disney princess movies. And she won't direct her towards girls' toys. Every person who lives in New York or London knows about gender-neutral upbringing, but it really is funny how difficult it is. When she was left to her own devices, she put on a pair of knickers and some tights and a Batman t-shirt. It does make you think what life would be like without all these sort of societal accoutrements.

What do you mean when you say female friendship is trivialized?

Marling: I think it's dumbed down. I'm talking about very much in mainstream culture. You know that thing about how many scenes there are in film where women are talking to each other and it's not about a man?

The Bechdel test?

Marling: That's sort of what I mean. Women are presented with a very narrow aspect of the female narrative. And now we live in a culture and a time where it gets to us very quickly and very young. So how do you maintain in a child that sense of unique identity before they get thrown all that is projected on them?

Do you feel like you grew up with very traditional ideas of femininity imposed onto you?

Marling: As much as anyone else. I was a tomboy — which only confirmed the trope of femininity, because I was going in the exact opposite [direction]. I don't have much to complain about in life, because I've lived a very privileged existence and continue to. I just think, What if I didn't have that confidence or strength of character, and I was left with certain perceptions of what a woman's place is in the world?

When I saw you perform recently, you mentioned onstage that you read a lot of heady nonfiction while making this album. What were you reading?

Marling: I read a lot by female psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé, who wrote prominent biographies of Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud because she studied with all of them. She had this unbelievable insight into contemporary psychoanalysis. What is so interesting is that she wrote her life, and she knew that her life would be about these men, and it didn’t stop her from leading an incredibly successful academic career. But her strange self-awareness that she was going to bookmark these men's lives is really interesting to me.

How did you first come to her work?

Marling: I was writing an operetta about Rilke’s early life. Rilke has a very bizarre relationship to women because his mother had an older child, a girl who died when she was a baby. So when Rilke was born she named him Sophie and dressed him as a girl until he was 7. And psychologically, the repercussions of that made him the genius that he is. By the time he was 35, he was continuously falling in love with older women, mother figures, spiritual mothers. Basically what Salomé did with Rilke as a mentor was direct him toward the Russian Orthodox Church, so he could project his love of the divine feminine onto the Virgin Mary. She wanted him to stop the cycle of being disappointed by the ultimate humanity of women. She was like, "You don't want me, you want the Virgin Mary." [laughs] It’s kind of a mystical concept! She also changed Freud’s opinion, a little bit too late, about the female psyche, which he had so wrong. If it had been better publicized, it would have changed Western society’s perception of the female psyche, too.

When you think of feminine energy, what does that mean to you? Do you feel like it's inherently different than a man’s?

Marling: In my experience, the psychological aspect of femininity tends to be more receptive and apathetic and delicate. I think that because the feminine is a bit quieter, we live in a masculine-dominated society. It is the front-forward force that runs the world. And that's not the fault of men by any means, that's just the way the world works.

So many songs on the album are about women. How did you come to create those female characters in songs like “The Valley” and “Nouel”? Were they based on real people?

Marling: Actually, for the first time, I'm comfortable saying they are based on real people. Nouel is a person who exists. With “The Valley,” the predominant image was of my friend whose father died. She was still mourning him, and those feelings never really went away, but of course people stop asking about it. I was thinking about that sort of forever trauma, which I obviously haven’t experienced myself — but I have known the experience of having to deal with feelings all by yourself. I’m interested in the sweetness of watching someone trying to figure it out for themselves at a distance, that feeling of not being understood.

On “Wild Fire,” you sing about someone writing a book: “The only part that I want to read / Is about her time spent with me / Wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen?” Who is singing that song?

Marling: It’s me singing on that song, but it's an exaggerated version of someone I know. This exaggerated person is the kind of person that writes in a journal every day, who is present in her experience of the world and is always documenting it. It reminded me of a time where I thought I was really special. I feel like that's a wonderful time, especially for creative people, where you’re completely oblivious to your complete non-specialness in the general scheme of the world. I’m just envious of that because that was a great time. [laughs]

When was that time for you?

Marling: I think that was when I was around 20 or 21. [Being] 21 was the peak of when I thought I was special. I loved it. And of course that goes away when you get older.

Listening to your album and thinking about the inspirations behind it, I thought about muses in art. You’re a woman writing about women. Do you think there's a such thing as a female gaze?

Marling: When I wrote “Nouel,” I sent it to Nouel. And I was like, [self-deprecating, dorky voice] “I wrote a song about you.” But afterward I realized I didn’t ask her if I could do that. She’s fine with it, of course. But she didn't willingly participate in that creative act with me. And that's interesting, because I took something from her. Did I maybe take away her right to anonymity? And is my consciousness about that because I’m hyperaware because I’m a woman? I talk about her physical beauty in a way that we’re used to hearing men sing. It sort of ties in with Salomé’s belief that the female psyche is inherently self-sufficient, because female sexuality is inherently self-sufficient. I think women are maybe more comfortable, or women are able to find physical beauty in each other that doesn’t terrify them. But then I did also feel an insecurity — I did do that without asking.

While making this record you were also doing your podcast "Reversal of the Muse," which was about women in music. What did you learn doing the podcast that you had never thought about?

Marling: There were things that I knew already that I wanted to get people to say on the podcast, like [how] it’s really nice to have environments where women are running the show for other women, so they feel comfortable — a guitar shop run by women, or a studio that's just got women in it. That's a good, encouraging environment for women to come in and not feel self-conscious. But then there were things that really surprised me. Somebody said, “I thrive off male energy and creativity, as a reflective vulnerability.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. That's really important, and I certainly have felt that.” All of my music has been made with men, and it has certainly thrived with that sense of vulnerability. One woman I interviewed, Amanda Ghost, said, “Let’s not bullshit, there are no women at the top of the music business, and that is a serious problem.” And I said, "Yes!" And I didn't shy away from saying that. But I still don’t want to be in the firing line. I’m not clever or witty or brave enough to get into the political nitty-gritty with it.

When you say the firing line, do you mean publicly talking about politics all the time?

Marling: Yeah. Because that takes a toll, I imagine.

It seems like that kind of advocacy can be a whole other career.

Marling: Amanda Ghost does that. She's amazing. There are people that really get into it. Her frankness and her need to be like, “This is the situation,” was refreshing.