“Men look at women,” the late art critic John Berger once said. “Women watch themselves being looked at.”
It’s with this strange and unequal dichotomy that Laura Marling wrestles on her new album, Semper Femina. From the Latin for “Always Woman”, and with scarcely a male pronoun in sight, the album explores the multi-faceted relationship women have with themselves and each other, and does so with both ruthless precision and a tender intimacy. As if trying to catch herself off guard in a mirror, Marling strains to figure out how she’s seen by other people, and to reconcile this with how she sees herself.
“I think there’s a common experience of women - they have at some point in their life felt adored and misunderstood,” she explains, settled in a back room of her management’s North London offices. There are four plush armchairs here, but she’s opted for the floor, shuffling herself, and her mug of tea, towards a low wooden table. “They’re gagged by the adoration they’ve been given. I’ve been the recipient of adoration that’s left me feeling very misunderstood, and I wanted to understand what that gaze is thinking when it misunderstands me.”
The idea of women as muses, a mere vessel rendered more attractive by pretending not to be aware of a male gaze, has been around for centuries.
And it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. “I like it when you sleep,” said The 1975 in the title of their second album, “for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it.” One Direction said much the same thing a few years ago – “You don’t know you’re beautiful. That’s what makes you beautiful.” On Semper Femina, on which the electric guitars and Bob Dylan-esque speak-singing of 2015’s Short Movie have largely dissipated, in favour of a gentler, bucolic sound, Marling dryly skewers this sentiment. “You always say you love me most when I don’t know I’m being seen,” she sings on Wild Fire, over the muted strum of an acoustic guitar, “Maybe someday, when God takes me away, I’ll understand what the fuck that means.”
“I’d read a book about the great muses,” Marling recalls of the preparation for her sixth album (hers is a somewhat startling prolificacy – she released her debut album, 2008’s Alas I Cannot Swim, when she was just 18, and only turned 27 the day before we meet) “and their fates, which were all sort of similarly subjugating, or ended in drug addiction, from being driven mad – by society at that time, but also by being full time misunderstood, and not given their own outlet.”
Not that Semper Femina doesn’t have its fair share of muses. In Nouel, Marling finds herself inexorably drawn to the song’s title character: “Oh Nouel, you sing so well / Sing only for me? / Fickle and changeable / Though I may always be.” Later, Nouel “lays herself across the bed / Like the Origin Du Monde.” It’s a somewhat graphic image, particularly if you’re familiar with Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting of a woman sprawled naked on a bed, her legs spread. Is Nouel being objectified, then, or liberated? “That’s an interesting one, because Noel is a person who exists. She’s a dear friend of mine. She fulfilled, for me, the classical role of muse, in that she's an extraordinary person, she has an extraordinary air about her. It's too much. You don't know what to do with it, you want to capture it somehow.”
“And the Origin Du Monde,” she continues, “is an image that I've always found very powerful in relation to women, in the origin of the world being this very graphic female genitalia. There was something to me about her that had the essence of that painting, rather than the literal gaze that I was experiencing. So I was writing it, and I was aware that I was treading this line between sexual ambiguity and innocent adoration. And they are not separate, they're the same. It's difficult to explain…” she pauses, before adding with a wry smile, “but I haven't seen her vagina, if that's what you're asking.”
Marling decided to send her friend the song she’d inspired ahead of its release, unsure how she’d react. Luckily, “she was very flattered by it. And it's a very honest expression. It's not often I'll send someone a song. Certainly if I'd written the song about a boy…” She stops herself and thinks for a moment, weighing up how much to reveal. “I sort of thought, ‘Shall I keep my sexual orientation secret?’” Another pause. “But… I'm straight. If I'd written it about a boy, I'd feel awkward about it. But it's a girl, it's like proper love, true love, innocent love, and so it didn't feel awkward to send that.”
“I’ve been the recipient of adoration that’s left me feeling very misunderstood, and I wanted to understand what that gaze is thinking when it misunderstands me.”
It’s hardly surprising that Marling considered keeping her sexuality a mystery, given that the album veers so often towards a borderline romantic tone. In previous albums, whether the subjects of her songs were captains, beasts or figures from mythology, they were almost always male. “It was funny,” she says, “the whole making of the record, the record was clearly about women. Not one member of my band, or the producer, ever asked me about it. And I just thought, ‘That’s so sweet, they don’t know what to make of it.’ It’s a difficult ambiguous line, as most women know I’m sure. We like things to be in boxes, but they don’t fit generally.”
In looking at other women, and exploring her feelings towards them with new depth, Marling was also able to reflect on how she is seen in return. And not just by the men who’ve misunderstood her, but by other women too. “Of course the only part that I want to read,” she says in Wild Fire, of a woman who plans to write a book, “is about her time spent with me. Wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen? Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?”
It resonated with me, I tell her, this desire to know whether the self you think you’re presenting to the world is what it’s actually seeing. “It’s a very natural thing,” she agrees. “It’s like a symptom of a preceding moment to an ego death basically, when you split so far apart from your persona, the thing you present to the world, and your true essence, the thing that has access to your psyche. Everybody that I know is suffering from anxiety in some form or another, including myself, and it's because we have completely disconnected our personas from our psyche.”
“I was aware that I was treading this line between sexual ambiguity and innocent adoration. And they are not separate, they're the same.”
Our conversation is liberally peppered with this sort of language – a language she at one point refers to, with a chuckle, as “pop psychology.” She talks of her psychic toolbox, mindfulness, and tarot cards (though the latter is accompanied by a flush of embarrassment). She eagerly analyses one of my dreams – “your foundation and your higher psychic qualities are in question. That’s fun!” – and, when I tell her I dropped my phone in the sea and then swiftly broke the screen of another, she says somberly, “You need to heal some wounds with technology.”
And yet, she’s unabashedly cynical too. Especially when it comes to her own role in the world, and the practical use she can be in a climate where “innocent creativity” is no longer pointed enough. In the run-up to recording Semper Femina, she says, “I did a lot of thinking about it. Because I don’t believe that just because you have however many followers on Twitter, that entitles you to an opinion on anything, so that level of cynicism cuts me off from that. I just thought, the only honest thing that I can contribute is a really overthought observation about things. That’s very vague. But all I can honestly contribute is that.”
She’s being self-deprecating, but in a way she’s right. Because observing – whether it’s herself or others, with a cautious glance or a formidable stare - is what Laura Marling does best. It was true on her first album, when she gazed at that house across the river, and it’s still true a decade on. However fickle and changeable she may be.