Even if you don’t know Laura Marling, you’ll probably know her voice: a dexterous, sonorous thing that floats so perfectly above the plucked acoustic guitar that has been her stage partner for over a decade.
Over the course of her career, Marling has used her songs to explore the hidden depths of lived experience, suffusing her lyrics with diaristic insight and potent symbolism. And yet, even after all these years, Marling still finds it hard to “think of myself as a subject. I really struggle to write ‘I.'”
Born in 1990, Marling began playing the guitar at the age of five after being taught the blues by her father, the same man who sparked her fascination with the folk boom singers of the 1960s, such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and John Mayall.
Once she was old enough, Marling started performing as a solo act around London and was quickly spotted by singer-songwriter Jamie T, who invited her to tour with him after seeing her second-ever concert.
Throughout the mid to late 2000s, Marling established herself in the west London folk scene, joining Noah And The Whale in 2008 and occasionally performing with the then-little-known Mumford & Sons. That same year, she released her debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim. Since then, she has continued to explore the outer fringes of her songwriting, determined never to write the same song twice. Here, we track her career through the six definitive songs.
Laura Marling’s six definitive songs:
‘Ghosts’ – Alas, I Cannot Swim (2008)
Released ahead of the unveiling of her stunning debut album, ‘Ghosts’ was an incredible feat of songwriting for someone so young. Marling was just 18 when she wrote ‘Ghosts’, having dropped out of school at 16 to pursue music full time. It is a song that uses a selection of grounded gothic imagery to tell the story of a man who carries around the ghosts of his ex-lovers and brings them to his current relationships.
An artful blend of poetic lyrics, spare instrumentation, and absorbing melodies, ‘Ghosts’ is a masterclass in modern folk songwriting and, when it was released, quickly earned Marling a reputation as one of the most exciting new singer-songwriters on the scene.
‘What He Wrote’ – I Speak Because I Can (2010)
Following the success of her debut album, Marling released I Speak Because I Can to huge critical acclaim two years later in 2010. The preternaturally assured follow up saw Marling confront the notion of women and men’s roles in society at a time when her music was playing second fiddle to her relationship with Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford, which attracted no small amount of media attention.
But behind all the gossip lay an artist whose songwriting had, in just two years, matured into something with novelistic depth. ‘What He Wrote’, the lead single from I Speak Because I Can, sparked comparisons between Marling and Leonard Cohen, both of whom share a taste for mythological imagery, using it to suffused their tracks with an ancient, universal charm. ‘Rambling Man’ is also featured on I Speak Because I Can, a track that sees Marling take a left turn into the world of blues, one which earned her a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Original Song.
‘Master Hunter’ – Once I Was An Eagle (2013)
Like Joni Mitchell 40 years before her, Laura Marling eventually grew tired of being labelled as the sweet and innocent singer-songwriter. Her 2013 album Once I Was An Eagle revealed a ferocity of spirit that stood in stark contrast to the image the public had forced upon her.
In ‘Master Hunter’, we hear Marling swap out the lyrical folk-balladry for something smokier and far more blues-oriented. For some, the idea of a British singer putting on an American accent was too much to bear; for others, Once I Was An Eagle was proof of Marling’s commitment to pushing her sound in new directions. Either way, ‘Master Hunter’ is a clear example of Marling’s refusal to take the easy road.
‘Short Movie’ – Short Movie (2015)
Recorded following her relocation to Los Angeles, Marling’s 2015 album Short Movie sees the singer soak up the musical heritage of the West Coast and filter it through the perspective of an outsider. The album’s title song is a lilting, chirruping jewel of a thing – much more expansive and exploratory than the dour British sentiment behind much of her previous work.
The album also coincided with a period of transformation, during which Malring retrained as a yoga instructor while struggling to find her feet in the aftermath of her speedy rise to fame. “I didn’t feel like I had a gender in a weird way – I’d lost a lot of weight so I didn’t really have any feminine features,” she told the Guardian, recalling how she shaved her head and “looked like a young boy. It was quite a good experience of being a non-sexual presence in the world, like a eunuch.”
‘Next Time’ – Semper Femina (2017)
However, Marling’s blossoming career as a yoga instructor was doomed to fail; not much of a loss to the world in her opinion. “You need to know a lot more than I know to do it well,” she later admitted.
What Marling is – and always has been very good at – is songwriting. Her sixth studio album, Semper Femina, contained some her of her very best work in this regard, with ‘The Valley’ being perhaps the most expertly rendered of them all. Characterised by perfectly-nestled harmonies and resonant acoustic guitar, it was tracks like these that ushered in a new chapter in Marling’s career while harking back to some of her earliest influences.
‘For You’ – Song For Our Daughter (2020)
Song For Our Daughter was released the same year that Laura Marling enrolled in a master’s degree program in psychoanalysis. It comes as no surprise, then, that tracks like ‘For You’ portray a songwriter shedding layers of self-preserving artifice. The result is stunning.
Describing the album in a 2020 interview during the first Covid-19 lockdown, Marling explained how her first two albums were “a woman thinking, ‘Why is this my lot in life?’. As I’ve got older, I’ve changed that to: ‘That won’t be my lot in life. I won’t be reduced to a cultural trope.’ I was indulging in the tragedy, and now that I’m 30, I’ve put reins on those demons and I’m driving them myself. I’m not just a victim.”