Laura Marling is reading a book about different kinds of love. "It's like a critical study of the various different ways that we experience and give love," she says in her crisp British accent. "Why I'm really enjoying reading it is because I'm taking it very slowly and understanding everything it says and forming my own opinion of it." A 20 year-old pop star admitting to taking the time to digest a book, much less a taxonomy of love written in the 1950s, is not exactly a common occurrence. But Laura Marling does a lot of things differently.
Though she has already been nominated for the Mercury Prize, hailed as a star of the burgeoning British folk scene as well as the mainstream music world, and put out two albums in three years after getting signed at age 16, Marling takes things slowly. The same thought that goes into her careful speech goes in to her songs, graceful accounts of failed relationships and obsessions, hope and fear and every different kind of love. Her latest album, I Speak Because I Can, is a collection of pop music defined not by glossy hooks or brand names but by the artistry of its musicianship and the care of its creator.
It takes some investment to listen to Marling's songs. When "Rah-rah-ah/Roma, Roma-ma/GaGa, ooh lala" counts as the defining chorus of our musical milieu, it's refreshing to listen to an album that rewards repetition with something deeper than surface appeal. Out of Laura's lyrics drift poetic couplets like the resounding oath of "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)," "I only believe that true love is frail / And willing to break," or the fleeting narrative of "Made by Maid, "So left to wander blind, I find myself in cautious times / And they say, Love's labors never lost; labor on to this very day." These are gems that take time to unearth out of the music.
Not content with tunes easy on the ears and lighter on the mind, Marling enjoys that her songs can be read and re-interpreted—"keeping it hazy," as she put it in an interview before her Cambridge concert last week. From a collage of inspiration, bits of literature, and a newfound hobby of "collecting really good facts" come songs like I Speak Because I Can, the title track retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope's perspective, or "What He Wrote," a song that stemmed from a series of icy letters between a wife and a husband sent to fight in World War II. But nor are Marling's songs so overwhelmingly literary as all that. Her stories are spun into universal words held together by a voice, both vocal and writerly, that is delicately poetic but strong and unsparing.
The complex pleasure of Marling's songs is not unique to her; it just comes appreciated at a time when most popular music is defined by single, ecstatically pleasurable flashes in the aesthetic pan. From artists like Joanna Newsom and Andrew Bird to Grizzly Bear, The National and The Tallest Man on Earth, a growing group of popular musicians don't seem to feel the same need as Lady Gaga or Ke$ha to refer to themselves in the third person or pound out huge choruses hidden behind auto-tune.
It's not that these musicians don't aspire to fame; they're just not bent on seeking out the psychotic grandeur of pop superstardom. Instead, they are letting the growth of their music take the lead, and it shows. Slow Pop is a different kind of mainstream than the last decades of bubblegum and hip-hop have brought us, harkening back to a time when concept albums were cool and guitar playing was more important than a band's stage show. I'm guessing in the coming years we will be seeing a lot more of Marling and musicians like her—stars as well as cultural icons who don't need to wear an Alexander McQueen dress and lobster boots to play a gig.
"Do I write for myself, or do I write for other people?," Marling muses. "I guess I must write for other people, because why would I bother otherwise? If I was writing a diary, which I don't, I don't think I could write it without thinking that other people might read it. I think your most intimate thoughts are only honest when they're in your head. I don't think you can ever be truly honest to yourself if you're putting something out of your head, because then it's out of you." Marling's music is pushed by the fight to find her own honest identity through music, which might be a little easier to relate to, and share in, than a narcissistic struggle to become as famous as possible as fast as possible.
Marling played to a packed church in Harvard, wooden pews lined with fans ranging from high school students to elderly couples, all dead silent for the slight figure on stage and her backing band. There were no light shows save votive candles strung down from the high ceiling on wrought chains, no stage tricks or floor show. But music filled the church's vaulted atrium, and it was the beauty of that music, the clarity of Marling's voice and the pinpricks of her lyrics that transfixed us all. Plain and simple.