Laura Marling on Why Writers Should Look Back for Inspiration

The English folk singer-songwriter reveals how an appreciation for humanity's history has informed her art.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug Mclean

Ezra Pound famously urged poets to “make it new,” but that doesn’t mean artists should forget about the past. In our conversation for this series, the English folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling explained why she’s inspired by the ancient, the outdated, and the disappearing, citing how a Robertson Davies passage that suggests vanishing cultures and abandoned ideas may still have something urgent to teach us. For Marling, the lines help explain what she tends to do by instinct: embrace chance, limit choices, and find new directions inside of old ones.

Short Movie, Marling's newest record, is her most expansive-sounding effort yet. The sound pays tribute to the vast size and endless noise of Los Angeles, where much of the record was written: Songs typically begin with guitar and voice floating alone in a pool of reverb, but gradually, more instruments break in, as if trying to conquer all that emptiness.

Short Movie is Marling’s fifth album, and the follow-up to 2013’s critically acclaimed Once I Was an Eagle. She spoke to me by phone from London.

Laura Marling: I was visiting my family over Christmas one year, and my father was reading The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies. My godfather had given him a copy—I remember him sitting with it in the corner of the room, laughing loudly by the fire as he read.

Later, my father gave me my own copy of the book, and it arrived in my life at exactly the right time. I was just getting interested in two things that are spoken a lot about in Robertson Davies’ novels: mysticism and classic books.

The novel’s central character, Maria, is a young postgraduate researching Rabelais at a university in Toronto. She’s invited her professor, Hollier (whom she is in love with, but who isn't interested in her), to dinner at her mother’s house. Her mother is Romani and holds onto the secrets and eccentricities of her culture strongly, much to the embarrassment of Maria. But Hollier takes a strong fascination, despite her hostility to his interest.

When asked by her mother why he wants to know more, Hollier gives a short speech about the importance of historical knowledge, especially knowledge in danger of being trivialized by a rational, godless society:

The recognition of oneself as a part of nature, and reliance on natural things, is disappearing for hundreds of millions of people who do not know that anything is being lost. I am not digging into such things because I think the old ways are necessarily better than the new ways, but I think there may be some of the old ways that we would be wise to look into before all knowledge of them disappears from the earth—the knowledge and the kind of thinking that lay behind it.

To have the ability to throw away sentences like these from a non-central character in a novel is amazing. I love the way this passage highlights the importance of retaining earlier forms of knowledge—the way that certain ideas and ways of thinking may prove to be useful, even if they seem to have no relevance to the way we live now. Quite a lot of my life is spent trying to figure out why I always want to go backwards—when the majority of the world seems to want to build more construction on top of the construction. This passage helps me account for my impulse to do that.

“The recognition of oneself as a part of nature,” as Hollier puts it, is one attitude that’s disappearing. Access to nature is almost a privilege now. And though I believe that technology may one day catch up and help us go back to a pre-Industrial Revolution style of living, we miss out on a great deal by being so cut off from the natural world. Wildness in nature is irrational in a way that’s comforting. Without that, you lose your connection to instinct, and your ability to deduce natural morality from what’s around you. I think the more that people feel disconnected from this aspect of their humanity, the more they seek to avoid punishment and live in a state of permanent contentment. But that form of experience, in my opinion, isn’t truly human.

We live in a very fast-moving—and sometimes quite bland and rational—time.  I think that’s why I’m interested in the history of mysticism and the occult, ways of thinking that push back against rationality. You don’t need to really believe that magical things are “real” to appreciate them. As Hollier explains earlier in this scene, people “may believe what is untrue, but they have a need to believe the untruth—it fills a gap in the fabric of what they want to know, or think they ought to know.” I’d rather live in a world injected with fantastical possibility. I’m very lucky in that my job is a creative one, but in the times that I haven’t been doing the creative side of the job I find it necessary to be involved in fantasy in some way.

My interest in earlier ways of doing things also extends to my approach to making and recording music. I only work with analog gear, because that’s all I know how to do. I grew up in a recording studio. My dad ran a recording studio. I always grew up with the idea—in fact I didn’t ever really know there was another option—that you rehearse with a band for a week, and then you go in and record all together in one room. So that’s how I’ve always done it, even though many recordings today are built one track at a time. We do overdub—on the first track of the record, we went back in again and picked up a different percussion instrument and made weird noises into the mic. But that’s as far as we take it. Most of the songs are based around capturing a live recording.

I like to keep things simple because it means you can’t lose yourself in the complications. I’m such a passionate person, but when things get too complicated I lose interest. So I’m very careful about containing my passion so that I can follow it through.  I feel that in all aspects of my life: I can’t have more than three outfits in my wardrobe or I can’t get dressed in the morning. I like things to not be too full of decisions.

I think that’s one reason why I’ve always liked music made in the year 1969. For a long time, I would go into record shops and look for records—any records—made in 1969. That was a time in music when things were starting to become stereo and recording equipment was moving in a direction that’s closer to what we have now. I’ve always liked that tone and that sound: Technology allowed for new forms of experimentation, but things hadn’t gotten too complicated.

It’s not that I don’t like music that uses new techniques. I listen to a lot of electronic artists—I think Autechre is someone who perfectly manages to express an extremely industrial sound, a sound that is very of our time, or beyond our time. People who know the present very well can sometimes show us what the future will look like, and that’s exciting. There’s Phillip K. Dick, writing [the novel that became] Blade Runner—when I moved to L.A. I thought, Holy fuck, he had it completely right!

But sometimes you need the past to make the new. One example is John Luther Adams, a composer I really like. (Radiolab did a podcast about him.) He did an album that captures ocean sounds and the sound of storms—it’s not abstract, it’s very classical in style and instrumentation. He’s so competent as a musician and a composer that he’s completely managed to perfectly express those sounds from nature and translate them to music. I see that as a forward-thinking use of ancient skills. Not that classical music is ancient, by any means—but he used centuries-old instruments to create a completely modern statement.

In my own songwriting process, I often find myself reappropriating older works to write new songs. There are maybe ten lines from The Rebel Angels, for example, that I’ve regurgitated into three or four different songs—it’s a form of regeneration. At one point in the book, Maria’s Greek professor—who is madly in love with her—goes on a long monologue about how she’s like the Greek god Sophia, the masculine god’s female counterpart. I ended up using this idea, in a way that wasn’t fully conscious, to create a song called “Sophia.” It was about the praying to a feminine god, what kind of power that is. What a different idea to a masculine god that is.

Things are always getting lost as times change. One thing that’s disappearing from recorded music is the element of chance. Since a lot of the takes on my records are first or second takes, there’s sometimes some minor fluff in them—the sound of someone dropping a drumstick, or me dropping my pick. And yet the song goes on, and these little accidents become part of the character. As the recording process gets more sophisticated and controlled, these imperfections start to disappear. But maybe technology will find a way to help us find them again.