Wanderlust musicians moving to L.A to see if the grass is greener in the entertainment capital of the world is becoming a growing trend. Just a few weeks ago French chanteuse Stephanie Sokolinski (SoKo) released an album entitled My Dreams Dictate My Reality, in which she described her new environment as inspiring, positive and uplifting. She jumped at the opportunity to bulk up her contact list and collaborate with resident Ariel Pink as part of the life-changing and rebuilding process. Nu-folk co-creator Laura Beatrice Marling has recently had a taste of that vibrant scene before re-locating back to London at the end of last year and her impression is documented on the prolific folk artist’s fifth album Short Movie.
She is rather more critical of the surroundings and rather being a social chameleon, she portrays her experience almost identically to Scarlett Johansson’s character Charlotte in the Coppola film Lost In Translation – full of emotional solitude and disconnection and like a poorly-made puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. Londoners are known for being humble beings that can be highly critical of themselves, it’s shown in everything from the lack of communication to the humour. In Marling’s case, you can take the girl out of London but not the London out of the girl.
The song “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down” acts as an apology to Los Angelenos who reject negative attitudes in people. “Living here is a game I don’t know how to play. Are you really not nobody until somebody knows your name? Please don’t let me bring you down“, she sings. It’s notably bizarre how the premature “When Were You Happy?” from previous album Once I Was An Eagle contains words that would flawlessly fit into that theme such as: “I look at people here in this city and wonder if they’re lonely“. “How Can I” could easily be misread as either a song about a doomed relationship or a warned departure back to England but it inhabits an installed gratitude for L.A as Marling sings: “I’m going back east to where I belong. But how will I live without you?“.
The initial reason for travelling across the Atlantic was to undertake a spiritual journey. She was unhappy with the blueprint of her new material calling it a “boring afterthought” and needed to engage in something colourful and brave to avoid creative repetition. One thing that opened her mind was her experimentation in psychedelics that inspired her to write “Easy“. “It was a bit too high for me. I spent a month thinking I was a high desert tree” and “where you go to lose your mind. Well I went too far this time” are an effective description of her involvement. Whilst lyrics such as “well you can’t be lost, if you’re not on your own” point back to the loneliness subject.
Ever the curious song-writer and literature buff, Marling’s interest in mysticism and hallucinatory also gave her a fascination with surrealistic Chilean film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky. His controversial and nauseating film La Montana Sagrada, about an epic journey following powerful misfits with planetary associations searching for a holy mountain in reward for the secret to immortality inspired Marling’s song “Warrior“. It explains ambiguous lyrics such as: “This noble path you’re on will send us both to hell” and “he falls to his knees on a bloody track“.
Furthermore “Gurdijeff’s Daughter” references part of Jodorowsky’s biography in which he retold the account of how he met influential spiritual teacher George Gurdijeff’s daughter Renya D’Assia. Although an unlikely specialist knowledge of the master, who’s work revolved around the concept of “waking sleep“, would possibly help decipher the logistics of the song.
Despite the suggested isolation, Marling did interact with locals and one memorable conversation with a hippie in a bar near active volcano Mount Shasta gave way to the title of the album and it’s titular counterpart “Short Movie” and it is one example of Marling unsual adoption of a multi-personality within her vocal delivery. The aggressive line: “It’s a short fu**ing movie man” was a direct quote from the aforementioned man and other aspects of the track continue with the same beatnik attitude. “What’s that about? Keep me sick to make me well. Come on, what the hell“.
Yet “False Hope” is arguably one of the most intoxicating documentations. Apart from suspiciously containing the same guitar riff as “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down”, it’s an original premise. Marling narrates her insecurities and insomnia in the first verse and shows a selfish disregard for the woman downstairs in her apartment who “just lost her mind“. When the second verse reveals the cause of a panic to be a reaction of Hurricane Sandy hitting Manhattan, Marling remains focus on her bid to secure a good night’s sleep. Even comparing the frightened neighbour to a “dying animal” and dismissing that “she’ll be alright tomorrow“. It’s beautifully sinister and the unsettling coldness is effectively imprinted by the vibratos at the beginning and end.
Leaving London, many aspects of Laura Marling’s production also departed. Avid listeners of her previous quartet of releases have become acquainted with her poetic stories whose lack of pop culture or specific details make them timeless and ageless. They also make it unclear whether they are told from Marling’s ironic young life’s perspective or paraphrased from a dusty diary found from centuries ago. The lyrics used old English, mythological metaphors and riddles and religious psalms that were engaging, even with the music absent.
However Short Movie reduces and tidies up the fantasies and adds transparent layers that make these her most personal and straight-forward parables. There is still the odd mentions of God on the low-key orchestral Americana of “Worship Me” and “Walk Alone“, a fixation on asking questions and using the non-colloquial “weep” but everything is heightened by a welcomed conceptual clarity that the previous albums lacked. It’s as if she has honed her craft convincingly and now wishes to explore a different side to herself. Marling replaces her trademark fictional conversations with herself with personal pronouns that make it seem that the happenings in the tales are from her own legitimate story.
It’s no surprise that there are major changes on this album considering that the rapidly-growing musician appears to entering Chapter 3 of her short movie at just aged 25. Chapter 1 was her collaboration with Charlie Fink on debut Alas I Can Not Swim and Chapter 2 was the subsequent three albums with producer Ethan Jones. Now, like her experience in Los Angeles, she has risky freedom and the ultimate independence with her first self-produced work. Unmistakably associated with the acoustic guitar, she decides to expand her sound this time with electric guitar distortions and a rough edge that pushes the comparisons away from the recently-hospitalized Joni Mitchell and closer to the grit of PJ Harvey exemplified in “False Hope” and “Warrior”.
She gives more room for cellist Ruth De Turbeville to explore and brings ex band-mate Tom Hobbden from recently-divorced Noah and The Whale on the fiddle. Although the story-telling is more simplistic, her voice is remarkably more divergent. Rather than sticking to calm alto, it sways from Americanized twang on “Easy”, fast-talking, extensive breathy delivery and higher-toned voice-holding on “False Hope”, disorientated accents on “Gurdijeff’s Daughter” and a whispery-fractious-softness on “Worship Me”, all of which starts to mold a unique personality to her voice.
All this makes Short Movie her most entertaining, adventurous, multi-layered and addictive release to date and with promising English folk artists such as Billie Marten portraying her style with admiration, she remains a clinical inspiration for future generations. Laura Marling’s Short Movie is out now via Ribbon Music/Virgin Records, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs