Donned in skinny jeans, mary janes and an oversized white t-shirt, Laura Marling fits any niche in downtown Manhattan; with her doe eyes and pastel skin, she’s seemingly innocent. Her blonde hair is beginning to show the darker roots that have grown in and her charming British accent is pleasantly soothing. She asks if it’s okay to have a cigarette as we sit out on a bench in a park in lower Manhattan. It’s breezy and satisfyingly warm in the shade, and as I begin to ask questions she coos at squirrels as they run over the cobblestones beneath the green wooden bench on which we sit. Despite her extraordinarily wise lyrics and hauntingly mature voice, there’s still an innocence that echoes through her – she’s untainted by the effects of urban stereotyping or climbing a social ladder. Instead she’s timid and coy, completely in her element as she sits in a haven of nature amidst a metropolis. “I grew up in the countryside in England, so I’m not really used to this fast-paced kind of environment,” she says as her eyes widen at the quickly passing cars. Her debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, is unveiled this summer that is both intimate and delicate, two elements that easily describe her as well.

What was the incentive behind Alas I Cannot Swim?
I have a fascination with death and religion. Not in such a morbid way, but how it affects you and the psychological effects of religion and how your relationship with the world effects your relationship with yourself. I don’t come from a religious family at all but until I was 12 I used to be very Christian. I went to church by myself every Sunday and was really into it. Then I met someone who was a Buddhist but more like neo-Buddhism.

Why do you think religion is such a strong driving point behind so much literature and music?
People are searching for some sort of feeling of community. Now a lot of people find it in atheism. I’ve never met anyone seriously religious and still young and did all of the things that young people do. If you put all the best parts of religion together you’d have a perfect person but there’s something that isn’t perfect about religion and that’s why there’s no perfect person. But the best freedom we have is the freedom to question (religion).

Charlie Fink from Noah and the Whale produced your album, what was it like working with someone of that caliber?
I’ve known him for years and lived with him for two years. We started out by doing demos live with a couple of other musicians. He thinks in the most amazing way – like nobody else I’ve ever met. He is just full of so many cool ideas and he’s one of my best friends. Doing the album with him was so much fun, it wasn’t like work at all.

How long did it take to make this album?
A month but I’m always gigging or writing. I get so bored if I’m not – I get more existential. I had two days off recently and bought a software program just in case.

What is the biggest message you want to deliver to people that listen to your music?
I don’t think I really do have a message; I think I am far too young to be able to have a message for people. That’s why I love Jeffrey Lewis and Diane Cluck – there’s no pretension in their music. Diane makes albums in her house, does gigs when she wants to – she’s a normal person with an amazing talent and this incredible mind but you’ll never know because she doesn’t inflict on anyone. In today’s world there are so many megalomanias. Everyone is arrogant in their own pretentious way. The most important thing is that you have to be honest – honesty is one of the most important things. Bonnie Prince Billy, another favorite, is so honest but it’s delivered in a really simple way, not overbearing or overwhelming.

Speaking of other musicians, it’s easy to compare you to Joni Mitchell and, more presently, Regina Spektor. Do these artists influence you or do you work more strictly off of your own vision?
I really like Regina. She’s a great and very talented artist. And Joni Mitchell, well, my parents were that era. I’ve been listening to her since I was inside my mom’s womb, basically.

Your voice is evocative and somewhat dark, especially with your lyrics. How long have you been writing and making music?
I love that kind of spooky vibe. I’ve been writing remotely listenable music for two years but I look back at some of my older writing and I think, “Wow, I can’t believe I used to write so badly!”

Your age is often the most spoken about feature of your career. How do you handle the apparent stereotype that comes along with being so young?
It’s pretty annoying. It’s true, I am 18, but it’s just so relative and it makes no difference to the music.

You recently just came to the United States for the first time but you mainly play across Europe. How is playing in the United States different for you than playing in Europe? Do you feel like people are more receptive one area than the other?
I played in small venues in New York back in February – they were tiny and everyone got really into it. Later I played one in a slightly bigger venue – a lot of people there had not heard of me before. I was pretty pensive about the whole thing. In London we did a tour of churches and even in a church people managed to move and join in. I used to like everyone being completely silent but I like it better when there’s slight conversation because music is supposed to bring people together – make a community.

There seems to be a revival of folksy, acoustic female music recently. Do you feel like you’re somewhat at the forefront of this return to “simplicity?”
I think it’s been happening for a while – the music world is a natural circuit. There are several female singer/songwriters in the UK and we’ve all known each other for years and our albums come out like three months around each other. It’s very Laurel Canyonish comparing us to ourselves. It’s just really nice having people like that around.

On your biography you say, “I want people to love music…I want people to treasure it…” With the music industry up in arms right now, how do you think artists can influence listeners to return to the real essence of music?
There’s now way the whole industry is going to fail because of independence. Everyone needs to screw their heads back in. It’s nice because (in England) we’re signed to a record company that let’s me do whatever. You just have to be sensitive because we’re all fully aware that we’re not going to make much money so we can’t do extravagant things, but it’s the people that run the record labels that can’t grasp that.

Your lyrics deal with intense and emotional topics. Is this your interpretation of your own coming-of-age?
No matter how much you try, you end up writing music about yourself. It is a kind of self-therapy and has always been my best way of expressing myself.

You seem to be wise and mature, much more so than many other 18 year olds – do you tend to attract an older audience?
It seems that way which is quite odd. There’s a good balance of young and old and in between. It’s great; it’s nice to have that mixture.

What lies ahead after the release of this album and beyond that?
I’m playing a lot of festivals and gigs this summer but other than that, I just want to do what I’m doing for as long as possible. I get to play venues that are still intimate and I’m in New York playing gigs with people that have been my friends for years. I can’t ask for too much more.

—Eliza K. Johnston, Photos by Eileen Murphy

  1. [...] then I was a Buddhist for four years.’” However, my favorite of her quotes came from The Sentimentalist Magazine in 2008; when asked to explain why religion is such a driving force of inspiration for art, she [...]

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