“Kundalini yoga is fucking trippy,” says Laura Marling, with a passion she usually reserves for intense critiques on love. “It’s yoga that will fuck you up.” This isn’t the kind of aside you expect from the earnest, inscrutable Marling. Finding fame at the tender age of 18 with her debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, she was thrust to the vanguard of the burgeoning nu-folk scene and has spent the last nine years growing up in public.
A solitary, driven figure and a career musician, Marling’s dedication to her craft has paid dividends, with three Mercury prize nominations and a 2011 Brit award for best British female, yet the 26-year-old never looked comfortable in the spotlight. Suffering a crisis in confidence and abandoning initial recordings for her fifth album, in 2012 Marling embarked on a soul-searching sabbatical in LA. Having returned home to London and released the eclectic, acclaimed Short Movie in 2015, she seems to have finally found the freedom to relax.
Invited to play the Southbank’s Meltdown festival by this year’s curator, Guy Garvey – “the BFG of British music,” as Marling calls him – and dressed casually in denim dungarees and a white angel-sleeve blouse, she seems at ease in herself and her surroundings.
Marling’s steady gaze, however, remains direct and challenging. Against the rumbling authority of a double bass, she owns the longing of Rambling Man and How Can I, her acoustic guitar directing the drama, her insightful lyrics complemented by the accompaniment of the awed crowd. “It’s very nice to hear so many of you,” she smiles. Marling’s beautiful voice has matured and discovered a growing versatility. High and airy for the character study Daisy, she’s light and confessional, dark and conversational on What He Wrote. Watching the ethereal, glowing Marling morph into the hard-living, world-weary protagonist of Townes Van Zandt’s Waiting to Die becomes a musical magical trick, such is the authority she displays. Turning breathy for the sublime Take the Night Off, she kicks off a medley of strings-adorned gems from essential 2013 album Once I Was an Eagle, the defiant title track melting into the urgency of You Know, the claustrophobia mounting until the shamanic dying notes of Breathe.
As well as expounding on the dangers of tantric exercise – “I had to stop because it was so intense,” Marling says – she playfully describes her guitarist-cum-builder as “the complete package”, laughs at forgetting the words during a cover of Bert Jansch’s Courting Blues and apologises for forgetting the names of the string quartet who enhanced her five-piece band. “I have a lot of lyrics to remember,” Marling says. “And I’m getting old.” In fact, she’s only getting better. The palpable teenage angst of Goodbye England (Covered in Snow) is given dignity by Marling’s experience, while she commands the conflicting voices of I Speak Because I Can with a wisdom far beyond her years. When Marling leaves, it’s not with an encore, but with some salient advice: “Don’t go and lose your minds on Kundalini yoga.”
- Laura Marling plays Green Man festival, Brecon Beacons, Wales, on 18-21 August.