As beautiful as Laura Marling’s fourth and latest album, Once I Was an Eagle, often is, there’s also a dark undercurrent to many of the songs. Take “I Was an Eagle”, where over retro-jangle acoustic guitars and raga-scented percussion, the English singer delivers lines like “I will not be a victim of romance” and “I’ve damn near got no dignity left.” On the delicate postfolk number “Undine”, Marling intersperses fleet-fingered guitar work with “You cannot love me,” while “Breathe” is all creaking cellos and observations such as “You came here to tell me something that I already know.”
What makes all of this fascinating is that, shortly after recording Once I Was an Eagle, Marling jettisoned most of her belongings in London and moved to a strange land far away, namely Los Angeles.
The temptation, therefore, is to see Once I Was an Eagle as a stormy goodbye not only to the country she was born and raised in, but to something more personal.
Reached at a coffee shop in L.A.’s famously bohemian Silver Lake district, Marling suggests that’s not entirely accurate.
“I don’t know if that’s true, but in some strange way I have the least perspective on it because I’m on the inside,” she says in a charmingly polite English accent. “I do know that whenever I met someone who was constantly moving from city to city, I always thought they were running from something.”
Marling does allow that she was ready for some major alone time—that, of course, not being a problem when you haul up stakes and move halfway across the world by yourself.
“It was really nice to be somewhere where I didn’t know anybody—I needed a bit of a challenge,” she confesses. “I think, because of my nature, I’d become relatively complacent in London. I like where I am now, not being attached to anything. I think that if you talk to any 23-year-old, they’ll tell you the same thing—they want to be free to explore themselves a little bit.”
Ironically, Marling doesn’t seem complacent or anything less than free on Once I Was an Eagle. The Mercury Prize–nominated record is a challenging departure from her more folk-oriented earlier work, the exotic opener “Take the Night Off” setting the stage with Turkish-sounding hurdy-gurdy. The singer spends the first half of the record trafficking in brooding big-screen postfolk, and then goes on a mission to find some sort of sombre inner peace following the quiet mid-album instrumental “Interlude”.
Marling’s first two records, Alas, I Cannot Swim (2008) and I Speak Because I Can (2010), instantly elevated her to minor celebrity status in her native England, both releases also garnering her Mercury Prize nominations. A 2011 Brit Award for best female solo artist didn’t hurt her profile either.
As laudable as those accomplishments are, they’re not the only reason Marling ended up in the public eye in the U.K. The unapologetically private singer has been romantically involved with two neo-folk heavyweights in England, namely Noah and the Whale singer-guitarist Charlie Fink and Marcus Mumford of the stadium-packing Mumford & Sons.
More than one writer has speculated that Marling’s move to California might have had something to do with a new love interest, this sparked by such lines as “Hey there/New friend across the sea/If you figure things out/Will you figure in me?”, from Once I Was an Eagle’s “When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been)”.
The singer skillfully steers that question aside, however, suggesting it’s only her new hometown she’s in love with, to the point where walking around Silver Lake has become a daily obsession.
Surely, though, based on what Once I Was an Eagle hints at, there must be more to the story? Evidently not.
“I think people would be wildly disappointed,” Marling says with a laugh, “if they knew the realities of my day-to-day life.”