British singer-songwriter Laura Marling may be just 21, but she has already received widespread acclaim for her stark and introspective music. Her new album, "A Creature I Don't Know," is no exception. Her rich, elegant folk songs tackle heavy subjects and big questions, but don't expect Marling to provide easy answers.
"I find writing music therapeutic, but also self-flagellating," Marling says by phone from a tour stop in the Netherlands. "It's grating at the same time it's comforting because it only confuses me further. Where actually I am searching for an answer, I find myself picking up more questions."
Marling released her first album, "Alas I Cannot Swim," when she was 17. The moody album of jaded love songs was nominated for the British Mercury Prize alongside Radiohead's "In Rainbows" and Adele's "19." She released her follow-up, "I Speak Because I Can," in 2010. It, too, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Most recently, she won best female vocalist at the 2011 Brit Awards.
"When I started out, I was young and shy and I was a teenager and I was awkward. I hated the world," Marling says. "I was a complete misanthrope. I had no faith in anybody."
Ironically, it was music that made her feel like an outsider growing up in Hampshire, England. Steeped in Joni Mitchell, Marling's musical tastes differed from her peers.
"I don't know if I was necessarily unhappy," she says, recalling her days as a student, before she quit to perform full time. "I was pretty happy in my misery. I was contented to be that way. When you're a kid, [music] is very much an extension of your personality. Your taste in music defines you in some way. . . . Music is, in the same way that it's bringing me comfort and making me feel safe, it's also an isolating thing. It's like a constant tipping balance. You can only experience it in your way, on your own."
"A Creature I Don't Know" features a recurring character known as the beast, which Marling uses as a vehicle to delve into human complexities.
"I'm a big believer in logic," she says. "I believe everything can be rationalized, and therefore everyone has a choice in all things that they do at all times. The album is kind of my fascination about how people manage to make some really destructive choices as well as at the same time projecting this sort of goodness. People still make these horrific choices that affect other people even though they have the opportunities to make what may be considered the good or the moral choice."
All the while, "Creature" features varying musical ideas - on "Muse," a tight groove that includes thick, jazzy piano chords, banjo and cello, and on "Sophia," a beautiful melody that suddenly transitions into a percussive nursery rhyme. Marling's choices may be surprising but never out of place, and similarities to Mitchell are plentiful, especially on the song "Don't Ask Me Why," in which Marling mixes her speaking voice with her singing.
The album's overarching narrative is fablelike, but the inspiration comes from the everyday.
"I've lived quite not at all a hard life, but quite an unusual one," Marling says. "And I think life is probably hard enough as it is to gain inspiration from. I guess I'm quite a magpie. I take a lot of what I observe. . . . I do observe people in their ways and the choices they make. I find people fascinating."
Marling is no longer the awkward teen mad at the world, and in fact she thinks she has become softer as the years progress.
"I feel more naive and more forgiving and more understanding. I guess because I've made more mistakes than I maybe thought I would and I have more of a faith in humanity than I ever thought I would, actually, which is nice. It makes me feel a bit more stable."
Marling says she is surprised that people try to figure what she is saying in her music, and she reiterates: She has no answers.
"I don't find it easy to give answers because I suppose in some way I don't really know what I'm trying to say. If I knew what I was trying to say, I don't think I'd be a songwriter. . . . I'm glad I ask questions rather than find answers."
--Moira E. McLaughlin, Sept. 23, 2011