“It’s like a homecoming tonight,” 25-year-old British songwriter Laura Marling said from stage last week at the Palace Theatre downtown, referencing her two and a half year stint living in Los Angeles. “L.A., I know your secrets.” Marling is in the throes of promoting her fifth studio album, Short Movie (released March of this year). Her gig last week with fellow British artists Johnny Flynn and Marika Hackman was her first local headline show since the record’s debut, and she will be playing FYF fest on August 23.
As we’ve come to expect from Marling, her new album is nothing short of an extraordinary piece of songwriting, full of incisive lyrics, palpable mood, and electric guitars with more bite than her previous work. This time, though, she’s not only dealing with the complexities of relationships and learning to understand and accept herself, but also with the identity politics of Los Angeles, where she spent six months recording this latest offering. “Living here is a game I don’t know how to play / You’re not somebody until somebody knows your name,” she sings on “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down.”
That sense of displacement crops up throughout the album, but she never pins that on the city itself, nor on its people. Rather, she displays a self-awareness touted by many as wisdom beyond her years. Despite all the questions she asks of herself and the admissions of not yet knowing “how to be,” she knows herself well enough to know this place may not suit her, and that’s all right. “I’m going back East, where I belong,” she sings on “How Can I,” not unlike Joni Mitchell’s “Carey.” It’s soulful, like someone who’s taken an experience in stride and become better for it.
Her audiences perceive that, and they relate to it. Marling, known for deep concentration and limited banter during her live performances, charms crowds more than she’d give herself credit for. When a woman asked to play a song with her because she’s a musician, Marling replied, “That’s good.” After a pause, she quickly added, “Oh, no, no, that it’s a terrible idea; I’m just too awkward to pull it off.”
Inspired by the company of country legends at Austin City Limits’ recent Hall of Fame Induction for Townes Van Zandt, Marling vowed to practice guitar more, especially the intricate fingerpicking style associated with Chet Atkins—“it requires a meaty thumb, not too attractive”—and tried it out in her set with a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.”
Perhaps as a nod to L.A., she also performed a haunting rendition of little-known Foo Fighters track “Tired of You,” joined by opener Marika Hackman. It rounded out a set of old and new work and a willingness to reinvent herself as both a songwriter and a guitarist. Hers is a set worth catching at FYF this year.