How did you first get into music, Marika?
I started having piano lessons when I was really young, like nursery school time. My parents thought that being able to understand a keyboard and read music was a really good basis for all musical knowledge, although I am terrible at reading music. Later, I had bass guitar and drum lessons too. My parents are both quite into music, so we always had music blasting out around the house; really great songwriters like Grace Jones, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkel.
When did you begin writing music yourself?
It was something that I always did with any instrument I was getting my head around. Even when I was really little, I’d come up with terrible little songs on the piano. I started to reach myself guitar when I was about 14, and it was then that I started to really write fully formed songs. As you get better with an instrument your confidence grows and you start to focus a bit more, I think. So when I hit 17 I actually took the songwriting much more seriously.
In the past two years you’ve put out a seven-track mini-album, two four-track EPs and now your full-length debut. Are you a naturally prolific songwriter or do you just have a really strong work ethic?
Well, I never thought I was prolific at all. I used to find [songwriting] quite stressful; I always felt the pressure to write and I felt like I couldn’t do it. When it came to the album, I decided that I wanted it all to be new material so it was a case of just sitting down with my guitar and working really hard. And I realised that I can write like that: inspiration doesn’t just have to fall out of the air, and I don’t always have to be a channel for something that is beyond my control. So yeah, I just sat in my room for a couple of months, working from 7am to 6pm every day, with a lunch break. It was quite refreshing to have a bit of structure to my day.
So what was the starting point for this album? Was there a track that set the tone?
The demos [for this album] were very stripped back – basically just guitars and vocal, and harmonies – because I was living in a flat with a lot of people and I didn’t want to wind them up by hitting drums and things upstairs. When we got in the studio, the first song we worked on was ‘Drown’, which was actually the last one I had written, almost by accident. It just felt really fresh and exciting, and it ended up being the opener on the whole album. It does have that feeling of opening up a doorway which I like; it’s like falling down the rabbit hole.
In terms of setting the tone of the album, I never had an overall tone in mind: we just tread the album like we would with an EP, breaking each song down and building them up. Knowing when to stop was the most important thing, I think, because I’d never want to overproduce or bury songs.
You’ve spoken before about your frustration that people try to pigeonhole you as a folk artist. Considering the wide range of instrumentation and styles on this record, we wondered whether you were purposely setting out to surprise people.
No, but I am happy that I will be. It sounds really corny and lame but songwriting is such a natural process that not much objective thought actually goes into it; it’s much more a sense of me feeling my way in the dark. And there’s definitely a span of genres on the album. I mean, ‘Open Wide’ is really grungy.
I actually wrote the guitar riff for that first, which is unusual for me because everything normally happens at the same time. But I made this really cool riff and I felt like it needed to be used on a grungy song, with that moody chorus pedal on, and those moody drums in the background. But then, equally, you’ve got something like ‘Claude’s Girl’, which is just acoustic guitar and vocal. It’s fun to play with genres and I think that with my voice being the way it is – quite untrained – it sits on top of the tracks and makes the album coherent.
There are some really unusual sounds and guitar effects on the album. On ‘Skin’, for example.
Yeah, that is a guitar going through a POG pedal, so it sounds like an organ. It’s one of my favourite toys. And that was actually recorded in my bedroom, at my parents’ house in Devon. We actually lifted a lot of things from the original demo, just redoing the main guitar and the vocal to get a better sound quality. You can hear the sound of my bedroom, with the drum hits.
On ‘Monday Afternoon’ there’s an almost medieval-sounding recorder melody?
Yeah, there are two recorders and we had a cellist and violin as well. We actually did that as a live group take, all in different rooms, which I have never done before. It was the last song we recorded on the album as well.
You talk a lot about “we”, which is presumably you and your producer Charlie Andrew. How did the two of you meet?
Basically, I just sent him some demos of tracks for the mini-album and said, “Hey, do you want to work together?” Luckily, he turned around and said yes, and we’ve been working together now for just over two years, I think.
He did that first alt-J album, and I thought it was so clever. And I think, knowing that I was going to be put in that box of “folk-y girl”, in a way it was quite shrewd to work with someone that’s a bit more abstract in his approach. I mean, I could have sat down with a producer who would have been like, “Ok, let’s put some more acoustic guitars on this and some really cheesy strings,” or whatever, and make this pretty little folk record, and that’s so far removed from anything I ever want to do.
It must be really frustrating to have people keep putting you in that box. How do you try and counter that?
Being branded something I totally wasn’t was frustrating early on, especially when I hadn’t even released much music at all. It’s kind-of easing off now. And when I do see the odd thing about it, it doesn’t bug me because I know what’s coming February 16th and it’s not going to fit those preconceptions. There are always going to be people that are going to see you differently to how you think you are, but you just have to get a thick skin, brush it off and focus on whatever you are doing, and make sure you’re happy with it.
Lyrically, the album feels quite primal, like there’s this undercurrent of violence. The imagery reminds us of Angela Carter’s writing.
Yeah, dark, fairytale-esque. I’m very interested in the primal aspect of humans, and how we are ashamed of it. So I like to reference all the stuff that’s common to us all that people seem to find so disgusting: blood, water, flesh, bones and skin. I think you can conjure up really strong imagery when you are using something that everyone can relate to.
I do think that on this record I moved away from doing that so much. There’s a freedom in the lyrics that wasn’t there before. I think I’m not hiding behind the abstract any more, I’m being more honest. And that’s reflected in the guitar parts too; they’re much more free. I wrote quite anal songs before, in the sense that I’ve always been quite neat when it comes to art. I think I’ve opened it up a bit, which is a relief. I think that confidence comes from getting better at my instrument, and having a different mindset thanks to growing up, moving away from home and all that stuff.
Presumably, if you had written your debut album two years ago it would sound very different. Did you purposely give yourself that time to evolve as a songwriter?
Yeah, 100%, definitely. I look back at the records I was making two years ago and I’m not embarrassed by them, because they’re charming in their naivety. But to think I could have put myself out there as an artist in that sense with a début record is quite terrifying; that idea that could have been what I was going to be associated with for the rest of my career… It was vital for me to have two years of really exploring different sounds, learning new production technique, growing as a songwriter, and then sit down and record a proper full-length record that, I think, really reflects me. don’t think I am ever going to turn around and look back at this album, like, “Oh Marika, what were you doing?”
Is being afforded that time the reason you signed with an independent label?
Yeah, definitely. There were [major label] contracts put in front of me dictating what producers I would work with, and I knew there was always going to be someone sitting on my shoulder when I was in the studio. Dirty Hit have just allowed me to do exactly what I want; no one came in to check that we had the 3 minute 20 second single.
I think it’s so refreshing that they allow artists to do that, because you have to. This industry is such a machine, just churning out stuff that they know is going to stick in peoples’ brains. I think we need artists to be allowed time to just mess around and do different stuff. Change is scary for anyone, but it’s necessary to push boundaries and create new sounds. And there are so many records that seem inaccessible on the first listen – like alt-J’s debut – but then you keep listening and realise it’s absolutely incredible.
Sometimes they’re the most enduring albums.
Exactly. You listen to them again and again and again, and they never get boring because there is so much there. I think everyone is so scared of allowing musicians to have time; everyone has to do really well on their first release.
I’m actually not fussed about how this record does in terms of it charting. I’d just like listeners to think that it’s something a bit different – and hopefully a bit more refreshing – than all the stuff that’s out there at the moment. I would love it if people would get in there and give it more than one listen, explore all those different aspects, and let the growers grow. Whatever happens, I know I’ve got a true reflection of myself out there, and I’ve got the time to make another one and another one. I’m not planning on stopping doing this any time soon, so there really is no hurry.