INTERVIEW: Marika Hackman

As she sets out on her biggest solo UK tour to date, we got Marika Hackman on the blower to have a chat about grizzly Werewolf encounters with Laura Marling and forming a Steely Dan tribute band.. We’ll grant her a lie-in, as she’s already had her fair share of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, boasting a particularly impressive folk/indie-rock résumé. Having toured with the likes of Alt-J, The Antlers, Johnny Flynn and Sivu and following the release of her stunning debut, We Slept At Last, the young songwriter is already establishing herself as sharp lyricist and a remarkable talent.

Congratulations on the release of We Slept At Last. Firstly, I think the ‘nu-folk pigeonholing’ has at last been put to bed by everybody. 

Yeah, finally, I hope so. Fingers crossed!

Part of the appeal of the album is that it’s hard to pin down, there’s grunge, psychedelia etc. Was pushing the parameters and experimenting important to you on this record?

Yeah, I think so. I think I did a lot of experimenting and questioning on the sort of choir theme. I definitely don’t think when I’m making a record, “Right I’m going to make one that’s all going to be grunge or whatever”. I just take it track by track and whatever the track sort of screams out for I just go with. So I end up with something that’s got quite a few different genres on it for the final record. Hopefully they all stick together.

Are there any songs in particular that surprised you in the direction they went?

No, it kind of all felt right, you know? It felt really fun having a song like ‘Open Wide’ on there, a really grungy one. On ‘Animal Fear’ where it’s just kind of crazy, with the gun shots and the stuff like that; it never really seems surprising, it’s just like “Yep that makes sense in my strange brain”.

Your songwriting process seems quite cathartic, do you ever find the meaning of songs reveal themselves after you’ve recorded them?

Yeah, sometimes. Particularly with the older songs because I think, as I’m growing up a bit, I’m able to process the stuff as it happens a bit better. I can definitely recognise it as it’s going along. Stuff I was writing when I was eighteen/nineteen, I suddenly realised six months down the line, “Oh I thought that was totally abstract and I was coming up with a strange lot of stories – but oh no, it’s completely relating back to the instant or that”. I feel with ‘We Slept At Last’ the lyrics are much more frank and open.  Appropriate for the time and space I was in when I was writing them.

The album has been referred to lyrically as ‘dark’. There is rawness and quite a carnal and animalistic element to your lyrics. You seem both vulnerable and empowered. Was this desired effect? 

Yeah and I think, yes definitely the lyrics are dark at face value and if you just read them off a sheet they’re extremely dark. But what I find funny with lyrics is they take on a whole new meaning when they’re sung to a tune. So I think in a way I offset the darkness with quite a hopeful melody, that’s quite playful and goes to unexpected places. It’s just not weighing it heavily down, which I think makes the lyrics a lot more palpable. It actually gives them a whole different meaning because, yeah like you say, they are dark but there’s empowerment in there, there’s pain, growth, transformation. Those are all themes that I was dealing with and it can get dark, but it was just part of a process, which is what the records all about.

You seem to take influence from a range of different sources: Shakespeare, Robert Frost, True Detective. Do you find literature, film and art naturally inform a lot of your music?

I think so. I don’t know how aware of it I am when I’m actually in the process of the writing and creating. But yeah, it all goes in, it must come out of somewhere. It’s funny with ‘Ophelia’ I’d written half of the song and the whole time I was working on it, I’d had the image of a painting by Walter Hunt, where she’s lying in the river and for some reason that had been in my head. Then I was trying to find that picture and I thought “Of course that picture of Ophelia” and then I looked back on the lyrics I’d written up to that point and I thought “Oh my god, it’s just perfect”. It was very bizarre, I don’t know why that image was in my head; it was not a conscious decision.

Whereas something like ‘Claude’s Girl’, which references Debussy, that was something where the melody slightly replicated the intro of the ‘Girl With The Flaxen Hair’ and so then I decided to write the lyrics around that. So it wasn’t a very conscious thing of “Ok, I’m going to write a song about that”. 

The darkness presented in your lyrics is captured perfectly by Glen Erler’s accompanying photographs. How did you find that collaboration? 

Yeah, well I kind of discovered him on an art blog doing my art foundation and used his work in every sketchbook I ever did and for every single reference. I saw his images and they just evoke exactly the thing that I’m trying to evoke in my music, it fits perfectly. Then I saw the picture of the girl on the bed and that had to be the cover. This was when we were in the final stages of getting the artwork together. We got in contact with him and he said “Well, why don’t we work together” and I was totally star struck when I met up with him. It’s just like amazing, I’m his number one fan and now he’s just my buddy.

So with the music videos as well, would you say you’re trying to create a whole package to convey one artistic vision? 

It’s all got to be coherent. I think although all my videos are quite different they definitely get across a very similar vibe. The ‘Animal Fear’ video is a very stark contrast to the other videos I’ve done; it’s kind of playful and upbeat, like the song. However at the same time it is still about me turning into a Werewolf and eating my band with blood flying everywhere, so it still has a bit of umm fear. Then with ‘Drown’ I want to say it’s understated, even though it’s very impressive in production. It’s a simple idea but it still focuses around being very intense and haunting.

Your videos are quite gutsy and definitely attention grabbing. ‘Animal Fear’ for me is the standout. Did you ever anticipate one day you’d be dragging poor old Laura across the floor to devour her? 

Maybe not like a year ago! But then we decided it would be quite funny.

Speaking of Laura, you’ve worked and toured with some very talented people. Is there anybody in particular that’s had a significant impact on you and your work? 

Yeah, I feel touring with Laura was amazing. The fact it was Australia and Europe as well. We were playing shows abroad it was the perfect meeting and the crowds and shows were just amazing and wonderful to play. Touring with Alt-J was insane because it was huge venues, which I’d never expected to play, performing before a band that I really respected and admire. So that was really thrilling.

When you get a support slot right and it’s matched well, it’s so rewarding. You really feel like you’re part of a whole evening together and it all makes sense. But everyone I’ve performed with it’s been a really great learning curve and it’s the sort of getting out there and doing it, you kind of show yourself what you’re capable of and how far you can push yourself.

We’ve been following your Spotify playlist; would we be right in thinking you keep pretty up-to-date with new music and new releases?

Actually I’m really bad at listening to music and finding new music like that. I’m truly awful because I don’t really play that much music generally. I tend to spend time when I’m not in the studio or touring or whatever, just reading and watching TV and not being surrounded by noise. Also it’s that classic thing of when you get asked about it your mind goes completely blank, which is terrifying particularly on live radio. Cause on Twitter and stuff I’m always spotting little things, but I can never remember the names. It’s really tricky but I’ve got two lovely girls coming on tour with me next month, I’ve got Charlotte Carpenter and Sophie Jamieson who are both really talented. So I’m really happy they’ll be hanging out with me and performing.

It’s a question you’re always asked, “Who are your influences?” and you’ve spoken about being inspired by a lot of music. Hypothetically, if you were to form a tribute band of say your favourite artist, who would you pick? 

Steely Dan… or Frank Zappa, something ridiculous that was really pushing it. But I’d want to hit the bass or drums, I wouldn’t be on guitar or singing. You’ll never get another Marika Hackman record. Maybe we’ll call ourselves ‘Nearly Dan’…

Oh I’m sure I’ve seen a Nearly Dan tribute, hmm I think it’s taken.

Ahh damn it. It’s so challenging but really rewarding to play.

Off on a tangent – I recently read an interview with Laura Marling in The Guardian and read your interview from January and some of the people commenting latched onto the idea of your background, and seemed hung-up on this. What are your thoughts on this? Is this something you’ve experienced before?

Yeah, I get comments about my accent and stuff on Twitter. It’s just like *yawn* “Are we still doing this, like really?” It’s just so frustrating and just something that doesn’t need to be discussed. People don’t know shit about my background really apart from the fact I went to a posh school. But I was there paying fees and whilst I was there I understood how lucky I was that I was there and I didn’t take it for granted. At the end of the day you can’t help at all where/how you grow up and it’s ridiculous it still needs to be discussed, it hasn’t affected at all how I write or anything like that or my musicality. I was just incredibly lucky to have an experience like that growing up. I don’t understand why it has to be used as a negative. It’s never going to stop really but it’s incredibly frustrating.

I can imagine how annoying it becomes, people seem to focus on this and ignore the music behind it. 

Yeah, I’ve seen comments on Twitter and someone’s commented on my accent being like “Ohh yada yada yada” and then their mate has been like “Oh but actually have a listen… it’s actually ok, apart from that” It’s like “what? Listen to the music, stop worrying about my background”. 

You’ve mentioned how you fear sitting still or growing stale – what can we expect next?

Well I’m trying to write for album no. 2 and when it’s all done ‘written wise’, I’ll look at in which direction I want to take it. I’m really excited! I want to kind of get back into the swing of it and really do a lot of writing on this tour coming up.

Marika Hackman is now on tour. 

Saturday 11 April – Aldershot, West End Centre

Sunday 12 April – Bedford, Esquires

Tuesday 14 April – Cambridge, Portland Arms

Wednesday 15 April – Southampton, Joiners


David Weir