I’m proud to say English folk musician Laura Marling and I have a few things in common: we were both born in the South-East of England, both grew up in Hampshire, and were both educated in Reading, at institutions across the road from each other.
Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. At the age of 18, Laura had recorded her debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim. At the same age, I had moved out of my parents’ house. By 20, she had received her first Mercury Music Prize nomination, played Glastonbury Festival and recorded her second album with members of Mumford and Sons. At the same age I tried haggis for the first time.
Now, at the hardly ripe-old-age of 25, Laura is currently touring the world in support of her fifth album of self-penned tunes, the Americana-influenced Short Movie – her rockiest collection yet. Midweek at the Enmore Theatre and an array of colourful characters have come to see Marling’s first Sydney show in two years. She strolls on stage before the lights even go down, with only a double bassist and drummer for back-up. As the spotlight shines on Marling, she looks to the ceiling and starts to serenade a silent audience, the low buzz of traffic from Enmore Road still audible.
The first four of tonight’s songs are from her masterful Once I was an Eagle album; jazzy and loose, they segue from one to the next. Telling lyrics such as “Every girl is so naïve, falling in love with the first man that she sees” receive knowing looks from girls in front of me.
“Loza”, as an audience member addresses her, thanks the crowd for a “very Australian welcome” and from then on is in a refreshingly talkative mood, describing her unusual guitar tuning, her last visit to the Enmore as an audience member, and the “rather morbid” story behind the lyrics to the wistful “Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)”. Her drummer Dan also gets chatty, asking the audience’s opinion whether he can get pull off wearing shades on stage; jeers from the crowd said he couldn’t.
Marling’s mix of material from all five of her albums marks a variety of styles – from country and western (including a spirited version of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”), to blues, Gaelic and old English and even classical techniques, as demonstrated expertly by fingerpicking on “Night After Night”.
We’re also treated to an early cut: “Ghosts” from her first album is still charming; a short, sharp piece of acoustic-pop complete with affected London accent, it reminded Marling of “being 16 and dropping my Ts”. Since those early days, her vocals have grown and matured ahead of any of her female peers. Rich, sultry, and full of endearing cadences, she sounds like a world-weary woman with lessons in love that span decades.
Her set list covers a range of moods, so while one minute I want to sing, dance, and hug strangers, the next I feel like sitting on a cliff edge at night, staring intently into the sea, getting steadily drunk on red wine.
The only problem is that because her studio recordings are so damn perfect, tonight’s simple set-up could not quite match some of them. Notably, her drummer’s singing, however capable, could not match Marling’s own backing on the records while the gospel-style organ that adds so much flavour to “Once” was absent. And “Master Hunter” – a bluesy hoedown of a tune, with its clattery tin-pan drums and southern drawl – was one of the tracks that Marling sung down a couple of keys, almost half-spoken – not a patch on the studio version.
That said, her voice soars when she wants it to; “Sophia” turns from gentle acoustic lament to the most uplifting heartland-rock conclusion that makes you realise life, is in fact, great. And with “How Can I”, Marling and her band leave us on a reflective note; stark and personal, its lyrics “I would go anywhere with you” and “How can I live without you?” leave her sounding uncharacteristically vulnerable. The lights brighten and we leave on a loved-up note.
Aside from everything else, so much achieved at such a young age is just part of what makes Laura Marling so stunning. She should be massive, and in another 20 years I imagine her vast and critically acclaimed back catalogue will be very hard to ignore. I can’t wait to see where she’ll go next.