English singer-songwriter Laura Marling has taken on a darker hue of late -- and not just in her recent murky music videos, nor in her apparent switch from blond to brunette. On I Speak Because I Can, released in March on Virgin Records, Marling explores a more shadowed, mature style, backed with assured and nuanced arrangements of her songs. And, of course, there's no mistaking the infectious pitch-black magic of her album's opening track, "Devil's Spoke."
That sense of maturity is partly due to her musical inheritance from a previous generation; while Joni Mitchell and Martha Wainwright are often mentioned as her influences, there's also dad, who taught Marling to play guitar in a ringing British-folk style.
"All my stylistic choices come from him and the way that he taught me guitar," Marling says, via phone from London. "And the things I was brought up on were like John Martyn and Pentangle and Fairport Convention. And then my mom was more into Bob Dylan and Neil Young and that kind of thing." Marling's contemporary favorites include Vetiver and harpist Joanna Newsom.
If it seems odd to bring up one's parents, Marling is still a minor in the estimation of a dozen or so countries. Reaching an audience at 16 and barely 18 when her first album (Alas I Cannot Swim) came out in 2008, she was among the youngest ever nominated for the Mercury Prize, an award for the year's best album from Ireland or the U.K. (Elbow won that year, but Marling was in good company -- the 10 other nominees included Radiohead and British Sea Power.)
"I don't think [my youth] is a good thing to be known for -- it's not good to be known for anything other than being good at what you do," she says. "And I can feel a little bit patronized." But the real problem? "In England, I've been drinking since I was 16, and doing it responsibly. And then when I go to America, I feel incredibly patronized when someone says I can't drink."
When Marling plays The Andy Warhol Museum on Sat., May 8, she'll have a full band -- two long-time members and a rotating rhythm section, covering "cello, banjo, piano and drums, and bass." Early on, Marling was a member of Noah and the Whale, and she occasionally guests with others in London's young indie-folk circles, including Mumford and Sons, her frequent backing band. She's also released three EPs around her main albums ("Night Terror," from the My Manic and I EP, is just as nocturnal and heart-pounding as the name suggests).
For I Speak Because I Can, Marling, the Mumford crew and producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams) retired to Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios. "It's in the West Country, in the middle of nowhere -- lovely," recalls Marling. "It's just an incredibly beautiful place, for a start. And then, all the equipment there is top notch. It's all analog, it's all the real deal, and they've got some of the best engineers in England working there. And it's just so easy. It was such a pleasure recording there, in the middle of English summer."
The result was a seemingly simple album built upon Marling's natural voice and acoustic guitar -- a core displayed disarmingly on the appropriately titled "Made by Maid." But from that starting point, it can blossom suddenly, as when the backing instruments kick in on the second verse of the Dylanesque "Rambling Man" in a bracing splash of color.
Her sound can also veer into darker territory, reminiscent of Kate Bush at her most witchily Celtic, as on "Alpha Shallows." Over a gloomy waltz, Marling sings, "Ah, the grey in this city is too much to bear / and I believe we're meant to be seen and not to be understood." At other times, she brings to mind the mournful confessionals of early Leonard Cohen ("What He Wrote") and Beatles-y psych ("Darkness Descends").
Marling is already planning a new album, which she hopes to begin recording in June. "It's quite nice, if it feels right, to do them in quick succession. I'm still in music mode at the moment," she says. She also hopes to be more hands-on with the production and arrangements this time, and is exploring some broader conceptual ideas.
"I feel like there could be something quite interesting in having something musical that links it all together," Marling says. "Something that makes it a concise piece of work -- makes an album sound concise and like it should be listened to in that order. But hopefully not in a pretentious way or an intimidating way."
Laura Marling with Smoke Fairies and The Middle East 8 p.m. Sat., May 8. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. $15. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org
- Because she can: Laura Marling