“This is the first time I’ve played in America, full stop. It’s pretty amazing. It’s probably, like, the most perfect, wonderful tour that I could have had bring me into America for the first time, so I feel very excited and lucky now that I’m here.”
Singer/songwriter Marika Hackman is currently in the States, supporting her friend Laura Marling and alongside other support act Johnny Flynn on a tour of North America, and despite not fully enjoying the heat of our summer, she’s having a great time. We’re sat in a break room high above the 9:30 Club stage where she will play later, and in between our words, you can hear snatches of Flynn sound checking downstairs. On a nearby counter, a hostess plate of 9:30 Club cupcakes are alongside an exceedingly large bowl of salsa and an equally massive bowl of tortilla chips. We begin by chatting a bit about her early beginnings as an artist. Her approach to songwriting, even early on, has been pretty unique.
“It’s a funny one. When I was learning piano, when I was in nursery when I was really little, when I was about 5 years old, I was writing songs on the piano. So it’s always something that I’ve just done. Then I started to learn the bass, the drums, and then joined bands and stuff and playing in them. Then when I hit 13, I picked up a guitar and started to teach myself. That was when I really started to write, but I don’t know what made me do that. I just have done it, always.
“My parents were also keen on me and my brother (producer Hackman) learning music instruments, so there always instruments around the house growing up. I didn’t want to learn them, I wanted to write songs on them…There’s no instrument where I felt that (wanting to be a virtuoso on them), apart from the drums. But that was because you can’t really write on the drums! And I wanted to be really, really good on drums. So I used to practise hard on that. But everything else, it was always about writing songs and music.”
Marika Hackman performing at the 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, 31 July 2015
I ask her if being a solo artist is the most comfortable mode for her. “I was in silly school bands. But in terms of my actual serious songwriting stuff, I think I would find it hard to write with other people. I’m very private about it, I write at home alone in my room, and I’m fine with taking it to the studio once it’s done, and then me and Charlie (Andrew, her longtime producer), we collaborate on it to come up with production ideas and bring other people in. I think I’m too shy. I get embarrassed. It’s one of those things. If you were doing a painting and you’d only done half of it, that’s not what you want to put up in the gallery, you don’t want people seeing that. So I don’t want people to hear sort of half-done songs or hear me making funny noises and making mistakes. I want people to hear the finished product.”
In late 2014, Hackman moved to London. She had been friends with Marling for some time, so it makes perfect sense that Marling would bring Hackman along for a North American campaign once Hackman had a major release under her belt. The atmosphere on this tour feels entirely convivial too. “We became friends a couple of years ago, I actually toured in Australia with Laura, and then we toured Europe together. We stayed in touch and when I moved to London, she lived very nearby. It’s just one of those things, you’re with touring musicians, so we’re like-minded people, generally, and we’ve grown to be friends. It’s been really nice, to be able to come over on a tour like this, it’s just fun. It doesn’t feel like work. Touring can feel very drawn out and very stressful and long, but this kind of feels like I’m on holiday with a few mates and playing a few shows.”
I asked Marika if her prolific and now very industry-experienced friend has had any advice for her, especially being a female singer/songwriter in a male-dominated field. “We discuss stuff a lot. We discuss being a woman in the singer/songwriter world a lot, we have a lot of strong views that we agree [on]. In terms of advice, with this sort of relationship, I don’t think anyone would sit down and go, ‘I’m going to give you some advice. Listen up’. We spend a lot of time talking and I’ve learned a lot…But of course she knows so much about the industry, she’s been doing this for 10 years. You kind of learn by absorbing and watching. Particularly on tours, earlier on when I used to get really nervous, it was very nice to feel very calm with someone before I was going on stage and before she was going on stage. I could just enjoy myself.”
A lot of press releases when Hackman first appeared on the scene stated that she was from Brighton, but that’s not entirely true. Hackman did a 1-year art foundation course in Brighton but is originally from Hampshire and after living in Brighton, she had a spell living in Devon with her parents. I ask her how much effect, if any, her environment has on her songwriting. “When I was living at my parents’ house, which is kind of the middle of the countryside, it was kind of much more about nature references, whereas when I moved up to London, you can hear more literature references and things I was reading [in my songs]. But I think the main shift has been in growing up, and experiencing more life, reading more books, and learning more things about yourself. You can hear that across all of my music, rather than any sort of clear inspirations.”
We turn our attention to Marika’s debut album ‘We Slept at Last’, which was released back in February on Dirty Hit Records. I ask her how she decided on its title, and it turns out its selection was directed more by the cover art than anything else. “Naming stuff, like songs and records, is my least favourite thing to do. I hate doing it! So it was the last thing I did with this record, to finally name it. It’s actually a bit of a cheat…I picked lots of lyrics [from the songs of this album] that jumped out at me that I thought would be appropriate, wrote them in a list and went through them, read them over and over again.
“Then I was looking for the artwork [to use on the album cover], and I saw this picture by a photographer I love called Glen Erler of a girl on a bed. And I just thought, I had a feeling that that *has* to be the photo for it. And of course, as soon as I saw that, then ‘we slept at last’ jumped out at me. I also think [the title] is very appropriate, there’s also lots of sleep references throughout the album, and there’s a sense of relief and giving into yourself and letting it be. And just being able to turn off and that’s it after the whole journey you go through over 12 tracks, and it’s that final closing down. Being.”
Hackman has been working a long time now with producer Charlie Andrew, who these days is most famous for producing alt-J‘s music, including their 2012 Mercury Prize-winning ‘An Awesome Wave’. Seeing that her musical style and alt-J’s aren’t alike at all, I asked her how her and Andrew’s collaboration began and how it works in the studio. She has nothing but praise for him. “Oh, it’s so much fun. We’ve worked together now for 3 years. And we’d never met before we worked in a studio together, and yet we worked together very well. He’s now one of my very, very good friends, and he’s a lovely, lovely guy. And it’s just very easy.
“We have similar ideas. I love what he can bring to my tracks. He gets very dirty sounds out of amps and guitars and things, but there’s still a lot of space on the record. There’s loads of room to breathe, for the vocals to speak and the music to speak, or even a little twinkling thing that’s far off to come to the front. He’s an absolute genius. It’s basically a lot of fun and we sit around, he puts random instruments in front of me and I play with them, make a few weird noises, a few accidents, and then he’ll go, ‘god, that’s great!’ And yeah, then we sort it out that way.” There’s no doubt in Hackman’s mind that she will be working with Andrew again on her next release (I’m pretty sure that’s an exclusive, by the way.)
Two Christmases ago, Marika went on a tour of England with another favourite artist here at TGTF, Sivu. “Oh god, I love Sivu…When I first met Charlie, he also produced Sivu’s album (‘Something on High’, one of my top 5 albums of 2014), he was always going on and on about him, ‘Sivu, you gotta hear his stuff’. So eventually I did hear it, I thought, ‘he’s amazing, he’s great’. We started hanging out, because you’re in the studio and I met him a few times. And we decided to do a co-headline tour.
“He had this track he wanted me to sing on (‘I Hold’), so I thought as part of the promotion for the tour, I could then have a track that he would sing on (‘Skin’, which appears on ‘We Slept at Last’). So we went in and recorded both of those, and we just had them on tapes that we gave away…He’s part of that sort of Charlie Andrew crew that’s so nice to be a part of, so everyone’s so close and sweet…These are the kinds of relationships in this industry that keep you sane, basically.”
‘Next Year’ is Hackman’s single that is currently on the BBC 6 Music playlist as of the week of 27 July 2015, and the themes of time and change suggested to me that it was written during a time of upheaval. She agrees. “There’s a lot of change themes going through the whole record, but in that [song] it’s definitely very explicitly written. It was the start, really, of the change [in my life]. I came out of a very long-term relationship right at the beginning of the year, and that’s when I wrote that, and I wrote that before [the break-up], it’s almost [got] that sense of knowing before that wave hits. Then I moved up to London and moved away from my parents’ house. The whole year was just quite full of new experiences, feeling quite isolated and lonely but also kind of liking it. So I’m glad you could hear that on it.”
One of the things that most impresses me about Marika’s style of songwriting is that fact that she can say so much and you feel so much emotion through her music, without her feeling the need to hit you over the head in sound or effects. She tells me about a time when she was younger and realised this was possible and one better, how to achieve it. “Once I was putting on a small concert with friends at school. It was just something we were putting on the school’s little common room, and we were deciding whether or not to bring some amps in. My friend said, ‘actually, you know what, if we bring amps in, everyone’s going to chat. But if we just have acoustic guitars, everyone will listen’.
“If it’s not coming at you really loudly, then you *have* to listen, because then you can’t hear very well, and everyone shuts up. It really stuck with me, and it’s something that I think Charlie was good at registering for the album as well. When you hold back a little bit, you invite people into your world, rather than trying to shout it at them. So that way, they can really get involved and listen to all the different things that are going on, rather than just have a wall of sounds.” She also confides in me that the one time I’ve had a chance prior to see her perform live, an acoustic set in Brighton at the Unitarian Church during the The Great Escape 2013, was one of her favourite live shows ever. I’m glad she still has a fondness for intimate gigs, and it keeps me hopeful that we will still get a chance to see her play in such venues in the future.
I ask her what’s up next for her. Although she has only just released her debut album this year, she’s already gotten to work and been very busy writing new material. You can tell she’s very energised about her future. “I think the plan is to write the [second] record – I’m about halfway through – get that done and then get straight into the studio so we’re done with the next one. I’m very excited to get back in there.” And I’m very excited to hear what this extremely talented and still so young singer/songwriter has show to the world next.
Many thanks to Ed and Mark for sorting this interview with me, and a big thank you to Marika for kindly chatting with me before her first show ever in Washington.