For many, birthdays are a time for well-earned relaxation or reckless abandon. But not Laura Marling, who, for the last few years, has been hard at work each February 1st. In her native Britain, the neo-folkie's debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim was released on her 18th birthday.
"So I spent my birthday night doing an album-launch gig at a famous gay strip club in London," she recalls. "Which was weird, but fun, and it did turn into a celebration."
This year, Marling spent the day holed up in a Hollywood hotel room doing interviews to promote her sophomore set, I Speak Because I Can.
Marling was just 17 when her first EP, My Manic & I, caused an immediate stir in the U.K. with her stark, minimalist take on traditional folk and Sandy-Denny-classy warble, as well as her ghostly complexion and long, snow-white hair (which was recently trimmed and dyed a warm auburn). But now, she chuckles, "I'm three years older and hopefully three years wiser, although that's not been confirmed yet. So I guess I'm on my way to becoming an adult, weirdly enough.
"Over the past few years I've had to learn how to deal with people on an adult level. I was quite shy when I started, and I've now learned that it's a necessity to be able to converse. Plus, I'm all over the world now, living out of a suitcase."
Produced by Ethan John, I Speak Because I Can ranges from the punk-urgent "Devil's Spoke" — featuring her longtime backing band Mumford & Sons, whose frontman Marcus Mumford she's currently dating — to the more reflective seasonal song, "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)." There's a bright, bold aura of confidence throughout, the kind of professionalism you might expect from an artist twice her age.
These days Mumford no longer has the time to tour behind his missus, thanks to the overnight success of his own band's debut, Sigh No More. But he has nothing but praise for Marling. "Her new album is the real deal," he declares. "And I truly think she's one of the best songwriters of our generation."
Another overseas artist, Beans On Toast, has already penned an awkward ode to her dubbed "I Fancy Laura Marling," with the age-specific couplet "She's already got her man / He's probably in her science class, holding her hand."
Marling grew up in the tiny English hamlet of Eversley, devouring Victorian literature and learning blues guitar from her father. At 16, she became fascinated with mortality, while dreaming that she'd lived in the early 1800s ("because of the dark romanticism of the Bronte era," she explains). The Grim Reaper still haunts her work, she adds, "because the things that are motives for me, as a writer, are love, death and birth. I think folk is a natural genre to take on those things."
As for the birthday thing, Marling did, this time, pause long enough to buy herself a nice present – a classic rosewood Martin guitar from the '70s. In fact, there was only one aspect of her 20th birthday that depressed her. She wanted to go out and imbibe some celebratory alcohol, she sighs. "But I couldn't! I'm not of age yet in America!"