Over drinks at a sterile hotel bar on Manhattan's Upper West Side, British-born folkie Laura Marling mentions that she spent the better part of last year in pseudo-retirement, in Los Angeles. Unsatisfied with the early stages of a record she'd started to make in December of 2013, she scrapped what she had and "forced" herself to take a break. It was the first time she'd settled down in one place for more than three weeks since she left her home in the rural town of Eversley to begin her musical career. Starting at age 16, she quickly churned out four albums of sprightly, nuanced tunes in the tradition of Bert Jansch, and established a reputation as one of the brightest young voices in a resurgent London folk scene. "I spent a year away from everybody that had anything to do with music," says the soft-spoken musician, now 24. "I just lived a normal life again. All of a sudden I was an alone and insecure twentysomething in Los Angeles, just like everyone else."
After picking up a "service-y" job to pay the bills, Marling settled into a "practical, monotonous" new life, hoping to shake herself out of the introverted songwriting that had filled her previous efforts. "I couldn't waste my time anymore being such a self-indulgent narcissist," she explains between sips from a glass of Malbec. Marling had never intended to leave music behind forever, but she says she almost never came back. "I have no idea how I spent my time; it just sort of happened, and it was fucking hard work," she remembers. "I was really worried that I'd never write a song again."
But in the July of her lost year, for reasons she can't entirely explain, Marling finally decided to start plucking around on her guitar again. She reunited the group of musicians she'd disbanded before her stripped-down fourth album, Once I Was an Eagle, and knocked out her new LP, Short Movie, in just a couple of weeks. Full of hazy drones, expansive string arrangements, and, for the first time, electric guitar work from Marling herself, it's probably her most instrumentally diverse record to date, while still retaining the more ramshackle, "first thought, best thought" approach she'd begun to employ the last time around. Her voice is throaty and self-assured, and the songwriting reveals a wider-angle focus. Unlike her early records, Short Movie largely shuns personal narratives of "chance or circumstance or romance"—to borrow one of her lyrics from Once I Was an Eagle. Instead, she's made her otherworldly storytelling just a little more fractured and a little more vague, focusing her gaze on other people's tales of heartbreak and disaffection rather than just her own. On "How Strange I Love You," she sings about a dedicated husband and father who's just trying to be a good man, taunting, Do you know how hard that is?
The night before our meeting at the hotel bar, as part of a Conor Oberst-headlined show at New York's ornately decorated Beacon Theatre, Marling took the stage solo, her hair newly shorn into a style resembling Carl Dreyer's Joan of Arc, fiercely fingerpicking her way through a pair of thundering and severe new songs. Marling has a reputation for reticence, both in conversation and in live performance, but after spending the past year combating an "existential crisis" of sorts, it's as though she's finally developed the real-life confidence to match her headstrong music. "I don't think this will be what I do for the rest of my life," she muses the following day, reflecting on her time away from the spotlight. "But it's not time to give it up. I'm just tasting the sweetest bit of it right now."