Interview | Folk’s new wonder kid, Marika Hackman, talks literary heroes, anxiety and unexpected music production

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A grey and windy day in London’s Southbank is briefly put on hold by the glowing presence of folk’s newest rising star, Marika Hackman. She’s just taken all her equipment through the Purcell Rooms artists’ entrance and quickly bounds up the backstage stairs – we’re a little slow off the mark and are left behind in her enthusiasm.

Aged just 21, the South Devon singer-songwriter is relaxing before her final date with Ethan Johns at the Purcell Rooms and is clearly excited about the release of Charlie Andrew (Alt-J)-produced EP That Iron Taste.‘I think there are emotions that lie below the surface constantly and you can access these to draw inspiration from,’ she says. ‘The same with a love song I suppose, although I’ve only written one love song and I was in love so that’s not much help. So even if I wrote a song about a giraffe in a night club it would still be personal even if it’s in a completely subconscious way.’

Her music is curious in the way it flicks between delicate ethereal melodies (‘You Come Down’) to more of an industrial sound (‘Bath Is Black’). Describing the process of writing new single ‘Cannibal’- an atmospheric and dark anti-folk marvel – she says, ‘I looked back at the lyrics and what they meant to me and I can see that it’s about the ridiculous level of consumerism that is in society these days, and how we’re fighting our own sort of ‘evolution’ by being too afraid to address it.’ She adds, ‘I guess cutting off your own nose to eat it whilst also trying to deal with the problem that you now don’t like the way you look, is the height of consumerism.’

We discuss music’s obsession with image, and the fear that artists have of being marketed by record labels in a way that’s not comfortable. ‘I don’t fear it because I wouldn’t let it happen,’ she explains clearly. ‘I wouldn’t let myself get into a position where a record label was telling me how I should write my music, or a producer was trying to turn it into formulaic pop. So far I’ve been incredibly lucky with all the people I’ve worked with.’

It all sounds like great news for alt-folk fans of Hackman’s sound, a unique blend of Alt-J, Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn with a sprinkling of Darwin Deez. For a time, the only sounds we’ve heard from Marika (live and recorded) has been a raw and stripped back acoustic sound – but that’s all set to change on the new mini-album. Beautiful and luxurious tracks ‘Bath is Black’ and ‘I’ll Borrow Time’ are given a punchy and meaningful reworking that surpass all expectations.

Her dark wordplay may put off some, but the EP harps back to the days when Simon & Garfunkel and Syd Barret’s beautiful yet creepy brand of folk inspired a generation. You certainly can’t accuse her of indulging in declinism, and looking back at folk’s glory days. She’s very much setting the tone for the future.

Having recently made the common move from the isolated countryside to the buzzing big cities of Brighton and London,  we ask if living in a cut-off place can strongly shape you as a person. ‘I think living in the countryside did affect my writing, I think just being surrounded by nature conjures up strong images in your mind,’ she answers.

Channeling the literary darkness of Sylvia Plath, Hackman’s music perhaps has real life parallels with Plath’s seminal roman a clef, ‘The Bell Jar’, in which a young woman in a dream career in the big city must wrestle with her demons and anxieties. She waxes lyrical about the literary themes that Plath and John Updike both cover: ‘It’s that feeling of disappointment with life and sensing that everyone else is happy to go along with the mundane routines of day to day living, so you feel like an outsider if you don’t appear to be enjoying yourself.’

Such themes of the need for ‘something different’ ring true more than you’d expect. Not content with fitting in with the already saturated female singer-songwriter market, she has, in our opinion, taken alt-folk to a new place full of beautiful, creepy, delicate fury. Today you can’t just be better – you’ve got to be different.

As it’s only a few hours before Hackman takes to the stage in a stripped-down acoustic set in London with Ethan Johns, we discuss the challenges of performing live in front of an audience. The English songstress is open about her struggles, describing anxiety before a performance as ‘hell.’

A pioneering attitude to music seems to be the key theme in Marika’s rise in the alt-folk world – the unusual percussive sounds in Retina Television were made by ‘hitting my stomach, jumping, tapping my tooth and flicking my cheek.’

That Iron Taste  is a fresh and engaging record that takes you on an imaginative journey round the mind of one of folks rising stars. Don’t miss it.

words and photography: Michael Somerville