Reversing the muse: musician Laura Marling on her quest for more women studio engineers

The singer-songwriter is campaigning for more female representation behind the scenes in the music industry.

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It has often been said that Laura Marling is wise beyond her years. Her debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, came out days after her 18th birthday to immediate critical acclaim. Just eight years down the line, she has released five albums, experimenting with influences from folk, country, indie rock, jazz and Indian raga.

But when I meet her in north London, she is more preoccupied with gender roles in the music industry than which genre she will dabble in next. The Hampshire-born musician is in the midst of working on a project called Reversal of the Muse, which is born out of a series of conversations with female musicians and professionals she has had, and aims to highlight the stark lack of women working as studio engineers in the industry. For Marling, it’s simple: “Reversing the muse means taking away the subjugating role of being the object.”

A conversation in her adopted home of America with the Haim sisters led her to talk to the band’s engineers. In turn, she spoke to Vanessa Parr, a rare female in-house engineer at Village Studios, Los Angeles. Reels of these conversations – taking the form of interviews – are due to be released as podcasts this week. These discussions are at the heart of the Reversal of the Muse project.

Back across the Atlantic, Marling has put her experiment into action, arranging sessions in Urchin Studios, Hackney, where she recorded her 2015 album Short Movie. Each day a different female sound engineer has been in to record with all-women acts including current successes Shura, Marika Hackman and The Big Moon.

Marling will later tell me that fiery indie four-piece The Big Moon are one of the few contemporary bands she is currently listening to. “They haven’t actually spent much time in a studio, but they are making their [debut] record with Catherine Marks, which is really unusual. They’ve only ever worked with a woman, and that’s so cool.”

I ask what the outcome of this time spent recording in a female-dominated environment is. Any breakthrough gender theories? Marling laughs.

“The funny thing was that, in my mind, I thought we would discover that there was some great big hole in female creativity that’s been missing from the studio environment,” she says. “But actually, with the engineers that we’ve mostly been focusing on, we discovered that women are obviously just as capable as men at doing that exact job.”

Marling seems amused at this rather unexciting outcome. She continues: “It seems really silly because it was a comfortingly mundane result. It’s not like we discovered something huge. It’s just like ‘uh!’, we did it. It was really easy. Simple.”

But gender isn’t simple. It’s a topic Marling has been focusing on for a while now, reading, admiring the works of and listening to interviews with a succession of inspirational female creatives. Beaming, she tells me “Lou Salomé, Anaїs Nin and Leonora Carrington – they are my Holy Trinity.”

Lou Andreas-Salomé was the first female psychoanalyst in a male-dominated industry; she worked alongside the likes of Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche. She was a woman who took control over her own sexuality and “used it to expand her academic and intellectual work”, according to Marling. Anaїs Nin was the first woman to, from the 1940s onwards, write extensive works of erotica. The explosion of the 1960s feminist movement made Nin’s published writings important feminist works.

But it was Leonora Carrington who inspired the title of the project. The surrealist British painter, who had fallen in love with the German artist Max Ernst before the outbreak of war, ended up in Mexico after fleeing mental asylums. Marling insists on Carrington’s genius. “She wasn’t insane; she was just really far-out. Her whole thing was: ‘I have no time to be your muse’. She was obsessed with becoming the most capable painter possible.”

Marling has long toyed with the idea of the muse. In fact, the first track on 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know is “The Muse”. On “Saved These Words”, the final number on 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle, Marling bellows: “He was my next verse”. It is a lyric that considers those surrounding Marling as her calculated artistic inspiration.

Has she had a muse herself? “I don’t know if I’ve done it consciously. But sometimes you just meet people who are extraordinarily vibrant, in some way. And you don’t have to possess them, you can just observe them.”

She recalls Carolee Schneemann’s 1964-67 short film, Fuses. “It’s a piece of art that I saw quite young, maybe too young, because it’s quite saucy. It’s her making love to her partner. They’re being witnessed by a cat,” she says. Quite a lot of the camera is focused on them both: it doesn’t fetishise the female body in any way. It’s not at all sexy. It’s definitely not pornographic but you can’t really put your finger on why.

“I remember there’s a scene where she’s kind of looking towards the camera, or past the camera, and there’s a possessiveness over her lover. I always found that image really intriguing and I’ve sort of subconsciously embodied that in my writing quite a lot because, well – Leonora Carrington was the one who put it into words, but I was never interested in being anyone’s muse either.”