The day before I spoke to Marcus Mumford in early September, he had met the Pope. Along with a selection of artists including the British actor David Oyelowo and the American film director Darius Marder, the songwriter had been invited to “sit and talk about art” and “beauty” in the Vatican.
Mumford, who grew up in an evangelical Christian family, isn’t “wildly keen” on defining himself as religious now. “I love Jesus, I thought he was dope, so that’s sort of the central part of my faith, and all the trappings and the baggage, I’m not so interested in,” he told me when we met in a west London recording studio in early September. But Pope Francis made an impression on him. “We had a little face-to-face moment. He said: ‘Will you pray for me?’ I went: ‘Yeah! Like, right now.’ So I prayed for him, which was really wicked. I think he’s a good man. I mean – the bar’s pretty low for popes, right? But it strikes me that he’s a dude with integrity.”
Mumford wanted to communicate to Pope Francis his thanks for what he sees as “real steps towards reconciliation”, his “deliberate attempts to reconcile with parts of the community that the Church hasn’t historically done very well with”. He had been impressed by Pope Francis’s apology to indigenous peoples for the “deplorable” abuses they suffered in Canada’s Catholic-run state schools, which operated between 1831 and 1996. The Pope’s acknowledgement of the Church’s wrongdoing felt important to Mumford.
“I think the fact that he was able to go there and say, ‘We fucked up,’ and own it, is a really beautiful model. I don’t think we’re a very forgiving culture, but forgiveness is much easier to access once you see contrition and a desire for transformation.”
The 35-year-old spoke softly, in contrast with the rich and gruff voice in which he addresses stadiums as the lead singer of Mumford & Sons. He slipped easily into earnestness, punctuated occasionally by a high pitched “ha!” when he caught himself being too sincere. He peppered his otherwise serious speech with slang – “dope”, “wicked”, “cool” – yet maintained an evident geekiness. “I don’t know why I’m talking about my tax return to you!” he laughed at one point. “I think it’s because I like paying tax. It pisses me off when people don’t.”
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When I walked into Eastcote Studios, a recording studio tucked behind a row of terraces on a quiet street in Ladbroke Grove, Mumford was blaring music by Sylvan Esso on a powerful set of speakers. After raving about the US electro-pop duo he turned it down, took a seat behind the mixing desk, and swivelled around so he was facing me. It was in this studio that Mumford & Sons, the folk-rock group formed in 2007, recorded their first two albums, Sigh No More (2009) and Babel (2012). Before that, Mumford had been here to record Laura Marling’s debut Alas, I Cannot Swim (2008), on which he played drums.
He encouraged me to take a look at the low ceiling of a small alcove in the room, where there was a mass of Biro graffiti scrawled by other temporary inhabitants of the studio. I could just about make out a handful of names, including the now retired Noah and the Whale, who also grew out of this London “folk” scene, and a couple that have stood the test of time a little better: Adele, the Arctic Monkeys.
Mumford & Sons found huge mainstream success. Their debut record sold more than 1 million copies in the UK and 3 million in the United States; their second won the Grammy for best album. Their anthemic songs – the most raucous of which Mumford described as “big, bumpy, thumpy ones” – led them to headline Glastonbury in 2013.
Yet the privately educated quartet projected a twee Britishness that was easily mocked. They took shallow aesthetic elements of folk – the banjo, scuffed leather boots, a supposed “authenticity” – and filled stadiums with it. “You’d be hard pressed to find a music journalist willing to own up to being a fan,” a 2012 NME blog post reads. “One told me he’d rather defend Hiroshima.”
The look “wasn’t as intentional as I think it now looks”, said Mumford, who was born in California to British parents and grew up in Wimbledon. “We were never a band that set out to be cool, and people want bands to be cool. I mean, I started wearing waistcoats because I was insecure about my weight! I was sitting down, playing drums, and in profile, I got nervous about my belly. I wanted to wear a T-shirt because I sweat like a motherfucker, and I’m playing, playing, playing, so I started wearing waistcoats. I used to wear them over my John Deere T-shirt.”
“I don’t think I regret anything necessarily, but certainly I would do things differently now,” Mumford said – and he does, at least sartorially. For our interview he wore a crisp white T-shirt underneath a camel-coloured shirt, with dark culottes and a smattering of gold jewellery. Slip-on black leather mules dangled off his toes as he sat with one knee crossed over the other, fiddling with a takeaway coffee cup.
Mumford & Sons are still together – if as a smaller unit, of which more later – but he slipped into talking about the group in the past tense, given all that he has been through since the release of their fourth record, Delta, in 2018. The most recent details of his life didn’t feel right for the euphoric ballads that appear on the band’s records, so this month he is releasing his first solo album, Self-Titled. Produced by Blake Mills, who has worked with Marling, Fiona Apple and John Legend, the record also features Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo – two young and distinctly cool American artists. It is his first departure from the band, yet “the most collaborative piece of work I’ve ever done”, he said.
Despite his fame, Mumford believes he has been “hiding”, “letting things be secret and shameful”, for much of his life. In 2019 the people closest to him – including his parents, Eleanor and John Mumford, who work in the Vineyard church movement, and his wife of ten years, the actor Carey Mulligan – intervened to address what had become some dangerous habits: particularly his struggles with alcohol and an unhealthy relationship with food.
Mumford went to see a therapist, and on his first visit found himself talking about the sexual abuse he experienced as a six-year-old. “I hadn’t told anyone or acknowledged that part of my story until then,” he said. As soon as he shared it, “I experienced what many people do: post-traumatic stuff, vomiting and choking and breathing issues, adrenaline and heartbeat going crazy”.
“I can still taste you and I hate it/That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it,” Mumford sings on “Cannibal”, the raw single that opens the record. On the following track, “Grace”, he recalls what it was like to speak to his mother about the abuse, which Mumford said was not inflicted by a family member and did not happen at church.
He realised the “hiding” that had come to affect his daily life had become a “learned behaviour”. He could trace it back to “this event when I was six, but really then a string of events throughout my childhood. I was over-sexualised as a child, from six to 12” – in ways he didn’t want to get into – “probably as a result of this thing. Honestly, it was the luck of the draw that I didn’t turn into a perpetrator of abuse myself as a child, because when you look at the statistics on this stuff, there’s a story behind most people that do pretty heinous things.”
This is why he valued the Pope’s truth-telling, I learned. “Without looking at truth, I don’t think reconciliation’s possible. That’s true in your own self. Looking at the truth, then the freedom it’s led to, for me has been significant and life-changing. Maybe life-saving.”
Writing the record was “therapeutic”, he said. He has done the “healing work” of being able to move the instance of abuse “from the experience part of my brain to the memory part of my brain”, which means he finds it easier to talk about.
Worried about the effects his story may have on others, he took the album’s lyrics to a trauma specialist, and together they went through every line. “I’m not a terrorist, right? I didn’t want to just unleash on people and leave a train of destruction. I feel once you release something you have a responsibility for it, to some extent. I don’t think that means I would be censored, but I was trying to be sensitive.” All the lyrics passed the test.
The thoughtfulness Mumford maintained throughout our conversation might be contrasted with the impression given by the guitar and banjo player Winston Marshall, whom Mumford had met in church as a teenager, when he quit the band in June last year. In March 2021 Marshall was criticised for tweeting praise of Unmasked by Andy Ngo, a book that decries the anti-fascist movement Antifa. His father is Paul Marshall, the chair of the hedge fund Marshall Wace, a Tory donor and the backer of the conservative website UnHerd. He explained his decision to leave in a Medium post, in which he wrote that he wanted to be able to speak his mind without causing “trouble” for his bandmates.
Marshall remains “a friend” of Mumford’s. “We haven’t spoken that much recently,” Mumford said. “But, you know, I’ve known him since we were kids, and I love him like a brother, really.” He “disagrees” with “the place he’s put himself in now politically. I don’t necessarily think you can’t work together if you disagree politically, but in a band, I think you need a shared creative trajectory. His priorities changed”.
Mumford said he does not listen to Marshall Matters, the podcast his former bandmate hosts for the Spectator. He prefers the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast, Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook’s The Rest is History, and SmartLess, which is hosted by Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes and Will Arnett.
Anyway, Mumford would prefer to talk about the farm he and Mulligan have in Devon, where they live with their two children, aged seven and five. It is a traditional mixed farm, where they raise a range of crops and livestock. “We do it organic and regenerative. We try not to bring anything on. We stopped ploughing a while ago, and we stopped spraying permanently as well, and now we just feed the animals with what’s growing on the farm. It’s in a community, so we learn from each other. It’s our happy place.”
“Self-Titled” by Marcus Mumford is out on Island Records
This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke