Each week, Lizzy Goodman navigates the dirty streets of rock and roll.
Let me start by saying this: I really like Laura Marling. She’s an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter from England, who writes these plaintive, wise-beyond-her-years songs. There’s an ease to her narrative that all the great songwriters have; the words feel like they were strung together in some platonic song lab long ago, and this girl appeared from the wilds of Hampshire, England, to sing them. Her voice has gravitas and warmth, and she’s a startlingly good folk guitarist. Also, she has amazing silken blonde hair, the kind that most people grow until they’re eight or nine, then spend the rest of their lives trying to recreate with products and dyes. She has innocent hair.
Marling is part of the U.K. neo-folk scene, a collection of musicians that includes Noah and the Whale (of which she was originally a part), the Mystery Jets and Johnny Flynn, among others. The big splashy breakout band of this group is Mumford & Sons, who played throughout Marling’s 2010 album, I Speak Because I Can. As a kid she had serious social anxiety and was gripped by a fear of death, which is a pretty promising start for a musician. But here’s the thing: Seeing her play live is like being back in detention.
When I arrived at New York’s Housing Works (a bookstore/AIDS & Homeless organization) in Soho for Marling’s benefit show the other night, the truly reverential were sitting very still in neatly arranged rows of folding chairs, sipping from plastic cups of red wine. But no matter where I stood in the room – near the bearded flannel-wearing dude clasping a copy of Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, next to the sweet academic looking couple in their early 60s with matching glasses, beside the pale, librarian-chic girl carrying a New Yorker bag – I always felt like I was about to get in big trouble. Every time I took out my iPhone to take notes, this tall chinless guy with the creepy focus of a beauty queen stalker glared at me.
Meanwhile, Marling is a total star. Ethereal in a plane white t-shirt, skinny black jeans and Keds, she delivered a powerful, controlled set – the audience almost breathless in its unyielding attention to her. “I’ve written a really bad set list and put several intense songs next to each other,” she joked, and the crowd politely let out a hushed giggle. After she played “Alpha Shallows,” (sample lyric: “the grey in this city is too much to bear”) into “No Hope in the Air,” I started craving a serious cocktail. Luckily, unlike back in high school, when we had to hide the booze in Nalgene bottles, now they will sell it to you at any number of bars downtown.
On the way out the door, as I silently placed my beer bottle into the recycling bin, I felt a deep sense of kinship with the girl behind the beer booth who was trying to eat Cape Cod potato chips. I have no idea how she got that bag open without making noise, but she was chewing in slow motion, a look of extreme anxiety on her face. I dashed out into the light rain and over to Tom & Jerry’s, where, to my great joy, they were playing the Ramones so loudly I could barely hear myself order a Jamesons. Via text message later that night, I asked Marling, who recently turned 21, what was the first cocktail she legally ordered in America? “Sauvignon Blanc” she replied. I’d officially like to buy her a whiskey.