I think it's fair to say that I encountered Laura Marling earlier than most. Attending the same secondary school as her at a relatively similar time meant that the first time that I saw her play was actually in a school assembly. Not that that grants me any bragging rights, mind. This was back in the day when she would write stuff like this (I mean, where did the ‘indi’ in ‘individual’ go, eh? Eh?!) She was still at the school when she started to receive some attention: an early break came in being asked to support Jamie T on tour, and before too long she made her first appearance on the BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland. All the while she was peddling her phony London troubadour act, singing of ‘London Town’ and “the guy that I could never get/’cause his girlfriend was pretty fit”.
Never mind. To bring this up now is both childish and irrelevant; if anything’s for certain, it is that nowadays Laura Marling is an entirely different creature. Tonight of course, we’re in Birmingham Cathedral, which most notably for the regular gig-goers among us means the absence of those choleric security personnel, a void where usually stand the apathetic venue staff. In their place are benevolent cathedral employees and volunteers – two older compassionate types seem happy to sell wine to those visitors clearly outside of the building’s usual demographic, while younger female volunteers pace anxiously around the room, always with one eye on the stage that’s set up ready for the now enigmatic paragon.
Joined by a band of six or so, there’s still some vague recollections of the interim days when Mumford and Sons were little more than Marling’s backing band; those rousing vocal harmonies and barn-dance banjo lines rearing their dubious heads on a few occasions. But this is the only gripe – in supporting the gentle change in musical vernacular on Marling’s latest effort A Creature I Don’t Know (often characterised by her new penchant for the classical guitar and the Spanish connotations it brings to some of the songs) they are neither timorous or stifling, providing the perfect vehicle for Marling’s weary tales of love and loss. Technically they're also flawless – in bringing a few numbers to their climactic destinations, setting free inhibitions and forcing the sound to whirlwind about the cavernous cathedral, they genuinely tease my hairs to stand on end. I’m inclined to say that Pete Roe’s robustly crepitating guitar parts have a large part to do with this – my attention drawn towards the multi-instrumentalist (who’s quietly tucked away in the left hand corner of the stage) at several moments.
Interesting then, for this force to be immediately contrasted just twenty minutes in when the band leave the stage to be occupied by the porcelain-faced Marling alone. It’s during this period that we really see what the twenty-something songstress has evolved into. Sitting so comfortably in her home-counties Joni Mitchell role, it’s startling just how far removed she is from her pseudo-Londoner beginnings. While the quality of Marling’s effortlessly graceful voice is more than well-established (its ‘angelic’ qualities arguably built for spaces like those she’s been filling on this tour), and with her quintessentially English pronunciations sitting at the fore, it’s compelling to hear how she now seems so willing to bend and mould sounds - a snarl on 'The Beast', or the offer of a subtle onomatopoeic twist (on ‘flicker’) during the as-yet unreleased ‘Flicker and Fail’. Still, it's the solo rendition of I Speak Because I Can centrepiece ‘Goodbye England’ that receives the warmest response, the respectable Marling even altering the word ‘crap’ to ‘stuff’ for the tender ears of the cathedral walls.
Of course, if anyone’s ever accused Marling of anything, it’s for her often-lacklustre onstage demeanour – but tonight it seems as though even that’s something she’s consciously trying to surpass. Between warming tales of her dad (her ‘father’, she quickly corrects herself), and a pretty adorable apology to the audience of the matinee show for having misled them with falsified facts about the space we’re all stood in (and the bodies buried beneath it), Marling’s still slightly awkward onstage banter tonight serves only to stimulate a very ecclesiastical sense of community.
This is a trend that continues after the band return to the makeshift stage positioned just in front of the rows of pews, as Marling introduces a section of the evening in which each band member tells a fact about the cathedral. Some of the musician’s time in the limelight is inevitably more entertaining, engrossing and effectual than others, but it still nurtures this sentiment that tonight, both audience and performers are partaking in the same occasion, rather than one simply observing the other. After a triumphant outing for A Creature I Don't Know closer 'All My Rage', as we all shuffle out through the heavy, aged front doors of the building into the biting autumnal air, that's something that I can’t help but feel more than satisfied by.