Laura Marling: 'I'm unsure of my femininity'
Laura Marling's latest album was recorded in her adopted home of Los Angeles, so coming back to London to promote it in mid-February has been something of a rude awakening.
"I stupidly got on my bike this morning and got the sleet right in my face," she winces.
Having dried off and freshened up, she settles down to chat. Marling has a reputation for being a shy, sometimes reluctant interviewee - but LA clearly has rubbed off on her.
She chews gum as we talk, laughing bawdily as she discusses her penchant for dating drummers. ("What do they bring to a relationship? Rhythm!")
The 27-year-old also reveals her mum keeps a "very meticulous scrapbook" of her career, and admits to cooking up her own brand of Halloumi cheese.
"I'm aiming for direct competition with Alex James," she says, referring to the cheese-making Blur bassist. "But bloody hell, what a boring thing to talk about".
So instead we circle back to that new album.
It's her sixth, and possibly best, record since she emerged at the age of 17 as part of the indie folk movement that also spawned Mumford and Sons, Lucy Rose and Noah and the Whale.
Sumptuous and sensual, Semper Femina adds a hint of West Coast sheen to her delicate, acoustic melodies. Marling generously credits her band and producer Blake Mills for the progression.
"All of the musicality of the album is down to them," she says. "I wanted to be in the middle of it, but for someone else to be painting the picture around it."
If you don't have a Latin textbook to hand, the album's title is taken from a line in Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid.
The line is "varium et mutabile semper femina", which translates as "woman is always fickle and changeable". "I thought that was very jolly," says Marling, apparently without sarcasm.
She came across the phrase years ago and had a truncated version - "Semper Femina", or "always a woman" - tattooed on her leg when she was 21.
It's a fitting title for a record that explores femininity in all its forms, from the archetypal wild teenager to the artist's muse, while reflecting on female friendships and betrayals.
Marling prompted a lot of speculation when she announced in a press release that the album was written during a "masculine time" in her life, after she had "gone on this trip of abandoning any sexuality".
She clarifies that today, saying she was simply trying to write about women from a "neutral perspective". But she admits LA prompted a period of androgyny.
"People there are just a bit more far-out," she explains. "Nobody's got a job, they can dress however they want. A lot of my friends are queer or gender-fluid. So I was picking up on that.
"Then there was also my natural relationship with [womanhood]. I'm unsure. I'm unsure of my own femininity or masculinity.
"There are some circumstances in which I employ more of a masculine approach in order to protect myself; and there are circumstances where I indulge in my more feminine side because that vulnerability seems more important.
"I'm interested in the differences between men and women, of which there are plenty, and they need to be understood better."
"Well, I was talking to my producer, Blake, and he said he started playing guitar to impress girls. I think when I started playing guitar, it was to impress my dad.
"So Blake's relationship to his instrument is very different to mine and his reason for writing songs is very different to mine but, at the same time, he is extraordinary. And so those differences can be great.
"You can reduce it down to an Eastern idea that men expend energy and women are self-perpetuating."
One of the album's big themes is how women are observed - both by men and each other.
On Wild Fire, Marling talks about a friend who keeps a "pen behind her ear" and constantly jots down her thoughts in a notepad.
"Of course the only part that I want to read is about her time spent with me," the singer drawls.
"Wouldn't you die to know how you're seen? Are you getting away with who you're trying to be?"
That's a perennial question for a performer - especially one who seems so cautious of the limelight.
"Would I die to know how I'm seen?" she asks herself, when the lyric is brought up. "I don't know!
"I'm aware, obviously, that I'm looked at and considered and reviewed and criticised. But I'm pretty good at steering pretty clear of those [articles], unless they're delivered to me by my mother."
On Nouel, she turns the tables - objectifying one of her real-life friends as a classic muse.
"Oh Nouel, you sing so well / Sing only for me?" Marling pleads, going on to compare her friend to Gustave Courbet's Origine Du Monde - an 1866 painting of a woman sprawled naked on a bed.
"I was interested in what it is like to be made a muse," says Marling. "Nouel is a person who exists, a visual artist I know in Los Angeles, and I took her essence and I exaggerated it into a fantasy.
"She [Nouel] was very flattered by it - but then again she was able to remove herself from it.
"It's her but it's not her. I haven't painted a picture of her - it's my projection of my feelings about how extraordinary I feel she is."
In black and white this all seems very intellectual and, well, pretentious.
Marling is quite aware of how it comes across, poking fun at the "pseudo-science" and "pop psychology" she espouses.
On the album she even sings, "Lately I wonder if all my pondering takes up too much ground?"
But the music breathes warm life into these high concepts, resulting in a romantic, confessional suite of songs.
By the last track, Nothing Not Nearly, Marling has put all the contemplation aside to observe: "Nothing matters more than love. No nothing. Not nearly."
It reflects her current, contented state of mind.
"I'm loving my late twenties," she says. "The closer I get to 30, the more at ease I feel with myself."
Each of her albums has contributed to that sense of self, she continues.
"This one was about understanding femininity and masculinity. The last one was understanding solitude.
"Before that was heartbreak, before that was freedom and before that was anger. It's like I'm tackling the world one emotion at a time!"
So what's next? Rebellion? Passion? Paranoia?
"Possibly. Or fear, given the era that we're seemingly stepping into," she says. "It's not been good."
She talks about the "horrifying but unbearably addictive quality" of President Trump, saying she's constantly checking her phone for the latest update.
While the Trump era has already prompted a surge in political protest songs, Marling has trouble viewing this as a positive.
"I don't think anyone would wish that on the world for the sake of writing a good song. That's not the purpose of art - to encounter animosity for the sake of having something to do.
"A singer, who's now a big singer, once said to me: 'It'd be so cool to be really heartbroken because it'd be good for my songwriting."
"I was like, 'You silly, naive wally!' Never wish that on yourself. It's unbearable."
Semper Femina is out on 10 March. Laura Marling is currently on tour around the UK.