Electric Dreamer: Marnie Interviewed

We speak with Ladytron singer Helen Marnie ahead of the release of her sophomore Marnie solo record, Strange Words and Weird Wars

Feature by Gary Kaill | 26 May 2017

“The way Ladytron work and the way I work: it’s very different. Of course, in my own music there are elements of what I contribute to Ladytron...” Helen Marnie stops for a moment, exasperated. “This is why it shocks me when I’ve done interviews in the past with journalists who are perhaps Ladytron fans and they tell me that some of the songs sound very much like Ladytron and I’m kinda like, well, shocked because I don’t hear it at all. I know that I’m the softer, ‘pop’ edge of Ladytron and so when people compare me in that way, I find myself asking: ‘Can you see past, or hear past, my voice?’”

Marnie is talking to The Skinny prior to the June release of her excellent second album Strange Words and Weird Wars. We stop off on the subject of the band in which she began her career; only for a moment. The question: how might her approach differ for two very different vehicles? “You have to be able to differentiate between Ladytron’s music and what I’m producing, and see past the fact that it’s my voice on top,” she continues. ”And I think that people can’t see past that sometimes. I think that some of these songs would have made it onto a Ladytron album but would have been produced so differently. They’re far too pop. They’re not weird enough, maybe.” She laughs. “Weird in a good way!”

Of course, if your palette is more readily informed by, say, indie guitar rock, you may well lazily offer that the new Marnie album sounds just like the first Ladytron album. When in fact it actually sounds little like the last Ladytron album (2011’s lush and accessible Gravity the Seducer). Marnie’s frustration with join-the-dots critiques is well placed. There is a depth of creativity and emerging personal vision within her second solo collection that should ensure unavoidable reference points remain just that, and don’t simply become dreary comparators.

But even so, aside the bafflement (genuine confusion rather than real irritation), she offers with good grace (“I know that we have very, very loyal fans") an update on the band’s activities. But that news, dear reader, in the spirit of the piece, is for another day. We will greet their return with the fanfares it will deserve, but for now Strange Words and Weird Wars is ample distraction and then some. We move on. 

Our conversation had reached that point via discussion of the Marnie creative process. Her debut Crystal World was an expertly crafted exercise in sleek electro, assuredly mixing melody and mood. For every irresistible stomper (The Hunter), there was experimentation that caught the breath (the epic, seven-and-a-half-minute Submariner). But Strange Words and Weird Wars opts for a honing of the former and, bar the drifting lament A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, acts as a showcase for song craft artfully attuned to the dancefloor. Crucially, the record feels like a properly conceived whole.

“Well that’s good to hear. I put out a single a year ago and people kept asking me if it was going to be included on this album. But that didn’t make any sense to me because it wasn’t a part of the writing process for this album. So it didn’t have a place on this album. This album is definitely more coherent and a piece of music in itself. That’s more true of this one than of Crystal World. I mean, I hadn’t really anticipated that I would make that first solo album but when Ladytron took a break in 2011, I found myself thinking that, yeah, I could actually do it. So even though Crystal World does work as an album, this one had a clearer intent in that respect.”

Now permanently residing in Glasgow, a new and developing methodology is at the heart of Marnie’s writing and recording activity. “Yeah, I feel like since moving to Glasgow, I’ve met a good bunch of people,” she explains. “It feels like a community here. Most people interact and know other musicians. I guess when I lived in London – and I was there for a long time – I really didn’t have that. You live in your own pocket, to some degree, in London. So having moved up here, I met, through Iain Cook from CHVRCHES, Jonny Scott (drummer/producer). This was in about 2014 and it started off with him producing, and then we’ve moved into co-writing on occasion.

"Everything really starts here at home. I get the tracks to a basic demo stage: a basic song outline. I’ll then send it to Jonny for him to polish up. That’s generally how it works. With this album, though, we went into the studio and put a lot more work in. Lots of layering, just re-doing everything, really, so we got a better, fuller sound. Some songs are a little bit more worked up beforehand but that’s pretty much the process.”

As Marnie stresses throughout, the album’s complex melodics are built upon a sharply cerebral lyrical foundation. This is none more apparent than on Lost Maps, a devastating and clear sighted report on the state of the nation(s). “Musically, I think it’s quite stark and robotic. It was a co-write with Jonny, so he’s responsible for the music bed. The lyrics were written round about the time when the Syrian child refugee was washed up on a Turkish beach [three-year-old Alan Kurdi and his family were attempting to reach Greece when their boat tragically sunk in the Mediterranean] and that was a shocking image that everyone around the world saw. The line ‘survival’s not a crime’ came as a result of that. There’s hope in the song, I think, but yes, as you say, it’s a comment on the dark stuff that is all around us and that feeling of helplessness.”

As with the best synth-pop, Strange Words and Weird Wars perfectly models Neil Tennant’s ‘tragi disco’ concept. It's luxuriant and fulfilling: all heart, all art. “Well, I do want to create pop music but I don’t want to create generic pop music. I think that a lot of pop music now is over-produced, to the point where you can’t really distinguish between, oh I don’t know, a Rihanna track and an Iggy Azalea track. It all sounds very much the same to me and it’s probably because there are a handful of producers who are popular and they’re the go-to for those kind of tracks. But, yeah, I did want to create a pop record but one with depth and with warmth, and I think that comes through with the instrumentation.” 

As we close, talk turns to touring. These songs would surely come alive onstage, at volume and with an audience locked in to their heady grooves. “Yes, I’m intending to,” says Marnie. “I’ve only got a few things lined up at the minute in the UK but I would like to do more. I’d like to go over to the US and do gigs over there. I’ve been invited to play in Mexico and we’re just finalising the dates for that. I want to go out and play. I feel really good about it all right now. I’ve spent the last two or three years working on this record, so I really want to do it justice. That’s partly why I’m not rushing back into the Ladytron thing. I need to take that time because I’ve put so much time and effort and money into it, and that’s why I want to see it done right. I’ve got these two bodies of work now – this is my stuff.

"The new music is great to play live. I’ve only done two gigs so far but it feels great and it’s also great fun. That was partly the idea with this second album. I found myself thinking: do you know what? I feel a bit drained after Crystal World. Let’s do something less draining, emotionally. Not that it’s light, because lyrically it’s not. But something more danceable, more beats-driven, was what I was looking for. And that’s exactly what’s happened.”

Strange Words and Weird Wars is released on 2 Jun via Disco Piñata

Marnie plays The Poetry Club, Glasgow, 1 Jun http://helenmarnie.com/