Carried by the melody

The water forms a dark mass that holds Marika Hackman’s body trapped below the surface. An anonymous hand pushes her down, then caresses her head as she mouths, “I’d choke on you if I could / Maybe I will.” The music video for her lead single Drown seems to confine the singer songwriter in the depths of her own mind, to which her light guitar play renders a lingering sense of escape.

“I had just come out of a relationship and then moved up to London,” she begins. “I suddenly had to deal with the fact that I was all by myself and an adult living in a city I had never lived in before. I think most 22 and 23 year olds go through that stuff: the idea of growing and accepting that and being alone.”

Marika orders a half pint of lager. She leans forward in her seat with the arms resting casually on her knees. It’s spring outside and the sun is shining, yet here we are, in the dark corner of a pub that smells of old ale and Thai food because the beer garden grew too cold in the shade.

Often simplistically described as thoroughly bleak and troubled, the force of Marika's songwriting instead lies in its ability to sustain the tension between light and dark elements by altering the meaning of a song through its melody. Her debut album We Slept At Last, released earlier in the year, was written intensively over a two-month period, in the aftermath of an emotionally challenging year. Lyrically, it’s a darkly intimate record that visualises the tug of war of conflicting emotion. The guitar-led instrumentation is light, however, and lifts the songs out of the muddiest depths.

“On paper, my lyrics can come across as very dark, disturbed, but the melodies are hopeful. There’s an optimism there," she explains. "It shifts through the keys, changing the meaning of the words. I struggle with poetry, because it feels black on the page when it’s just spoken and you can’t elevate it to anything else.”

The album cover, a murky photo by Glen Erler, shows a faceless girl lethargically draped across a mattress. In childhood, Marika's bed symbolised dreams and bedtime stories, somewhere to curl up and hide when things fell apart. She calls it her safety zone, a place of both isolation and refuge. We Slept At Last falls somewhere between fantasy and reality, escape and confession, the work of an artist who isn't always at ease with herself--as if any of us are.

Drawing is one thing that helps her de-stress, she says, glancing at me sideways. The other one is cooking. “It’s a break in my head. It’s logical and you know there are certain rules you have to stick to, whereas writing music you’re using all your energy to conjure something up out of nowhere, which can be so tiring.” Does music not provide some sort of release, too? “It’s a cathartic thing. It brings up internal emotions and struggles that you may have suppressed and when you work with them you get them out, but that in itself is stressful and intense. So that’s why I like to switch off, like, chopping a carrot.”

In conversation, Marika balances the same tightrope of light and dark that arises in her songs. She jokes that her friends know when she’s on the verge of a panic attack, because she will cook ten curries and invite them all for dinner. I laugh, maybe because I have a dark sense of humour, or because her swift delivery masks the more sinister subtext of anxiety and self-doubt. But she says she feels good at the moment, which has translated to the emergent sound of her second record. At the moment heavier and more upbeat, she believes it will reflect her calmer state of mind and, seemingly, her growing confidence as a songwriter and live artist.

“I was terrified the first time people had paid to come to my show. Admittedly, there were only ten people there each night, but that was scary in itself. I could see them flinch every time I hit a wrong note. My little voice was wobbling. But when you play show after show, you just keep going and you realise it doesn’t matter if I fuck up. Actually, people love it when I fuck up!” she laughs. “Nobody cares, they’re there to see live music. After that, you start to enjoy it a bit more and don’t refuse to eat for a week before you play a show.”

If We Slept At Last was born out of confusion and disarray, living with five strangers, a locked bedroom door and a withering fear of making mistakes, her next record will branch from a less isolated place. Or, in any case, a more accepting and self-aware frame of mind. Marika still prefers making music on her own. "Usually, it's just me and my guitar and me making stupid noises," she shrugs. “I sit with my guitar for a really long time and if I find something I like I will play it again and again, singing jibberish and trying to work out melodies. I don’t think about chord progressions, I’m just playing and feeling and when I hear it and like it, I’ll go for it and see where the song takes me."

This interview was published in issue 26 of Oh Comely.