“I want to change with each record, and experiment with each release, right from the start”, Marika Hackman said in a recent interview with The Guardian as she spoke of the creative freedom she felt when writing her debut album ‘We Slept at Last’. Experimentation doesn’t always have to come from the leftfield, and sometimes just nudging the boundaries towards a place where you can explore old ideas but in new, interesting ways, can be enough to create a sense of ownership between a singer and their sound. The album, recorded at London’s Iguana Studios and produced by long term collaborator Charlie Andrew, was written within the space of two months, as Hackman used this short window as a means of capturing personal feelings of restlessness or anxiety into a singular body of work where the “I” was always her own self.
Marika Hackman has always been a very dark songwriter. Even on the more pastoral, rootsy 2013 cut ‘Wolf’, she sings of being “strapped against a bow / Of a ship that’s captained by fraud”, attacking an ex-lover who’s memory alone makes her sick. ‘We Slept At Last’ is even more insular, further exploring this notion that music can be window for your own afflictions and complexities whilst discarding the noise that makes up the rest of this world. “I’ve been weeping silent like a wound / Won’t you stitch me up or let the blood soak through?” she pleads on ‘Animal Fear’, before a chorus of falling melodic sequences that make the song feel unnervingly familiar, like the young girl singing a nursery rhyme in the climax of one of those low budget horror movies.. On ‘Skin’, an obvious centrepiece, there is a gorgeous counterpoint between her own vocals and those of St Ives singer-songwriter Sivu, playing opposites in a relationship blighted by jealousy and insecurity. ‘I’m jealous of your neck’, Hackman sings, “You told me of your heart”, Sivu responds, both as two lovers who are being forced to come to terms with the person their relationship has turned them into. The vocals feel almost unbearably close, where every intake of breath creeping sharply above the sliding of fingers on the fret board. It’s like you’re eavesdropping on your parents having an argument in their bedroom: you can feel the intimacy, but you’re not invited.
The album just comes up short during its more restrained moments, like the sparse, finger-picked ‘Claude’s Girl’, which hangs motionless in the air waiting for a curtain that never quite drops, or the forgettable ‘Monday Afternoon’ and ‘Undone, Undress’, which are both over reliant on simplistic, directionless melodic phrases. Hackman works best when her naked, blood and guts emotional precision is offset by a textural grandiosity, the two acting as counterweights for their own intensity. Take the elegant strings that creep into the closing stages of ‘Before I Sleep’, the distorted, funeral march snare on the solemn ‘Undone, Undress’, or the swells of guitar feedback that anchor ‘In Words’. In these moments, despite the dark, often very sad directions these songs head in, this still feels like a warm album, incorporating the timbre and soul of each instrument as an extra arm for artistic and emotional expression in a way that supports, but never smothers.
Hackman’s voice is unshakably calm throughout. Even when faced with lines as biting as “So, I’ll drown in your mind” from the excellent ‘Drown’, they are presented with a resolute stillness. She might be struggling, and these psychological wounds might run pretty deep, but even as they threaten to overwhelm she still remains in control of them. “Songwriting is about trudging through the darker sides of your brain and sifting that stuff out”, Hackman told the Guardian, and this album has clearly served some sort of cathartic process for her. If you keep these things internalised then they become twisted, they get deformed, and eventually they turn into something you no longer understand. But the more you talk about it, the more normalised they become and the easier they are to live with. The result is a measured, wonderfully arranged, but emotionally singular album, tackling very personal feelings of doubt, pain and insecurity in a way that’s easy to feel, but difficult to truly connect with.