Marina: ‘I’d be on stage and think: I’m not feeling alive at all’
The musician on shunning stardom, this ‘crucial’ phase of history, and misogyny
Marina: ‘To be deemed feminine has not always been viewed as a positive thing’
Musicians and actors returning to college or university as a mature student has often been part of the process required to protect themselves from seizing up, especially after some years basking, reluctantly or willingly, in the limelight. For Welsh singer and songwriter Marina Diamandis, temporarily quitting the music business in 2018 and enrolling in psychology modules at the University of London taught her an invaluable lesson about the way she wanted to live not just as a successful pop star but as a sensible person. Around the same time, she dropped the “and the Diamonds” adjunct of her performing name, choosing to release music from that time onwards only under her first name.
“It took me well over a year to figure out that a lot of my identity was tied up in who I was as an artist,” she told Dazed magazine in winter 2018. “And there wasn’t much left of who I was … I’d be on stage and think: I’m not feeling alive at all.”
From her home in Los Angeles, Diamandis mulls over her decision to quit music and then re-emerge very much on her terms. She is by turn ruminative and droll, speaking with a level of caution that only occasionally disappears. “The uni thing, the uni period? That was great and very nourishing, but I know now that I’ve come to a point in my career where being a public figure, such as it is, isn’t terribly important to me any more. The important part is the feeling you receive from being able to put your music out and people to resonate with it. That’s all I can really hope for, I think.
“Of course, part of the job is to put myself out there, too, but I’m someone who doesn’t particularly need to present myself all of the time. Social media is easy to maintain a public presence without really having to do very much. I don’t post on social media all the time, just the key things, so there is a balance. Certainly, the pandemic has made it easier for me to maintain that balance, which is something I prefer. Why? I have chosen a certain type of career that I feel suits my personality.”
Lessons in career options and how to live with them have been hard-earned. When Diamandis arrived in 2008 amid a post-MySpace wave of UK female performers and songwriters (Adele, Florence + the Machine, La Roux, Duffy et al), she made a difference via a wealth of individuality. Songs on her 2010 debut album, The Family Jewels, broached the norms of fame and success, while 2012’s Electra Heart went deeper with dissident, sardonic lyrics about female-oriented celebrity. Diamandis wasn’t necessarily biting the hand that drip-fed her but rather determinedly exploring and questioning the structures she had chosen to live, work and create within.
If her 2019 album, Love + Fear, presented how people are linked emotionally (the album title comes from a quote by psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross that Diamandis had learned during her university studies) her new album, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, is a full-blown diatribe driven by the mistreatment of women and LGBTQ+ people throughout the centuries. As with all of her work, such themes are draped in banger-friendly melodies, but here the songs are even more reflective and pointed. It seems, I suggest, she had a lot on her mind.
“A lot has happened to all of us, hasn’t it, and we’ve all been observing situations that feel as if they’re once in a lifetime ... What we’re going through and have gone through over the past 16 months or so is life-changing for all of us because society, even beyond the pandemic, is going to change. That taps into my antennae as an artist because it’s something I’ve always been inspired by. In the past I may have addressed it in a more light-hearted way, but recently it’s impossible not to have been deeply affected by it. What is happening now is we are living through a crucial phase of history. It feels that nails are being whacked in that will result in major changes over the next 10 or 20 years.”
Living through the pandemic, in particular, she says, has challenged her to examine beliefs, ideals and what she regards as fair and right. “It has also been such a destabilising time that the human brain can only process so many mass events simultaneously. I wanted to encapsulate that time, to try and paint a picture of how we got to this point, how the whole planet was trying to avoid being infected by a virus, and also how nature itself is declining. For each and every one of us, all of these have to be overwhelming and stressful.”
Pussy Riot collaboration
Diamandis’s subversive streak as a songwriter runs in parallel with her anti-pop-stardom stance, which is especially to the fore on an alternate version of a new song, Purge the Poison, featuring Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. The song “sounds chaotic because it was written in a chaotic time, but yes, the collaboration ties in perfectly with the themes on the album,” says Diamandis. Nadezhda is a very cool girl, and I feel honoured and happy when artists like Pussy Riot connect because they’re of my ilk yet also unexpected. It’s refreshing not to feel you have to collaborate with whoever is top of the charts.”
This is yet another example of how Diamandis plays the game yet lives the life to suit herself. “Doing things this way, my way, has garnered me a hardcore fan base. When you write the way I do it tends to polarise people – they either can’t believe some of the lyrics I write or they question my personal integrity. Now I come to think of it, that’s a common response throughout my career, but it’s part of how I work and I’m not going to change it.”
Diamandis says the past dozen years of her life have been pivotal and altered her perspectives on all manner of subjects. At one early point in her career she felt she had to be more masculine to make an impression on record label executives and other industry bigwigs.
“That could have been more to do with masculine traits I inhabited such as super-driven, tenacious, opinionated. Femininity is viewed as nurturing and compassionate, yet those masculine traits were the qualities I possessed at that age. I was young and wanted to get somewhere, and it’s taken a bit of time to rebalance that within myself. I guess that comes with experience and wisdom you gain as you get older.
“With this album, the main desire for me was to explore and express an idea of femininity because I feel that it’s at the core of misogyny. Men are brought up in conditions or have been conditioned to think that femininity isn’t something that belongs to them or can be accessed by them. Femininity has also been denigrated in society for so many centuries – to be deemed feminine has not always been viewed as a positive thing. For misogynistic men, I think women remind them of the traits they have been taught to deny, and it really irritates them. As well as the need to connect with nature more in order to save the planet, that’s the core of the songs on the new album. Ultimately, we need to strive more for a balance of femininity and masculinity. We all possess both of these energies, and we need to be more compassionate towards people, particularly in the way we treat women. On any level, inequality is not helpful to men.”
Is there anything else of benefit to her that comes with advancing years? “I think what music, creativity, art and everything that is entwined can give you that nothing else can is truth, and so it’s important to be exactly that to yourself. My songwriting system is essentially my subconscious talking to myself so that I can’t hide. There are things that come up, be it about myself or relationships, or whatever, that I know is usually stuff I need to reckon with, that I need to process.”
Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is released via Atlantic Records on Friday, June 11th