For a while, Marika Hackman's music was so metaphor-heavy that it was impossible to pin down its meaning. The subject of her gaze was hazy -- were the female pronouns referring to a woman, the wind, or a wolf howling at the moon? Fuelled partly by a fondness for layers of meaning -- "I love a good metaphor" -- and partly as a means of self-preservation, she kept herself at arm's length from her own music. Three years on though, Marika is done with being subtle.
"I've got your boyfriend on my mind," begins her new single Boyfriend, a playful wink of an opening line that proceeds to pull the rug out from underneath you: "I think he knows you stayed with me last night." It's payback, she says, "for all the times I've been interrupted mid-snog by some seedy wanker asking to join in." Later she exacts her revenge with a deft blow. "I've held his girl in my hands," she smirks under a skittish drumbeat, "She likes it 'cause they're softer than a man's."
"I feel like I hoodwinked everyone with that first record, by basically just being subtle," says the 25-year-old of her debut album, We Slept at Last. We're in a Dalston café, and she's sat by the window in a moth eaten T-shirt and ripped jeans. "It's all about female relationships. Completely. No one quite got that." So she decided to make sure, this time around, that they got it.
It's not like it's affected my whole life, being queer," she says of the litany of male intrusion she and her girlfriend encounter when they're affectionate with each other, "but it's something that's always pissed me off a little bit. It's that subtle drip feed thing in society that it's OK to be like that, and actually, it's constantly undermining relationships.
I'm Not Your Man, Marika's forthcoming second album, offers less elusive poetry. References to love and sex, to burgeoning relationships and break-ups, are sent to the surface along with a more caustic, electronic sound. In Violet, she croons over gentle droning and reverberated falsetto echoes, "I'd like to roll around your tongue, caught like a bicycle spoke." It's one of four songs, in fact, that reference tongues -- partly because of Marika's fascination with mouths and partly because, "It's a sexual record, so that's always gonna come up a lot." The record crackles with lust, the awkward, unsure kind when you've first met someone, and the kind that's tinged with bitterness when a relationship is in its death throes. In Cigarette, she relays the latter with such directness you feel like you've been caught in the middle of it. "I love it when we make a scene / Something to talk about / Rather than fuck and shout / Or maybe we could go to sleep."
Of course, if there's anything that'll push you towards being direct, it's having your relationship undermined, "Every time" you step out in public. That was the impetus behind Boyfriend at least, a tongue-in-cheek anthem, but one that arose from a genuine grievance. "It's not like it's affected my whole life, being queer," she says of the litany of male intrusion she and her girlfriend encounter when they're affectionate with each other, "but it's something that's always pissed me off a little bit. It's that subtle drip feed thing in society that it's OK to be like that, and actually, it's constantly undermining relationships, and people's view of themselves."
This subtle drip feed was part of the reason she tiptoed around the topic of her sexuality -- never denying anything, but still being, "quite clever in how I disguised it" -- when she embarked on a music career at 19. Marika had dabbled in music before then, including in a short-lived covers band with school friend Cara Delevingne, but it wasn't until she finished an art foundation course in Brighton that she decided to pursue it full-time. Though her debut single, You Come Down, and its beautifully macabre follow-up Monday Afternoon, were "Medieval-esque, weird, electro-acoustic [songs] that didn't pull from any genre." She was categorised as a kooky folk singer -- a label she "absolutely loathed." People saw a girl with an acoustic guitar, she says, and made assumptions based on little other than that. And so, bruised from being shoved into one ill-fitting box, she was reluctant for her sexuality to place her in another.
"When I was younger, I didn't quite know how to tread my way through that world, and not let that be the thing that defined me as an artist," she recalls of the tentative approach of her first album. "Now, I feel completely ready. I understand how to approach that, and have the confidence to do that without feeling like that's gonna be my thing. It's not my thing, it's just who I am." The waitress brings over a chamomile tea and a small bowl of honey. "Do you want it?" she says, pointing at the honey, "I don't really like sweet things."
It's a sentiment that's echoed within her music too. If her songs start edging towards sweetness, she'll throw in a jarring chord progression, or a line about blood or bile to even things out. Even when chronicling a burgeoning romance, as she does on My Lover Cindy, she pairs her desires with twisted, animalistic imagery: "'Cause I'm a greedy pig / I'm gonna get my fill / I'm gonna keep my eyes on the prize / And I'll suck you dry I will." It's a dark, corporeal fixation she's carried over from her debut album, on which she asked someone to "breathe it in, the sickly sweet of my rotting skin."
It's heart-breaking. I'm -- just through personal experience -- fascinated and terrified by how fickle we are with our emotions and love. You can be in something, and think it's gonna last forever, and then after a month it can just have gone.
"I'm so fascinated by how grossed out everyone is by stuff that comes from your body," she explains. "Whether it's sick or pee or anything like that. It's this taboo thing, but everyone has it, and has to deal with all of those things. I find humans really interesting -- our arrogance of thinking we're so above ourselves as an animal. So I kind of wanted to play with that, because it's actually ultimately what connects us all."
On I'd Rather Be With Them, where the Nirvana-esque crunchiness of what's come before it gives way to an acoustic guitar and eerie harmonies, Marika sings, her voice dripping with despair, "So make me throw up / I know that you will / And wake up my mother / and tell her I'm ill / It's all coming out now / Black brown wine and bile."
"The feeling of that song is very biley to me," she says when I single out the lyric. "It's that sick to your stomach kind of sadness and horror, at the breakdown of a relationship and falling out of love with someone. It's a very self-loathing song. It's heart-breaking. I'm -- just through personal experience -- fascinated and terrified by how fickle we are with our emotions and love. You can be in something, and think it's gonna last forever, and then after a month it can just have gone. For no reason. It's so much bigger than us, and so beyond us."
Is it something she fears more within herself, or the people around her? "Definitely in myself. I'm far more scared of falling out of love with someone than I am of them falling out of love with me… which is weird, isn't it? I don't know. I fear guilt so much. I think it's the worst feeling that exists, and that feeling of being responsible for someone else's sadness... I'd much rather have to deal with my own sadness than feel like I'd caused someone else's." Suddenly she lets out a laugh. "God I'm so selfless. What a nice human being I am."
For all its body horror and darkness though, I'm Not Your Man has moments of shimmering buoyancy. There's a grunginess to tracks like Good Intentions, but there's a brash playfulness and pop hooks aplenty too. Bringing the Big Moon on board as backing band helped with that. "It's got way more pop in it," she agrees. "It's still got that melancholy feel, but it's more funny. Everyone wants the tortured artist, just sitting in a dusty corner weeping and screaming. It doesn't have to be like that. I mean, with any art that's made, there'll be some sort of struggle, but people [think] it's only authentic if someone's been dragged through a pile of shit to get there, which isn't the case."
With I'm Not Your Man, Marika let go of the limitations she put on herself the first time around -- and had more fun as a result. "I think I just took myself less seriously. I think from the writing perspective, I just felt very strong. I feel very strong. I've been doing this for six years, and I feel much better prepared for anything that comes my way. I mean, talk to me again in three years, I'll be like, 'Oh I was a child back then, so naive!' But right now, I just feel ready."
Text Alex Pollard
Photography Sarah Beasley