There’s a wonderful moment around three minutes into Any Human Friend, the third album from indie rock icon Marika Hackman, when a brief but dizzying blast of synths and theremin transform opening track ‘Wanderlust’ from a delicately plucked ditty – a nod to her folk-tinged beginnings – into the sparkling guitar driven pop of single ‘The One’. It’s the sound of transcendence; of an artist shedding her skin and emerging renewed. The same, but different. Which is something that can be said about virtually every facet of this remarkable record.
Hackman has kindly invited PSNEurope to her east London home for a chat about the making of the album, which took initial shape in her bedroom studio – a minimal set up based around a laptop, a mini synthesiser and a couple of Fender guitars. “My setup is very unintimidating, it’s as easy as it comes,” she laughs as we take a seat at the foot of her bed, the room well stocked with an impressive collection of records and books, which we’ll discuss later. “When I’m writing and want to get parts down I don’t want to be fucking around. I can get intimidated by gear a lot of the time, and for anyone who reads this and is thinking of starting something like this, it’s good to know that someone like me – who’s been doing it for eight years – still hasn’t got her shit together!”
Though funny and self-deprecating throughout our conversation, Hackman’s songwriting prowess and understanding of the craft of record production is formidable. Each of her three albums to date have explored different sonic and musical styles, but Any Human Friend represents by far her biggest creative leap. Her 2015 debut We Slept At Last was a largely folk-orientated affair, while 2017 follow up I’m Not Your Man saw her recruit Mercury Prize nominated indie-rock four-piece The Big Moon to serve as her band on the road and in the studio, bringing a harder, grungier sound to the record. Now, as co-producer alongside the award-winning David Wrench (Frank Turner, The xx), she has created what she describes as her “poppiest” album yet.
For the first time, synths play a dominant role, while the rough and ragged edges of I’m Not Your Man’s overdriven guitars have been sanded down to reveal something altogether smoother and shinier. The riffs are still there, but they feel lighter than before, throwing a mirror ball shimmer rather than a fistful of grit over the record’s 11 tracks.
She has also spoken at length about the record’s exploration of sex and sexuality, with several songs featuring lyrics capable of causing temperatures to rise beneath even the coolest of collars. Explicit tales of sexual encounters and references to venereal disease are peppered throughout; a song entitled ‘Hand Solo’ requires little explanation.
But while the album’s sonic and lyrical blueprints were more sharply focused than ever before, Hackman says the production process was the most fractured of her career so far: it was the first time she had worked with a new producer [her previous two records were produced by Charlie Andrew], while significant changes in her personal life had a considerable impact upon the recording process.
“I started writing a long time ago – songs like ‘The One’ and ‘Hand Solo’ were written around Christmas 2017,” she recalls. “That got the ball rolling, but then I moved out of my house, broke up with my girlfriend (Amber Bain of The Japanese House) and moved in here. I spent the next year writing until I had enough to take into the studio with David. It was around May 2018 we went in with three songs – he was in a studio in Old Street – and we got them done very quickly. Then I’d come back here, write a few more songs, and we worked like that until January. We recorded the second half of it in a studio in London Fields, and recorded some drums at Konk Studios. We were recording in these different locations in a really bitty way. It wasn’t like before, where I’d have 10 or 11 tracks pretty much ready to go and then finish them over a six week period. The way we did it this time felt fresh and exciting.”
By writing and recording small batches of songs at a time, Hackman says she was able to form a clearer picture of how she wanted the record to turn out than had been previously possible.
“If I can hear the full realisation of a song before I’ve written 75 per cent of the record, I can start to visualise things even more,” she explains. “You start to think about what the record needs, where it’s falling flat. I was learning and working things out as I went along instead of driving myself into the ground writing a whole body of work and going nuts. That said, I found it the hardest to make. I don’t know if that’s because I’m getting older and more tired, but that constant dipping in and not actually feeling like I’d stopped the writing process was really draining. You never feel like you’re having a break; you feel that you should constantly be working.”
The hard work has clearly paid off, with Any Human Friend finding Hackman in brilliantly direct form, the clarity of her vision evident in each and every detail.
“I wanted it to be poppier,” she continues. “I started off making more stripped back, darker, moody electro music, then moved into grunge, and this time I wanted to take the energy of I’m Not Your Man but without the garage rock band sound. I wanted to bring that liveliness and excitement but make it sound slick. I wanted to hear every part; for them to sit together, play off each other and for everything to have a purpose. I didn’t want anything to just be colour. It was a really fun way to write – it was quite mathematical. I wanted everything to sound clear and fun with a poppy edge. That was my aim from the beginning.”
The decision to break with long-term producer Charlie Andrew and bring Wrench onboard as co-producer was pivotal, forcing Hackman to explore new ways of working in the studio.
“Charlie was such a comfort zone for me because we’ve worked together for so long,” she says. “We work like a well oiled machine. He’s great to work with and it’s just very easy. This time I didn’t want an easy ride, I wanted to push myself and see, if I effectively flew that nest, what I might be capable of and what it might bring out in my songwriting. That’s not to say I won’t work with Charlie again, it had just become my safe zone.”
She continues: “Working with David was great. There was no beating around the bush. There’s an immediacy about the way he works; the way he captures sound has a raw energy to it, but he has the ears and the skills to make it sound crystal clear. I’d do a couple of vocal takes and say, ‘Shall we do another 50 of these?’ and he’d say, ‘No, we’ve got it’. I’d be like, ‘Hmm, I really don’t think we have’, but he’d do his thing and play it back and I’d realise he was right. He was really good at stopping me getting locked into that self doubt, obsessing about everything being absolutely perfect. So much of what gives a record its character and soul is NOT doing 100 takes of something to make it sound like a robot. We bounced off each other in that way for the whole thing.”
If musically Any Human Friend is Hackman’s most accessible record yet, then its themes and subject matter certainly make it her most unflinching. Though she has previously spoken about her sexuality in her lyrics, she has never done so with such candour. Via language that ranges from the evocative to the explicit, her exploration of sex from the perspective of a gay woman is at times courageous and empowering, at others wracked with vulnerability, and often not without a splash of tongue in cheek humour.
“I was reading a lot of Kathy Acker and the directness of her writing not only helped me lyrically, but it’s really potent and straight to the point, which is how I wanted the sound to be as well,” Hackman explains, grabbing a copy of Acker’s Blood And Guts In High School from her bookshelf. “It’s so explicit and abstract,” she says, leafing through its pages to reveal graphic and detailed diagrams of various parts of the human anatomy. “She basically decided she didn’t want to write in any conventional form, in terms of whether it reads like a play, a comic, a novel, fact or fiction. It just jumps around but kind of makes sense. It’s all about sex and it feels like there is an element of shame to it, but at the same time is totally empowered. That’s how I feel with this album. Reading that was a big factor in my writing. She really pushed through to the surface.”
With a short run of UK dates set for September and a lengthy tour of the US with Girl Friday serving as both her support and backing band, Hackman already has an eye on album number four – a prospect that currently fills her with dread and excitement in equal measures.
“Next year it’ll be festivals galore, and what’s really terrifying is after that I’ll probably be sitting down to do it all again,” she laughs as we say our goodbyes. “The thought of doing it all again is like, No way! But in a year’s time I know I’ll be screaming, Let me make a record, I need to express myself!”