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Interview: Marika Hackman

12 January 2024

As was the case with many artists, Marika Hackman’s write-record-tour-repeat cycle was massively disrupted by the pandemic. While many took advantage of the downtime to work on new music, Hackman found herself at a loss. With good intentions, things just weren’t coming together, in part because she was spending time in lockdown away from her normal life by moving back in with her parents. It was only after she returned to what she calls her “adult” life that Hackman was able to start envisioning the songs for what would become her fifth full-length album, and first for Chrysalis Records, Big Sigh.

The album’s themes reflect the insecurities and anxieties that are part of real life and that were exacerbated by the pandemic. Questioning who you are, putting your life under a microscope and searching for imperfections, realizing that you can’t live up to the standards others set for you are all topics Hackman tackles. In some senses, by releasing these words to the world, it allowed Hackman to lift some of the burdens from her shoulders and get back to a sense of normalness.

Hackman is particularly proud of the fact that she plays nearly all the instruments on the album save for the brass and strings that help lend a cinematic sound to the UK-based singer/songwriter’s creations. While not a total control freak, Hackman has a clear vision on how she wants to represent herself and what she wants listeners to think and feel and prefers to do that without outside voices pushing and pulling in other directions.

It takes talent to deliver difficult lyrics with gentleness and Hackman does so with ease. Big Sigh is a victorious release for an artist well into her career, the album’s title taken as a comforting sigh rather than an exasperated one.

I was reading an interview that you did in 2020 and I have never felt more seen than when you described the type of people who come to see you perform and one of the types of people are old dudes who come and hang out in the front and want to get their vinyl signed. That totally describes me to a T. Is that a pretty common occurrence?

MARIKA: (laughs) Yeah, it is. I find they’re my most loyal fans right from the start when I was 19-year-old and performing. I’ve always consistently had these older guys who were proper musos and I fucking love it. They buy the records, you have a good chat. I feel like it’s a bit of a badge of honor and it’s a great benchmark for being a touring musician to have those guys standing at the front with their vinyl.

The last couple years obviously have been tough for everybody with COVID and lockdowns and all that stuff. Do you think it affected your ability to create music?

MARIKA: Yeah, massively. I don’t know if it was the situation itself that affected me or my response to the situation in the sense that I took it as an opportunity to slow down and not consistently beat myself up about having to write all the time and be creative all the time. I decided, here’s an opportunity whereby maybe I’ll just stop. Like, the rest of the world has stopped, I’ll just stop. And, in hindsight, that was probably the stupidest thing I could have done. It was very hard to get back into the mindset and it was very hard to get the muscle warmed up again. Because songwriting, as much as it’s a magical thing that you can’t pin down what that process truly is, like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it and the easier it is to do. That consistency is something that I do know. And taking my foot off the gas did make it pretty tough to carry on.

Throughout your career, you’ve probably been on a cycle – write, record, tour, repeat. With the pandemic throwing a wrench into that cycle, it had to have been pretty strange to put the brakes on.

MARIKA: It was strange. I’ve been doing that cycle pretty consistently since I was 19.
When this all happened, I was in my late twenties. I think that’s partly why I was like, “Oh, this will be interesting. I’ll take this opportunity because I haven’t had it ever.” It’s crazy to think that if I had just stayed on that hamster wheel, the new record would never be the record that this is. Whatever record this one would have been, it would have come out like two years ago.

Had you already started the writing process since the last album came out in 2019? If the pandemic hadn’t happened, would you have put something out in 2021?

MARIKA: I had the starting blocks. I had a few bits. I find it really hard to write new material when I’m still working the campaign for a previous record. It’s kind of like a relationship. I don’t really want the crossover, it feels a bit icky. I’ve got to put one to bed and then I can carry on with the next one. So I always have little bits, maybe one song or like a half a song, that are kind of navigational devices to see where I’m going to go when I do actually sit down. Everything ground to a halt just as I was about to do the kind of sitting down to write. It didn’t really disrupt my touring, it did knock out a few festivals and things like that, but it should have worked out perfectly, to be honest, that I would be stuck in my house writing music. But then I sat down to do that and nothing happened.

I read that Matt from The National was suffering from depression during the pandemic and thought that maybe he would never be able to write another song. This went on for a while and he thought his musical career was over. He started reading Frankenstein and he said a few words jumped off the pages and that helped break his songwriting block. Did you have a moment like that?

MARIKA: I think it was coming back to London and getting back into my life. I was doing a lot of reading and stuff like that but I didn’t have a moment of lightning bolt inspiration on that front. I think it was the gradual reconnecting with my adult world rather than staying with my parents in the middle of nowhere, which is obviously quite a discombobulating thing when you’re in your late 20s. Luckily, we all survived and we didn’t kill each other.

Feeling like I was back in the driving seat again helped. I felt that the whole thing was such an exercise in loss of control, literally being told what you can do and what you can’t do. It’s very strange because we don’t live our lives like that. I’m a control freak, so I found that really difficult. I think as I started to settle back into myself and feel like I had control over my life again, it suddenly seemed easier to write music. I was able to put those structures in where I was sitting down and trying rather than just ignoring it because it was stressing me out.

In the song “No Caffeine,” you sing about talking to your friends and putting your phone down so you can be in the moment and not be distracted. Are you singing these words as a reminder to yourself to be more present or are you singing these words to the listeners?

MARIKA: It’s a bit of both. The idea of that song is that it’s giving myself a to-do list to avoid having a panic attack, but it’s also narrating the story of my relationship with my anxiety and panic attacks and how it was only supposed to be this one-time thing and now we’re stuck in this death grip eagle lock. How frustrating is that? But don’t worry, here’s the list of stuff to do, like go and see Louise – Louise was my therapist throughout the whole time when I was writing this record – things like that, like calling my mum. It’s all stuff that I do, generally. I haven’t ever screamed into a bag, but there’s also the wider thing, the phone thing. Obviously, that’s one that people really latch on to because I think we’re all feeling quite strange about technology these days. AI has just gone absolutely crazy. There’s a certain menace on the horizon that we’re all feeling and having spent so much time on our own, having to only connect with people through phones and screens and all of that stuff, I think everyone’s a bit fed up. Human interactions are just a win-win.

I’m guilty of checking my phone for messages, interactions, that kind of thing, 800 times a day. I’m afraid of missing out or not receiving a message the second it comes in.

MARIKA: There’s no regulations and it’s addictive. It does the same stuff to your brain that drugs do. I feel really, really lucky that I was born in 1992 so I didn’t have an iPhone till I was 21. I did have cell phones when I was a kid but they didn’t really have cameras and I had them just to text mum basically. It was like, “Mum, I’m alive. I’ve got to London on the train.” It was practical and was not all consuming at all. And then Facebook came along when I was about 15, we all started having Facebook accounts and all of that shit. So I feel like my true childhood, I didn’t have any of that. And I actually feel so lucky that I didn’t because I think I definitely learned how to concentrate, although that’s being eroded day by day by my phone. But the thing I find the most stressful is the inability to focus. Even trying to read a book, and it’s like I’ll be three pages in and you give yourself a little reward. “I’ll just look at my phone. Has anyone messaged me?” And then I’ve been chatting to a mate and scrolling through Instagram and it’s always 40 minutes have gone by and I should probably just start reading now.

I wanted to ask you about some of the lyrics in the song “Vitamins.” You sing, “Mum says I’m a waste of skin / A sack of shit and oxygen” and “But dad thinks I could be something.” Did your parents really say that stuff to you?

MARTIKA My mom asked me that exact question as well. My parents have never said any of those things to me. They are lovely people and we get on really well quite clearly as evidenced by the fact that I spent 10 weeks with them during the pandemic. They’re very supportive. It was more all about how you perceive yourself being mirrored through archetypes and tropes and so, in the song, you have this anxious mother, the sort of tropey idea of a mother who is worried and stressed and then you’ve got the father who’s headstrong. You want to impress him and you want to make dad proud. And then you’ve got the partner who’s your contemporary who’s reflecting you back in a very different dynamic. It was taking those ideas and playing with my hopes and fears and the questions I’ve asked myself and putting them into the voices of these figures around me. It was really fun to write because they’re really gnarly and grizzly lyrics and I like writing stuff like that.

You end that song singing, “I’m not special and you’re all insane / we’re not special and we’re all the same.” Can you tell me the thoughts behind those lyrics?

MARIKA: With the concept of the song in mind, where it’s these anxieties and fears and worries and all the moments where you’re picking yourself up, I think the narrator wants to be special, wants to be seen as an individual, to be somehow better than the people around you. I put a lot of pressure on myself to better myself with every record I make, I want it to be better than the last one, I want to feel special and I want to feel like someone who’s been noticed in a crowd. The thing is, everyone wants that. We live in a society that perpetuates the idea that that is where you will find happiness and contentment, even though that’s obviously bullshit. And I think it was just a nice idea to me that if everyone is special, no one is special. And that’s not a negative. That’s a good thing. We are all individually special. Therefore, we should just respect each other for all of those things. There’s no point in sticking your head above the parapet and trying to elbow your way up, because everyone is doing their best and everyone is unique. It’s funny because it sounds negative in the song, but it’s actually quite a comforting line to me. I like it in that sense.

I think it’s an interesting concept that you want to better yourself with every record. It feels like you’re always chasing something and I wonder if you’ll ever be happy? If you do think you’re bettering yourself with each release, does that mean you go back to your early stuff and think that it’s not good?

MARIKA: I love every record that I’ve put out and that won’t go away. And they all have a really special place for me. I think when I say better myself, it’s like, I think it’s more about challenging myself and succeeding in the challenge as opposed to sitting down with my records next to each other and going, “This one is better than this one” because they’re all different. And I think that when I say better myself, I’ve always meant that I would push myself in a different direction and if I could succeed at that, that was growth, that was evolution in that sense, and that I’m honing a craft, I’m expanding my skill set. This sounds like I’m applying for a job!

On this record, I started thinking more and more about what that even means. I think I’ve slightly let go of that as a concept. It’s not really something that I’m going to carry forward so much because it took so long to make this record, and it was such a struggle and I’m really happy with the result. By the standards I’d set for myself before that, it would have meant I hadn’t achieved as much as I did with the older ones. And I don’t feel like that at all. I think I’ve basically exploded my own concept of that now and I’m just going to focus on keeping on making records that I like. That’s the main thing.

In the song “Hanging,” you sing, “I must have done something to deserve to feel this sad.” That feels like true and raw emotions. I think, as humans, we often feel like we did something to deserve what happens to us. Did something happen in your life that inspired the lyrics or was it more general?

MARIKA: That lyric was in the context of the rest of the lyrics on the song. It was this idea that sometimes when you’re in a relationship and things are going wrong, it’s very easy to take the line of “I haven’t done anything wrong.” It’s also about how I’m being perceived by my partner. They’re anticipating that I’m perceiving myself as being faultless and it’s kind of distilling all of those emotions down where it’s just like, “Somebody good is me, somebody good shouldn’t feel so bad. But I must have done something to deserve to feel this sad. But that’s still kind of on you as well” because it’s always messy and there never is one side that’s right. So it was trying to capture that slight feeling of injustice, but kind of resignedness to the sadness and the grimness of the heartache of a relationship breaking down.

In both the “No Caffeine” and “Slime” videos, there is blood. And, you have a song called “Blood.” Is this a theme or just a coincidence?

MARIKA: It’s definitely not a coincidence. I mean, there’s blood in so many of my music videos, I realize now, and blood pops up a lot in my songs, literally. I think that’s probably quite a universal thing to be honest. I definitely am very drawn and focused onto the very visceral, universal ugliness of being a human and what that encapsulates. I find the fact that the things that unite us are the things that we find to be kind of disturbing or ugly, things that we don’t want to discuss. And obviously, we’ve all got blood running through our veins. It’s the easiest one to pick but I focus on blood and water. They’re all things that connect us with our bodies, but can also make you feel incredibly disassociated because we’ve convinced ourselves that that’s not what we are as humans anymore. When you get reminded of that, it’s quite an ugly feeling. I just quite like digging into the kind of uglier side of things as you can tell.

Is that the type of media you consume? Do you watch movies that are more raw and visceral, read books that are like that?

MARIKA: This will probably be surprising but I cannot stand watching films, TV or anything that’s violent. I find violence really, really hard to watch. It makes me really upset. I internalize it and get quite depressed. I’ve been like that since I was a kid, I found it horrible. And again, I can’t watch horror films either because of violence or because of scary things keeping me awake. I think I’m very, very sensitive and so I definitely don’t seek that out as sort of artistic stimulation because I find it too difficult to be confronted with when it’s not coming out of my own head and maybe that’s why I also am fascinated by it when I come up with it because it’s like a safe space for me to explore those things without feeling slightly attacked by it.

Do you watch reality TV?

MARIKA: I do. I watch a lot of TV because, this is going to sound very strange, I write music whilst I have the TV on. I think it’s a blank page syndrome thing. The fact there’s already noise going on in the room but it’s not music so I’m not distracted by people chatting and that does mean it’s usually fairly shite kind of garbagey reality TV because that’s the perfect backdrop.

I did watch one recently that was actually quite an old one which is very much like Survivor where they just dropped on a bunch of people on a Scottish island and they had to live there for a year with like no rules and the breakdown of it is just absolutely hideous and they all go so feral and weird. I can watch that. I find that interesting as opposed to disturbing, even though it is disturbing, but it doesn’t seem to affect me in such a kind of visceral way.

Even though you’re using it as background noise while writing, does anything you watch ever unconsciously sneak into your lyrics?

MARIKA: I’m very inward looking when I’m writing so it’s really just a case of having a companion in the room. It’s very isolating, like being a solo artist and having to do all this stuff on your own, and especially when you’re writing, because that’s just completely me on my own for like a long time. I think it’s just to make me feel a little less alone.

As a solo artist, are you a solo artist in the truest sense? Is everything on this album you or did you have other musicians help out?

MARIKA: It’s fairly consistent through most of my stuff. I’ve always played all of the instruments that I can. Strings and brass are not my thing. The second album, which we recorded live with the band Big Moon, was a band playing together, but, in terms of arrangements and things like that, I have quite a wide control across everything that I like to exercise.

This album is a step up. I love doing the string arrangements but it’s taking that next step and actually bringing those musicians into a studio space and going, “That’s what we’re going to use.” It’s the notes. I haven’t put those notes in just a placeholder for vibe. It’s actually the notes. I’m stepping into more of a production role, acknowledging myself more as a producer, because, instinctively I’ve always been involved in production, but I didn’t really know how, why, a bracket that was and that I was actually within those parameters. It’s calling a spade a spade at this point because I’m older and have more confidence.

Having strings on your songs, does that come from having classical music influences? Are you trying to make the songs sound cinematic?

MARIKA: I love strings and I am somewhat classically trained. I did my A level in music and stuff like that as well. I grew up with a lot of classical music. My grandma was a piano teacher and studied classical music. My parents like classical music as well. It’s just another tool I can use but calling it a tool feels not as beautiful as it should be.

If you want to get a cinematic sound, strings are the easiest way to do that. And I definitely wanted to go for a cinematic, soundtrack production for this album. I think what really informed it was actually “The Ground,” which was the first thing I had written for it. That had been sitting in my computer fridge because I was gonna turn it into a song. The string parts are very much influenced by the Larkis ending by Vaughan Williams, which is one of the most famous string pieces in history. That piece is so evocative for me and it is such a link to childhood. It’s such a link to rural England and these green rolling hills and simplicity and freedom. I wanted to capture that against this kind of crushing mechanical breakdown so that felt like the perfect inspiration. From there, and on going into the rest of the album, it made sense to bring back those touches and those moments. And, I love choral music and I love strings. They move me in a way that most other stuff doesn’t.

I’m guessing strings won’t be part of a live show, at least not when you’re touring. Do you hope to someday do a show where you can incorporate all the instruments from the album?

MARIKA: I hope and pray that one day I’ll be able to do it. I would love to maybe even just for a one-off show, but touring is just so mercilessly expensive, especially for a solo artist so I can’t afford that yet. One day, I’d love to do a show with an orchestra and a choir. That’s how I want my music to be heard. I sometimes feel that on previous records, I’ve slightly held back with some of that arrangement stuff, because I’ve known that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill that in a live sense. I’ve decided I’m not going to do that anymore. Just play with it and we’ll work backwards, you know?

You mentioned the expense of touring. You’ll many people say that with streaming services paying such small royalties, that the only money to be made is from touring. Are you at a point where you’re making money while touring? Is that the best way for your fans to support you from a financial standpoint or is there some other way?

MARIKA: I can just start giving my bank account details so you can directly deposit money into my account (laughs). I can earn money off touring in the UK. When people buy more tickets that Impacts how much your fee will increase and then it means you’re actually in a position where you’re earning money. I’ve been doing this for 13 years and I think with this upcoming UK tour I’m gonna actually break even across England and Europe. But, no, I’ve never recouped on an album. I’ve never actually seen anything from sales merch at shows.

The trouble is, why on earth would you turn down paying whatever, is it like 20 quid a month, whatever for Spotify, and you have access to all unlimited music that’s on your phone? If everyone who was listening to my music was buying my records, I might be in a slightly different position. So it’s a really hard one because you can’t blame them. It’s been set up that way and now we’ve got to work out how we can make this a sustainable ecosystem because it’s not good. You’ve got to be really at a certain level to be earning money. There’s no middle ground.

Is there a particular song on the album that you consider to be a special one, one that you’re really proud of?

MARIKA: “Hanging” and “The Yellow Mile” are two songs that I’m very proud of for my songwriting capabilities. Then there’s things like “The Ground” where I’m proud of myself for the string arrangements.

If you were to write a song about your 2023 life, what would the title be?

MARIKA: To be fair, it would probably be called “Waiting.” I feel like I’ve been waiting this whole year and then in January, it’s gonna kick off.

Anything you want to shout out as “Favorites of 2023”? Music, books, restaurants, places you traveled?

MARIKA: I don’t listen to very much music at all really. I enjoyed the new PJ Harvey record, of course. So that was a nice one. I find reading really difficult, I think because of my phone, because I’ve mainly been making lino cut prints and prepping myself for the release of the record. But I have had some nice meals. There’s two really good spots in London. Next time you’re over, there’s a place called Lucky and Joy in Clapton that’s like modern Chinese food, Szechuan, really delicious and it’s very vibey and cool and small and fun. And then there’s an Italian place called Brutto, which is delicious and really cozy, it’s all low lights and red and white check tablecloths. It’s kind of exactly what you imagine an Italian restaurant to be. And the food is just simple, but really fucking good.


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