Marika Hackman Perfects the Art of Bold Songwriting on Any Human Friend

Music Features Marika Hackman
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Marika Hackman Perfects the Art of Bold Songwriting on <i>Any Human Friend</i>

The first line of Marika Hackman’s 2015 debut album reads: “Oh I am bold / As brass posing as gold.” It’s a clever and self-deprecating declaration, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. The 27-year-old English solo artist’s recent third album Any Human Friend (out now on Sub Pop), solidifies Hackman as one of the boldest singer/songwriters around. There’s never a dull moment on her latest LP—if you’re not hearing a perfectly charred guitar riff, you’re getting a nugget of astute romantic wisdom, a pirouetting synth line, an insight about sexuality you’ve been too afraid to express, an emotive pitch-shifted vocal loop or any number of tools in Hackman’s ever-expanding musical repertoire.

Hackman has always been an artistic shapeshifter. Her 2013 EP That Iron Taste dove into enigmatic electro-folk, her 2015 debut full-length We Slept At Last brought rich folk-pop and her 2017 follow-up I’m Not Your Man radiated searing indie-rock with a decidedly candid nature. Now equipped with several years’ experience and a dedicated fanbase, she remains reliably unpredictable. Her new album is full of peculiar synth-rock and take-it-or-leave-it lyrics about queer female sexuality, armed with universal human truths and a twinge of humor.

“It’s been long enough now that I can turn around and be like, ‘Yes, this has worked,’ the masterplan that I had in my head since I was a 19-year-old releasing music, which was always evolving and changing,” Hackman tells Paste. “I like pushing people’s ideas about what my identity is as an artist and see how far I can push that and whether people stick along for the ride.”

At this point, Hackman shouldn’t have to worry about listeners jumping off the train. Any Human Friend finds Hackman at her most musically scrupulous and lyrically naked—she also bares it all on the album cover, wearing nothing but wrinkled socks and classic white underwear while clutching a piglet in her arms. While the image reflects her frank and playful sides, the album’s instrumentals are an indication of her unconventional approach to pop music. It’s another way Hackman keeps her listeners enthralled at all times.

“When I was deciding that I wanted to go in a poppier direction, in my mind that would still entail quite a lot of the heavier side of things that I’d done before,” Hackman says. “So what was really enjoyable about the process of writing poppier music was having more synths, and a sort of slicker, smoother sound meant that the guitar riffs sounded sharper and harsher against that, which was something I really liked and used to its advantage throughout the record.”

Hackman embellishes her songs with a variety of distinctive guitar tones, each outshining the next, and you don’t have to be a gearhead to realize you’re hearing something special and expertly curated. These terms sound counterintuitive, but the record has some of the most razor-sharp fuzz and precise overdrive you’ll ever hear, and it still has that blow-torched sound. Her guitar eccentricities are also a welcome refuge from the Mac DeMarco-popularized reverb timbres that make a lot of new music sound annoyingly homogenized.

“I will try and get to a sound that I feel paves the way for how we’ll do it when I get to the studio,” Hackman says. “So the kind of shreddy, overdriven, gnarly sound, that was what I was trying to get at home and then in the studio, working with [co-producer] David Wrench, he would listen to my demos and be like, ‘I’ve got just the pedal for that’ and would go hunt in his massive pedal collection and produce something that would be perfect for making it really clean cut and clear and kind of aggressive.”

Hackman wrote these new songs in her bedroom over the course of about a year—a process that was emotionally draining and occasionally maddening. As she did with her previous record I’m Not Your Man (which featured a killer backing band in the form of fellow Brits, The Big Moon), she fleshed out most of the parts before going into the studio, giving her freedom to also write on bass and drums and work with the knowledge that her vision wouldn’t be drastically tampered with later. Though Hackman enjoyed this liberating writing approach, it tested her sanity at times.

“It’s just really fucking lonely,” Hackman says. “I found myself talking to myself loads when I was going around the house. I was obsessed with having the radio on downstairs, so it felt like there were other people around. My housemates would come back in the evenings after work and try and have a conversation, and you have to warm up to having a conversation with someone when you haven’t spoken to anyone all day. They would be like, ‘Are you okay?’ So yeah, I felt like I was losing the plot a bit, but I think that’s just when you’re pushing yourself really hard.”

Given the end product, Hackman must have gone through some intense emotional gymnastics to get there. She depicts lovers at various stages of a relationship, and each version of herself is on a mission to find solace, affection and security. In that quest for satisfying romance and sex, Hackman is simultaneously her own fiercely loyal cheerleader and an overly critical coach. She’s quite literally a pack of her own begrudging fans on “the one,” with several layers of her vocals shouting, “You’re such an attention whore!” while she also portrays a self-absorbed rockstar version of herself, spouting lyrics like “They’re saying I’m a god sent gift / And all you fuckers want my dick.”

Hackman experiments with perspective a few times on this record. On “send my love,” Hackman writes from the point of view of her ex-girlfriend who poses questions like, “Did you love me tonight / Or any night of our lives?” These narrative devices add a layer of intrigue to Hackman’s songwriting and force the listener to question their own assumptions about the meaning behind these songs.

“If I’m playing with how people view me or how they view a situation or I’m putting it in their language, that’s from my perspective,” Hackman says. “If people then get a shared experience within that or if I’m putting a mirror up to society and being like, ‘Is this really what you think?’ It’s a really good way to get people thinking. That’s what’s amazing about music is its ability to communicate. Effectively, you have a vessel, which is maybe a catchy melodic line or a really great guitar riff, and this vessel can basically go directly into people’s brains. The language that you’re putting into that, you can really have a lot of fun and push it.”

Hackman’s blunt portrayal of queer female sexuality is another one of this album’s strong suits. On “all night,” there’s “kissing, fucking, eating, moaning,” and on the glaringly titled “hand solo,” she rhymes “dark meat” with “skin pleat” as she “dig[s] for life in the eye of [her] thighs.” While such a forthright portrait is empowering and commendable, she also captures more than just the graphic logistics of greasy bed sheets. She illuminates facets of queer sexuality that don’t normally surface in popular culture, like being the subject of someone’s sexual test-drive (“conventional ride”) and how queer sex doesn’t pass the heteronormative viginity threshold (“hand solo”). Plus, there are sentiments that anyone can connect to, like the perils of over-infatuation (“come undone”) and the fear that your own romantic feelings might fade.

This isn’t the first time Hackman has explored sex in her songwriting. There was lust sprinkled in her debut We Slept At Last, albeit cloaked in metaphors, and her sophomore album went another step further with lines like “I’d like to roll around your tongue / Caught like a bicycle spoke.” Hackman toys with audience expectations since some wouldn’t necessarily expect such forthcoming sexual descriptors from a young woman with a soothing voice.

“I was finding it really interesting to see if people would be shocked by it coming out of my mouth as a voice that you don’t normally hear,” Hackman says. “It’s more like, ‘Oh, you should be in a woodland thinking about fairies and being a kooky lady.’”

Hackman runs straight into a burning building on this record. It’s not just her cluster of imaginary haters yelling phrases like “That’s not what we came here for!” on “the one”—writing about female sexuality will inevitably invite critical discussions about whether the male gaze was successfully subverted. But Hackman chose not to play into the calculations of feminist critics or horny, ill-intentioned straight dudes and decided to just write with honesty and vulnerability about her experiences.

“Seeing the response to this record, it’s very much a feeling of power in numbers,” Hackman says. “The amount of queer people who have come up to me and been like, ‘Oh, I wish I’d had these songs when I was younger’ or ‘I’m working out my sexuality’ or ‘There’s a song that I can really relate to about my sexual experience or my relationships’ and doesn’t that infinitely outweigh [calculations about the male gaze]? It feels much more like the seesaw is completely down on that side than the other creepy guy in the corner jacking off.”

No one can single-handedly and completely obliterate objectification, and no one can actually make a perfect album, but Hackman’s nonchalant response to both heady questions speaks volumes about her bold ambition and cheeky confidence: “It’s always good to have a go, I think.”

Any Human Friend is out now on Sub Pop. Listen to Hackman’s 2014 Daytrotter session below.

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