Marika Hackman steps out of her comfort zone

Marika Hackman interview

Marika Hackman has never been shy as a songwriter. When she felt boxed in by folky, singer/songwriter characterization, she took action to change that. When she felt compelled to be more open and unabashed in her sexuality, she did just that on 2019’s incredible Any Human Friend. But what happens when the songs simply don’t arrive? When what to say, and how to say it, feel further from your reach than you can remember? 

For Hackman, the answer was hidden somewhere in that place where the past becomes the present, where cause meets effect. Back in her childhood home for an extended period, Hackman fought through significant writer’s block to bring her new record, Big Sigh, to the surface. It was a process not without its struggles, but once the floodgates opened, Hackman found herself accessing the past in a way that put things into clearer view, a clear sign she was onto something. “I feel it’s my job as a songwriter to find the stuff that is lurking and pull it up to the top,” she says during our recent phone conversation. “I’m never really surprised when things come bubbling up because I think these things kind of lurk within us all.”

Big Sigh is a record of big, sweeping emotions but whereas Hackman has often tempered those sentiments with a fair amount of levity, her latest explores some of the murkier corners of Hackman’s psyche. “Slime” is one of the record’s best songs, and, according to Hackman, one of the boldest.  “It’s got swagger, it’s talking about sex, it’s certainly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also more visceral and violent than the stuff on the last record,” Hackman tells me. In many ways, this describes Big Sigh as well, a record as daring as anything Hackman has ever produced, and all the more exciting for it. We spoke to the singer/songwriter about her new album, maintaining a sense of humor, and being more raw and honest.

Treble: I have really enjoyed going back over your discography over the last couple of weeks. Are you are the kind of person who feels it useful to look back in that way and take stock of everything you’ve done before starting a new project?

Marika Hackman: I have a weird fear of listening to my past records when I am in the process of writing a new one. I have this fear that I will get intimidated by my previous record and feel stressed that I won’t be able to do as good a job or better. So I don’t consciously do it, but I think it is really clear that if you go through my discography, I definitely take things I’ve learned along the way and use them the whole time. Even though I have been playing with different genres I have managed to take these throughlines that stay with me and then kind of flex into those different styles. I am a very forward-looking person, I think, so when I am focused on making something new I have this fear of it replicating something I’ve done before. But I think, actually, on this record I am kind of letting that go a bit. This record definitely leans into my first album more than anything else has and I am happy about that because that was such an explorative, freeing songwriting time for me, so it was exciting to be coming full circle a little bit.

Treble: Obviously one big change on this record is that you serve as the primary producer. What led you to take that on this time around?

MH: It was a natural evolution. I didn’t step into that studio saying, “I am the producer now!” It was more later on, down the line, when I reflected back on how much I had done before I got into the studio and how much that was being replicated, that I realized I had been more or less producing anyway. Obviously, it was still collaborative, and some of the tracks are co-productions and I think all of them have additional production from either Charlie (Andrew) or Sam (Petts-Davies) so there was still a sounding board in the room and a sense of camaraderie, but having been doing this for so long and becoming wiser and more confident, I was able to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that yes, this is something I have been doing rather than sitting back.

Treble: How much did that confidence come from your work on your 2022 Covers records?

MH: I think the Covers record gave me a lot of confidence on that front because that was the first time since I started out that I had made something completely on my own in my bedroom. That was a reminder that I am actually capable of working from start to finish in that sense and that I don’t always need to have someone holding my hand. There is that feeling where it is much safer to have someone there and not have to take full ownership but I think doing Covers made me realize it was actually really fun doing it that way. I think that had a big effect on how I stepped into Big Sigh. 

Treble: Speaking of Covers, how did you go about picking the songs for that record?

MH: I basically just picked songs that I really like. The thing is, when you are a songwriter and listening to something that really moves you, there is always a small hint of, “I wish I’d written that.” So doing a covers record is great because you get to pick all those songs and get to do them in your own way. It’s a really fun feeling and, in a way, easy because you don’t have to worry about this blank page in front of you. You have something to start with and remold. I found the whole thing to be a really enjoyable process and it was a response to feeling creatively stifled. It was a great way to still flex those muscles without any of the pressure, which I think was really useful for keeping me on the track. 

Treble: You talk a bit about going into Big Sigh with less intention than in the past, but have there been themes you’ve noticed running through the songs now that you can look at it with some distance?

MH: A thing I kept coming back to was this yearning, nostalgic feel. This clash between adulthood and the freedom and simplicity of childhood and how everyone has to deal with that at some point in their lives. It was the collision of those two worlds that I could feel was really present. Then I took that sonically and turned that into a place where raw, organic sounds met more industrial sounding, synthetic, crashing noises. This idea of extreme dynamics to create this cinematic space to exist in. I also think it is somewhat genreless. I think I went into other records with an idea of genre in my head. I think it has a cohesive theme but I wouldn’t really know what genre it would fit into. It’s quite fluid I think. 

Treble: What does the idea of a Big Sigh mean to you and why did that feel right as the title to this record?

MH: For me a big sigh is all about release. When you sigh you are accepting the position that you are in and relaxing into it, even if that feeling is unpleasant. I think this record is about coming face to face with difficult emotions, tough times, and things that are scary and just accepting them and exhaling them out into the world. Even if that makes it a heavy record and melancholy and wistful and all that, there is an element of contentment as well. So there is a positive spin to be had on that as well and a softness to it. Big Sigh kind of encapsulates that idea to me. 

Treble: You mentioned working with Charlie Andrew earlier. Can you tell me a little bit about your working relationship with him and how that has influenced these last few records?

MH: He was the first producer I started working with when I was 19. I learned so much from just being around him, working with him, and making records with him. He has a really playful mind and he definitely thinks outside the box. He goes very much toward the unexpected and I think I absorbed that. He is my safety net. I made the last record with David Wrench and I think it was important to push myself out of my comfort zone. Then when it came to making Big Sigh I was working with Sam Petts-Davies and it was all coming together but it just felt like we both sort of ran out of steam and it ground to a bit of a halt and needed fresh ears and a fresh perspective to put it over the finish line. Going back to Charlie for that was just the obvious choice. I know what  I am getting with him and I know that it works really well. I feel really comfortable and creative around him and I think that is the most important thing with a producer. He is my creative guide and it always feels good with Charlie. 

Treble: Something I really love about your songwriting is how often you use humor and playfulness in a way that doesn’t necessarily come off as a joke. That said, this record is definitely a bit darker than in the past. How do you work that balance?

MH: It is all about balance, especially when you are playing with opposites, which I think this record really does, because everything in it is really exploring two sides of the coin. I use humor day to day, like a lot of people, to cope with things that are a little hard to cope with. So it is really natural that that comes through in my writing. On Any Human Friend it was really easy to be funny when talking about tongue-in-cheek, provocative ideas around sex and sexuality. This, on the other hand, is more a reflection of internal feelings. The humor was tempered to what it realistically is in those moments. I think wordplay and messing with meanings and all that, is a nice way to soften things and also keep things real. Humor is how people deal with some of these things. So I don’t think there will ever not be humor in my songwriting, it is just a case of how much. 

Treble: Was there a moment during the process of writing and recording this record where you felt like you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone?

MH: I was kind of out of my comfort zone for the entire thing. At first I was struggling to write, which was such an uncomfortable feeling because everything depends on my ability to write a song. If that feels like a distant, flickering light it is very uncomfortable and very stressful and difficult. I think that feeling stuck with me ever after the songs were written. Because of that, I had to dig deeper and get more raw, icky, and extreme and I am actually so grateful I felt like that and was able to push through, because it is a very honest and authentic record and isn’t pretending to be anything else. 

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