Once upon a time, in Suburbia, there was a girl named Electra Heart who broke hearts, wrecked homes, and dreamt of glitter, fame, and fortune. Little did she know that in our post-Lady Gaga world, she would turn out to be the key in bringing some authenticity back to pop music.
In 2007, at 27 years old, Welch singer/songwriter Marina and the Diamonds (with the Diamonds being her fans) humbly began her career in pop music by burning her EP “Mermaid Vs. Sailor” on recordable CDs and selling it via the MySpace website. Five years later, she landed a record deal with Warner Music Group’s label, 679 Recordings, leaving a huge impression on the pop world and launching her first album, “Family Jewels” into the American Top 40 scene.
Over a year has passed since her sophomore album “Electra Heart” was released and Marina has flowered into a 21st century pop diva like no other. What makes her so special, besides her mind-blowing voice and songwriting skills, is how genuine and authentic she has managed to remain in the modern pop music landscape that usually leaves little to the imagination and yet, much to be desired.
In the album “Electra Heart,” her music and lyrics are sophisticated, profound, and catchier than most pop music, and even though the album has been somewhat misunderstood by some listeners, it stands as a perfect example of what pop sounds, looks, and feels like when it’s made with heart and integrity.
The GROUND had the chance to meet with Marina and to talk about her work and her life. She came in as she is: no forced provocations, no over-the-top persona, no make-believe. She was as perky, upbeat, and outspoken in real life as she is in her music.
The album “Electra Heart” has a very strong feminist subtext, which had not been on purpose. She explained that the album is “very much an exploration of female archetypes in the way that women are presented in the media.”
“I’m always really interested in Zeitgeist, you know, and what is kind of going on at the time in pop culture and in fashion and music. So, I suppose I was mirroring what I felt was going on at the time through the ‘Electra Heart’ persona.”
As a result, “Electra Heart” is very much an example of art imitating life and doing so in a way that does not merely reflect a vain image of the artist, but rather what she sees happening in popular culture whether it’s good or bad. “I’m just interested in people, and I’m interested in what is relevant or important at the time. And, you know, something like the Primadonna archetype is obviously not a great model of a person to be, but I’m interested in it and there’s this certain theatricality to my identity so it felt very natural to live out those roles. It was very freeing because the first album was like, ‘I have to be this,’ and you know, ‘I wanna be this kind of artist with integrity and I wanna be respected,’ and ‘Electra Heart’ was like fucking all of that off and having fun with it.”
In order to truly understand “Electra Heart,” one should think of it as Marina’s Ziggy Stardust. It’s a concept album in which Marina has created a suburban playground for her archetypes (among which is of course, Electra Heart herself) to come to life. Letting hugely successful producers such as Dr. Luke (P!nk, Katy Perry, Ke$ha), Diplo (M.I.A., Robyn, Santigold), or Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Kylie Minogue, Sia) take the lead on the production side of the project, she has been able to focus most of her efforts on her songwriting and inventing her world and its characters.
Because Marina has always been caught in the middle of the divide between the mainstream side and the alternative side of pop music, people might misunderstand what she was trying to achieve and have called the persona of “Electra Heart” an excuse for Marina to make a big, subversive pop album. However, one thing that truly sets her apart from most other pop artists with very influential producers is that she has found a way to express herself even more openly than she used to and to be just as free in her music while being produced by such influential industry names. This definitely adds a great deal to the feminist subtext of the album. Even though she has entered into the world of big productions and mainstream hits, she remains as authentic and unique as she has ever been, and no matter who she works with or how big the production gets, her personality, the themes that she explores, the opinions that she expresses, and her very theatrical and arty imprint stay intact. What truly makes her a model of women empowerment is that her identity and her personality are strong enough to counter the overwhelming business side of pop music.
Marina explained that because the production part of the project was “very controlled,” she had felt that she should express herself more. By creating a persona, she could talk about basically anything without getting “embarrassed.” This nothing’s-off-limits attitude and openness was new to her music. Her debut album, “Family Jewels,” had a self-made feel about it, but it was nowhere near as personal and open and perhaps even as free as “Electra Heart”. In a way, letting go of some of the control over her project has allowed her vulnerability and her identity to always be in the center of the record. Therefore, the album is a big theatrical concept album and at the same time, a truly moving autobiographical work of art, which is sometimes quite dark with songs like “Teen Idle,” “Fear and Loathing,” and “Valley Of The Dolls” and sometimes very opinionated.
In the song “Sex Yeah,” Marina goes beyond mirroring the typical image of the modern female pop artist: shallow provocations, exaggerated sexuality, etc. In the song, she really takes a stand against the typical image, singing slogans like, “question what the pop star sells you,” “everyone’s seen everything,” or “tired image of a star acting naughtier than we really are.” When asked where she stood regarding infiltrating herself into the world of pop stars, she explained that when she wrote “Sex Yeah,” the music scene had reached a saturation point of being provocative and shocking because it was the post-Lady Gaga effect. “She [Lady Gaga] was so fantastic and she was really provocative, but it just reached that point where, you know, nothing is shocking anymore. And I still very much feel the same.”
“I’m not a Katy Perry or a Rihanna, but I was working in that world. I don’t know how people would compare that. I don’t feel similar to them at all. I am this in-between artist. For someone like Ke$ha or Katy or big American pop stars, it would be quite hard to go backwards and do a genuine alternative album. People have done it in the past, but it is kind of another world. Would they be taken seriously? Would they be allowed to do that? Would their fan base shift? Kanye West is the perfect artist. He’s perfect because whatever he does, it’s pretty much a concept album. He’s completely fearless, and he managed to make these records that are really kind of unique and almost underground but are still pop because it’s always relevant. The subject matter’s always relevant. I think he’s incredible. I would write top lines with him forever,” Marina laughs. “I think he’s insanely talented.”
Being this in-between artist can indeed be very freeing, but it can also be quite frustrating and part of Marina’s desire to create a big production comes from her dream to perform for big audiences. With her Lonely Hearts Club Tour, which began in June 2012, her big dream has come true and all over the world and all the while, she has remained a very unique and mysterious artist. Marina has performed before thousands of fans, each one of them knowing every word of each of her songs, and connecting to her in a very real and profound way.
“The main desire to be popular is because I want to perform to a large crowd. I love big audiences and I really love being a theatrical performer. It’s something that I feel like a lot of artists who are in-between really struggle with. It’s a fortunate place to be in but it’s also kind of a frustrating place [to be in] because you’re never really quite one or the other. This tour has been like a highlight of my five-year career. It’s been one of the only things that has made me feel really good; not because not many nice things have happened. It’s just [that] I always used to be so miserable like, ‘oh I’m a failure; I haven’t gotten anywhere yet,’ whereas the year I had two months off, at the beginning of the year, and I just really gained some perspective and I’ve just enjoyed this tour so much. I’m really at a place where I feel really positive about things.”
Marina was lastly asked to give women who dream of being pop artists some advice on how to stay authentic and true to themselves. “There’s a particular trend in the industry, the actual musical side of it, where a lot of female artists get signed for being good writers and good singers and then, they get just shunted off to work with whoever’s hot at the time, and I think that’s the wrong thing to do, and I feel like everyone does it. And being someone who wrote on my own originally, I feel like, for me, in the future, I’m sure I will co-write again, but I don’t feel like I will do it as much. It’s just weird how someone gets signed for hopefully being talented, but then as soon as they’re signed, they get encouraged to work with other people. That’s really weird. So, that would be my advice. If you are a writer, stay a writer, and write on your own.”
With her concept of mirroring the image of women in pop music by infiltrating the world of big American productions, Marina and the Diamonds has unintentionally created a true, larger-than-life feminist work of art. As challenging as it might have been, she has managed to stay free, genuine, and authentic. The result is a repertoire of catchy pop songs that are both honest and theatrical, moving and ironic, dark and yet, full of humor. Marina is a true model of female empowerment.
Photography by Yeon J. Yue
Interview Coordination by Laurent Altier,
Makeup by Amy Chance at Celestine Agency,
Hair by Eiko Narukawa at Artistic Cube.