ICON: Ladytron's Helen Marnie Steps Out on Her Own
In late December, Helen Marnie, one-quarter of Ladytron and, as of recently, a solo artist recording under her last name, played her first solo gig in Glasgow. We met there in a pub to discuss her upcoming album and the fate of her famous band. "I think it went OK", she says modestly, then thinks for a moment. "Except no one told me my keyboard wasn't working for the entire show". The gig — a "not pretentious" benefit for TYCI, the Glasgow-based feminist collective founded by Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry — offered Marnie the chance to get a low-pressure solo show under her belt (and to iron out any kinks like malfunctioning keyboards) before the beginning of a year that will see her play overseas and release her second solo album. It was also a chance to reconnect with the community of her home city of Glasgow, where she returned, after 12 years living in London, two years ago.
With song titles like "High Road" (the name of '90s Scottish soap opera) and allusions to the sea, the influence of her return home is stamped over her first solo album, the warm and emotionally resonant Crystal World, released in 2013. "I think because it was my first solo album, things like my childhood and my influences were going to creep into it", she says. "Crystal World is very reflective and about looking back and reminiscing about things, so Scotland played a big part. It was recorded in Iceland, but Iceland didn't creep into it at all because the music and lyrics were already written".
Marnie went to Reykjavik to record at the studio of Barði Jóhannsson of Bang Gang and Starwalker. She brought on Johansson to co-produce with Ladytron bandmate Daniel Hunt so that the album would not be just a Ladytron project. Now she is working with Jonny Scott, known for his work with The Kills and Olympic Swimmers, who she describes as a "synth geek and quite pop-oriented".
For her next album, which will be out later this year, she plans to write and record with Scott. "I think it will probably go more electronic sounding than the previous one. I think Crystal World had a softer edge. It was electronic but had a folk tinge to it. The next one might be a bit weirder".
As a teaser, Marnie released the Scott-produced "Wolves", a track calling out the establishment and urging people to raise their voices, in September 2014 — pointedly right before the referendum. The chorus goes: "Raise all your voices / Gimme all your hands, take the chances / Don't be fooled, wolves in disguises / All your hands! All your hands! / Hail for better days!"
"I wrote the lyrics at the beginning of 2014 when there was so much information about [the referendum] being thrown at us". She says. "The referendum was part of my life for so long that it was natural that it fed into it. At the time, I realized what I was writing about, and I wanted it to be quite anthemic".
The solo work and return to Glasgow have had some worrying that Ladytron is no more, but that's not the case. In fact, in what will be an exceptionally busy year for Marnie, she expects the band to get started on a sixth album in the second half of this year.
Reflecting on Ladytron's place in and influence on the electronic music scene, she says: "A lot of the electronic music that's coming out now is more pop than Ladytron. I think that we were always more underground than the stuff you would hear in the mainstream. Then, it wasn't like it is now where there's so much electronic music, and a lot of people didn't know where to put us and how to label us".
As for the more immediate future, she has solo gigs lined up in Peru and Mexico this month. It seems natural for her to play in Latin America, which has always been good to Ladytron in comparison to the UK where they "never really took hold". When asked for career highlights, as well as a show in a Brian Eno-produced festival at the Sydney Opera House, she fondly remembers a gig in Mexico City where she could barely hear her own voice over the crowd. The response in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and North America has far surpassed that of Ladytron's home country where the band "never really got much radio play".
While the new album is still in the planning stages, one thing she's certain of is that she won't be repeating her last experience of funding it via Pledge Music — an experience she describes as "a lot of hard work" and "quite stressful". She also credits the crowdsourced method as a factor in the subdued reaction it received, although, the reviews it did get were highly positive. "The day the album was available, it went to the pledgers, so I felt that it didn't get much press because [by the time the media heard it] it was old news; it was already out there", she tells us. Neither will she be returning to Reykjavik to record. She says she is quite happy back in her hometown, a "good city" where "the people are good".
"When I make another album I am really looking forward to just staying in Glasgow and making it here", she declares. After more that 10 years in the business, it seems fair that Marnie gets to do it her own way.