Marina Diamandis spent half-an-hour prior to our interview “talking into the void”. Answering questions submitted by her diehard fans as part of a one-way YouTube chat, with topics plucked from a frantically rolling feed, the artist formerly known as Marina and the Diamonds – now plain Marina – carries a slightly haunted look.
“It was chaotic,” she smiles, still talking into her laptop from her home in LA, but now via Zoom. Her backdrop is a gorgeous expanse of mint green, a colour that feels instantly calming. “This is so 35-year-old-with-no-kids boujee, but I’m in my yoga room,” she cackles.
All the chatting is to promote her fifth album, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, a bolshy return to form following 2019’s oddly frictionless Love + Fear. Back are the playful eccentricities that set her apart when she first emerged in 2009 (early single “Mowgli’s Road”, for example, opened with a chirruped “cuckoo”), as well as the vaudevillian vocal flights of fancy, the contrarian over-intellectualising, and the OTT Technicolor presentation with which she has forged her own path as a deliciously odd pop outsider with a loyal, cult-like fan base.
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Like 2012’s muddled but brilliant semi-concept album Electra Heart (a UK No 1, no less), on Love + Fear Diamandis opened up her songwriting to include a host of collaborators, but her pervading lyrical themes – identity, social politics, misogyny, mental health – seemed diluted.
On the wholly self-written Ancient Dreams, all of those themes have been dialled back up, with the splurge-like lyrics of recent single “Purge the Poison” zig-zagging between Britney, #MeToo, climate change, the global pandemic and a fascination with witchcraft.
Another song, the galloping “New America”, berates Diamandis’s adopted country (born in Wales to a Welsh mother and Greek father, she moved to LA permanently in 2020), continuing a love-hate relationship that started as early as 2010’s single “Hollywood”.
“I still have such a fascination with it,” she insists. “It doesn’t make sense really.”
She says she has noticed a shift in the country’s perception of itself over the past year of political and social unrest.
“I think what’s happened culturally has been healthy because all the walls feel like they’ve been ripped down and these really uncomfortable, dark truths have been revealed.”
Perhaps the album’s best example of Diamandis in excelsis is “Venus Fly Trap” in which she reflects on her winding, decade-plus career. “I did it my way, baby, nothing in this world could change me,” she sings, before unleashing the delicious, “I know that money ain’t important and it don’t mean you’re the best, but I earn it all myself and I’m a millionairess”.
She chuckles when I bring up that last line, its genesis apparently stemming from tweets she had seen, sometimes from her own fans, calling her a “flop”. (All her albums have landed in the UK top 10, while 2015’s excellent Froot peaked at No 8 in the US.)
“I bet I’m going to get so much shit for that line,” she says. Overall, though, she is past caring. “I’m not here any more to play it small or be worried because I’ve spent my whole life doing that. I’ve spent so many years in anxiety mode. Of course there are going to be people who disagree with what I say. But what am I going to do? Just not express any views?”
There is a sense of post-pop rat-race calm about the Diamandis of 2021, and not just because of the mint-green cocoon. “I’ve just learnt that it’s nice to feel proud about things [I’ve done] because I’ve never really had that feeling up until recently. Writing this record allowed me to reflect on what my career has been like in reality.”
She has always had a complex relationship with fame. As a teenager, she was obsessed, referring to her desire to be a singer as a disease. It meant that when she left her small home town near Abergavenny for London, her need to succeed led her to jump at every audition – including one for a reggae boy band.
After 2007’s independently released Mermaid vs Sailor EP caught the attention of most major record labels, she signed with Warner in late 2008 and her alt-pop debut, The Family Jewels, followed in 2010. “I wasn’t coming in subtle,” she says, of an album that streaked across a decidedly beige UK pop scene like a flash of neon glitter.
For 2012’s follow-up, Electra Heart, she dyed her jet-black hair blonde (quickly swapping it for a wig after the bleach caused her hair to fall out), and embodied the title character as a not-quite-alter-ego emblem of the broken American dream.
It was part of a move to become the biggest pop star on the planet, with the album featuring a host of then white-hot producers – Diplo, Stargate, Greg Kurstin, Dr Luke. (Dr Luke’s input, she says, has not changed her opinion of the album in light of the sexual assault allegations made against him by Kesha – he denies them and is suing Kesha for defamation – “because it was part of my creativity. There is definitely a significant thing that has happened, but it hasn’t changed how I feel about those songs.”)
Electra Heart was both an album and an experiment. “I was curious to see whether, if I took certain steps, I would get certain results, and the answer was yeah, kind of: I did get on American radio and I did hugely increase my fan base – but at what cost personally?”
It was “difficult to sustain and live in that role” of Electra Heart. “I just thought, ‘I don’t want it that much.’” Eventually those big aspirations started to wane. “They didn’t feel right any more. You’re translating validation as self-worth and I think that’s something that a lot of artists do subconsciously. We all want to be seen or heard in some way that is healing on a deeper level, but it doesn’t always work out like that.”
After Froot, she experienced “years of depression and anxiety” brought on by this disentangling of her identity and her career. “I recognised in myself this desire to slow down and build a bit more of a healthy lifestyle, but walking away from music meant my anchor was gone. My sense of purpose suddenly evaporated.”
A recent Clean Bandit collaboration aside, Diamandis has avoided chasing hits ever since Electra Heart. “Not to say that if I tried to play the charts game it would work, but I haven’t really done that often for a reason.”
She says that making music purely for hits made her feel “tense” and that “natural” creativity means not having any reticence about what you’re making. “One of the biggest things that’s helped me is distinguishing exactly how I feel and being brave enough to act on it. You have to trust that.”
That gut instinct led to a pivotal moment in the creation of Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land. Keen to work with new female collaborators, Diamandis eschewed the typical channels afforded to a major-label artist and put out a call on Twitter for recommendations.
“It was for all kinds of female collaborators – directors, photographers, producers,” she explains. “I like doing it DIY-style.” She started working with Grammy-nominated producer Jennifer Decilveo in July 2019 on what would become the album’s first single and expression of female utopia, “Man’s World”.
“It’s not like I don’t like working with men, but when you walk into a [studio] and there are four guys there, some of them you don’t know, it has felt intimidating in the past. It shouldn’t, because I’m employing them for a service.”
While “Man’s World” is perhaps the album’s most obvious feminist statement, the whole record explores shifts in how femininity is perceived. Part of that exploration involves a newfound interest in witchcraft, “because it’s so deeply embedded in our perception of the feminine and what that has meant through the ages”.
She sees an obvious parallel with the modern persecution of women, first in tabloid newspapers and more recently online. “I feel great that these Britney [Spears] documentaries have come out because it feels like a culture-shifter,” she says. “People suddenly were having these conversations.”
Perhaps as a further reminder of the progress made by society, however small, Diamandis says she sometimes revisits old reviews from the start of her career. “Certain people had full-on hatred for female artists of my era,” she says. “It’s interesting to look at it now with different eyes. There’s been a shift in what we perceive authenticity to be.”
In the past, on the eve of releasing a new album, she would be constantly worried about backlashes and the “misogynistic crap” coming her way. And now? “I just feel like I’ve got nothing to lose,” she states, inhaling the calm energy of her yoga room. “This is the work I want to put out.”
‘Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land’ is out now. A live stream concert, ‘Ancient Dreams Live from the Desert’, will be broadcast in the UK on Sunday at 6pm