Mike Atkinson

Interview: Marina and the Diamonds

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 8, 2010

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

What are you up to you today?

Well, I’m doing something good today. I’m going for a fitting at Dolce e Gabanna, so it’s really not that bad! I rarely go to parties, but I’m in town for two day doing fashion week, and there’s Naomi Campbell’s party tonight. That’s about the only glamorous thing in this business! (Laughs)

You’ve just returned from the States. Was that your first major tour over there?

Yeah, and it was absolutely amazing. America’s bizarre as a country, and the pop culture is bizarre and weird. So for me, as an artist who draws her inspiration from observing it, it was so fascinating.

You’ve spoken before about feeling emotionally drawn to the US in your writing. There’s that famous line from Hollywood: “I’m obsessed with the mess that’s America”. Where did that feeling of connection come from?

I’m not sure whether other people of my generation feel the same, or whether it’s just something personal to me, but when I was growing up, success as an artist meant being on MTV – and those things were very iconic and imprinted on my brain as a child. So maybe I related it to success. And for me, I will not have made it until I’ve won something like the VMA awards, because that for me equals success.

So it’s important for you to win over an American audience.

Yeah, and it’s not just because of this old myth of “if you make it in America, you can make it everywhere”. It’s not strictly true. However, I think there’s something really bleak about America. And that relates to middle America, and to the people who live there – just normal, everyday people. I don’t care about the celebrity side of it. I care about normal people and the public. I grew up in much the same way, in a little village in Wales, from quite a humble background. So that’s what I think of when I go there and play to people.

You must have had certain preconceptions of American life. How did they measure up against the reality?

When I first started going there, I felt very cold towards it. That’s how you feel when an illusion is exposed as an illusion. It’s like biting into a cake that has no flavour. I don’t mean that in a bad way – that was just in the beginning. And now people are so warm. It’s not just a naïvely happy thing – they’re like that because they’re very hopeful people. And I don’t think we should be so cynical about that. The country has gone through a hard time, and it’s not the people’s fault. It’s the government, and the system that’s in place there, and the media that’s in place there, that’s the ruin of the country.

Do you now have an opportunity to infiltrate that media yourself, and to get some different messages out there?

Absolutely. I think that’s why I have found a strange fan base there, even though I’m not pop enough to be on the radio. It’s because I’m very honest, and I think my lyrics relate to big things in people’s lives: their dreams, their aspirations and how they feel about themselves. So I don’t want to portray things like: OK, I’m in a club with loads of guys around me, and I’ve got loads of money. Because that’s not true! (Laughs)

No, I think we’ve got enough of that. You’re not after Ke$ha’s market. Could you ever imagine yourself moving to the US?

Oh, absolutely. As a young person, I haven’t got the responsibilities of children and husbands and all that kind of thing. I really want to move to New York next year, maybe for a year, a year and a half. Then I’ll come back to London, because I do love the UK.

The video for your new single (Shampain) is a strong contrast from your previous video (Oh No). In Oh No you were the aggressor, but in Shampain you’re almost the victim. Was this an attempt to show a different side?

Yeah, definitely. Because I’ve only done one album, I suppose people only have that snapshot of me: as a success-hungry, questioning person who wasn’t very happy. (Laughs) And that is very true, but it’s quite hard sometimes when you’re quite a hungry person and people think that you’re like that all the time. But obviously those songs come from somewhere. So with Shampain, it made sense to do a darker, heavier video.

The song is about vices, and about being a very split personality. It’s the fine line between feeling absolutely incredible when you’re hammered, and then suddenly something going wrong and everything going to hell and you want to die. (Giggles)

The title reads as “sham pain” – but lyrically, you’re describing a very real pain. So what’s going on there?

(Laughs) Well, I always want to make things more interesting! And I actually hate champagne. If I had put “Champagne” as the title, perhaps people would have thought it was some typical club song.

The video was shot in Southwark Park, in London, from 4pm until 7am. It was the coldest video I’ve ever done in my life. I was absolutely freezing.

It’s an uptempo track, but you have also performed it as stripped down ballad. Was it originally written as an uptempo song?

It’s one of the few that were. Most of my songs start as ballads – Hollywood was a ballad – I’ll do them on piano. But Shampain was actually studio written.

Do you like playing around with differing interpretations of your songs?

It’s really important to me. In the pop world, I don’t think people don’t expect to see a real musician. And with people like Elly [Jackson, aka La Roux] and Florence, and Lady Gaga as well, they all have great voices, and I love that. Because you really have to stand up as an artist live, to be a long term act. In America, it’s quite unheard of. Not that they don’t have great singers, but pure pop is very Autotuned.

Somehow, if you put the same song through different interpretations, it highlights the strength of the song. It makes people listen to the song in a fresh way.

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And for me as a songwriter as well, that’s a test – that I’ve written a song that could be timeless, if you take it out of the studio and strip it of the production and play it on your own.

It must have been a mad, busy year for you. How are your energy levels holding up?

Usually, I’m like “Yeeeeeah, I’m FINE! I can go on for nine more years!” But today, I feel absolutely knackered. It’s probably the jetlag from L.A. But generally I’m happy. I’m gearing up for the autumn tour, and I feel great.

When you do get downtime – assuming you get any at all – do you find it easy to relax, or do you tend to crash and burn?

I don’t know what I tend to do, because it rarely happens. So if I do, I actually just take sleeping pills, because I can’t sleep very well either. I’m quite an anxious sleeper.

Oh my goodness, you want to watch that. (Laughter)

So I’m not sure – I just try and chill out, I suppose. I stay at home usually, and I write.

Do you still have the time and space to work on new material?

Yeah, I do. I’m inspired every day, even if it’s just writing lyrics. It’s like a muscle. If you don’t use it, then the next time you go back and try, you tend to be cranky. So I try. But I don’t think you should force yourself to be creative, especially when you’re pretty stressed. The key is calm, and then you can do it.

Are any new lyrical themes emerging?

Yeah – death, usually! But it’s going well! (Laughs)

Oh well, that’s what success does to you, then. It makes you morbid.

Yeah, it does!

It has been a year of great change, of course. Your whole professional career has stepped up several notches. Were you prepared for that change, and has it matched your expectations?

Oh, absolutely. Yes, yes and yes. I’m someone who over-thinks everything, and I’ve over-thought my career since I planned it ten years ago. So nothing has felt strange. Also, I have quite a wry outlook on things. Even though on the first album I was talking about success – what it means, and that I want it, and that I’m ambitious – I’m very aware of what this entails, and I don’t lie to myself. So I don’t really feel like things have changed. I just expect more of myself.

Some people find it a disillusioning process, but it sounds like you didn’t have too many illusions to begin with.

No, I didn’t. I wanted to be worked, and I want to feel like I’ve earned this. Some people come into this expecting the soft beauty and glamour of it. I think there are loads of people who really struggle – but the work horses don’t. And they usually last.

Is there necessarily more of a distance between you and your fans now – or your “diamonds” as you call them – or do you consciously try to bridge that distance?

I still comment on Facebook, and I tweet them sometimes. I have several fans from the beginning who I’m in very regular contact with, and have been for four years. So it might not be as publicised, as in everyone knowing about it, but I have really close contact with people. And it’s on a very genuine level.

I don’t say “diamonds” to be cute. I created Marina and the Diamonds because I felt very excluded, and I never want to make anybody feel like that. I want to make people very welcome.

There’s a kind of hierarchical nature in this industry, which is encouraged. I hate it. I think it’s bullshit. So I’ll meet people after every single gig, on every single tour.

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