Marika Hackman: ‘I absorb the world and let my feelings speak through my songs’

Marika Hackman is happily back on tour, with the recent album “Big Sigh” in her boot. A big sigh of relief indeed, after a difficult period and a real writer’s block. Fortunately, she was able to release the emotions in her songs. In which she does not shy away from her personal feelings, quite the contrary. ‘I absorb the world and let my feelings speak in my songs.’

Our ashpraak is at the Artheater, where Marika will perform that evening in front of a sold-out and enthusiastic audience. A small but ‘gemütliche’ venue, typical of Cologne’s hip Ehrenfeld district: industrial, arty, alternative and open-minded. A well-nigh symbolic venue for a conversation with Marika Hackman. ‘I am proud. “Big Sigh” was a difficult record and it took a long time. But I’m really proud: of the arrangements, of the songwriting. And definitely also on the vulnerability and sincerity of the record.’ Marika immediately talks very enthusiastically and she feels visibly at ease. ‘I try to make every album sound different. And I feel I’ve grown in a different direction again.’ A direction from her subconscious. ‘With “Big Sigh”, I really didn’t know which way it would go. Something I clearly knew with “I’m Not Your Man” (2017) and “Any Human Friend” (2019). I was so focused on being able to write songs at all. That was really a struggle this time. That also makes “Big Sigh” different. In the lyrics, but also in the sound. It is very dynamic. Often industrial versus organic, too. Depending on how a song felt to me. And then I also experimented with how far I could go.’ The 32-year-old singer-songwriter describes the process as ‘laborious’. But sometimes the songs actually came out very quickly. ‘Then you know: I hit something in myself. Apparently on “Big Sigh”, I was very preoccupied with remembering the past… and how I think about that now. About my relationships, the path of life I’ve taken. It’s definitely nostalgia too. You keep going back and forth between childhood and adulthood.’

“Big Sigh” is both the title of the album and one of the songs. On which she sings, ‘Radio silence – (I’ve been better) I don’t wanna fight it – (I’ve been better) dumb, I’m a fool – (I’ve been better) I don’t wanna fight it.’ That title can be interpreted in many ways. It can be acceptance, or just defeating something. But also a relief, a really big sigh: ‘finally, everything is done.’ She laughs: ‘It’s an expression we’ve used a lot.’

So “Big Sigh” also refers to a sigh of relief. That something worked out after all. ‘Thankfully, yes. After the last tour around “Any Human Friend”, Covid broke up. ‘A great time to write a new album…’, I immediately thought. To have a good time, because you can’t do anything else anyway… But it didn’t work out, really not at all. It put so much pressure on myself. Like I used to have to do homework for maths.’ A real writer’s block? ‘Yes indeed.  That’s why “Big Sigh” covers such a long period of time. “The Ground” and “Please Don’t Be So Kind” I already had in 2019, so even before Covid broke out.’

Meanwhile, besides a few EPs, Marika Hackman has four full albums in her pocket: the three previously mentioned and her 2015 debut “We Slept at Last”. Anyone listening to them will struggle to categorise them into a single genre. It goes very wide, both between records and within one record. Yet there seems to be a chronological development, conscious or unconscious. From the fragile folk sound of “We Slept at Last”, the rock of “I’m Not Your Man” and the introduction of synths on “Any Human Friend” to now, “Big Sigh”.  ‘I always want to try new things. I am not hindered by genres. Not even when I listen to other people’s music. Sometimes I pick up a funky pop song, or just a fat gunge vibe.’ It’s funny to see how her facial expressions seem to imitate musical styles. ‘I also get bored very quickly…. It always has to be a challenge too, otherwise I don’t even start. Maybe that’s why I do almost everything on my own. And yes… I am a perfectionist. Then it’s good to have a sounding board. Someone who takes a fresh look at things and with whom you can discuss. And who helps you technically just that little bit further. That is why there are a number of co-productions on “Sigh Sigh”. But apart from the strings and horns, I played everything myself.’ She is therefore a self-proclaimed ‘control freak’. ‘I actually enjoy playing everything myself. But besides that, I also like to play live with a band, like tonight.’ In a beautiful set with bassist, drummer and guitarist/keyboard player. But in which Marika will also do a few songs completely solo. ‘Yes, I need that again anyway. That’s just that focus, that connection with your audience.’

Marika’s songs describe an important and changing period of her life. ‘I started when I was 19. So my music spans my whole twenties, and is also partly about my teenage years. And you ask me if you get to know me through my music…? I think so. But I’m not as serious as people think of me,’ she laughs. ‘From the other side, many people don’t know how sensitive I can be. Or that I have a great sense of humour… But you can also hear on the first records the naivety, the searching. And that I feel myself growing, in singing, but also in self-confidence. To also try out new things. Or to dare, for which I was too shy at first. Actually, in my music I try to discover who I am and why things go the way they do.’

In this, she shows great commitment to the world around her. Events are absorbed and take a journey through her consciousness on a feeling level. To end up as a new song. Without getting specific about the trigger. About the situation in the world, she is very clear… ‘It’s getting worse, obviously…’ She makes a “big sigh”: ‘Everything is getting shitter and shitter, on every level, for everyone. But I’m not a musician playing politics. I’m describing the impact it has on my behaviour and feelings. That’s “my first door” and it’s hard enough to get it opened.’ But Marika, suppose you were allowed to change one thing in the world, right now… ‘One thing? Oh my God!’ She almost cries out, hands raised to heaven. ‘Where should I start? First the whole internet, the instigator of so many things. Everyone takes the world’s problems on their shoulders. While being powerless to do anything about it. That’s really unhealthy. I’d rather go back to small-scale. That is overseeable and you have influence over that.’

Marika Hackman is very clear in her emotions tonight. Not surprising for those who knows her albums well. ‘My songs are never exactly about the world of you, the listener,’ she says, ‘After all, it’s my song, my world. But I do hope that you feel the connection and can get something out of it. What has meaning for your own situation, your own emotions. I find that very important.’ With a sense of the craft of writing really good songs, as she says herself. ‘I don’t hear that much anymore, not even on the radio. Everything has to be ‘cool’: ‘cool arrangement, chatty vocals. That kind of stuff…’ Instead, I want more real songs. It really is an art, a craft.’ What would be a nice compliment for you then, to end this conversation? She stands up theatrically and scans loudly ‘She is just a fucking great songwriter, what a bunch of fucking songs.’ She is indeed much less serious than expected. But that’s just a great addition to her personal albums. ‘I absorb the world and let my feelings speak in my songs.’

Photos (c) Steve Gullick

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