‘It made me feel young again’: Marika Hackman talks ‘Covers’ and making music through COVID

On November 13, indie icon Marika Hackman releases Covers, an eclectic new album of covers from artists as diverse as Radiohead, Beyonce, Grimes and Elliott Smith. It’s also the first album solely produced by Hackman herself. AMI editor Daniel Gumble caught up with her to find out how the production process took her back to her artistic roots…

It’s a beautiful end-of-summer afternoon in London when Audio Media International sits down with the multi-talented artist, musician, and now producer, Marika Hackman. We’re sat on the grass – socially distanced, of course – in a corner of London Fields Park on a Friday afternoon in late September. Small clusters of people are seated metres apart while eating lunch and drinking coffee, while joggers, dog-walkers and groups of young parents with their new-borns are making the most of what will be the last of the season’s warm weather. It’s a backdrop largely at odds with the restrictions and conditions that spawned Hackman’s upcoming album Covers, an eclectic assortment of minimalist renditions of some of her favourite songs.

Boasting choice cuts from the likes of Radiohead and The Shins to Beyonce, Grimes and Sharon Van Etten, almost everything about the record was born out of circumstance, as we soon discover. Sonically-speaking it is oceans apart from her previous album, last year’s Any Human Friend, a sparkling collection of playful, richly textured pop that saw its creator explicitly explore themes of lust, sex and STIs by way of fittingly infectious melodies and hooks. Alongside revered mix engineer David Wrench, sessions for Any Human Friend were possessed of an experimental spirit that, even if she had wanted to, would have been virtually impossible to recreate on Covers.

For years, Hackman had toyed with the idea of releasing a covers record, yet it was the onset of lockdown that prompted her to begin work in earnest, albeit under very different circumstances than she would have anticipated. When strict social distancing measures were announced back in March, she packed a small bag, left her home in East London and boarded a train to her parents’ house in the country where she would wait for the pandemic to quickly blow over…

“I had only gone there with a weekend bag because I thought that this would be over fairly quickly, and then I’d come back straight back to London… obviously that didn’t happen,” she laughs. “That’s when I decided to start work on the record. I had my laptop and my interface with me but nothing else. So I got my housemates in London to send my mic down and I bought a few basic items – a Fender P Bass and a Mustang and a little nylon string acoustic – and I have Logic on my laptop. And Roland very kindly sent me a Rhythm Performer, a big drum machine, the TR-8 and a Juno. That was my palette, which is quite simple really.

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“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get into a studio to do live drums, so having this drum machine was amazing and you can hear it all over the record. I really like that it’s a simple pallet because it’s very cohesive. Everything has been painted with the same stroke. Using the drum machine was a new thing for me as well, which I really enjoyed, just coming up with loops and writing over that. But that was it, kit wise.”

Working within the limits set by such a minimal, DIY set up contributed significantly to the way Hackman interpreted each of her chosen covers.

“I enjoyed that part of it,” she says. “With the last album, that feeling of being able to throw anything at it was really fun and I love making all those parts lock together, but it was nice to have that feeling of less is more, and it was all about capturing the essence of someone else’s song. I think that’s why it was easy to be more minimalist with it. And I wasn’t starting on a guitar, I was starting with a drum part or some synth and piano.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of Covers is Hackman’s ability to capture the essence of each of the tracks she tackles while presenting them in a fashion that feels for all the world like a Marika Hackman record. Despite the diminutive tool kit at her disposal, contrasting moods and tones are bound together to create a seamless whole, culminating in a complete body of work as opposed to a simple collection of covers. Key to this, Hackman explains, was the sense that she was returning to her roots as an artist in both a figurative and literal sense.

“The last time I worked in such a disciplined way was when I was writing my first album,” she recalls. “Now, when I’m writing, I will normally do a good day’s work, but when I’m finished I’ll go to the pub and see my friends, and at the weekend I play football or go for a swim, so my day is peppered with other things, whereas making this album was an escape from the situation going on around me. It really felt like escapism. And it made me feel young again. Especially when I was working in my old bedroom at my parents’ house, exploring different instruments that I hadn’t played before, doing covers and working things out on my own. That was the reality of me making music from the age of 13-20. The first thing I ever released was an EP of covers, and that was the room I recorded it in when I was 19. It was quite strange and it must be a distillation of whatever was coming out of me.”

One aspect of Covers that was less familiar to Hackman was the production process, which she took complete control of for the first time in her career.

“I’ve always had a big hand in production but never felt comfortable enough to call it my own,” she says. “My demos are always very fleshed out and I arrange everything, but there is always a safety net of ‘well this will sound better or more professional once I take it in the studio and work with someone else’. I guess that’s a lack of confidence, but it’s always been in the back of my mind. This time around it was like, I’ve got to do the whole thing, bar mixing and mastering.”

As with Any Human Friend, Hackman turned to David Wrench for mixing duties.

“He was always my number one choice,” she states. “He’s an incredible mix engineer and he has the right vibe for what I was doing. I just wanted it to be very clear and all about the vocal. Keep the space but make it punch, and I know he can do that really effortlessly.”

Inevitably, our conversation turns to song selections. With such a diverse array of artists and songs covered, any interlocking themes aren’t immediately apparent, least of all to Hackman herself. “They’re just songs I really like and wanted to have a go at,” she smiles, with a hint of apology in her voice for not having a more complex answer. But as we discuss the track listing a little further some unifying threads begin to reveal themselves.

“Listening back to it, they are all lyrically quite bleak and sad,” she considers, pausing and looking skyward, searching and subsequently discovering that there may have been more to the decision making process than she was conscious of. “Even the Sharon Van Etten song ‘Jupiter 4’, which is a love song and lyrically quite beautiful and happy, still sounds like a really devastating song.”

Regardless of how the final song choices came together, careful consideration was certainly given to their ordering. Especially in the case of its opening track, a cover of Radiohead’s ‘You Never Wash Up After Yourself’, a 1.44-minute-long oddity from the band’s 1994 My Iron Lung EP.

“I didn’t want to cover a song of theirs that had been covered to death already, because they are probably one of the most covered bands in history,” she explains. “The lyrics felt very relevant and simple and direct, and felt very appropriate for the time. And I wanted to just lay that out there and doing it as a choral piece felt very apt. I’ve put choral songs at the start of records before because I think it’s a good way of opening up a listener. It does something to our ears and our brains, it feels elevating and opening. That’s why I love that the ‘Phantom Limb’ drum loop comes straight in after that – it feels like you’ve opened up and then it just hits straight in. It could have been front or end, but it feels like a portal to me.”

For now, as is the case for most artists, future plans are effectively on hold. She’s already in the process of demoing tracks for studio album number four, which she tells us will be a departure from its predecessor, but has no idea as to when she’ll be ready to take them into a studio. She’s also keen to perform songs from Covers live in front of a real audience as opposed to a live stream. “Who knows when that’ll be?” she shrugs. “It could be another five years away.”

Whether it’s a Covers tour or new record, here’s hoping we won’t be waiting quite that long.