British singer Laura Marling learns to "Speak" up

Fri Mar 19, 2010 7:16pm EDT

Singer Laura Marling performs at the Mercury Prize awards, in London in this September 9, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

Singer Laura Marling performs at the Mercury Prize awards, in London in this September 9, 2008 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Kieran Doherty

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LONDON (Billboard) - When Laura Marling first emerged from the U.K. alt-folk scene, she was a painfully shy, if precociously talented, 17-year-old. But her second album finds her growing in confidence, as a person and a songwriter.

"I was just a tiny little kid, so I found it quite weird and difficult," says Marling, 20, of the attention that surrounded her 2008 debut, "Alas I Cannot Swim," and its nomination for that year's Mercury Prize.

The record moved 13,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while the Official Charts Co. confirms 73,000 U.K. sales. But Marling's team expects the follow-up, "I Speak Because I Can" -- released March 22 on Virgin in the United Kingdom and Europe and April 6 in the States on Astralwerks -- to build significantly on that success.

At home, rousing lead single "Devil's Spoke" was B-listed at national top 40 network BBC Radio 1, while her live following has grown to the extent that she sold out London's 2,800-capacity Royal Festival Hall last August.

"I Speak Because I Can" was helmed by Ryan Adams/Kings of Leon producer Ethan Johns, who brought subtle Americana textures to Marling's rootsy, live sound. Marling says she chose Johns partly because Adams' "Heartbreaker" was the "first album I fell in love with on my own account," as opposed to being influenced by her father or older sisters.

Nonetheless, that family upbringing in the Berkshire countryside remains part of such songs as the sprawling ballad "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)." "I've clung to that landscape as a kind of identity," the London-based Marling says. "I try to go back as often as I can."

Her visits home are likely to be less frequent in the coming months as she plans U.S. live dates and promotion in May, after her European/U.K. tour, which starts April 1 at Berlin Privatclub.

Marling is part of a new, close-knit U.K. folk scene that includes Noah & the Whale and Mumford & Sons, whose multi-instrumentalist Marcus Mumford was also her longtime drummer.

New York-based Astralwerks senior director of marketing Risa Morley believes such associations will help Marling "get recognition and media attention in the U.S., particularly as Mumford & Sons have built a solid (American) following."

Marling describes Mumford & Sons' recent stateside success as "just phenomenal," although she ruefully concedes Mumford will now likely be too busy to appear on her next album, which she expects to record in June. But one suspects the sense of wonder that infuses her music will prevail.

"I find something incredibly magical about playing music with people," she says.

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