Marika Hackman likens her creative process to hacking into a block of ice. “It’s about chipping away at whatever that golden thing is in the centre. The more you do it, the more visible and easy to access it becomes.” The problem, Marika says, is if you leave the block for too long it freezes over. The glow gets duller, the fear of finding it intensifies. “Not the most relaxed metaphor for a musician who’s trying to reduce their stress levels, admittedly.”
Such was the case with Big Sigh – the “hardest record” Marika has ever made. As its title suggests, it is a release of sorts – of sadness, of stress and lust, but mostly relief.
At the start of 2020, Marika hurtled into lockdown; stifled and isolated, her musical brain nullified. She had been in a constant cycle of write/record/press/tour for thirteen years, since the age of nineteen, and the eerie silence of stopping was agonising. “I have pretty bad anxiety. It’s usually manageable but having a lack of control for two years during the pandemic was impossible.” Being with friends, swimming, collaborating and touring, everything Marika normally used to distract her mind from spiralling thoughts and feelings had disappeared. She stopped writing songs. The ice got thicker.
As the months progressed, she accrued scraps of melodies but never felt that spectral hit of a fully formed song arriving in her brain. Instead she recorded and produced Covers – brilliant interpretations of some of her favourite songs. Deep down, however, Marika wondered if she’d ever write again.
Until one evening in 2021, when she struck gold in the most unlikely of places: a toilet. Restrictions had been lifted, and Marika went to the pub. “I had written a song at home that day, and recorded it onto my phone quickly as I had to leave to meet friends. When I was at the pub I went into the loo to listen back to it and realised it was a cracker. I welled up with this huge relief. I realised I’d done it – I’d put the first crack in the ice.”
That song became Hanging, a track that processes the end of a relationship in a delicate, dissociative daze, until its engulfing ending – a crash of banshee wails and grunge guitars. Not only was it the song that freed Marika’s creative flow, but it’s one that epitomises the album’s opposing themes: the contrast of loud-quiet, the rub of industrial and pastoral, and the innocence of childhood versus the gnarly realities of adulthood.
To achieve these dualities, Marika had to summon a very specific soundscape for each song: she not only played every instrument save for the brass and strings on Big Sigh, but produced it too, along with Sam Petts-Davies [Thom Yorke, Warpaint] and long-term collaborator Charlie Andrew. “I’d always produced on my records, but I’d never backed myself enough to actually say that I had. I liked being a sponge and I saw the first two thirds of my career as a learning experience – I would sit back in a slightly deferential position to allow the dynamic to work. With this album I got to a point where I realised I’d done the learning, I knew what to do.”
Big Sigh is the latest advancement by a musician who has remained inventive with every release. Over the years her enigmatic genre-morphing sound has been compared to “the lovechild of Nico and Joanna Newsom”, Blur and Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey, while the Guardian’s five star review of 2019’s Any Human Friend praised her “lethally sharp pop hooks”. On Big Sigh, however, Marika ventures into fresh terrain. There is a constant tug between organic instrumentation and the harsher dynamics of synthetic distortion – like walking into an abandoned industrial wasteland covered in poison ivy. It begins with The Ground, a cinematic score-like track reminiscent of Daydreaming by Radiohead. Unsettlingly innocent, it gives the listener the sensation of a door opening into the world, and is one of many songs centred around the piano. No Caffeine, uses the piano as a house of horrors-style device to accelerate a feeling of lurching panic, while the pianos on The Lonely House shape a stark instrumental.
The song is stripped of Marika’s distinctive vocals, synth or grunge affectations, to reveal the artist’s subtle knack for a heart-breaking melody. Blood and The Yellow Mile feature raw, scratchy acoustic guitars, while Vitamins is the cousin of Portishead’s The Rip – a slow, hallucinogenic descent into eerie synths, slow clinks of metal, and a grand apocalyptic climax.
If it’s her haunting soundscapes that first lure you in, it’s her lyrical acrobatics that latch onto your brain – images of gore, yearning and off-kilter romance. “The way I’ve written about love and sex on this record is very different to Any Human Friend, which was a celebration of sexy fun and visceral, rank hotness. Whereas this is sensitive – a more thoughtful reflection.”
For a while she considered doing a little less of the smut. “But I’ve got to throw one song in there.” Slime is that one. The song recalls the chaos of a new relationship, those first flushes of passion and intimacy. “It’s a reflection of the destruction that can be caused when you get together with someone and there are other factors at play. On the one hand you have a new thing that’s really exciting and hot and lusty but there can also be a lot of storm clouds floating around, a lot of fall-out socially.”
Leaving the carnal days of her 20s behind, this album is less a photo-real documentation of the moment, but more like an artist peering through a gap in a door to reassess her former life. Except for No Caffeine, however, which thrusts its listener into the eye of the storm. A To Do list sung as if in the foetal position, it rattles off the preventative tools Marika has learned to try and stop a panic attack. “Occupy your mind / Don’t stay home / Talk to all your friends, but don’t look at your phone / Scream into a bag / Try to turn your brain off.”
On Big Sigh, not only is Marika recounting her experience of anxiety, but reckoning with it. She first encountered an acute level of fear at the age of 17 when her appendix burst – a near fatal incident made worse by contracting sepsis in hospital. “It was a big body shock. I was just a kid, and then after that I had subsequent quick traumas, which I didn’t deal with. It was then I had my first panic attack and I’ve been anxious ever since.”
That confrontation with death altered Marika profoundly – it became the genesis of her musical career. Not only did she start making music soon after the incident, but it gave her one of her greatest thematic traits: a wry, disturbing preoccupation with bodily expulsions – blood, sick and beyond. These are all the physical elements of being alive that make her feel out of control, the ones she so desperately avoids in real life, but in her music confronts corporeality with brutal, deadpan humour, such as on Big Sigh’s Vitamins’: “Mum says I’m a waste of skin / A sack of shit, and oxygen.”
Perhaps at the core of that block of ice is less of a mystical golden orb, and more of a human blob, a beating heart, a weary brain. In her never-ending pursuit of untangling her internal universe and exploring complex melodies, she has made her most honest and brave album yet. Which is impressive considering the last had a track on it about masturbation.
“This album took a long time to make. It was not easy, and by the time I got to the end of it I was quiet. I wanted to be away from it and let it sit in its own space. Now the dust has settled and I’ve got to re-enter the world of Big Sigh, and I’m excited.”
Stepping into a new world, moving forward, chipping away. Breathe in, breathe out. Big sigh.