Laura Marling sits in a hotel bar on New York's Upper West Side, clutching a paper coffee cup in her slender fingers. Wrapped in an olive overcoat, with holes in her black stockings and her trademark bleached-blond locks cropped short, the 24-year-old English singer-songwriter looks almost Dickensian. But she's talking about the 21st century, and a fierce new song, "False Hope," written about a previous New York visit, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. "It was like a zombie apocalypse," she says of the scene outside her downtown Airbnb rental after the power failed. Marling saw one panicked woman literally kicked to the ground on the street. "When all the lights go out, what does anything actually mean?" she says. "Nothing. I've had that kind of thought in my head for the past two years."
"False Hope" is a standout on the folk singer's first plugged-in LP, Short Movie (due in March), which she recently finished in London. It's Marling's fifth and darkest album, colored by her newly snarling lead riffs and virtuosic acoustic fingerpicking. The title track, with its discordant strings, recalls early Velvet Underground, and her lyrics ("It's a short fucking movie, man") are more Chrissie Hynde than her usual Joni Mitchell.
Marling grew up in music – her dad, Charlie, ran a residential recording studio. She began performing seriously at 16, and fell in with a folk-minded crew that included former boyfriend Marcus Mumford. Nowadays, she's more a lone wolf. Two years ago, feeling burned out, she abandoned London for Los Angeles, where she studied yoga and took advantage of medical pot to help with her insomnia – and took a full year off from touring. "I was trying not to identify as a musician," she says. Her resolve on that point started to break down when her father gave her a cherry-red electric Gibson 335, which you can hear all over Short Movie. "That guitar completely changed my perspective on music," she says.
Marling says she's decided to move back to England. But tonight, at the invitation of Conor Oberst, she'll perform at a benefit he's co-curated for New York's listener-supported- radio station WFUV. Is she worried fans may yell "Judas!" at her folk-music betrayal? "I sincerely hope someone does at some point," she says with a gentle smile.