Laura Marling was visibly nervous and chain-smoking when I first saw her shivering outside of the Sidewalk Cafe in January 2008, right before her first U.S. gig. Onstage, the shy 17-year-old singer struggled with a misbehaving acoustic guitar; it drifted out of tune frequently and she fussed with it apologetically. But when she slipped ethereally into a song from her not-yet-released debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, Marling preternaturally channeled a woman far beyond her years. This lithe girl, brushing strands of cornsilk blonde hair from her eyes, wasn't just a talented teen with a pretty voice. Even then, you got the sense Marling was a link in a long chain of storied English folk musicians like Bert Jansch, John Martyn and Sandy Denny.
Two and a half years later, Marling, a far more confident 20-year-old with two Mercury Prize nominations under her belt (the latest for her beautiful sophomore album, I Speak Because I Can), arrived at WFUV's Studio A on a warm May day, as serene as a yogini. As her small entourage of friends headed off to a distant conference room to eat turkey sandwiches, she sat in our studio, accompanied by a thankfully well-mannered guitar, and traveled sagely through songs like "Rambling Man" and "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)." She didn't sing for us, it seemed, but for herself; there's a conversational air to her lyrics. Perhaps she was serenading someone we couldn't see. The overall effect was as lovely, unexpected and unsettling as Marling's music. For a brief stretch, we could swear there were ghosts in the room.