Most 21-year-olds still don't know what to do with their lives, but Marika Hackman has already been a model for Burberry, and is tipped to be a breakthrough pop artist this year.
It was when she was 14 years old and she played her first gig with school friend Cara Delevingne (Hackman played drums while the supermodel played guitar and sang) that she gained a taste for being a musician. “I was so scared,” she recalls, shuddering at the memory. “And then I played and got this massive buzz afterwards. I thought, 'OK, this is what I want to do from now on'.”
Back then, it was fun, cheesy covers that they favoured, the girls swapping places as Delevingne also played drums. At the same time she started to hone the beguiling, delicate, spectral songwriting that has been championed by DJs Huw Stephens and Zane Lowe, and on Radio 1 and 6Music.
Two of the songs from her debut EP, That Iron Taste, “Bath is Black” and “You Come Down” were written during her last year of school. Those songs captured the attention of Johnny Flynn, the folk singer-songwriter and actor, who knew of Hackman from their days at the arty, liberal school Bedales. Enthused by her talent, he played her music to his record label, Transgressive, and a contract followed. When it came to producing her debut single, Flynn was the obvious choice. “I jumped at that because I'd always been a fan of Johnny,” says Hackman. “I've been really lucky with who I've worked with.”
She has also found her musical match in Alt-J's Charlie Andrew, who produced her EP. But it's Hackman who plays every instrument on her recordings, from bass to piano, guitar to sitar. “Nothing's a particularly high standard,” she says, brushing it off modestly, “but I think that's what gives the record an almost funky feel, because I'm grappling with these instruments, trying to work out how to use them and being creative, not playing them in a traditional way. It's the same with my guitar playing – I'm self-taught and people come up to me after gigs and comment that it's a unique style, which I've never even thought about. I use my thumb and forefinger and I do a lot of plucking, which is quite stupid because it's so much work on the finger and thumb.”
Growing up in Hampshire and Devon, Hackman moved to Brighton aged 18, for an art foundation course and was set on a degree in fine art – until she realised that this was her one chance at music. With a home life as liberal as her schooling, her working life was always going to be creative. Her parents met through their work as animators, and reading, storytelling and a strong imagination were encouraged. “Mum and dad didn't like us watching much TV, so we had to have fun in a different way,” she recalls. It's no surprise then that her older brother took an equally creative path, as a house music producer, under the name of Hackman.
Music was always playing in the family home, but aside from Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, it was not the kind of artists you might expect. “Led Zeppelin was always on in the car on the way to school, and Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes... It was a good bed of amazing songwriting. I want to make something that grabs someone's attention like that, and I think that's why those acts were so important, even though you probably can't hear them in my music.”
For someone who has been a face for Burberry, Hackman is distinctly un made-up – more young college indie singer than glamorous supermodel. “I'd rather have an extra half an hour in my bed than get up and do my make-up,” she says softly. “I don't know much about fashion. I wear anything that's clean in my room that I find on the floor – much to my mum's dismay.” She winces when I bring up the subject of Burberry; she last did a shoot a year ago, when she saw her old friend Delevingne. You get the feeling that she'd sooner pick up a brush and paint for the rest of her life than succumb to the more lucrative world of fashion. “It's a world that I'm so unfamiliar with. I dipped my toe in and just found it so strange. I felt out of place with the whole thing; it's quite odd posing for cameras. They'd say, 'Give a bit more emotion in your face'. I usually just look a bit depressed or grumpy in photos”.
She is quite pensive, and there's a dark undercurrent to haunting, pared-down songs such as “Mountain Spines”. “I guess there's quite a dark side to me. It always comes out when I'm writing songs. I love Sylvia Plath, and I love listening to songs that have that haunting darkness that really pulls you in, so it's probably something that I want to create in my songs. Laura Veirs has definitely got that going on – that sad feeling in your stomach that keeps you going back for more – I've been a big fan of hers since I was 13. Warpaint have that too.”
While the accolades have been more than positive, female musicians with a folk edge, soft vocals and acoustic guitars tend to come across a slight hurdle – comparisons with Laura Marling. “Yeah”, she sighs, “I've definitely been pigeon-holed very quickly as a folk artist. I want to keep experimenting and exploring sounds, so it's annoying. I think people are making comparisons just because we have untrained voices. We're not belters like Adele, so people are like, 'She's got an acoustic guitar, she sings like that, she sounds like Laura Marling!' If you break down the songs and put them next to each other, there's a big difference that people overlook because they want to see this folky thing in front of them.” She would rather describe her songs as “grungy abstract folk with a playful darkness”, adding “I want to take it somewhere unexpected.”
And unexpected the music is, as on the song “Cannibal”, whose eerie, reverb-heavy sound she created by playing a mini sitar with a bow. Or the still more ambitious a capella “Retina Television”, which uses humming in place of guitar chords, and, for percussion, Hackman jumping up and down, hitting her stomach and tapping her head.
Perched on the edge of a burgeoning music career, there must be all sorts of dreams for the rising star. “I'm not looking for my name to be written out in lights or anything,” she states. “I just want to keep writing.” I, for one, hope she does.
Marika Hackman plays the Green Man festival on 18 August