Marina and the Diamonds Refuses to Be Your Pop Star
Although Marina Diamandis has released three successful albums, gaining millions of fans, she doesn't see herself as a traditional pop star. We met the Welsh singer in London to find out why.
Photo by Steph Wilson
"If you wanna wear pajamas in the daytime, they have to be expensive."
On a rainy night in London, Marina Diamandis (a.k.a. Marina and the Diamonds) is walking me through Soho a few weeks before the launch of her European tour. Wearing a metallic-like gold skirt and carrying two white Celine shopping bags, she explains why spends so much on pajamas: "I love cashmere!" she says, walking past Soho's gay bars and billboards for the musical Miss Saigon. (The British were wise enough to put their gayborhood and theatre district in the same neighborhood.)
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Marina fits into Soho. Since her 2010 debut album The Family Jewels, she has amassed a cult following. While her devoted fans don't push her singles to number one, but they buy so many copies of her albums that her most recent album, 2015's Froot, landed in the top ten in the US and UK. Over the course of three albums, Marina has developed a strength in writing both dark ballads (2015's "Savages" about humanity's innate capacity for brutality, 2012's "Fear and Loathing") and ironic pop songs that make fun of pop culture archetypes: 2012's "Homewrecker," 2012's "Bubblegum Bitch," and 2015's "Happy." Marina is the 21st century bridge between Kate Bush and the Spice Girls. Her sound, Marina says, has led people to misconceive of her as a pop star who has struggled to reach an audience.
"People keep saying I'm really underrated and [asking,] 'Why isn't she more successful?' I don't feel like that. How big do you want me to be?" she says. "I'm not really a [pop] starry person. Stars are people who equal celebrity culture. I don't really feel part of that at all. I can't remember the last time I went to a party—a sponsored party."
Marina spent her childhood living far away from that lifestyle, growing up in Wales and Greece. Her mom worked two jobs in a hospital, and her dad was an engineer. Like most girls in the 1990s, she loved the Spice Girls. "[They sang about] attitude, character, and also they had their own message as well," Marina says. Even at a young age, she says, she recognized the deeper themes to their girl power anthems. Watching Madonna music videos exposed Marina to the idea that music could be complicated. "Even though [Madonna] was pop, she was constantly challenging things and bringing up uncomfortable topics of conversation for people," Marina says.
Around age 15, Marina says she discovered Fiona Apple. "[Fiona] was, for one thing, a very alternative voice," Marina says. "She was actually expressing sadness, which for women in the mainstream music industry, it's not really encouraged—particularly back then. So for me, that was somebody expressing something that I was feeling at the time that I wasn't hearing anywhere else?"
People keep saying I'm really underrated and [asking,] 'Why isn't she more successful?' I don't feel like that.
Before Tumblr, you couldn't just log onto a computer and learn queer theory 101. Although Marina says that she thought about women's rights, she didn't know about feminism as a teenager. At 16, she moved to Athens, Greece, to complete her A-levels. Athens made her accustomed to nightlife, music, and the hustle of living in a city, but she didn't gain a vocabulary for what she was thinking until she moved to London roughly a decade ago. "I've been really vocal about women's rights since the beginning, when it wasn't really fashionable to be called a feminist," Marina says. "Guys hated it and you sounded like a kind of shouty bitch, whereas now it has changed."
In London, Marina decided she wanted to write songs for a living. "I [needed to process] feelings about myself and the world that I was trying to figure out," she says. At first, Marina went to auditions for girl groups, thinking that was the way to become a songwriter. After six months, she quit. I don't feel comfortable singing on people's shit songs, Marina thought. Well, then, I'd better learn an instrument! She started playing keyboard as a way to write her own songs, a means to an end. "It was just a tool," she says. "My playing, on an academic level, is terrible, but for me it's just an instrument to help me write a song."
In 2008, Derek Davies, the founder of the Neon Gold record label, found Marina's demos on MySpace. "She just had something that really resonated with me," Derek says in an email. "Even with the quite limited production of her early bedroom demos, she had this powerful yet vulnerable vocal and writing style that didn't sound like anyone else at the time." Davies organized Marina's first live show. An Atlantic records employee was in the audience, and then the label signed Marina.
Marina's first album, The Family Jewels, straddled indie and pop sounds. The release coincided with "slutwave," an ironic term coined by the blog Hipster Runoff to refer to singers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, a new wave of American pop stars who made sex-positive pop songs while wearing abstract art for clothes. Around the same time, the Swedish pop star Robyn reinvented herself as an indie singer who sang deep songs that sounded like pop tracks. Two years earlier, Marina would have seemed too weird for the mainstream, but in 2009, she seemed poised for pop stardom.
For her follow-up release, 2012's Electra Heart, she devised a concept album that mocked pop archetypes. "[The album] was hyper-detailed, and there was much more of a story going throughout the album, which isn't, I suppose, something that's that easy to sell on a mainstream level," Marina says. "You have to be really invested in an artist to take the time to understand what they're trying to say." She worked with Dr. Luke on the album, and she believes the misconception of her as a underrated pop star stems from Dr. Luke working on a song called "Primadonna Girl," which is actually a parody of pop stars. The album peaked at 31 on the US Billboard charts.
For Froot, Marina returned to basics, writing every song by herself, and the result sounds like a Fiona Apple disco album. "We've broken up and now I regret it / I said goodbye when I shouldn't have said it," Marina sings on "Blue." Although Marina loves her gay fans, she didn't name Froot—which has a rainbow logo—in honor of them. "I really didn't do it on purpose," Marina says. "Honestly, we took like sixteen times to get that logo right, and we did every single color, and nothing matched, and then I was like, 'Just try one with all of the colors.'"
I love how art and imagery—whether that's fashion or architecture or music—that's like a mirror for society at that time.
Marina is an artist who knows how to tell a story, and her live shows reflect her flair for the dramatic. Unsurprisingly, she's acquired a large and devoted gay following. "I think it might be a humor thing," Marina says. "Not every gay guy or girl has the same humor, but that kind of very wry, truthful, dark humor is quite present in gay comedy at least, and I definitely have that—and I have the ability to be flamboyant and create flamboyant imagery."
For her 2016 European tour, Marina has separated the show into three sections based on her different albums, similar to how Madonna always divides her shows into four sections with four different aesthetic themes (Madonna's 2001 Drowned World Tour, for instance, featured cowboy, geisha, punk, Spanish, and disco segments). In preparation, Marina has been running daily to build her stamina for the show. As an artist, she views visuals as important as the music and has designed a whole new wardrobe for the show.
"I love how art and imagery—whether that's fashion or architecture or music—that's like a mirror for society at that time," Marina says. "I think it's so powerful, whether you're creating that or you're admiring that. It's always really interested me."
If anything, Marina is a female Beck. She swerves between genres like an artist, while navigating the concept of celebrity with a pop star's finesse. Although Marina's publicist accompanies her to the interview, it's Marina who controls the show. Later, we stop at a private London club called Society Club solely for a photo op. Marina wants to sit near bookshelves showcasing old Marilyn Monroe biographies, Hollywood Babylon, and Prozac Nation. As our photographer takes photos, Marina sips peppermint tea.
Once the photo session ends, she asks me if she will have image approval. During most interviews, celebrities' publicists ask these questions. Most famous people hire publicists and need a corporate machine to function for a reason, but Marina's question to me showed she was more an artist controlling her own performative image than a pop star playing a persona Atlantic had build for her.
At the end of our evening, I ask Marina how she would define herself in a sentence. She laughs. Her publicist tells me they'll get back to me. Marina corrects her: "I'm not interested in answering [the question] at all."