Big Sigh

Marika Hackman showcases Fender’s Highway Series and unpicks her raw new record
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 29 March 2024

“I had my appendix out when I was like seventeen, but it exploded.” If you listen through Marika Hackman’s latest record, Big Sigh, you’ll come across imagery of bones cracking, fingers jammed down throats, and lumpy sacks of shit (ie. our bodies). This sort of visceral, tangible songwriting is born from past trauma (the aforementioned exploded appendix) and as a way of engaging and translating anxieties into something positive and empowering. Dark as some of these lines sound on paper, they’re born from Hackman’s gallows humour and ability to poke fun at our exposed human oddities, and come alive when sung over the emotive, rugged production of Big Sigh. Hackman is also a Fender enthusiast, and having bought her first Mustang in her early twenties, has never looked back. Showcasing Fender’s new Highway Series – a range of streamlined, sophisticated acoustic guitars – the musician sat down for a live session before speaking to us about her sound and references.

Can you tell us about your relationship with Fender over the years?
Marika Hackman: I got my first Mustang when I was like twenty. That was my main guitar for a very long time. I’d always just had acoustics when I was at home, like Takamine’s or whatever, you know, baby’s first guitar. [laughs] I remember my brother had a Squire and I always thought it was so cool. Then I grew up and got myself a Mustang and now I’ve just been blasting through Mustangs.

You played one last night, didn’t you?
MH: Yeah. That’s the P90. I’ve still got my first-ever Mustang – a 1966 Daphne Blue one – but I don’t like taking her out on the road because I get so paranoid she’s going to get stolen.

You played a Highway series for your Fender Session today, how did that feel? It sounded amazing.
MH: I said straight away when I picked it up, coming through the amp as well, it’s got a lot of clarity, but it’s really warm. It’s also nice and lightweight, I can’t stand big heavy guitars. It fucking hurts. It just sounds great.

Moving on to your album, Big Sigh, you’ve previously said it was born from a period of creative block. What was the process of bringing yourself out of that?
MH: The thing with writer’s block is, obviously it’s a worst nightmare situation. You definitely get the foibles creeping in, like, “Is this it? I can’t write music again?” All the drama queen questions pop into your head. But the reality is, like with anything, it’s a muscle that needs to be flexed. And if you don’t show up, you’re not going to write music. It’s basically about forcing yourself to sit down every day and try and write songs. That’s what I did. I just sat down and tried and tried and tried and tried. Then finally one day I wrote Hanging and it just kind of burst through. I wouldn’t say it suddenly became really easy after that, but it was like, “OK, I can still do it.” It was having that bit of confidence back and knowing that showing up did glean results. That made it easier to crack on.

Was that something you told yourself or was it advice from someone?
MH: That’s what I told myself. I just know I’m not going to write a song if I’m like, wandering around, but if I’m chained to my desk or guitar, I will write a song.

In terms of your process, do you typically begin writing on acoustic or electric, and did anything differ on this album compared to previous records?
MH: I write mainly on the acoustic just because it’s immediate… When I write songs it’s almost like carving something out of a rock – I get that initial idea and then I have to play it again and again and again and again. Then something will change, something will shift, I’ll get an idea and it starts morphing into this new thing. I feel like when I sit down with my electrics, that’s more production, that’s when I’m starting to think about the parts and atmosphere of a track – fleshing it out. Although sometimes it’s helpful to try a different approach, even setting up an electric and putting it through some pedals and stuff will prompt me to write a different kind of song.

When I write songs it’s almost like carving something out of a rock.”

Big Sigh was your first record in four years, during that period, did you make music that you felt wasn’t right, or that you had to restart?
MH: It all started with… I did make a covers record during that time. I was staying with my parents [during Covid] and it was a really brilliant way to be creative without the pressure of writing the music. As I was doing these covers, I kind of started to work out the palette of what Big Sigh was going to be, even though I hadn’t really written any of the songs – I think I had one song written at that point, but then it was slim pickings over the next few years of what I was actually going to use. And, this is very rare for me, I recorded two songs for it right up to the end and then axed them just before mastering, which is so not my vibe. They’re flying around somewhere.

Which songs featured on your cover record?
MH: There’s Sharon Bannett in there, there’s a bit of Radiohead, there’s Beyoncé, there’s Grimes, The Shins, Elliott Smith. It’s a little collection of what I like. It’s quite bleak. I’ve managed to make it really bleak. [laughs]

That’s good though, sometimes you want to see the other side. I think that shows the essence of a well-written song – if you can change it and it still retains its power.
MH: That’s the thing, all the songs I picked were because I was like, this is just a fantastic song and therefore I can have freedom over production and it will still retain its wonderful essence.

There is a real sense of vulnerability throughout the record, particularly the track Vitamins, did it allow you to strip things back and address personal topics? And how did it feel to finally sign off those tracks and release these stories and emotions into the world?
MH: It’s funny, people gravitate towards Vitamins because the lyrics are so upfront and kind of nasty and self-effacing, but for me that’s really an exploration of those little moments of self-doubt that everyone has, really accentuating them and using different archetypes around me to reflect them back. It’s funny because if I listened to that track I’d be like, “Oh my God, this is soul-exposing. What a poor tortured soul.” But actually for me, when I then release that into the world, it’s not self-flagellatory, it’s more a process. As with a lot of my music, as dark and sad as I like to go, there’s always a bit of tongue-in-cheek in there – I do like playing with humour. I mean, the line, ‘Mom says I’m a waste of skin/a sack of shit and oxygen’, I find it funny. I think also self-deprecation to an extent can be funny. If you can look at yourself and laugh, it’s sometimes nice not to take yourself seriously, but it’s also nice to be vulnerable at the same time.

Big Sigh represents a sonic shift for you, while making the record did you ever find yourself sort of swinging back to a previous sound and having to push yourself back? Or did it all flow naturally?
MH: I think it flowed really naturally. What’s interesting is, going through my back catalogue there’s been such conscious decisions for each project. I knew what I was doing going into with each one of those records. I knew the songs I was going to write, and I knew how I was going to record it and what it was going to sound like. With Big Sigh, the reason it’s different is because I didn’t do that. I was only focused, almost in quite a panicked way, on getting the songs written. I wanted to play with dynamics, I wanted to play with organic versus synthetic, and those kind of industrial and pastoral sounds rubbing up against each other. More often than not, people can pick up if something is forced.

On this album there is a lot of visceral imagery around bodies. Conveying emotions through bodily movements works extremely well.
MH: I am obsessed with bodies, and using bodies to reflect emotions. I have a real thing about feeling present in my body, that’s really important to me because I have really bad anxiety. I have quite a lot of dissociative stuff like panic attacks. I had my appendix out when I was like seventeen, but it exploded, so it was like bad, bad, bad and I was in hospital for a very long time. It was one of those moments where I was suddenly so brutally confronted by my own mortality within my physicality. That’s when I started having anxieties. There’s a real before and after. So if it’s like sex or something, I really think about the tactile nature of that and the grossness of it, because it feels very grounding. Then I’m obsessed with stuff like shit and sick and nausea and stuff, because it’s blood and water, and they’re all in all of us. Every single person has that and we’re all a little bit afraid of what that means, because if your skin is broken, you will bleed, and that’s quite scary when you’ve witnessed it first-hand at quite a young age.

Marika Hackman’s record Big Sigh is out now.
Discover Fender’s Highway Series here.

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