How Marika Hackman Overcame Writer's Block On Powerful New Album 'Big Sigh'

By Rebekah Gonzalez

January 12, 2024

Photo: Steve Gullick

Four years ago, Marika Hackman was worried she had lost her ability to write songs. Now, just several weeks into 2024, she's returned with one of her most ambitious albums yet. Big Sigh, out Friday, January 12th, sees Hackman unflinchingly looking inward to write and produce a dynamic, thought-provoking 10-track project.

Days before the album's release, Marika spoke with iHeartRadio to discuss overcoming writer's block, why she gravitates towards "body horror" in her lyrics, and the complex human experiences she hopes to encapsulate on the album.

Listen to Big Sigh on iHeartRadio & follow Marika on Instagram for new updates. At the end of our interview, I asked if she had plans to tour the US. "I don't know how much I'm allowed to say but we are announcing something soon!" she shared.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A big part of the lore surrounding Big Sigh is the creative dry spell you had. What was that creative journey like and how did it feel to start having ideas again?

The writer's block patch was hard for sure. I like being good at things and I find it really difficult when I can't do stuff and, you know, [I had been] doing this for ages and suddenly it was like, "Oh my god. Maybe I just can't write songs anymore." That's quite a scary thought. I'll have to change my whole perception of myself. So when I did start writing songs that I kind of knew immediately that I liked, that felt really like moving. It was quite emotional actually. I felt like I would listen back to a track and feel quite big waves of emotion of relief.

I mean, that's partly why it's called Big Sigh. It's all about relief and release and kind of exhaling all of that. I think I felt that in such a palpable way with this record because the struggle was there whereas before it's always felt like quite an easy ride.

What inspired you on these tracks sonically, lyrically, or just conceptually?

If I go with the lyrics first, that was very much borne out of just looking inward and trying to find something with an edge to it that was inside me, that would spur me on to write something that felt valid. [Instead of] just kind of like a strange, monotonous reflection on the world. Something a little bit more tenacious and kind of aggressive. So I was kind of digging for whatever was in there and that's where all those lyrics bubble up. A lot of them are [about] relationships from long ago that maybe I haven't processed properly. I [was] really reflecting back on stuff and how I've dealt with it when I was younger. It started to turn into quite a nostalgic process because I was going back so much further than I had before, which then kind of prompted the sonic direction.

This idea of nostalgia versus the sort of pain and the somewhat brutal nature of adulthood that I find really interesting and always kind of have [explored], but it felt very... clear. So I kind of wanted to have these pastoral, rustic-feeling organic scenes that would have these quite imposing shadows of industrial synthetic sound that were quite jarring. And then it became a record of like oppositions and really stretching. So it was kind of playing with that really and it wasn't super informed by necessarily anything I was listening to so much.

I was listening to Alex G a bit and the PJ Harvey demos and things like that which I think you can hear in [the album.] But it was pretty lyric-led the way that I approached the dynamics and the sonic palette.

Your lyrics feature visceral imagery and are often described as "body horror." Where do you think your affinity for darker lyrics and imagery comes from?

I think I'm very interested in why the stuff that unites us all and the most universal topics are the things that are the most taboo or the most perceived to be disgusting. You would think that we would be celebrating similarities and the things that unite us and make us all human, but instead, it feels like we want to forget that we have those.

Also, when I was 17 I had a stint in hospital because I contracted sepsis after my appendix burst so that was a kind of near miss and it was a very visceral, gnarly experience and quite an intense and young confrontation with one's mortality. It had a very profound effect on me and was the kind of root of my anxiety going forward. There's a very clear before and after for me.

I think I'm kind of stuck on this moment a little bit. It feels like I'm talking to my therapist, but I feel like there's a real pivotal moment in my life. And I think it was the idea of stepping through that doorway into adulthood was so sharp and sudden. It was so surrounded by my body and my body's failures and blood and scarring and throwing up all the time.

It makes sense when I look at all the songs I've written in the last 12 years that I have a kind of fixation on it. I wonder if it will go? If I'll somehow work through it album after album? But I'm not mad at it.

The song "Slime" very much deals with the body. A lot of songs about lesbian sex & relationships use honey as a metaphor and I've always found that to be nice but a bit one-dimensional. Something about calling the song "Slime" & using such visceral imagery in the lyrics encapsulates adult relationships for me. They're gross and beautiful at the same time, they're delicate and brutal at the same time, which the music video touches on. What does that song mean to you?

You've nailed it on the head really, what I was trying to get out with it. It's just that kind of marriage again, it's the opposite. It's the same that was happening with the sonic palette [on the album.] Yeah, something is beautiful, but it's ugly, or it's tender, but it's violent, and it's disgusting, but it's sexy.

When you're first getting into a relationship and all you're thinking about is wanting to shag that person all the time, like that's the one thing in your brain, that is the peak of all of those things just colliding in that crazy, amazing chaos that happens. So I just wanted to capture that. There's a kind of sense of menace in that song as well, which is funny. I wonder where that has come from?

There's something a little bit threatening about it, which I guess is kind of sexy. Falling in love, that's kind of scary. It's new horizons, it's different things, it's opening the door into a whole new relationship. And relationships are scary. I was just kind of trying to encapsulate all of that, which is quite a lot to try and encapsulate.

The final single before the album drops is "The Yellow Mile," which is also the last song on the album. Was there any intention behind which singles you chose and the order they came out?

I think that ["Slime," "No Caffeine," and "The Yellow Mile"] are showing the corners of [the album.] "The Yellow Mile" is the softest, most raw, honest little nugget that's in there. There's just no production on it and I love that it's just this really clean palette. It kind of evokes the artwork, the way it's just pencil on paper. That's how that song feels to me. I felt like it was a really powerful one to go into the record with and be like, "This is [Big Sigh] at its core, what it's really all about."

It’s also the first time we hear you say something positive. “I wouldn’t change the past I was happy for a while,” which felt like relief in terms of reflecting on my own life. But I also felt relief for you, as a listener going on this journey.

That song is all about acceptance. It's totally just like, "That was what it was and that's so fine. We're here now and it was better that that ended." It's a really sad song but it's not. There's a sweetness to it.

The intro track "The Ground" also serves as a great outro when listening to the record on repeat. It makes it feel like one endless spiral. Did you intend for that? There are also lyrics from "The Yellow Mile" repurposed in that song, right?

Yeah, so it's the other way around. I wrote "The Ground" first. "Gold was on the ground/ I was happy for a while." That just kind of popped out of nowhere. Then when I was writing "The Yellow Mile" right at the end, I was like, "Oh my God, it fits!" It was just this weird full-circle moment.

I love the idea that you can just basically keep [playing the album] round and round. Like you get caught on the wheel and then you could just keep replaying over and over again.

If people take away one idea or feeling from Big Sigh, what would you want it to be?

My ultimate reaction is for people to be moved, but I don't want people to be moved to just crying in a hole. Back to your first question, when I was writing these songs that were landing finally, that feeling, that's what I want people to feel. Whether it's connecting with the lyrics or just a string part that comes crashing in [and] makes you feel like your heart just opens. That's the aim.

Marika Hackman
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