Following the success of her Live From Union Chapel livestream [see TPi #251], and in support of her critically acclaimed seventh studio album, Song For Our Daughter, English folk singer-songwriter, Laura Marling embarked on her first tour in four-and-half years; a stripped-back, solo acoustic campaign supported by a tight-knit crew.
“It has been a privilege to work with such a lovely team,” Tour Manager, Dan McKay began, speaking to TPi as the dust settled on the whirlwind tour. “We were meant to be in the US in 2020 but that was subsequently curtailed with the COVID-19 pandemic, so she had that fire in her belly to get touring again and put on a show that people will remember.”
With a handful of creatives and technicians on board, McKay enlisted the support of Neg Earth, Britannia Row Productions, Event Transport, Phoenix Bussing, Acre Jean and design collective, NeonBlack, to make the post-lockdown project possible. “We were apprehensive to plan anything too far into the future case it didn’t go ahead,” he explained. “When it became apparent that the tour might happen, we decided to assemble a team of creatives and suppliers, and luckily the speed at which they operate made it possible to put this project together in a matter of weeks.”
He went on to praise the team for adapting to the speed in which many post-lockdown productions are advanced, designed, and taken on the road or – in some cases – shelved or even cancelled later down the line.
With a loyal fanbase, the singer-songwriter, who rarely tours, cuts an enigmatic figure on stage. In each venue, according to McKay, you could ‘hear a pin drop’.
“Laura doesn’t necessarily say much on stage, so the crowd hangs on to her every word,” he said, recalling visits to London’s Roundhouse and Manchester’s Albert Hall among his personal highlights.
As one of the first tours back with new COVID-19 regulations, the safety of the performing artist, crew and audiences remained at the top of McKay’s agenda. To this end, the crew embarked on regular testing and wore face masks on site.
“We left it to each venue to implement their own procedures but I believe the messaging between promoters, ticket sellers and public attending shows post-lockdown is confusing and could be improved,” McKay reported. “Thankfully, the most we ever had to push the stage back was around 45 minutes as audiences and venues adjusted to the implementation of COVID-19 passes before getting in the venue. The rest of the tour went off without a hitch”
‘A SHOW OF 19 LOOKS’
“She’s an absolute talent and commands the stage for 90 minutes every night,” NeonBlack’s Jon Barker enthused, having worked closely with McKay and Marling for the past two years, including stints lighting her side project, LUMP.
Having recently formed a design partnership, NeonBlack, with longstanding collaborator, Dom Smith, the duo devised the production design, in line with visual references provided by Marling. “Laura is an incredible talent and a real delight to work with,” Smith said. “She had wanted to split the show into three distinct acts.”
As a new face to the camp, Smith was pleasantly surprised by Marling’s hands-on approach, citing a “less is more” approach to the project. “It is a very theatrical production. Laura is great at curating ideas for both the visuals but also the musical narrative. When an artist is as transparent about her ideas as Laura is, it makes our job a joy.”
Indeed, part of the reason the duo joined forces was because they believe, the role of the production designer is to tell the stories of performing artists and musicians. “This production as a whole tells that story, from lights to audio,” he remarked. “Fundamentally, it is a show with 19 individual looks, three acts and a strong identity.”
Act one, ‘curtains of light’, saw a series of theatrical and intimate looks with a mid-stage drape in front of a gauze with lighting courtesy of GLP impression X4 Bars.
Act two, ‘shadows’, featured lighting casting shadows on a whiteshark tooth gauze, courtesy of Acre Jean – hung on a Kabuki Solenoid system – from front and rear;
Act three meanwhile saw the Kabuki Solenoid system triggered and LED lighting come to life. During the pre-visualisation phase, NeonBlack drew collaboratively on Vectorworks, albeit operating remotely, and worked on programming in-person, during rehearsals at Neg Earth in LH3, before hitting the road for three weeks.
The majority of the production lighting design was floor based to ensure similar looks in a variety of venues with one mid stage truss of GLP impression X4 Bars and a Sharkstooth kabuki gauze the only flown elements.
“We deliberately kept the show small scale and easy to facilitate due to the uncertainty of the post-lockdown landscape,” Barker explained. “Some of the venues on this tour range in size, so the challenge has been to come up with solutions that don’t compromise the integrity of production design.”
At its largest, the lighting rig featured 10 Martin by Harman MAC Aura XBs dotted around the floor of the stage, seven Ayrton Ghiblis as back and sidelight (three at the back of the stage with two flanking Marling, per side), along with 16 GLP impression X4 Bar moving lights, attached to the onstage and upstage chord.
Static light came in the shape of six ETC Source4s (three per side), 12 VDO Sceptron 10s, four VDO Sceptron 320s, six clam shell footlights, and a Mole Richardson Type 245. Due to a national CO2 shortage at the time, the team relied on Look Solutions Unique Hazers and Martin by Harman AF2 fans for atmospherics. “We discovered early on in the programming phase, it would be easy to upstage Laura by doing too much, which doesn’t happen very often,” Smith noted. “She’s such a talent, spellbinds a room, and does so effortlessly, so she should be the centre of attention, while we provide a backdrop.”
In closing, Smith praised lighting vendor, Neg Earth, for providing essential kit and crew in a tight timeframe. “I’ve known [Neg Earth Project Manager], Lindsey Markham for many years and she is always my first port of call for a show,” he said, recounting the need for custom fabricated square frames to house Martin by Harman Sceptron fixtures – which Neg Earth was able to provide, along with on-site Lighting Technicians, Alan Fotheringhame, Mark Anthony Cooper and Jake Saunders.
‘90 MINUTES OF ESCAPISM’
“This was the first time I’ve done a show with Laura where she hasn’t had a band with her,” FOH Engineer, Darren Connor noted.
“It’s been a great experience. Although Laura is an incredible artist with a great voice, she doesn’t project vocally. So when she’s performing with a band you have less control of her vocals. However, when it’s just her, you can make it natural and exposed. It’s been a pleasure to collaborate with her and dig really deep into her vocals.”
In an effort to keep the touring footprint as small as possible, Britannia Row Productions provided a bespoke, small format control package to fit Connor’s specific requirements. “Britannia Row Productions has got a great reputation and was very flexible with us, having made a few tweaks during rehearsals,” he said, praising the vendor and particularly, Britannia Row Productions Client Liaison, Marc Soame.
“It was our pleasure to be able to support Dan McKay and Darren Connor on this tour,” Soame said. “Laura Marling’s performances are captivating; truly something to behold.”
The control package comprised an Allen & Heath C1500 desk on firmware version 1.9, a DM32 stage rack, and a 100m Cat6 multicore.
Connor was specific about his microphone choices to achieve a ‘natural and open sound’. AKG 414s and Neumann 184s on guitar, six Radial Engineering DIs on acoustics, Sennheiser 409s for electric guitar amp, with DPA Microphones 4018VL on Marling’s vocals.
This was the first time the engineer had used DPA 4018 on the singer’s vocals but after trying several capsules in rehearsals settled on the VL version. “It worked fantastically throughout the entire tour,” he recalled. Connor added that the layout of certain venues required different approaches to sound.
“We went from club-sized shows to seated theatres to rooms so dry we needed to smother in reverb to sound live, as well as extremely reverberant rooms like Manchester’s Albert Hall, which is a beautiful venue which requires little reverb,” he pointed out.
Guitar Technician, Joel Ashton made sure all seven guitars were tuned to perfection and Marling felt as comfortable as possible on stage. “This has been the most wonderful experience I’ve had on tour. The setlist has been deliberately structured in a way to keep the narrative, flow and design of the show as beautiful and seamless as possible – watching her go from a heavier rendition to slowing the songs right down so every person in the room hangs on every single word has been an absolute pleasure,” he commented.
“She reads a room really well and it’s fascinating to see her hold an audience. I’ve been working with her for six years on and off and I still find myself getting sucked into the intimacy of every performance,” concluded Connor, elated to be back on the road with one of Britain’s finest musical talents post-lockdown. “People still need to be entertained and if we can provide an outlet and 90 minutes of escapism amid all the drudgery of the past year then it has been a huge success.”
This article originally appeared in issue #267 of TPi, which you can read here.