Marcus Mumford on Making the Year’s Boldest Album, Collaborating With Steven Spielberg and Brandi Carlile, and the Future of Mumford and Sons

·25-min read

When Marcus Mumford released “Cannibal,” the lead-off song for his first solo album, he was very much declaring a different set of lyrical as well as musical intentions. But for most of the press and public, the focus immediately got put on peripheral matters. Like: Did the existence of a solo project mean Mumford and Sons were breaking up? Had tension over one of the band members leaving last year amid controversy forced a fissure in the group? And then, on the lighter side, hey, how about that Steven Spielberg clip for “Cannibal,” the first music video the filmmaker had ever done? All good, reasonable questions… and all of them burying the lead, as it were.

But when Brandi Carlile, who co-wrote and sings on the new album’s final track, “How,” publicly praised him for his bravery and described the album — “Self-Titled” — as “a trust fall,” something more seemed to be afoot than the very modest amount of courage it might take for a star frontman to go solo. And then Mumford went public in confirming what fans who’d listened carefully to “Cannibal” had already figured out: that it was a song addressing someone who sexually abused him in his childhood. The rest of “Self-Titled,” which arrives this weekend, is not so strictly focused on that particular trauma as “Cannibal” and “How” are, but they all touch on points in a lifelong series of reconciliations that will strike deep chords in any listeners who may be on the same journey from horror to healing.

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Meeting with Variety at a Topanga Canyon restaurant where he’s fresh off a morning surfing expedition, Mumford is reluctant to accept any accolades for personal boldness. As someone who’s experienced some shame in his life, he doesn’t want anyone else to feel shamed for not feeling as self-revelatory as he now is.

“I love that Brandi sees it like that,” the singer says, leaning over an oak milk cappuccino as his post-surfing treat. “And certainly that day in the studio with her doing ‘How’ felt like a bit of a trust fall, and she was there to catch me. I don’t feel like it’s a trust fall exercise with my audience. They’re not responsible for my well-being. But the process of writing it was, to an extent, and there was an element of ‘I think I’m gonna be held by the people around me, and I trust in them.’

“I avoid language about bravery or courage, because that to me feels too judgmental. Many people aren’t able yet to take the opportunity to talk about some of this more difficult stuff. And, you know, I spent over 25 years not talking about it. And I don’t think that’s a bravery issue, because I don’t think by not talking about it, you’re being a coward. But yeah, there’s an element of faith involved, and trusting those around you.”

Says Carlile, in a separate interview, “After that day in the studio, I felt like it really triggered this kind of overbearing, protective, maternal instinct in me. And I had to sit myself down and be like, how do I not smother this man with opinions and patronizing guidance? This man is such a clever fucker. He does not need my help on anything. But I did feel like when Marcus played me the music (in demo form), there was still some discussion as to ‘Hey, do you think this is a solo album? Or do you think this is Mumford and Sons material?’ And I think the only reason for the singer of a well-known band (to go solo) is if it’s  a departure, like an instrumentation-based departure, genre-based departure, some kind of sonic departure — but even that isn’t revolutionary. The reason to do it is to like really reveal oneself, and he’s done that in a radical way.

“So it became really clear that it was a solo album,” she continues, “and some of that felt gender-based to me — like maybe this music required the spiritual collaboration of women in a way that was decidedly not Mumford and Sons. I think that some of the subject matter is handled and absorbed differently by women, maybe, and that sets it apart. And I’d guess if I probably called up the rest of the women on the album and said, ‘Did you guys feel overly protective and like you were having to restrain yourself from bombarding Marcus with opinions and and feelings too?,’ they’d say, ‘Yeah.’”

The album was hardly constructed solely with gynocentric energy — its producer is the great Blake Mills, and the musicians include such legends as drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Pino Palladino, as well as frequent Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave. But other featured guests range from Julia Michaels, a co-writer on one track, to vocal guests Phoebe Bridgers, Clairo and Monica Martin, as well as Carlile. It’s interesting to note that as the arc of the album progresses, it’s mostly the later songs in the track listing that prominently feature the female vocals, as things proceed to some kind of catharsis.

“I found that during the making of this record, every time I hit a dead end, a woman would come along and lift me over it,” Mumford says. “Which is really refreshing for me, because I’ve been in quite a male-dominated working environment for a long time. And obviously, I grew up playing with Laura Marling; she was my boss for my first few years in the music industry. But my team has changed quite a lot, and there’s a lot more women behind the scenes.” Beyond his business enablers and all the female guests on the record, “my wife was completely critical to the making of this record,” he says, “and her support for it is why it’s dedicated to her. … I ask her advice all the time. I think it’s completely natural that the person you most love in the world should be present in the process.”

That would be actress Carey Mulligan, who, fortunately, shares his sense of humor as well as other sensibilities. Mumford is trying to look up a photo on his phone, and finally gives up and relays the story verbally. “So there was one day we were in one of those fancy studios in L.A. where they put your name out in your parking spot. She was coming in her car and was like, ‘Where do I park?’ I said, ‘Your name’s there. Don’t worry about it.’ And she gets there and it’s my name and next to it, I just got them to print out ‘Yoko.’ She was cool. She’s like, ‘Good gag, babe.’”

But maybe it wasn’t entirely a joke. ”The cliche in music is the Yoko figure, which I think is really unfair in general, because of course we share everything behind the scenes, and it’s only natural to share my work process with her to an extent. It’s not a codependent relationship in that sense, but it is one that I found incredibly valuable, the most valuable throughout this whole process, and particularly making the record.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 02: (L-R) Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan attend The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating "In America: An Anthology of Fashion" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan attend The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Not every woman who got involved in Mumford’s process making the record was necessarily just hyperfocused on bringing the divine feminine into the record. There were other considerations. He laughs to recall one guest’s initial response to being asked to sing on a song about forgiveness and redemption, “Stonecatcher.” “Phoebe came in and heard the word ‘heinous,’ and she said, ‘Dude, did you get the word heinous into a song? I’ll sing on it.’”

• • •

On the “Self-Titled” album, Mumford doesn’t just deal with the distant past — he makes it clear enough that he’s spent parts of his life acting out in inappropriate ways. Of course, if there’s been a knock against Mumford and Sons, it’s that, to detractors, the band seemed overly earnest. Some seemed eager to project his background as a preacher’s kid onto him. Did it seem strange being viewed, as a band or individually, as virtuous, while feeling like a sinner?

“No, I sing a lot about that,” he counters. “So I think it was fairly obvious to those listening for lyrics that it wasn’t all virtuous. You know, my concept of virtue has changed a bit, and I’ve gone back to some of the Greeks on that; during COVID, I spent some time with Aristotle, because of virtue signaling and seeing a lot of it around, and thinking like what actually is virtue. Aristotle’s theory is, you’ve gotta practice honesty and that’s how you get honest — it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept, really.

“I think the band were trying, at every crossroad, to make good decisions and better decisions. But of course, within that, you know, we’d make really foul ones. Once, in a period where I had looked online, someone was like, ‘I have it on very good authority that those guys are complete cunts.’ That made me laugh a lot. To some people we probably have been, you know. But luckily I believe in grace.”

Division in the band was stirred up when banjo player turned guitarist Winston Marshall got in hot water online by praising right-winger Andy Ngo and inviting Jordan Peterson to meet with him and other band members. He quit the group in mid-2021, leading to the question of whether he jumped or was pushed. Mumford makes it sound very much like the former. Marshall has taken to blogging about his beliefs in a way he only occasionally did while in the group. I read out loud a recent blurb of Marshall’s — “I felt like I got my soul back when I left the band” — and ask Mumford how he feels when he hears that.

“I kind of feel slightly stoked for him,” the singer responds. “Like, that’s cool. He’s my friend. I want him to have his soul. I don’t think the band ever took it from him. I think he found himself in a position where he didn’t feel like he could continue, and to be honest, his priorities just changed. And so of course he should have the freedom to leave and go and explore and do what he wants to do, and I believe in creative expression and freedom of it. So, you know, he’s my friend and I really do wish the best for him. It’s not the choice I would’ve made.” So we won’t find Mumford also taking up a sideline as a sociopolitical blogger? “I’m good, I’m good,” he affirms. “I’m quite clear on what my job is. My job is to write songs and play.”

Mumford describes the decision to make “Self-Titled” a Sons-less record as “really mutual. It was a conversation, and I had it with each of the band members individually, and then we had it collectively. Because in a band relationship, you’re wed to each other in certain ways. … Obviously this was a big step for everyone. And I showed them ‘Cannibal’ and ‘Grace’ and said, ‘Lads, what do you think? I reckon it might be a solo record.’ And they all were just straight away like, ‘Yes, this is a solo record.’ So it was a conversation rather than a statement from me, initially. And I knew I wouldn’t want to do it without their blessing, rather than (merely) permission. I think it was their blessing. They were like, ‘Yeah, go and do this. This will be good for the band, eventually, if you come back in a place where you’ve learned more as a songwriter.’ That can only be a good thing, I think.”

When they started recording “Self-Titled,” Mumford and producer Blake Mills (Dawes, Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius) had some sonic departures in mind. Peter Gabriel was a reference, and so was Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira,” for Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass, inspiring Mills’ use of fretless guitar. “We listened a lot to the early McCartney records, partly for vocal sound references, because there’s a lot of doubled vocals. Most of the vocals on this record are really dry, and historically a lot of the (Mumford and Sons) band vocals are really wet. So, not a lot of reverb on this one — it felt more like you wanted to be in the bedroom and be much closer, like I was singing right in your ear, rather than in a church.”

The writing itself didn’t come easy at first. The lull since the last M+S album, 2018’s “Delta” had been, well, lulling, as far as Mumford’s creativity went. “I had a friend sit me down and say, ‘Look, you’re distracted by lots of other things — COVID, or doing TV scores.’ I did all the music for two seasons of ‘Ted Lasso,’ not just the theme song.” There was also the matter of having kids and the lure of life on a farm. “So my friend sat me down and was very straight with me and said, ‘Look, I think you are procrastinating to just glorious levels. You’re a songwriter first and foremost, and if you don’t exercise that muscle, it’ll go into atrophy. So why don’t you just write songs and don’t even think about what they’re for.’  … That exploration lasted right up until November last year, when I was still refusing to call it a solo record, and refusing even to call it a record. I was annoying Blake and some of my team every time I was saying (euphemistically), ‘This is a collection of songs.’”

Actor Jason Sudeikis  (L) and Composer Marcus Mumford attend Apple's "Ted Lasso" season two premiere event red carpet at the Pacific Design Center, in West Hollywood, California, July 15, 2021. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)
Actor Jason Sudeikis (L) and Composer Marcus Mumford attend Apple’s “Ted Lasso” season two premiere event red carpet at the Pacific Design Center, in West Hollywood, California, July 15, 2021. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

Little did his friend know that the several-years songwriting drought would be broken by songs delving into his deepest and darkest secrets, childhood events he had not even told his parents about. He did start playing a few demos for friends, like Carlile. He remembers her being inquisitive about his demeanor before she even knew there was new material in the offing. “Elton John, who has been really supportive and a real friend for a long time, had a dinner, and Brandi was there with Catherine. We hadn’t seen each other through COVID, and she just sort of said, ‘Dude, what is going on with you? You’re presenting very differently. Something’s going on here. I want to know what it is.’ And we talked for a long time and then I said, ‘Look, why don’t we go for a drive tomorrow morning?’”

She remembers: “It was all I could think of to say. He looked different … I don’t want to say really thin, but he had lost weight. He wasn’t drinking alcohol. He just had a different energy. … There was just this moment where he and Elton had disappeared and I was like, ‘I wonder where those two blokes got off to!’ They came back and Elton leaned over and said he had just listened to the most stunning and incredible music — and I got kind of jealous. Marcus said, ‘I can really only play it like to one person at a time, but I’ll come pick you up in the morning and we’ll go drive the Pacific Coast Highway. Are you up for it?’ And I’ll never forget exactly where I was on the highway when I heard ‘Cannibal’ for the first time and rapidly processed it and really just became fixated on it as a piece of music and as a regulatory concept. He also played me demo versions of ‘Only Child’ and ‘Better Off High’ … And I cried, which I don’t do very often. I’m practically Canadian, up here on the border (of Washington state and Canada). I don’t like to express myself that way. It always feels a bit like vomiting. But it so moved me that I remember crying behind my sunglasses, listening to this artist talk about the themes of abuse and addiction and freedom and spiritual revelation. and just amazing concepts.

“And when we were out of music, I looked up and he had pulled into the parking lot of the recording studio. And it was a long way from where I needed to be, so I had to cancel all my shit, but we walked in and sat down on the floor and talked about ‘How’” — a song Mumford had nearly completed, but was stymied on finishing — “and wrote the final verse and then got on two microphones, two feet away from each other’s faces, and stared at each other’s mouths. And we just did ‘How’ top to bottom without any second takes, without any editing. It felt so good to just scream that one together, because as vocalists, we both have that tendency to wanna get really intense at some point in every song. And it felt kind of like coming home, to cut loose with him on that song. Because I had a lot of feelings from that fucking drive.”

Brandi Carlile and Marcus Mumford premiere a new song they wrote for his solo album at her concert at the Greek Theatre, June 24, 2022
Brandi Carlile and Marcus Mumford premiere a new song they wrote for his solo album at her concert at the Greek Theatre, June 24, 2022

After that, Carlile says, the one time she gave Mumford guidance was when he waffled over having “Cannibal” be the first track and lead single. “He told me that he was thinking that the first single should be ‘Grace,’ and I just put myself back in the car and pictured myself hearing ‘Grace’ instead of ‘Cannibal,’ and I just wouldn’t have got it. I wouldn’t have got why he was doing a solo album and why it’s so groundbreaking and revolutionary. I wanted other people to have the experience that I had on the Pacific Coast Highway.”

Mumford confirms: “I was gonna put it later on the record, and Brandi called me out and was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You can’t hide. You can’t bury that song in the middle of a record. You’ve gotta put it first.’ And I knew she was right. I hadn’t made any decisions, but I was obfuscating a little bit and probably a bit anxious about what putting that song out might mean for me.”

Even though Mumford hasn’t been in a position to talk directly with fans since “Cannibal” came out, his private playback sessions for friends let him know how releasing a song about childhood sexual abuse would resonate. “What I have been not surprised by, but taken aback by, is the number of people who have come to me privately and said, ‘You know, I have a story like that.’ And they might have spoken about it. They might have worked on it; they might not,” he says. “But the sheer volume of people who have stories like that has been a revelation to me over the past couple years. … I didn’t play it to many people, but I’d say over half the people I played it who responded with their own story in private. And I was blown away by the sheer volume of how common that kind of story is. And they’re all different. Obviously the first thing they teach you in trauma recovery stuff is never to compare — but, yeah, there’s just a lot of it about.”

Carlile has supported another recent prominent record that deals with childhood sexual abuse, Allison Russell’s “Outside Child,” but expects Mumford telling his story in “Cannibal” and “How” to be different. “There are many, many women that have experienced this are going to immediately understand the theme, and then men that have experienced it, who may or may not have been keeping it to themselves for a long time. And then they see this guy that’s kind of OK. He’s found his freedom in revealing it. He’s living his absolute best life, happy, he’s got an amazing wife and kids, and he’s found his grace and freedom. It’s this revelatory thing, which I think may or may not be more difficult for men, but I imagine it is.”

The title of the song “Stonecatcher” is borrowed from an activist/author friend and deals with mercy — which is something Mumford wanted to embed in the album after starting the album off with an accusatory song that calls his attacker a “fucking animal.”

“Mercy is exactly what it’s about, and I’ve sat at the feet of Brian Stevenson on that stuff. He’s a public defender who set up the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He mostly represents people on Death Row or lifers without parole and wrote this beautiful book called ‘Just Mercy,’ which I became obsessed with a while ago; a few years ago, they made it into a movie. He’s become a friend of mine, and we’ve talked extensively about studying childhood trauma and understanding the effect it can have on developing brains… From my understanding, your brain keeps developing through your late teens into your early twenties. So looking at people who have had really traumatic backgrounds, then being wired in a way that’s not best suited to activations or stressful moments, and in that so easily react in unhealthy ways… Brian’s point in that book is, who are we to condemn effectively someone to death for the worst thing they ever did, when they started life with almost zero chance of dealing healthily with these things?

“So sitting with Brian and talking with him changed my understanding of the lines, I guess, between victims and perpetrators — although I don’t like victim language too much, and he doesn’t seem to either. But when it came to writing the song about it, I had to call it ‘Stonecatcher,’ because he talks about rather than throwing stones at each other for the worst things we ever did, what if we could be stone catchers, and provide mercy in places where usually it might not be? I was just obsessed with the idea. Eventually I wrote the song, sent it to him and had two questions: ‘Firstly, you’re a lawyer. Is this plagiarism? And secondly, if it’s not, would you come and play on the record?’ He came and played piano on that song and put so much soul into it.”

It’s always telling when an artist repeats imagery throughout an album, and twice on “Self-Titled,” Mumford sings about someone tracing a line on the floor. A biblical reference, maybe?

“Yeah, it is, and in that story of stone catching, Brian really is referring to the biblical story that I think in the gospel is called ‘the woman caught in adultery.’ But really it should be called ‘the men caught with the stones in their hands.’ And there’s this famous moment in the story where the men bring this woman who’s been caught in adultery to him and say, ‘Teacher, what are you going to do with her? Because the law says she should be stoned to death.’ And in this moment of heat and anger and judgment and violence, Jesus kneels down and starts drawing in the sand. And my view is like, it doesn’t fucking matter what he’s drawing. He’s just somehow deflected all the energy in the room to this finger in the sand. But I also think it represents boundaries, too. And that’s where the phrase ‘the line in the sand,’ from my understanding, comes from.

“And at various points in my story, those closest to me have provided that moment. They’ve been Jesus to me, of saying, ‘Hold on a minute, dude. Let’s take the heat out of the room and look at this more objectively.’ And then, of course, she is in the story. He says, ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ and they all walk away, and then he has a conversation with the woman, engages with her in a way no one else seems to have up until that point. It seems to me like you can have people in your life who are holding up a mirror or reflecting reality to you, who can say like, let’s take the heat out of the room for a minute and focus on this instead. And actually, if we zoom out, this is a moment where you get to choose and there is choice still to you. And that’s why I’m also obsessed with East of Eden’ and the way Steinbeck talks about the glittering choice. I think it’s consistent with this story. There comes a moment where you are able to choose — not what’s happened before, but what happens next? And there you do have more responsibility.”

• • •

What kind of video to do for “Cannibal,” sensitive as it might be? A dramatization was out of the question, but a strict performance video didn’t sound terribly interesting … until Mumford came up with his choice of director: Steven Spielberg.

“Restrictions can be so helpful creatively, you know, just having no time, no people around, very guerilla-style,” Mumford says, using a term that has probably never before been applied in history to Spielberg’s work. “Effectively, the label said, ‘If we don’t have a visual for “Cannibal,” we’re gonna have to push this thing (back).’ And we had the wild idea just to call Steven and Kate (Capshaw), who had the record. Kate had written me the only review of the record I ever need to read and written to me really effusively about the record.”

Does he remember anything Capshaw said specifically in her review? “Oh, I do, but I’m not gonna repeat it. … But I knew they’d engaged with and connected with it, so it didn’t feel like completely left-field. They said, ‘Come meet us and we’ll talk about it.’ So we went to their house and talked and two hours later, we were scouting locations in New York state, and then we found it and the next day we shot it.”

What sweet spot did it find with Spielberg? “You know, he likes to operate cameras. He hasn’t done it for a bit. At one point, he was like, ‘Oh, thanks for the opportunity to let me camera-operate again.’ I was like, ‘I’m sure you could have come up with other opportunities, mate.’

“But there was one moment where he was shooting from down here at the beginning,” he recalls, suggesting Spielberg was looking up at his chin with the camera.  “And I was like, ‘Down here feels a bit like head-down — a bit shameful. What if it was from up agove?’ And then I raised my head, so that’s the first part of the shot. We’re watching it back on his phone and he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s like Indy’ — you know, the bit where he has his head down on the boat and it’s raining, and then he looks up and gets punched in the face. And I had this really sort of bizarre moment where that’s kind of the moment I clocked Steven Spielberg was shooting my music video.”

So, by suggesting a different shot, Mumford got to direct Spielberg directing him. “Yeah, as a camera operator. I always say I directed him, but it was a collaboration, and that was what’s bizarre to me. These guys are asking me what I think, and I was like, ‘I don’t know. You are literally the best in the world at this shit.’ But he’s so collaborative and humble and open, and they just love making things.  and that’s why they’re probably so successful and so good at what they do because they love it. Kate just poured herself into it; that dolly grip stuff is no joke. She was working her ass off on that big, fast zoom-in; she had to be sprint-pushing him in the roll chair. I just could not have asked for a safer, more supportive collective around, with Christy, their producer, too. It’s just us, guys. And I’m with my wife in a room making this thing, and I just felt so held again, trustful, internally, in my little sphere.” For Mumford, the video shoot, like much of the “Self-Titled” project, may have really counted as a trust-rise.

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