Marika Hackman spent her 20s aggressively toying with identity. After the release of her dreamy, depressing 2015 debut album We Slept At Last, she pivoted to jangly, joyful Britpop for 2017’s I’m Not Your Man, recruiting The Big Moon as her backing band in the process. Meanwhile, 2019’s Any Human Friend was full of lusty rock & roll and swaggering self-discovery as Hackman once again pushed back against what had come before.
Her fourth album, Big Sigh, is far less reactionary, “But there’s something about it that feels special,” says Hackman. “It feels different to everything that’s come before,” but for the first time, it’s not a reinvention, she adds. From the industrial drone of opener ‘The Ground’ through the blossoming ‘Vitamins’ that features stark lyrics like “we’re not special, and we’re all the same” to the raucous ‘No Caffeine’, it’s the most sprawling record Hackman has ever released.
It’s also the most comfortable. “When you’re not fully certain who you are, the easiest thing to do is try on different personas and play around with what your identity is,” she explains. “You just get to a point where you’re more settled with who you are, though.”
Take the critically acclaimed Any Human Friend. “The whole point of that record was me playing this slightly jaded rockstar, making music that sounded like Prince and felt like a sexual slap around the face. It wasn’t me just sitting down and writing songs that spit difficult emotions onto the page,” which is where Big Sigh came from. “There’s a simplicity and a confidence to that,” says Hackman. “This album doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be anything.”
But making it was certainly trying.
“It’s the first time I’ve really struggled making a record,” she admits. Hackman had just wrapped up the touring for Any Human Friend when COVID hit as she abandoned London and moved back home to her parents’ house in Hampshire. At first, she saw it as a much-needed break from thinking about music after over a decade of obsessing about her craft, before eventually trying to write.
And nothing happened. “It’s really hard to be creative when you’re faced with constant stress,” so after a lot of staring at the page, she set about picking apart and reworking a number of her favourite tracks. Her takes on Grimes’ ‘Realiti’, Beyoncé’s ‘All Night’ and Radiohead’s deep-cut ‘You Never Wash Up After Yourself’ all featured on 2020’s Covers album, which was part distraction, part exploration and part Hackman wanting to move people in a different way.
“It definitely kept me sane,” she admits. It also allowed her to trust her gut when it came to Big Sigh. “With other albums, I’ve known exactly what sort of record I wanted to make, and then I made it. This one, there really wasn’t a vision for it.”
After an “arduous” spell of constantly chipping away at individual tracks, the songs slowly started coming as that lack of vision shifted from terrifying to empowering. The end result is an album that freely thrashes between organic, pastoral textures and abrasive, industrial sounds. It channels Kate Bush, Radiohead, and Nirvana.
“There’s this yearning for the past and the comfort of nostalgia versus the realities of being an adult in this world, and how hard that can be,” says Hackman. “Big Sigh is about acceptance but it’s also about being tired. There’s sadness, stress, and angst, but at least it’s a release,” she adds.
Marika Hackman’s music has always felt like an emotional purge, but Big Sigh plunges into new depths. “That was out of sheer panic. There was nowhere else to turn but inwards,” she admits. “I was basically panic digging with this record, which is why some of it feels so raw,” with songs about anxiety, heartache, lust, intimacy, and panic attacks.
“I get asked a lot about how revealing my lyrics seem and where the limit is but the healthiest thing to do is just be as honest as possible,” says Hackman. “It’s where those powerful shared experiences come from as well. It’s deeply satisfying to connect with other people. Sometimes it’s painful but it never feels negative.”
That energy comes into focus with the recent single ‘The Yellow Mile’, which also closes out Big Sigh. Not only was it the last song written for the record, but it also hints at where Hackman wants to go next. “It’s a sad song, but there’s a sweetness to it. Big Sigh is a heavy record so ending with something hopeful felt right,” she explains, even if it happened accidentally.
“I wasn’t scared of making something heavy and sad. My first album was seen as really depressing and my next two records were a response to that,” she explains of her decision to go bigger, bolder, and brighter. “This time though, I just thought ‘fuck it’. I love that type of music and that’s what I was feeling.”
“It does feel like a lot of artists put message, genre, or scene ahead of beauty, but all I’ve ever wanted to do is make beautiful things,” she continues. “There’s nothing more to take from Big Sigh but feelings.”
“I just hope that people are moved by it,” Hackman says. “I’m not trying to say anything with Big Sigh. It’s not a political record and I’m not wearing queerness on my sleeve. I’ve just made a very honest record about difficult emotions.”
Hackman says the landscape of queer music has changed hugely over the past decade, which also influenced the lack of politics on Big Sigh. “When I first came out with ‘Boyfriend’, it was a bit of a desert out there. That song felt rebellious and exciting. It felt like it was needed in a way, but it doesn’t feel like that anymore. I am who I am though, and I will always make songs about love, lust, and relationships because it’s fascinating,” she adds.
After the struggle of making Big Sigh, Hackman is already inspired by what comes next, spurred on by the reaction from fans. “I’ve already written a few new songs and I have an idea about direction,” she admits, hoping to have the whole thing written by the end of the year.
Before that, though, she’s got to work out how to bring the rest of her back catalogue into the world of Big Sigh for a string of headline shows. “I’ll always play the bangers and maybe there’ll be some more stuff from my first album back in the set,” she explains. “The tour for Any Human Friend was raucous and fun, but this will be different. I think it’ll be more serious, with an intensity to it. It’ll be a proper, grown-up show,” she grins, comfortable in the world she’s created.
Photography: Steve Gullick