“Big Sigh is all about release and relief and acceptance.” British artist Marika Hackman is talking about her fourth full-length record of that name, and the perception of sighing itself. “You know, I think a sigh is often seen as something negative…if someone’s sighing it’s very heavy. But I also think there’s something very satisfying [and] positive about a sigh, it’s about letting go. Even on a physical and scientific level it’s there to help you.”
Hackman said the title also “encapsulates the making of this record and the themes that are on there.” She explained via zoom that the record is about “grappling with darkness and with the depths of humanity that can be very difficult. It’s digging through old traumas, and bringing them up and observing them. But it’s bringing them up to observe them to let them go. To let go of the balloon and let it float off. There’s hope throughout the record and there’s acceptance and there’s a lightness to it even though it tackles quite dark themes, in my opinion.”
Big Sigh is Hackman’s first album of original songs in five years, following 2020’s lockdown Covers project. Like the songs on this album — lush, expansive, thoughtful and deep — so was our conversation just days after Big Sigh‘s January 12 release. Highlights are below and you can listen to the full conversation via WNXP’s podcast channel.
The first single was “No Caffeine,” a mid-tempo self-pep-talk with a litany of tips for avoiding a panic attack.
Take a day off work, call your mum
Have a glass of wine, stay away from fun
Pretend like you don’t care
Pretend to take the night off
Try to get some sleep, no caffeine“No Caffeine”
Go and see Louise, or maybe watch TV
Don’t forget to wash, don’t become a write-off
I asked the artist where she goes — inward or maybe to an external source of comfort — for that necessary self-care, to stay happy and healthy.
“I think I look very inwardly,” she said. “For a long time I have felt like self-sufficiency was sort of the key to life. I think as I’m getting older that’s not true and I realize that. But certainly throughout my teens and twenties I have learned a lot of skills to be able to cope with things, by just basically talking to myself in my head… And again, acceptance is the big one. You can fight and you can struggle. One of my exes used to say I would always hang on to the rope. Like I was always dangling out of sheer tenacity to stay on top of everything. And actually sometimes you have to let go of the rope…that’s kind of stuck with me.”
Paraphrasing and perhaps adopting the old adage “there’s no way out but through,” Hackman mused, “Nothing is ever going to take away pain or stress, depression, anxiety. There’s no sort of ‘Oh now that I can logic my way out of this.’ There’s no out of this. It’s more like a sitting alongside and observing and just feeling and accepting…That’s how I deal with things now.”
On first listen, I put an asterisk by the track “Vitamins” for its lyrical brutality — world-weary verses find the narrator severely lacking in self-esteem — juxtaposed with these bubbling over, almost psychedelic instrumental sections. Am I utterly devastated, merely resigned or am I even somewhat uplifted by song’s end? I can’t decide!
Here’s how Hackman described writing the song and finalizing it for Big Sigh:
“It’s normally melodies and harmonies that spring into my head first. But those lyrics [for ‘Vitamins’] popped in and I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa there.’ So I kind of tried many different iterations. There’s a plucky, plucky guitar version of that song, which goes into this quite positive chorus that has lyrics and everything, and it just wasn’t working. It didn’t have the impact that it needed. And the kind of conversationality, it felt very like shoehorned into being a song.”
She took another tack. “So I started playing around on the piano and had those moody chords that were kind of floating. And so when it came to the chorus, which is it’s not even really a chorus, [but] those instrumental sections, I just really went with my instincts and started fiddling around with different piano sounds. Dropping into, like, a barrel of honey was how I wanted it to feel. I wanted these super up-front, direct, raw, almost grotesque, very self-deprecating lyrics that are also then reflecting on society with that final line before you then just get dropped. And the drop feels nice. I guess it’s letting go of the rope, like we were talking about earlier.”
Hackman first brought up “Vitamins” in referencing the ways her songs impact friends, family and ex-lovers. That she herself doesn’t want to shirk from vulnerability in her music, but is cautious about how it reflects upon others in her orbit. “My mum wasn’t mad keen on the lyrics to ‘Vitamins,'” recalled the songwriter. “She was like, ‘Oh my God, people are going to think I’m a monster.'” — this fear, presumably, based on the opening line: “Mom says I’m a waste of skin. A sack of shit and oxygen.”
Hackman corrected her parents, “And I was like, “No, it’s not about my mum. It’s not about my dad. It’s about like archetypes, tropes, aspects of myself, the masculine, feminine, etcetera.’ Once I’d explained that to her, that was fine.”
Hackman mentioned that “Slime” is the hardest song to sing on the record, lamenting almost as if she, herself, didn’t write the thing. We laughed about that. When asked how she got her vocals the way she wanted them on Big Sigh, she mentioned how crucial it is to be comfortable.
“If I feel uncomfortable, I go back into like choirboy voice, which is what all of my early records sound like, because I was nervous and young and hadn’t really pushed to see how far my voice could go. It was on the second and third albums that I really started inhabiting those kind of confidence-building characters and messing around with my delivery and putting, like, acid into my vocal. Playing with stretching your mouth whilst you’re singing words. When you think you’re putting emotion into something and you listen back and it actually sounds just flat as a pancake, you really have to go extra to to get that emotion in.”
Maybe the “extra” felt more naturally expressive this time? Yes, Hackman believes so. “With this one, I think, that felt more instinctive now, like less of a conscious choice getting that emotion in, because I feel older and more confident that when I’m actually feeling those emotions, I can really, really let them come to the surface. [I’m also] trying to keep it pretty natural. There are some really dry moments there, which is always quite intimidating, not slapping a reverb on everything to hide those rough edges and mucking about with a few little vocoder sounds. But I think it’s a more confident, if, you know, emotional delivery for this record.”
While she will typically “write to-order,” with, say, a 10-track album in mind and therefore an assignment to write 10 individual songs, Hackman said that inevitably there are little fragments or unused leftovers from the former album that provide the “launchpad” for her new songwriting. At risk of being a musical “hoarder,” she joked, the artist will rarely throw something away that exceeds 30 seconds. These lyrical or melodic wisps, “at some point, they might click” and turn into something substantial, she hopes. This did come to pass with the first track on Big Sigh, “The Ground,” said Hackman, but she had to reframe her thinking to harness its potential as a fairly short, almost prelude of a song introducing the rest.
“I think [‘The Ground’] really set the tone and the sonic palette for the record. And I wrote it first. It was the first thing I wrote. I had actually written it at the end of my writing cycle for the album before, and I always had it in the back of my mind. I was going to turn it into a fully-fledged song and kept on trying and couldn’t, and then realized that I didn’t need to do that. If I just had a confidence in what it already was because I already loved it, that would be fine…It has just such a grasp on the kind of dynamic context of the record, it really sets out the parameters of where we’re going to go. So it’s like this perfect easing in. And, yeah, I get that it will never be a single. But if someone said, ‘How would you describe the record?’ I would just say, ‘Listen to “The Ground,” and that will let you know.'”