Marina Lambrini Diamandis -- aka Marina and the Diamonds ("the Diamonds" refers to her fans, not her bandmates) -- surged onto the music scene two years ago when she released her debut album, "The Family Jewels," and snagged the runner up position on the BBC's influential Sound of 2010 poll.
Listeners were charmed by her slightly off-kilter, left-of-center pop songs like "I Am Not A Robot," which were sonic relief from the endless buffet of dance pop and hip hop that ruled and continues to dominate radio airplay.
For her second album, "Electra Heart," Marina threw fans a curveball and presented them with a collection of songs draped in the very dance pop that she had eschewed on her first outing. However, rather than writing "drunk in the club" lyrics, as she puts it, the personal and slyly tongue-in-cheek album obsessively explores themes of sex, love, fame, betrayal and the complexities of what it means to be a woman at this particular moment in history.
We caught up with Marina a few days before she played two sold-out shows at NYC's Webster Hall to chat about how "Electra Heart" was partly inspired by Britney Spears's virgin/whore complex, her trick for not offending Middle America with her lyrics, why no artist would ever admit to being influenced by Lady Gaga and more.
The Huffington Post: In the song "Hollywood," from your first album, you sing about being "obsessed with the mess that's America." "Electra Heart" seems to follow in the song's footsteps. Was "Hollywood" the jumping off point for you to explore a critique of America on the new album?
Marina And The Diamonds: I genuinely wouldn't see it as a critique but it's definitely been inspired by American culture. And that's why it's going to work over here. It's been so instant in that I've come over here and sold out my tour and I've never really done that before. People are getting the humor. It's such a relief to be here for six weeks because it feels effortless. In the UK people take it so seriously. When I first changed [the direction of my music] people said, "She's sold out" and they totally didn't get the humor. So, it kind of is that and "Hollywood" was definitely a starting point for that. I think after this album I'm done with that theme. With this second album I wanted to complete that vision from the first album.
I think some people took offense to "Hollywood" because they read it as anti-American.
[Laughs] It's so funny when I think back and I was on a different label then and I was so annoyed [the song didn't become a radio hit in America]. I was like, "They didn't promote me at all! I didn't get on the radio!" but looking back now I'm like, Marina! Why would they put that song on the radio? [Laughs] But I felt thoroughly insulted! I was like "Surely 'Hollywood' is going to get on the radio!"
After you've offended almost all of Middle America...
Right? Now that I've gone to Middle American states I see that. People who [aren't already fans and] hear the lyrics won't know it's a wry take on Hollywood fame culture. But now I feel a bit cringe singing it [when I'm opening up for] Coldplay and the audiences who don't know me and don't know the humor. For my own audiences it's fine and they revel in it.
But I can imagine when you're in Milwaukee and --
Seriously! The last five times I sang it I was like, "I'm obsessed with [whispers 'the mess that's'] America!" I really under sing it! [Laughs] Instead it comes out like "Yeah! America!" It's so bad!
"Electra Heart" is humorous and filled with tongue-in-cheek moments, but you're also talking about these issues that are --
Exactly. Our society's obsession with beauty and glamour and sex are such prevalent parts of American culture and also British culture -- you guys love your tabloids. So I'm wondering how your own relationship with those themes affected the songwriting.
I think on the first album I felt this weird moral obligation -- probably because I was brought up by my dad who is quite conservative and strict -- but on the second album I see myself as an average consumer who sometimes buys gossip magazines, buys into the whole beauty schtick even though I see natural beauty as best. So in that regard, as a songwriter and an artist, I'm just an observer. It's more like sign of the times -- art reflects what's going on in society at the moment.
So you're not pushing a particular message?
Not really. I'm not in the position to push a message when I'm writing something like "Bubblegum Bitch" or "Homewrecker," where I'm toying with people. I don't think you can then be moral about things because people would be like "What is she doing? What does she mean?" So, it's a tongue-in-cheek record but it also deals with the truth about love and commercialism and just being a young person, really.
I find it interesting that you selected dance pop as the genre of choice for this new record and at the same time you're examining these -- at least on the surface -- shallow themes, many of which beloved female dance pop artists like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera have been accused of propagating or indulging in.
There are two sides to it: On the first album I secretly wanted to be a pop star but I wasn't. The first album didn't take me to that level. I criticized the whole American songwriting industry and the pop side of it and I was bitter about it. And I stepped back and thought "Why are you bitter? You can't just stand there like every other indie musician and criticize this so-called 'generic' music when you're not doing anything to challenge that." So I wanted to use the pop model or the pop formula to become the kind of artist that I wanted to be, but also to make an album that was pop but that also has something behind it that was more than just "drunk in a club" lyrics -- which I actually love but you can't dress that up [laughs].
Did you have specific women in mind when you wrote the album?
Britney Spears is a big influence. Huge. I think people thought I was joking about that for a long time. But when I was a teenager there was a genuine connection with this sweet girl who also had this very sexual side that people didn't really want to accept.
Totally. She came right out of the gates with "...Baby One More Time."
Oh my God! And it was her idea! This is the thing -- Britney is really smart. And in the way that she inspired "Electra Heart," if you step back from all the cynical stuff, it actually focuses on the idea of innocence being mixed with darkness. For some reason I really like that combination. I suppose because you don't really connect innocence with darkness.
But they're often placed together. In "Teen Idle," you're talking about virginity and how lauded it is but girls are supposed to be sluts at the same time. And Britney embodied both of those things.
It's like a formula that no one can refuse. I remember seeing an interview with Madonna in the '80s and she was talking about how everyone is so attracted to the whole virgin/whore complex. And that is exactly Britney -- she mixed those elements so perfectly.
That brings us to feminism. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Is the album supposed to be taken as a feminist statement?
There's one song, "Sex, Yeah," which I think is. I would say that the new album explores the feminine psyche more than the first album, but I wouldn't say it's a feminist statement. But I consider myself a feminist because I believe women should have equal rights. Of course. It's just that the term feminism conjures up other things for people.
It's been co-opted. It's scary. Suddenly you're a man-hater.
Right, so women are afraid to say they're a feminist. It's crazy.
But I think you're right. In some ways it's just about putting the spotlight on women's issues, which I think this album does. You don't often see a pop artist honestly exploring what it means to be a woman and the things that are expected of women and how complicated that can be. And as a gay man, I relate to it as well, because there aren't a lot of examples of gay sexuality and gay men often share many of those issues with women.
I think one of the reasons I do have a gay fan base is that because -- especially on the first album -- I dealt with not being allowed to be yourself and if you've faced judgment or a lot of oppression when you were younger, you can be geared towards people who write about that or who are dealing with that.
Has there been any push back about you being a beautiful woman singing these songs about how hard it is to be a beautiful, sexualized woman? Or do you think it'd be even more disingenuous if it was an unattractive woman singing these songs?
Once I was speaking with a journalist about "the outsider" and they asked "How can you be an outsider, you're beautiful?" I replied A) You don't know what I look like without all this on [gestures to makeup and clothes] B) you don't know if I like myself and C) just because you're beautiful doesn't mean that everything is perfect. But even when I see a beautiful woman I think Aw, her life must be amazing. Everyone does it. That's human nature to believe that beauty is everything.
Then you infused some of that into the album.
I think perception is really important. This album is a subversive album in the sense that I've ticked every box in the pop model that means in our current day that you are a star or pop star. I did want my hair blonde anyway, but the blonde hair, the very pop image, the music itself, working with pop producers. I'm still doing what I intended but now I'm opening myself up to a larger audience.
It seems like no one can talk to a female artist these days without bringing up Lady Gaga and now I guess I'm guilty of it, too. But I was thinking about her album "The Fame" and comparing it to "Electra Heart." On "The Fame" Gaga is saying that fame is glamorous and desirable and everyone should try and achieve it in whatever big or small ways they can. But "Electra Heart" is more suspicious and critical of those supposed "ideals." Were you thinking about her or her persona when you writing this album?
Maybe subconsciously she influenced me. No artist would never admit "Lady Gaga influenced me" and in my heart I know its truly not what influenced me. But I am influenced by pop culture and she's been a huge part of pop culture in the past three or four years. So anyone you meet or see or take an interest in essentially influences you. The main line or theme in the album is love and how we act and react to it. That's what interests me most.
It's interesting you say that because there aren't very many instances -- or any? -- of a pure love song on the album.
[Laughs] It's really kind of tragic! I don't think I've ever written a single one!
I guess you could maybe argue "I Am Not A Robot" is a kind of love song? But why haven't you written one before?
Even the name "Electra Heart" -- I wanted to embody the idea of heartbreak. In pop, it's the number one theme to write about. It's the universal theme -- everyone can relate to it. But I have never wanted to write about it before because I felt embarrassed by it.
Do you have a secret love song hidden away somewhere?
[Laughs] Nothing! The shelf is bare. I'm sure I'll write one someday.
Is it fair to read the album as being a narrative or a journey? "Fear And Loathing," the last song on "Electra Heart," comes at the end of a lot of betrayal and disappointment and feels like a moment of hope.
That was intended. It goes down through layers. It starts with the surface layers -- those first songs haven't gotten huge depth and are less cerebral and then it goes down deeper until you get to "Fear And Loathing," which is maybe the purest song on the album. And it is hopeful. And it's very obvious but sometimes you have to go through certain experiences to appreciate other things.
A kind of light at the end of the tunnel moment?
Definitely. I shed a lot of baggage -- both artistically speaking and personally. I felt so restricted on the first album. I wanted to please people -- like my family members -- and I never talk about it because I just don't need to. But it's weird -- if you don't talk about it people don't understand why you've done certain things or made certain decisions. This album was definitely liberating for me. Just something as simple as dying my hair was like "I just don't give a shit," which at 26 is pretty late [laughs]. But I never had that childhood or that teenagehood to experiment with my identity and just have fun.
Was there a particular moment or catalyst for you to be able to say "Fuck it"?
It was a gradual thing. The first song I wrote for this project, though it's not on the US version, was "Living Dead." I was pretty depressed at the time -- I literally felt like I was dead inside. I wasn't enjoying my life. It's pretty sad if you're living like that but lots of people are.
Exactly. You feel like you can't do what you should be doing. You can't bring out the best of you.
And out of that the album was born. You decided something had to change.
Yeah. I was in pure depression for almost eight months. That's not normal. And it also collided with this guy I met -- blah blah blah -- and in February 2011 I said, "Fuck it, I'm going to dye my hair blonde" and six months later I began the "Electra Heart" era.
Was there a negative reaction from anyone regarding your change in direction?
The indie press, like NME, doesn't like me anymore [laughs]. But from fans, I'm pretty sure I haven't really lost fans. I think they were just interested in why I was doing it because there are fans who are big alternative music fans, so "Primadonna" is like the anti-Christ for them [laughs] but I gained so many new ones.
And what about your family?
It's fine now. The album kind of served its purpose in that it's almost weird that you kind of create this character to be someone else but really you become more truthful to yourself. The more that you become what you're not, the more you realize what you are.