"Freedom in music is closely linked to respect and there is still a long way to go for women to be respected, to be listened to and to enjoy the space that always belonged to us"
Interview by Raquel Fernández Sobrín
Sitting down to discuss the subject of freedom a year after we all saw our own limited, makes as much sense as it does not. Especially because, despite everything you may have heard since the state of alarm was decreed, what we experienced (what we are still experiencing in some way) is something that is at its very origin: that one’s freedom ends where another’s begins. That we live in society and that our universal right to walk down the street – and to do so with or without a mask and at the most convenient time – is not above the right of others to safeguard their health. The people who are going to address the issue, moreover, are two women sitting in a café in the centre of Madrid. Yes, the city that didn’t allow concentrations last 8th of March but looks forward to the arrival of tourists for Easter.
Marem Ladson (Orense, 1997) found out early on life that to be free you have to be yourself, and that being free means not being like somebody else. “My father is from New York, so I’ve lived halfway between Spain and the United States my whole life. It was hard for me to fit in because it was difficult for me to see myself reflected in other children. To begin with, I was the only black kid in school, the only one who spoke English, the one who always went away for summers and holidays. When I came back I felt I had missed out on things and, in the end, fully developing my identity in Ourense was complicated because I didn’t feel completely Spanish and I didn’t feel completely American. I was from both places and from neither of them”. Of course, not finding your place outside doesn’t mean not finding it in yourself: “In many ways I was always quite introverted. Not shy, but I had my inner world and it was hard to express it. Music soon became a vehicle for that”. Before music, pen and paper arrived. “I think I always knew that writing was going to be important. I remember we would be asked to do essays or texts in class and I would always try to do something more creative, a poem or short story. I never kept a diary, but I would write about the things that bothered me, what I was feeling. I think writing and composing became my refuge since I was a child, a safe place where I could express myself and free myself from everything that hurt or affected me. It’s still like that, it’s a very therapeutic process. Looking back, being bullied as a child, being picked on because of my skin color or my hair, was a very hard thing that affected my self-esteem for years, and at the same time forced me to find my own place in myself. Music took on a very introspective meaning for me and writing songs and singing what I feel became some sort of exorcism”.
With some of those songs she shaped her first single All My Storms (2017) and her first album, Marem Ladson (2018), which was followed by an intense tour around Spain and Portugal, playing at major festivals and opening for artists such as the legendary Cat Power. These days marks the anniversary of the release of her latest EP, Azul, a fusion of pop, folk and R&B, where Marem creates, once again, a universe of her own. Last Spring her first American tour was scheduled with concerts in New York, Los Angeles, and at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. “My flight was taking off on the day the state of emergency was declared. I was really looking forward to it, I had been working and preparing these shows for months, I had a full agenda and publications like Billboard and NPR had featured the EP”. Even though, she is grateful for the break: “I needed that time to write. I took the time to read, to paint… I had a lot less anxiety during quarantine. The fact that we were all going through the same thing created a certain sense of togetherness or community”. Going back in time is not possible, but in life everything comes. Since the end of the summer, Marem has resumed her concerts in Spain as much as possible, and next Saturday, March 20th, she is holding one as part of Madrid Brillante at Teatro Reina Victoria. A new opportunity to fly.
Marem Ladson, on freedom.
What is the first image that pops into your head when you hear the word “freedom”?
When I think of freedom I think of struggle in the sense that it is not something we can take for granted. Freedom is something we have to keep working for and vindicating in many ways. I think of all the artists who had to fight for their creative freedom -from Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Aretha Flanklin, to Marisol or Cecilia- and I think of all the ones to come; that in order to create something that is honest with yourself you need to have freedom and it’s something we have to keep fighting for every day.
And the first song?
“Freeeeedooom” [she laughs]. Actually, I think it’s one of mine, Círculos, which talks a lot about the need for freedom to make your own way and the fear that there is really no such thing as free will, but that everything is already decided in a higher plan. That there is a destiny that we cannot avoid, but neither can we know.
Do you feel you have all the freedom you want to have?
No. I don’t think I will ever feel it. I always have the feeling (and I don’t think it’s a good thing) that I want more, I’m not satisfied with what I have. There is always something more I can work for. Freedom in music is also closely linked to respect and I think there is still a long way to go for women to be respected, to be listened to, and to be given the space that has always belonged to us.
When was the last time you felt completely free?
Every time I go on stage. I feel in control of the situation, I think about the whole journey that each song has gone through since I write it in my room, produce it, etc., until I get on stage and people connect with it. It’s a feeling of total freedom.
And the last time you felt a lack of freedom?
I think freedom is very much related to how we are with ourselves, with our mental health, and I think when I feel most lacking of freedom is when I’m in a bad state of mind. Anxiety and depression can be the biggest obstacles when it comes to creating, and I think it’s important to make visible the problems that affect us and to highlight the importance of mental health.
When did you first feel or started valuing the freedom to be yourself?
It’s hard for me to think about when I became aware of it because it has always been inside me. It was always more important to feel free than to feel accepted or integrated. I’ve always been aware that I’m not going to fit into the prototypes or preconceived ideas that people may have about me, and that makes me appreciate my freedom even more.
Tell us the one time you were free to do something you wanted to do but didn’t do it.
But that’s feeling free! The opportunity to do something from your freedom and not doing it is another way of exercising it.
Do you feel freer when you say “yes” or when you say “no”?
When I say no, because it’s very hard for me to say it. We women have been so inculcated with the idea of pleasing, obliging… we have it so internalized, that we have to relearn certain behaviours and reclaim our space, express ourselves with less delicacy. Men are much more direct and I envy that because they have never had to question their place in the world.
A kind of freedom you didn’t use to value but you couldn’t live without now.
I’ve always valued being able to give concerts, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so aware of how much I need it. Making music and sharing it live fills me deeply, I couldn’t live without singing, composing, playing… it makes me very happy and it’s something I can never take for granted, something I will always be very grateful for.