“This Is What Freedom Feels Like”: Marcus Mumford on (self-titled) and Seeing Songwriting Anew

It might not be initially apparent, but British folk-music revivalist Marcus Mumford has got a rapier-sharp wit, and the rimshot-maestro-perfect timing of a standup-comedy professional. It just doesn’t happen to be on display in his eponymous new solo outing, (self-titled), his first outside of his longtime quartet, Mumford & Sons. There’s not a lot to laugh about on this sober, deeply self-reflective set, starting with its stark acoustic lead single “Cannibal,” which addresses the sexual abuse he endured as a child and the attendant trauma he secretly carried with him into adulthood.

For example, his hilarious surprise appearance during the intro to an April 2021 Saturday Night Live episode featuring his wife of 10 years, actress Carey Mulligan, as host. She had already injected the monologue with droll, deadpan humor by noting, “I spent the last year quarantining in the English countryside with my husband and two small children.” Pause. “Which is the beginning of most horror movies.” But when she mentions her spouse’s name, then waves to him at home, where he’s supposedly watching the kids, the singer jumps up in the back row of the studio audience, with an exuberant, “Hi, Carey! It’s me! It’s Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons! And I meant to ask—have they booked a musical act for the show yet?” Even after she confirms that yes, the slot’s been filled, he bounds into an impromptu audition, earnestly strumming an acoustic guitar that materializes out of nowhere, before apologizing, “I thought you were giving me the signal! Our special couples signal for me to play the guitar!” The next instant, he pops up next to his missus at the microphone for the skit’s outro, still beaming and playing, and just for a minute, you get a rare glimpse into just how zany the couple’s home life probably is with two such evenly matched artistic talents living together under the same roof. Hint: It’s not exactly The Amityville Horror.

Mumford, 35, wishes he could take credit for the brilliant opener for that SNL show, which contained several brainy, Mulligan-centered sequences, including a wicked sendup of self-absorbed millennials set in Star Trek space.“I’m just good at following instructions,” he explains of why the gag worked so fluidly. “And I told my wife, ‘Just tell me exactly what you want me to do and when, and I’ll try and do exactly what you tell me,’ so that was the approach I took. And I think it was the show’s idea—they came up with it in one of those writing sessions the week before, and Carey said, ‘Look, they’ve got this mad idea—what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Well, if you want to do it, then I’m in—it’s your show!’”

Fans of Mumford & Sons’ original neo-folk minimalism, circa its skeletal Sigh No More 2009 debut, will enjoy hearing the bandleader’s return to a hushed format on his solo outing, starting with “Cannibal,” wherein he softly rhymes “Cannibal” with “Fucking animal,” and admits that “My own body keeps betraying me” when reflecting on the long-repressed, non-familial sexual abuse he endured at age six. The single’s stark video was even shot by director Steven Spielberg on an iPhone, and it underscores the forlorn, self-reflective sparseness; As produced by equally gifted tunesmith Blake Mills at Sound City studios in Los Angeles, that eerie, fluttering spirit wafts through the rest of the material, as well, with sensitive vocal assists from Brandi Carlile (“How”), Clairo (“Dangerous Game”), Monica Martin (“Go in Light”) and Phoebe Bridgers (“Stone Catcher”). And while “Grace” does counter the proceedings with huge, coliseum-rock heft, the general vibe of it all is restraint. Thoughtful, carefully considered restraint. Songs that virtually demanded to be released as a solo album. Mumford—who is already halfway finished with a new, fifth Mumford & Sons disc, with alums Ted Dwane and Ben Lovett—stopped chuckling long enough for a fairly serious Paste chat to mark (self-titled)’s emergence.

Paste: I loved the part in the SNL Star Trek spoof where the confused spaceship captain asks about Carey’s whiny McKenna character and her pal. And a crew member answers, “I think they’re rich white kids who, for the first time, are experiencing a world that doesn’t revolve around them.”

Marcus Mumford: Oh, that was so good! Yeah, that was a fun week! And seeing her really lean into it, in that room of just extraordinary people! I’ve played it three times, and my favorite thing about SNL is watching the crew work. When I go on tour, I like to base myself in the production office, just because I like being around people that are fucking good at their jobs. And with SNL, I always watch how the crew work, and it’s just fascinating, when you’re watching a team work like that. Like, when we went on tour with U2—we did three shows on the Joshua Tree tour, and I just watched for three days, and I learned more on tour with them in those three days than I had in a hundred shows we played before that. It was just fascinating.

Paste: Your dry, deadpan delivery on Saturday Night Live kind of hints at a possible acting or even standup career in the future. Have you relied on your sense of humor as a survival skill most of your life?

Mumford: Yeah, I think so. I’ve always enjoyed laughter, and I think it can help. It’s such a helpful tool, you know? Like, things can be objectively funny, even if they’re really, really dark. And making this record with Blake [Mills] was fun, because he has a sense of humor like mine, which can be quite sick. At one point, he was like, “The thing about ‘Cannibal’ is, it could be a really weird, sexy jam! Until you know what it’s about!” And I was like, “Uhh … yep!” To me, it was really funny. Playing my mom “Cannibal” at the time wasn’t funny, because I thought she’d know what it was about, but she didn’t. Four days later, she asked me what it was about and we talked about it, and I thought she’d known, but she hadn’t. And once we got through the trauma of that moment for her—which was very difficult to hear for a mother, that your son was sexually abused, not least of all in a song? The fact that it was through a song that she heard that is genuinely funny. I mean, in a sick way, it is funny, and there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s too late now and all that kind of shit. But once we know she’s alright? That’s genuinely funny to me.

Paste: But how did you keep a lid on this childhood trauma for what? Three decades, then?

Mumford: Almost, yeah. I’m not sure that I employed humor—that was just really successful suppression. Well, I’m not sure it was a success, but really effective denial and suppression. But once the opportunity arose, obviously now it’s a massive relief to have processed it within myself, and then it’s kind of an extension of who I am to write a song about it. Because I’ve always written songs about real shit in my life, so it would be kind of strange not to. And when I wrote it, I had no intention of putting it out, and I was still in denial about it even being a solo record until like November of last year, by which point I kind of had to commit. But all of last year was kind of like an exploration of writing—it was like writing camp in Los Angeles with Blake. And I couldn’t have asked for a more sensitive and creative partner in that. We live in England, but I have a U.S. passport, so I just did the necessary quarantine that applied so I could come here.

Paste: I keep forgetting you were born in Anaheim.

Mumford: Yeah. So I was coming back and forth, and going in the studio, and being here for a couple of weeks at a time, and then heading back into quarantine. And it was cumbersome. But it was worthwhile.

Paste: Blake always knew the Haim sisters, so I’m sure you probably saw them from time to time.

Mumford: Yeah, I did. And then he’s got a whole community of people, some of them I already knew, like Phoebe Bridgers. Some of them I got to meet, like Ethan Gruska, who I was always a huge fan of, and Tony Berg, who was around a lot, because he works out of the studio with Blake, as well, but just out of a different room. And they’d been doing the music for [forthcoming Amazon Prime series] Daisy Jones & the Six, so Blake would go a few weeks with me, and then a few weeks back on Daisy Jones, and then he was doing a Jack Johnson record at the same time. So he was keeping himself busy in between sessions.

Paste: What was the trigger for “Cannibal”? The pandemic and all that down time?

Mumford: Well, I don’t think I wrote “Cannibal” until January of 2021. So by March 2020 we went into lockdown, and I did the scoring for Ted Lasso, which took six months during the pandemic—during the height of lockdown, which was really strict in the U.K. And then in January of 2021 was when I wrote “Cannibal” and started “Grace,” and then brought them here to Blake’s, I guess in like February or March.

Paste: How do you score a show like Ted Lasso? Do you get sent clips? A general theme?

Mumford: Yeah. I spoke a lot with Jason [Sudeikis] in advance of the show, and we talked a lot through characters and story arcs and the vibe, and we’d speak specifically about instrumentation that he liked and wanted for the show. And then I’d go away and write melodies, and transfer that melody onto instruments in the studio, and then try to pair it with pictures. And so they would send me the episodes as they were being edited, and sometimes they’d be really long. And I’d try writing different things to picture, and you have a big TV screen above your desk in the studio, and you just kind of try things out. And then once they cut it down to what it’s going to be, then you can place music where you want it to be.

Paste: What was the weirdest sonic experiment you tried that worked?

Mumford: I tried a drill beat, a British rap beat, underneath one scene. Which I thought was sick. But they didn’t like it because they’re Americans and they don’t understand British rap music. But I had tried a decent drill beat. And that was the weirdest thing I’ve tried, probably.

Paste: You were an associate music producer on Inside Llewyn Davis, and I always thought the Coen brothers really nailed it on that, that elusive Greenwich-Village-in-the-’60s vibe.

Mumford: I think you’re totally right—I think it captured that Dave Van Ronk type of vibe, and T-Bone Burnett was obviously the perfect guy to do that. But we’d had an agreement before that that we would just call each other if there were interesting things that popped up that we could work on together, after having worked together on that Bob Dylan performance at the Grammys, really. And we just stayed close, and that was one of them. I love that guy—he’s been like a godfather to me at times in music. But it was an amazing experience, that whole thing, and very different to Ted Lasso, because it was very much in community, whereas Ted Lasso I had to do in isolation, and I didn’t even have an engineer, So I had to learn how to, like, upload. I could have done the music in a couple of weeks, but it was all the uploading, downloading, and all the techie shit that I’m no good at that I had to learn how to do, which is why it took me six months.

Paste: It feels like track placement was very important on this album, with “Cannibal” coming first, followed by “Grace.”And then it wraps up on track 10, “How,” with Brandi Carlile. Was there closure?

Mumford: Ten. Yeah—“How.” And it kind of feels like closure to me, yeah. I felt like it had to start with “Cannibal,” because that was the first song I wrote, and it felt like a statement of intent, just because of the honesty. And so ‘Grace,” then, that was a one-two. And the way it rolled out, I wanted “Cannibal” to be the first, the first thing people heard, but then I wanted “Grace” to follow it, hot on its heels, you know? It was important to me, because it’s the completion of that particular story. And then it goes all the way through, via “Prior Warning,” figuring stuff out, then “Dangerous Game” and “Better Off High,” and then thinking more philosophically in “Stone Catcher” and “Better Angels.” “Go in Light” is sort of the high point, I think—that’s the point where it’s like, “Okay, this is what freedom feels like, and this is what healing can feel like, musically, to me, on this record.” And then “How” is kind of like the epilogue. And I always knew that the question of forgiveness that was posed in “Cannibal” needed an answer by the time you got to the end of the record, and that answer wasn’t tied up in a bow, like, “Okay! I forgive you! And it’s fine!” And that’s as much to myself as to anyone else, by the way. But it’s more like, “This is my statement of intent, and I will forgive you. And I know that that’s a process, and it’s one that I go through left foot, right foot.” So that was the arc of the record.

Paste: What’s the philosophy you sing about on “Stone Catcher”? And lyrics like “It all slows down to lines in the sand”?

Mumford: Yeah, right. I think it was based on that theme and the way that Brian Stevenson had described it in his book, Just Mercy, which I was just obsessed with. And I spoke with Brian a lot over the last couple of years, and it’s a complete privilege to be able to say that he’s a friend, and a constant inspiration to me, honestly. And the way he described the idea of stone catching in his book is so beautiful, and it made me fascinated by the idea of studying the stories behind people who do horrible things, including myself, and being able to collect and connect the dots that might have led them to those choices, or those moments of acting out. And the idea that we could all have a bit more grace for each other—or he would call it just mercy—where, instead of condemning each other for the worst things we ever did or had done to us—we might be able to have more grace than that, and try to understand with a bit more compassion the stories behind some of the bad choices that we make. And that feels like a lesson that I can apply to my own life, as well as applying to the lives of people around me who might be acting out, or even people in public who present as kind of despicable. Behind most of those lives are stories that often start in childhood with trauma, so that these young developing brains behave are affected to the point where they will behave differently in moments of stress or violence or trauma that come later in their life. So I was fascinated by that on a macro and a micro level, and so I wrote to Brian and said, “Look, firstly, is this plagiarism? You’re a lawyer. And secondly, will you come play on it if it’s not?” And he did [play piano], and he spent a lot of time practicing during Covid, and leaned into it. So he came out and we had this magical day—it was a real highlight of the record-making process.

Paste: People forget or maybe romanticize it now. But in the early Covid days, it was incredibly dark and grim.

Mumford: Well, I had the privilege of having work to do, so Ted Lasso kept me motivated, kept me going in a lot of ways. And I had space, because we live in the countryside in the U.K. But for me, also, it provided an opportunity to connect with a place and have a sense of home for the first time since high school, really, because I’ve been traveling, really, since then, and never been home for longer than a month at a time, even with children. So we just moved around a lot, and that provided an enforced stillness, which for me at that time was an opportunity that I took, and I grabbed hold of, for some structure and routine. And that was just what I needed at that time, actually. So I looked at the positives. I think for some children, probably older children—eight- to 15-year olds—it was really challenging, and it was absolutely brutal not being able to engage with school friends or do the activities you enjoy. But for people with small children, like ours? We just got to be around them a lot more than we might have otherwise, which was good. And little kids just want to be around their folks, right?

Paste: “Dangerous Game” sounds like a caveat, a warning. Because the abyss stares also.

Mumford: Yes, that’s exactly right. Yeah, and there is some danger in it, and it does feel like a high-stakes game at times. But I think it’s one worth playing. And honestly, on most of this record, I got to connect with a playful nature in terms of music again, because it was outside of the big machinery of the band, where there’s quite a lot of pressure. But because it was outside of that realm, I think I was able to be curious and experimental and playful in a way that lots of artists do within their band structures more naturally than I might. And I think I might approach band life differently from now on. But I got to be really playful, and Blake was the perfect partner for that, because he’s so curious in terms of sound and performances, so I got to honestly concentrate on the details of recorded music in a way that I hadn’t before. We edited brutally, and some of the off cuts are dope—there’s a whole other record there. But this felt like the right one, and these are the right 10 songs, recorded in the right way, for now. So I learned to be confident in my choices, I learned to try to pursue hearing what I wanted to hear, and not put so much pressure on it that it feels like the only record you’ll ever make. I’ll make plenty more records after this. I have no idea what they’ll sound like, but it doesn’t all rely on this one. My whole life doesn’t rely on this one.

is out now on Capitol Records.

Watch a 2013 Mumford performance from the Paste archives below.