With riveting sounds and dreams, Spain’s Marem Ladson is constantly learning about herself through her music.
“Born,” the opener of Marem Ladson’s self-titled debut album, whirs with distant sounds: passing cars, a trumpet. Over this atmospheric hum of life, the songwriter harmonizes with her younger sister, Alicia, about the River Minho that crosses their hometown of Ourense, Galicia. “I was born by the river, where the wind, wind, blows,” the two sisters sing, their voices swelling in and through one another. Culled from a voice note that Ladson recorded in Ourense, “Born” is both an apt beginning to her first album, and to thinking about the songwriter’s forward-thinking folk music, both beyond her small hometown and in the current community she’s a part of in Madrid, Spain.
Growing up, Ladson heard R&B standards from her father, who hails from New York, at home. The sounds of otherworldly songwriters that would become lasting influences, such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, were passed on by her Spanish mother. On her own, Ladson became most involved in musical discovery through the Internet, and says she would spend hours scouring YouTube. “Then somehow I got into folk songwriters and I thought that was my thing,” she says over Skype. “I loved the sound of guitar.” Ladson picked up the guitar at age nine, drawn both to its resonance and to the possibilities that it held both for experimentation and as a vehicle for storytelling. “Growing up I feel like it was more than like my instrument, because I didn’t really know how to play it; It helped me write songs,” she says. “I used to write poems and short stories and then somehow I found a way to put both things together, music and lyrics.”
Ladson says that music became a way of processing her emotions, particularly when she was in school and faced challenges, such as bullying. “In school, it was complicated for me to hang out with other kids,” she says. “I felt like I was different somehow….it took me to write a song about that and how kids can be mean. That was the first time that I found out I could express my feelings through songs.” Then, at age 15, Ladson, reeling both from her parents’ divorce and her first breakup, went to live with some friends of her mother’s in Houston, Texas, for a year. The difference between her small city and a sprawling megalopolis proved to be vast. But when Ladson returned home, she started to take the music she’d been writing outside of herself. “During that year in Houston, I realized that I could write songs,” she says. “I felt like, ‘I can do this for real.’”
In Ourense, she started going to her first-ever shows at Café & Pop Torgal, a coffee shop that serves as one of the city’s preeminent spaces for live performance, and that also spawned an independent music festival in 2009. Ladson started going to the cafe almost every day, and there, she was exposed to performances from local artists, such as Os Amigos dos Músicos, and traveling musicians alike. Eventually she began performing there herself. “I remember going with my best friend, and being the youngest people in there,” she says. “I think it was something that nobody really expected, because I was, like, seventeen, and I was really interested in that kind of music.” Performing there, she says, “helped me get some self-confidence to play in front of people.”
After graduating from high school nearly four years ago, Ladson decamped to Madrid to study international relations, and has been there since. “I just wanted to learn about many things, about how the world works, about power, everything,” she says. She’s on the cusp of graduating, and intends to continue working as a musician—especially within Madrid’s ever-evolving and expansive musical community that’s fostered many young artists, and after having signed to the label Mont Ventoux. In Madrid, she’s part of an affirming scene that’s coalesced from disparate sounds: There, bands such as Hinds and The Parrots, along with Baywaves, and other groups, come together to support one another with their respective crafts. “It’s a very interesting fusion,” she says. “I think if you want to play, you can play. There’s a lot of opportunities.”
These experiences have been crucial, too, as Ladson released her debut earlier this year, and began touring for the album. With the exception of two numbers—the riveting “Shades of Blue” and “Everything I’ve Ever Lost”—the album has its roots in songs Ladson wrote in her teenage years. These reflective thoughts that gesture outward as well as inward. “Every time that I sit and write songs, I feel like I’m learning about myself.” she says. “It’s a thing that I do just for me.”