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On debut solo album, Marcus Mumford explores healing, mercy and forgiveness

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Marcus Mumford didn't set out to write a solo album.

MARCUS MUMFORD: I got to a point after some of the more intense lockdowns in COVID where I just wanted to write songs and see where they'd lead.

SUMMERS: For more than a decade, all of Mumford's albums had been with his band Mumford and Sons. But when he shared the new songs he'd been working on with the rest of the band...

MUMFORD: It was an individual conversation on the phone with each three of the band members at the time. And on each phone call, it was sort of like, yeah, this is a solo record. This has got to be a solo record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER OFF HIGH")

MUMFORD: (Singing) Better off high than dead when you are stripped bare.

SUMMERS: That debut solo album, called "Self-Titled," is out today. It's a deeply personal exploration - and just a note for listeners that we'll be talking about trauma and abuse. The album opens with a song called "Cannibal." It's about something that happened to Mumford as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANNIBAL")

MUMFORD: (Singing) I can still taste you, and I hate it. That wasn't a choice in the mind of a child, and you knew it.

MUMFORD: Yeah. It was a song I wrote at the beginning of 2021, having really gone through a process of healing, addressing a bunch of stuff that happened in my childhood that really began with an experience of sexual abuse when I was 6. And once I'd really started the healing process, the kind of weirdly natural thing for me in the next step was to write a song, which is such - like, my job is such a weird job. You take your most private and personal thoughts, and then you publicize them. It's just a weird job. But it was the right place to start for this record even though, I guess, my concern has been that it might represent to people that this is an album about trauma when it's not. It's an album about healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANNIBAL")

MUMFORD: (Singing) But when I began to tell, it became the hardest thing I ever said out loud.

SUMMERS: Do you feel more freedom now that this is out in the world?

MUMFORD: I don't feel freedom from the process of releasing the music, strangely. I think I'd done my work before the music got released. I had a friend who said, like, make sure you do all your work in private. Don't be processing your kind of deep psychological stuff on NPR...

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

MUMFORD: ...Which I think was good advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANNIBAL")

MUMFORD: (Singing) If I could forgive you now, as if saying the words will help me know how.

SUMMERS: You've also said that this song opened the door for a conversation that you had never had before with your mother about the childhood abuse you experienced. How did that happen?

MUMFORD: Well, my parents moved in with us during COVID. And the room they were living in is next door to my studio. And the walls are pretty thick, but you can hear kind of rhythm and a bit of melody through the walls. So she hears it through - oh, darling, that sounds lovely, you know? And can I hear it? And I'm in this place where I'm owning this story and, you know, well on my way on the process of healing. I'm like, sure, you can come hear it. I mean, it was a confusing and slightly comical situation because I thought I told her about it, and I hadn't. Then, you know, we get through the initial part of this conversation. And for her, it's challenging because as a mother, her instinct is to protect and defend, of course, and love. But once I was able to show her that I was OK and not in denial about being OK but genuinely OK, we could both look at it as quite funny that I somehow chose to tell her this news in a song of all places. That is objectively quite funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS MUMFORD SONG, "CANNIBAL")

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about another song on the album, the song "Stonecatcher" that features Phoebe Bridgers. When I listen to it, it seems to be a song about justice and reconciliation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONECATCHER")

MUMFORD: (Singing) Who am I, rambling in my reflection in the rear-view light?

SUMMERS: Can you tell us about it?

MUMFORD: It started as a song about mercy. I had read Bryan Stevenson's book many years ago, "Just Mercy."

SUMMERS: Yeah, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, right?

MUMFORD: Yeah. And he built the Museum of Slavery in Montgomery, Ala., and the memorial to the victims of lynching there. And so I wrote this song, really, in response to his book. And I sent it to him with two questions. I said, firstly, you're the lawyer. Is this plagiarism? And secondly, if it's not, will you come play piano on it? So he said, thankfully, no, it's not plagiarism. I love this song, and I will come and play piano on it. So he came and played piano - he's a beautiful, soulful piano player - and just sort of came alongside in a similar way to some of these other people who were involved in the making of what has to be called a solo record because I come from a band context. But really, it's the most collaborative piece of music I've ever worked on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONECATCHER")

MARCUS MUMFORD AND PHOEBE BRIDGERS: (Singing) Oh, my God. We're here again.

SUMMERS: It is interesting to me to hear you say that the process of creating this record was the most collaborative experience you've had given that you've spent years as a part of an incredibly popular band.

MUMFORD: Absolutely. But it's mostly with the same list of characters. So really, in January '21, my conversation with the band was like, I want to go and write with other people because I don't think creativity should be monogamous. I don't. I think change is helpful and beautiful. And honestly, for me, part of the joy of this record has been collaborating with women again because honestly, every time I hit a wall, it was a woman who came along and lifted me over it. So it was Brandi Carlile. I played her two songs, and she said, I'll do anything it takes to help you. And the next day she came and helped me finish the last song on the record, which I'd already started and was in rough shape until she showed up and she got me over that hump.

SUMMERS: I have to confess to you that it is my favorite song on your entire album. It's called "How." And I thought that when I listened to it, there seemed to be a really strong sense of clarity.

MUMFORD: Yeah, there's clarity in it for sure, in the writing. It's purpose-led. And the control she has in her harmony at the end of the performance of that song - it's a baller move, at the end of a live take, to sing the line that she sings...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW")

MARCUS MUMFORD AND BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) And I have reckoned with what you've taken from me. And I killed that liar in my head.

MUMFORD: ...Because it's the kind of line that could so easily go wrong that you'd have to rerecord the whole thing again to get a live take. But she sang it. And I think that's symbolic of the spirit of strength and optimism that she brought to that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW")

MUMFORD: (Singing) But I'll forgive you now, release you from all of the blame I know how.

SUMMERS: I have to imagine, now that you're putting out this solo album, your fans are poring over all of it and all over your social media for clues. So in service to the fans, I've got to ask you, what's next for Mumford and Sons?

MUMFORD: I mean, that's a fairly simple one because the conversation amongst what are now three of us rather than four of us is like, let's get in a room next year. Let's play each other the songs we've written over the last little while. I've written a bunch for the band that I'm really excited to share with them. That's what's next for me, so - and I'm kind of excited about it, honestly. And they are, too. It's going to be good.

SUMMERS: Marcus Mumford, thank you so much.

MUMFORD: Thanks, Juana.

SUMMERS: Marcus Mumford's debut solo album is called "Self-Titled."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER ANGELS")

MUMFORD: (Singing) Dawn hits... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.