The idea was simple, if ambitious, said Marina Diamandis.
For her second album under the name Marina and the Diamonds, this Welsh singer set out to critique the homogenizing effects of the commercial pop system — with its professional songwriters and producers hired to make singles for a rotating cast of stars — while using that very system to widen her fan base.
The result, 2012's "Electra Heart," worked as planned. Featuring collaborations with hitmakers such as Dr. Luke, Diplo and Greg Kurstin, the album made a bigger splash than the first Marina and the Diamonds record, entering the British chart at No. 1 and earning a then-coveted placement on Fox's "Glee" for the song "How to Be a Heartbreaker." What's more, Diamandis was grabbing ears with music poking fun at pop's dependence on certain female archetypes — see also "Primadonna" and "Bubblegum Bitch."
Yet that undercover work took a toll, the singer said recently. She grew tired of being misunderstood by people who didn't realize she was in on the joke. And she burned out on working piecemeal with other songwriters — a process that led to the creation of one track, "Lies," by a crew of four people who never met in real life.
"Within a few weeks, I just realized, 'This isn't for me,'" she said.
Three years later, Diamandis has taken a different approach for the new Marina and the Diamonds album, "Froot." Written entirely by the singer and co-produced by her and David Kosten, the record trades the knowing characterizations of "Electra Heart" for more personal material about relationships and self-fulfillment. Sonically too, it's more intimate, with lots of tolling piano and dreamy guitar. (Think Kate Bush, not Katy Perry.)
Not that she's disappeared from view: "Froot" debuted last month inside the top 10 of Billboard's album chart, and Marina and the Diamonds are on the bill for the high-profile Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, happening the next two weekends in Indio. But her goal this time, she insisted, wasn't to keep up with the competition. Instead, she was trying to reclaim some space for the individual.
At first, that meant working by herself. Diamandis wrote the bulk of the album at home in London, a willful shift from the songwriting-by-committee she'd done for "Electra Heart."
"I'm not against co-writing," she said in an interview last month at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, where Marina and the Diamonds played several gigs. "I'm just against that kind of corporate co-writing." Big songs today, she went on, seem designed expressly to get on American radio, with input from reliable specialists brought on for their rhythmic ability or their flair for melody.
"It's grim. Pop should be unpredictable and experimental and thought-provoking," she said. "But our industry isn't encouraging that at all."
With 14 songs completed, Diamandis booked three months of studio time with Kosten, a British producer she admired for his work with the cerebral art-pop act Bat for Lashes. Her idea, she told him, was to have him record the songs "as though I were a band."
"If you're a girl and you look a certain way, the world just assumes you should have lots of electronic, synthetic stuff in your production," she said. For "Froot," though, she was after something closer to the sound of her live show. So Kosten recruited his friend Jason Cooper from the Cure to play drums along with two members of Manchester's Everything Everything to play guitar and bass.
In the studio they followed the music wherever it led, Kosten said. "I remember once being like, 'This is a great pop song, but hang on, it's 6 1/2 minutes long,'" he recalled. Yet the producer added that Diamandis' singing ensured that the music was always clearly communicating each song's emotion — a priority, he sensed, given the confusion some listeners experienced with "Electra Heart."
For "Happy," the stripped-down ballad that opens "Froot," Kosten convinced her to sing without any effects on her voice. "At first I was like, 'Oh, God no — we need some reverb!'" Diamandis remembered. But the decision was a good one; the song draws you in immediately to the singer's world.
"It's very, very real," she said. "It could be your friend singing right next to you."
If that confessional quality puts Marina and the Diamonds in slightly different company than last time around, don't assume that Diamandis has lost her interest in the theatrical side of show business. In Austin, she excitedly showed off pictures of a new stage setup she'll perform with for the first time at Coachella.
The concept, she said, is "neon nature — fusing artifice with natural elements." Look out for pink AstroTurf covering the stage and a number of massive prop fruit "in inverted colors with lights inside them so they'll glow."
Her new album may foster the idea that Diamandis is "this singer-songwriter scrawling away in my room at night," she said with a laugh. "But I can't walk around in a white T-shirt and some jeans just to be taken seriously."