The Secret at the Heart of Marcus Mumford’s New Solo Album

The Mumford & Sons frontman talks about bottoming out, plumbing his past, and finding his way forward.

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Last year, ​​Marcus Mumford was at the home in Devon, England, he shares with his wife, the actor Carey Mulligan, and their two children, recording a new song. It was a time, or just after a time, during which “my life was slightly falling apart,” Mumford told me recently. There was the obvious stuff: a pandemic; a change in management for his band, Mumford & Sons; the impending departure from the group of one of his oldest friends, banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. And then there was the less obvious stuff, which is what he was in his home studio trying to work through. “My parents live next door,” Mumford said. “They moved in with us at the beginning of COVID and can hear through the wall, like, basically rhythm and melody.”

This may be your experience of Mumford & Sons, too, one of the last remaining commercial juggernauts of the past decade: propulsive, anthemic, overtly sincere folk music overheard, if not deliberately listened to, in too many places to name or recollect. Mumford, the group’s principal songwriter, is aware of the sometimes skeptical popular conception of his very popular band, which he wearily summarizes as “banjos and waistcoats.” (They used to employ a lot of both.) But he’s also clear-eyed about what has brought Mumford & Sons so much success, which is a counterintuitively simple idea: They aim to show people a good time. “Mumford & Sons is supposed to be fun,” he told me. “We might take you to church—but we’ll also take you to the fair.”

But this song that he was working on at home was not that, exactly, even though, through the wall, it might’ve sounded that way to his mother, who soon came by. “I know the chords she likes,” Mumford said. “So she hears it through the walls, like, ‘That sounds nice. Can I come hear it?’ ”

The song is called “Cannibal,” and it would become the first single from what would become Mumford’s first solo record. It’s about something awful that happened to Mumford, a thing he’s still trying to figure out how to talk about with other people. But the song is so direct, so pointed, so explicitly about what it’s about—“I can still taste you and I hate it / That wasn’t a choice in the mind of a child and you knew it,” is how it begins—that there is no other place to start. “Like lots of people—and I’m learning more and more about this as we go and as I play it to people—I was sexually abused as a child,” Mumford told me during the first few minutes of the first real conversation we ever had. He was six years old at the time. “Not by family and not in the church, which might be some people’s assumption. But I hadn’t told anyone about it for 30 years.”

Including his mother, though somehow, in his head, he’d skipped over that fact when he played her “Cannibal.” “The power of the mind, man,” Mumford said ruefully. Anyway, she listened thoughtfully and left. “Couple days later,” Mumford said, she came back: “ ‘Can I ask what that song’s about?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s about the abuse thing.’ She was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ So once we get through the trauma of that moment for her, as a mother, hearing that and her wanting to protect and help and all that stuff, it’s objectively fucking hilarious to tell your mom about your abuse in a fucking song, of all things.”

And this is the nature of trauma, of childhood itself, of that moment when your life veers suddenly toward something scary or sad or indescribable—it shapes you forever, but it can also be generative, funny, random, a thing to write a song about. Grist for an artist who was already an artist. A story about nothing being a tidy story. Eventually, Mumford decided to make “Cannibal” the first song on the record. “I felt like it had to go first,” he told me. “I started sort of apologizing for it, in my head. But it’s like: That’s not right, either.” And so “Grace,” the song he ended up writing about the conversation he had with his mother about track one? That would become track two.

One warm morning in June, Mumford drove us up the Pacific Coast Highway in an SUV big enough to fit a longboard, which he tries to ride most mornings when he’s in Los Angeles. “You’re quite a trusting passenger,” he said. “Some people get freaked out, being driven by a Brit.” Like his band, Mumford has the earnest, attentive vibe of a people pleaser, and he maintained an almost meditative commentary on how he was feeling about my presence at various times. “I don’t really feel the need to try and impress you,” he said. There was a time, he continued, when an interaction like this would’ve consumed him: “Probably overthinking, replaying conversations, spending a lot of time and energy thinking about what you thought of me. And now, with the greatest respect in the world, I just don’t care as much.”

Eventually, we pulled over and found a picnic table with a view of the ocean. Mumford, who is 35, slid off his shoes and walked barefoot through the rocky parking lot. Mumford grew up in England, near Wimbledon, but he’s technically from California. “I always felt like I had this kind of slightly other life, because I was born here and had family here,” he said. His parents, who are English, came to Southern California in the 1980s to work with Vineyard Churches, an evangelical congregation with musical ties (it’s where Bob Dylan went in the late 1970s, after he found Jesus). Mumford describes it as “nondenominational. Fairly biblical, I should think. They get called lots of other things. But that’s how they describe themselves.”

His parents soon moved back to England to build a Vineyard chapter, and Mumford grew up in the middle of a fast-growing church outside London that would eventually reach more than 15,000 members across the U.K. and Ireland. “Lots of people around all the time,” he said. “I was watching my folks at the center of attention and, I think, dealing with that really well. But it did provide some element of training for what I chose to do.”

Mumford is still a believer, in a universal kind of way—“It’s pretty much a cornerstone in my life,” he told me—though he left the church when he was a teenager: “My dad said to me, ‘You shouldn’t come to this church anymore. You should go to a different place. You don’t want to be the pastors’ kid everywhere.’ ” But the church blueprint—winning converts, building a community—would help provide the model for Mumford & Sons. “I like the social aspect of music, and how it brings people together,” Mumford said. “And the congregational aspect of it.”

Mumford began writing songs in earnest during his first and only year at the University of Edinburgh, where he was lonely, studied classics, and spent his weekends commuting into London to watch other neo-folk artists like Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale perform. Soon he was playing drums for and touring with Marling, which gave him the courage to quit school; not long after, he formed Mumford & Sons with Marshall (who Mumford met in church), Ben Lovett (a childhood friend), and Ted Dwane (an upright bass player). They had unfashionable influences, like the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and Mumford threaded his lyrics with references to Shakespeare and Steinbeck and the books he’d studied in school. “I remember I was obsessed with T.S. Eliot,” he told me. “Man, that was some really shameful lyrical behavior from me.” But they had an easy way with melody; 100-foot-tall choruses; and a dynamic, effortful live show; and they quickly built a giant and diffuse audience.

Sigh No More, the band’s 2009 debut, released two years after they’d first formed, was a significant hit, selling more than 1 million copies in the U.K. and over 3 million in the U.S. Most of this success came while the band was on the road: “We just said yes to every gig we got offered.” Mumford said he struggles to recall much of this time. “I don’t think I was hugely present in those really intense years of the band’s touring. I was always thinking about the next thing.” In 2013, the band headlined Glastonbury and won Album of the Year at the Grammys for its second studio record, Babel; Mumford has little to no memory of either event. “I remember we mocked Justin Bieber in the elevator at the Grammys,” he said. “We were quite cunty, and not massively present.”

It was a strange and polarizing phenomenon, four guys with old-timey instruments and vaguely period dress having a zeitgeist moment. “I think we weren’t particularly trying to be a cool band,” Mumford told me. “We were trying to be a band that connected with people.” But many people, especially music critics and journalists, listen to music to feel vaguely oppositional, or to define a particular subculture they’d like to be part of; Mumford & Sons were trying to appeal to literally everyone, which is paradoxically one of the most alienating things a band can do. “We were somewhat responding to the ’90s Brit-pop tribalism that happened, that we all grew up with,” Mumford said. “It was what the cool kids were doing, which was hating on each other. And saying how shit the other person was, really publicly. And I think we were probably the generation on from that. We were interested in the way that people came together in seemingly quite random places and situations.”

Mumford & Sons at the Standon Calling music festival in 2009.Mumford & Sons at the Standon Calling music festival in 2009.

Their interest in pulling people together made a lot of other people want to tear them apart. (Liam Gallagher, the singer of Oasis and as pure a representative of ’90s Brit-pop tribalism as exists in this world, did not miss his chance to hate on Mumford & Sons: “Everyone looks like they’ve got fucking nits.”) “I made a point of not reading stuff as much as I could,” Mumford said, about the vehemence of the response the band sometimes provoked. “But it filtered through. And, I think it made me feel defensive. I think a few years ago it hurt more than it would now. Partly because of age, recovery, whatever it is. But…I can also see their point.”

Mumford & Sons’ most recent record was 2018’s Delta, and it marked the end of a 10-year stretch that Mumford remembers both fondly and a little warily. “At times we treated it like a constant party,” he said. “You’re in this role of hosting, wanting everyone to feel good, people-pleasing for me. And I leant pretty heavily into booze and picked up some probably addictive behaviors around booze that I think are totally natural given the opportunity there that I needed to address. And, fuck, I’m so glad I have; I don’t have any regrets around that stuff. I’m not into sort of even judging past behaviors. But I leant into it pretty heavy. I think everyone did, really.”

One of Mumford’s bandmates, Ben Lovett, described Delta as being about “the four D’s: death, divorce, drugs, and depression.” When I mentioned this to Mumford, he recoiled: “I fucking hate that.” He grimaced again. “That’s a terrible description for a record. Who wants to fucking listen to that?” But Mumford was struggling—with alcohol, with certain eating habits, with “trying to find connection in the wrong places”—and in the summer of 2019, some of the people around him intervened. “I was at the point where, basically, I’d hit enough of a rock bottom that I was ready to surrender,” Mumford said. “I’d had the people closest to me hold up a mirror and say, like, ‘Dude, something’s not right here and it’s your responsibility to go figure it out.’ ”

So he went to figure it out. He found a therapist who specialized in trauma, and in their second conversation he found himself talking about what happened to him as a kid for the first time since it happened, and as soon as he did that he began to throw up. “Apparently, it’s very common,” Mumford said, “once you basically unhook the denial and start the process of removing some suppression, then it’s very natural for that stuff to come out. I’d had problems breathing all my life. Not asthma but just, like, catching my breath.” All of a sudden, he knew why. He started connecting other dots too: “That thing that happened when I was six, that was the first of a string of really unusual, unhealthy sexual experiences at a really early age. And for some reason, and I can’t really understand why, I didn’t become a perpetrator of sexual abuse—although I’ve done my fair share of cuntish behavior.” He now thought that maybe he could see how it all fit together: “String of really unhealthy shit when I was under the age of 12, which set my brain up in a way to deal with stuff later on in life in an imbalanced way. And so the last three years has just been trying to look at that and correct some balance.”

First he cut out drinking, and then he cut out some unhealthy habits around food, because the doctor told him his health and his future were at risk if he didn’t. He sought advice from people like Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and someone who has studied childhood trauma (one song on Mumford’s new record, “Stonecatcher,” is directly inspired by Stevenson; Stevenson ended up playing a little piano on the song, too). Mumford was trying to undo “learned behaviors and ways of interacting with the world that just, like, needed tuning up,” he told me. “And a part of that for me was wrapped up in, like, overindulging with booze and with food, and part of my journey has been, like, addressing the food stuff, because I leant into it. I quit booze, I didn’t lose any weight for a year, because I just replaced the booze with ice cream, right?”

COVID hit, and he found himself at home in Devon with an opportunity to “reset, reprioritize, take responsibility, and be still. I hadn’t had a sense of place around home since I left high school.” He worked on the farm he and his wife maintain: lambing, tractor work, stacking bales of hay. Getting used to whatever life was going to be like now. Accepting a kind of indeterminacy around it all. “Nothing’s tied up in a bow,” he told me.

Not long after his first conversations with the trauma specialist, Mumford began writing songs for, well, something—he didn’t know what. When he played the first two for his bandmates, they gently told him: maybe a solo record. Mumford & Sons was in a period of transition anyway: “The band was in the middle of changing management,” Mumford said. And in June 2021, Marshall theatrically quit. Marshall, who explained the reasons for his departure in a Medium post, had been steadily getting into conservative provocateurs like Jordan Peterson—with whom he and the other members of Mumford & Sons, minus Mumford, had been photographed in 2018—and Andy Ngo, whom Marshall praised on Twitter. Marshall later apologized for the latter, but it was too late, he wrote: “Another viral mob came after me, this time for the sin of apologising. Then followed libellous articles calling me ‘right-wing’ and such.” Quitting the band would allow Marshall to protect his old friends while still speaking his mind. “I could remain and continue to self-censor but it will erode my sense of integrity,” he wrote.

Mumford was visibly uncomfortable when I asked about Marshall’s departure. “I actually really begged him not to leave,” he told me. He said he didn’t share many of Marshall’s beliefs. “But I think you can disagree and work together.” That morning, I’d looked at Marshall’s Twitter account, where he’d been commenting on various social and political issues, often skeptically; “this trans activism has gone way too far,” he wrote in one tweet. I asked if Mumford was surprised at his friend’s turn toward this type of thinking. “I just don’t think it’s the job of musicians to have all those thoughts,” Mumford said, wearily. “And I think Win probably agrees. I don’t know. But I should think he probably agrees. Which is part of the reason why he wanted to quit. Because he felt like his priorities couldn’t align in the way he wanted to speak about things and live life. He wanted to do a different thing. And that’s why I support him doing a different thing. Even though we disagree on a lot. A lot. And more now.”

Disagree with his politics?

“With a lot of it, yeah. And the way of interacting. This is why I love Bryan Stevenson. And this is why I don’t like Jordan Peterson. One of the reasons. It’s the way of interacting with the world. I think grace matters in the way that you talk with people. I think if you present like a cunt and you are an angry man, particularly at this time, an angry, older, white man—I’m just fucking bored of it, man. We need grace. So, I, you know, I don’t want to get into an argument with these guys at all. It just feels like a zero-sum game. A race to the bottom. Boring. Mostly it’s boring. And mostly it’s not my job.”

Mumford & Sons would go on, Mumford said, as a trio: He was excited to see what the change might unlock for them. But first, Mumford left his family in Devon and flew to Los Angeles to make the solo record his bandmates had encouraged him to make. He enlisted the veteran producer Blake Mills and some of the greatest session musicians of all time—Jim Keltner, Steve Ferrone, Pino Palladino—and together they set up at Sound City, the legendary studio in the Valley where Tom Petty and Nirvana used to record. Lots of people came by, some of whom never ended up on the record, like Finneas and Ezra Koenig and Cass McCombs, and many of whom did: Phoebe Bridgers, Brandi Carlile, Clairo, Monica Martin.

The third song on the record is called “Prior Warning,” and it’s about an unhappy conversation—a reckoning, even:

Each word is a cut that I see coming

I clench my fists as I’m inflicting them

And now I’m running out of parts that I can play

Not the hero, not the dodger, not the preachers’ son

You ask me why I’d want to break the very thing I love the most

You knew I couldn’t answer plainly

Then you knelt down on the ground

Like you were drawing in the sand

And I surrender

I surrender now

It is a song about shame: about doing something you’ve regretted, that you can’t explain or take back. I told Mumford that sometimes, as I drove around listening to it, that the directness of the sadness and the self-loathing was hard to bear.

He said he understood. “You know, I’ve realized I’ve written a lot about shame in my songs, historically. And that one I think I’ve done it best in. Because it makes you feel like that.” He may not have wanted shame to be his great subject, he said, but it was so much a part of the fabric of his life for so long that, in retrospect, it’s no surprise he kept writing about it. “I lived most of my adult life up until just really recently in, like, layers of shame. And it probably started there when I was six, but I just got kind of addicted to shame, layers and layers of shame, which is why I feel now like I’ve done lots of figuring that out. And some of the areas in which I was trying to make that shame go away just led to more shame for me. And now being able to pick those apart a little bit and, like, chip away at the layers of it is why I feel kind of free, more free than I have in a long time.”

What does it mean to be addicted to shame? As in, you were seeking out that feeling?

“No, more like…existing with that feeling at a level of normality which is not right.” Holding himself to an impossible standard. “Having unreasonable expectations and getting used to hiding things, which is certainly a behavior I picked up as a young kid. And that just being kind of normal. And, in a strange way, comfortable. But I also really believe in and strive for honesty. So that creates a conflict in itself. It’s where I’ve spent a lot of my adult life. Until recently. And I think that’s part of the reason why, like, I’m not second-guessing my conversation with you. I haven’t got anything to hide from you.”

Over 10 songs, the record moves from anger toward something like acceptance—circling forgiveness, if never actually quite arriving at it. On “Cannibal,” Mumford asks: “Help me know how to begin again.” He said that during the last bit of mixing for the record, he and Mills were looping the song, checking the levels of the vocal, when Mumford burst into tears. Mills “walked around behind me, he put his hands on my shoulders, and he leant his head, his forehead on my back. And didn’t try and stop me crying, didn’t do that annoying thing people do where they try and wipe your tears or whatever. He just let it happen. And it felt really symbolic of the process of making this record, because it was, like: No one’s going to do it for you. But we’re all going to be here and support you through it.”

One day I met Mumford for breakfast at his hotel in Los Angeles—he’d played some of his new songs at a Spotify thing in the South of France, a kind of VIP event, and then flown here. “You gotta grease the wheels,” he said. “But it’s just a strange environment to start things off. Kendrick Lamar played and he was so tired. He wasn’t having the best time of his life.”

Because of jet lag, Mumford had risen early and decided to go surf, out on the Malibu coast west of where we’d last talked. “It was amazing,” he said. Later in the day, he was scheduled to play his album for a collection of journalists and industry folks. Then he’d join Brandi Carlile for two shows at the Greek, where he would be a surprise guest. On Sunday, he was scheduled to go to Joni Mitchell’s house to just jam with her and a bunch of other folks—“It’s a completely, completely wild experience,” he said—which he’d done once before (he sang “My Funny Valentine” and messed up the lyrics…in front of Chaka Khan). Maybe he’d get a tattoo while he was in town, he said. He showed me on his phone what he was contemplating, which was a painting of Pythia, the mythological priestess known as the Oracle of Delphi. At her temple are two inscriptions, Mumford said: “ ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing to excess.’ Which I think more and more are really true.”

He pulled up both sleeves to show me some of the other tattoos he already has, images borrowed from Rembrandt and Botticelli, above his elbows. Inked on his right shoulder was a sketch of an Academy Award, in tribute to his wife. He and Mulligan first met at Bible camp when they were 12. “There’s a photo of us that first summer we met, and I’ve got bleached blond hair.” They reconnected as adults, and married in 2012. “Early on in our marriage, we said to each other, Let’s make our marriage the priority in our lives. Because the odds are stacked against us. Let’s make that our great work, and everything else can come from that, right?”

The record is dedicated to her: There is a photo of the two of them, leaning up against each other, in the album’s liner notes. But he also said they’d found that marriage wasn’t always easy. “I don’t think it’s like, you reach a destination and then you celebrate. I was brought up in a fairly conservative Christian home, and in that culture—and I hope you don’t hear me blaming anything or anyone for this, because I really am not—but in that culture, marriage is seen as the destination that you’re aiming for. If you can get there—if you can basically spend your teenage years not wanking too much and your 20s not fucking too much—you get to marriage and everything will be cool. And that’s just totally not my experience. The reason I think people don’t stay married is because they don’t realize how much work it takes.”

But why an Academy Award, I asked?

“We had a tattoo bet in COVID,” Mumford said. Mulligan’s last film, Promising Young Woman, was supposed to come out in early 2020. But the film’s release date was postponed on account of the pandemic. “So they just kept doing press,” Mumford said, “but it kept getting pushed, and the more press she did, more people saw it, were like, ‘This is fucking dope, this might get nominated for an Oscar.’ ”

So they were stuck at home, on Zoom every day. “And I said, ‘Look, let’s just make this interesting. At this point, if you don’t get nominated for an Oscar, you have to be punished. You have to get an Oscar tattoo.’ And so the agreement was if she did get nominated, then I would get the Oscar tattoo. And she did get nominated. And I got myself an Oscar, which I’m thrilled with.”

Also on his arm is the word “grace,” written in Greek. The concept of grace is a constant in Mumford’s lyrics: seeking it, falling short of it. “Yeah, I think that’s right,” he said. “And I think a lot of that was a product of being kind of addicted to shame and being stuck in that. And now I’m able to see that comes from some early shit that no one knew about and I had never looked at. So I could now, because when you say that, of course I’m able to go, like, ‘Oh, yeah. I recognize that I’ve sung about those things for a long time.’ I hadn’t really thought about that. But now I kind of know why. And, uh, fuck! What am I gonna write about now?”

Zach Baron is GQ’s senior staff writer.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of GQ with the title “Marcus Mumford’s Secret and Salvation”

Photographs by Dana Scruggs
Styling by Mobolaji Dawodu
Grooming by Kumi Craig using La Mer at The Wall Group 
Tailoring by Alberto Rivera at Lars Nord Studio

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