Marina Lambrini Diamandis plans to be a pop superstar. She's just not quite there yet. The frontwoman of British pop outfit Marina and the Diamonds is unequivocally beautiful — half-Welsh and half-Greek, with dark brown locks and deep-set eyes. Her voice is modern and mesmerizing; it wavers between low-octave brooding and high-pop yelps, carrying hints of Florence and the Machine and Kate Nash. She composes orchestral ballads and repetitive dance-pop on piano and organ, and writes deceptively evocative lyrics masked in sticky-sweet sentiments. The songs on her debut album, The Family Jewels (released in May), sound like pop-soaked LiveJournal entries, full of self-doubt, protofeminist musings, and overarching dreams of stardom. So it's difficult to completely believe her when she claims to love playing to intimate crowds — especially when she says later, only half-joking, "I hate this waiting. I just want to be massive!"
Diamandis knew she wanted to be a performer since her childhood in the small medieval town of Abergavenny, Wales. Being so removed, she learned of music only through television, becoming a massive Madonna fan. In her late teens, she discovered female indie-rockers like P.J. Harvey, whose music encouraged her to have a strong voice. But she continues to seek mainstream stardom. "I want to be a pop artist, not an alternative artist," she says firmly. "I haven't done it yet, but I have a plan."
Though she refuses to divulge said plan, it likely includes continuing her streak of smart hyperpop ballads, clever videos, and theatrical live shows. She expects to rise on her own terms: Despite the theatrics, Diamandis feels her music injects some intelligence into pop culture. "I'm obsessed with how pop culture has declined over the past 10 years, as people think it should be dumbed down," she says. "I feel like I have a responsibility to show that not everything is an Auto-Tuned pile of songs."
Her goals, then, are nothing less than lofty. On the regal uptempo jam "Are You Satisfied," the first track from Family Jewels, Diamandis asks questions that seem to be directed at herself: "Are you satisfied with an average life?" It's a transparent bit of soul-searching for an artist who could be on the verge of megastardom.
The fluctuating tempo of "I Am Not a Robot" makes for another introspective high point. "It's about the feeling of being dehumanized and out of touch with humanity," Diamandis explains. The video is breathtaking — as she tells it, filmmakers Rankin and Chris Cottam "came up with idea of tattooing the whole body with diamonds." In the video, her face is completely covered in shiny, glittering particles. After a musical intro, her eyes and mouth suddenly pop open as she announces, "Guess what? I'm not a robot."
At this point, we need to talk about Lady Gaga. Yes, Diamandis sometimes dresses in flamboyant costumes, boasts a different sound from the cookie-cutter pop stars of yore, writes her own songs, and has a great nickname for her fans (they are the "diamonds" of Marina and the Diamonds, as Gaga has her "little monsters"). But this is where the similarities end. Gaga has made millions with clever pop music, but as Diamandis sees it, Gaga still uses sex to sell records. Lady Gaga "has been a really positive thing for pop music, but I think she's had to make compromises that spoil the illusions of art," Diamandis says. "But you've got to do what you want to do — she definitely has guts."
Perhaps Diamandis may be Gaga's as-yet-underdeveloped weirdo pop-queen heir, but when asked if she thinks she will compromise her own art for, say, a chance at world pop domination, she laughs self-consciously: Absolutely not, she insists: "I've already had to compromise success because I'm not a straight pop act. I'm not always radio-friendly."
In the U.K, Diamandis has already achieved moderate fame, having been declared No. 2 on the BBC's critics' and writers' Sound of 2010 list. She even recently headlined a side stage at the Leeds Festival. But BBC Radio One still hasn't aired her music because, Marina says, it doesn't fit in the regular pop mold.
So Diamandis is now taking her show stateside. She recently embarked on her first proper U.S. tour, though she has played San Francisco once before. "[Last time] was amazing," she drawls in her prim British accent. "But we were staying in a dodgy area" in the Tenderloin. "It was scary, really edgy ... but I'm looking forward to coming back." Diamandis returns this week to play the Independent, a club that would seem below her selling point — or, at least, it will be soon if her career follows its intended course.