Marcella Simien readies debut EP in welcoming new home of Memphis
by Chris Herrington | Commercial Appeal | November 6, 2014
If modern Memphis music is any one thing — and it isn’t, but play along — it’s not a sound. It’s not blues or soul or garage rock or rap. But it might be a perspective on the past.
Austin and Nashville (even in its classier “Americana” form) imply a sound. New Orleans’ more cross-cultural gumbo has a specific flavor. Memphis implies an attitude. True to its musical crossroads/melting-pot heritage, the city continues to both lure and develop musicians who are grounded in tradition but who interlace various roots strands in ornery or idiosyncratic ways. Resistance to commonality is itself a common denominator.
One of the latest and most interesting embodiments of this civic spirit is an accordion-playing 23-year-old Louisianan of Creole ancestry and zydeco upbringing who loves singing Brian Eno and Outkast songs. Meet Marcella Simien, though chances are you already have.
Simien, who graduated from Memphis College of Art in May, has become a familiar figure on the local music scene, typically playing multiple times a week at various venues in various forms. She can regularly be found at the piano at Mollie Fontaine Lounge or with her three-or-four-piece backing band, Marcella & Her Lovers, at Bar DKDC. Last week, she played a Memphis Music Showcase concert Thursday at Lafayette’s Music Room as part of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, then played DKDC on Friday night and the 2014 finale of the Memphis Rock-n-Romp on Saturday afternoon.
That kind of performance schedule is not unusual.
“For me, it was just getting heard and wanting to make this my primary source of income,” Simien says. “It’s becoming my profession, and for me to do that here, I have to play often. I have to find the regular gigs and stay in people’s faces.”
But after more than a year of steady local gigging, Simien is now embarking on the next step.
“I’ve been here five years, but I wasn’t able to focus on music. But now that I’ve had a year out of school, we were able to get (together) something concrete.”
That’s The Bronze Age, a debut EP recorded with noted producer Scott Bomar at his South Main-based Electraphonic Recording studio, which Simien will make available starting with a Friday record-release show at DKDC.
After that, “the goal is to travel and tour and do this on a larger scale as much as possible, regionally and nationally,” Simien says. “We’re getting a tour together for the spring.”
It’s a familiar story, but one Simien is pursuing with more grounding than most. She’s the only child of noted zydeco musician Terrance Simien (Marcella sang on her dad’s Grammy-winning 2013 albumDockside Sessions). With her mother, Cynthia, as her dad’s booking agent and business manager, Simien grew up watching her parents navigate the music business.
This afforded some interesting experiences: Marcella played piano with Fats Domino before grade school, discovered her father drinking and singing in the kitchen with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo as an adolescent and had dinner with Bob Dylan as a young teen.
But because her father was a success but not quite a star and her parents typically worked the business independently, it provided a realistic model for what a music career might mean.
“My dad’s been playing zydeco music the past 30 years. He was pretty much at the beginning of his career when I was born,” Simien says. “So I got to see him grow as an artist and got to experience (a life in music) through him. My mom’s been helping a lot with our booking. She’s been a wealth of knowledge, and we’re so lucky to have them to help us and guide us through this thing.”
“On the one hand, we all dream of playing huge gigs and going on national television,” says Rory Mills Sullivan, Marcella’s drummer, partner and co-writer, who’d previously played with local indie bands such as Augustine and El Dorado & the Ruckus. “But being around Terrance and Cynthia, you realize there’s also the part where you get up at 5 in the morning and go to the local news station and hang out and play in towns you’ve never heard of before and you can make a living that’s not cleaning floors or waiting tables. You’re doing music, but in a such a way that maybe you don’t dream of as a kid.”
Simien’s musical upbringing is also part of what brought her to Memphis. While Memphis College of Art gave her the best scholarship offer of the schools where she applied, she was also already familiar with the city.
“My mom and I used to make trips here a lot. She was on the Recording Academy board, and she would take me with her. I would miss school and see the city. It was great.”
“She associated Memphis with skipping school,” Sullivan says, laughing.
It was on those trips, as a kid, that Simien first made connections with the Memphis music scene, including Bomar, whom she remembers as the cool guy on the Grammy board. And it was in Memphis, later, that Simien began to find her way musically.
As a teen in Lafayette, she played around some with musicians who would coalesce into the successful indie band Givers, but she never got into the local zydeco/Cajun scene.
“I wasn’t ready for the accordion then. I didn’t start playing (it) until I got here,” Simien says. “Dad gave me one and taught me two songs at my first place on Tucker. When I was homesick, it was my connection.”
Simien’s first local performances featured just her and the accordion, doing unexpected covers (blues/jazz great Nina Simone, punk band the Buzzcocks) between rock bands at MCA-oriented house parties.
From there, she began making bedroom recordings under the moniker Fille Catatonique, collaborated with rapper Cities Aviv on his debut album, Digital Lows, spent a spell in the oddball alt-folk ensemble The Warble and began assembling her own bands, culminating late last year with the current incarnation of Marcella & Her Lovers: Sullivan on drums, Dirk Kitterlin on bass, Dave Cousar on guitar and, most recently, Art Edmaiston on sax.
The Bronze Age is a five-song EP featuring four originals and one cover, the 1961 regional Louisiana soul gem “My Heart’s on Fire,” from a group called Little Bob & the Lollipops.
But Simien’s increasingly confident live show, up to this point, has relied mostly on covers, where she’s an unusually unpredictable and compelling interpreter whose faves range from soul (Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine”) to reggae (Toots & the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”) to punk (the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”) to art rock (Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire”) to not-quite-hip-hop (Outkast’s sung “Pink and Blue,” which she transforms).
“My dad did that a lot. He would take cover songs and make them his own,” Simien says. “There’s so much great material already out there, and as an artist you can relate. I’ll hear a Nina Simone or Etta James song and think, I could have (bleeping) wrote this, I feel so close to it. When you develop that relationship with a song, it allows you to take it somewhere else.”
Asked to name her favorite albums, whether she performs music from them or not, she rattles off titles like Simone’s Nina Sings the Blues, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, the Clash’s Sandinista! and Al Green’s I’m Still in Love With You.
Happily, that voracious good taste hasn’t been an obstacle to audience-building, as Simien has proved adaptable to so many different settings and sharing bills with so many different kinds of bands.
“The great thing about being in a band like Marcella’s is that people want to hear it,” says Sullivan. “The phone will ring and people will ask you to come out and play on a Wednesday night. Memphis has really been interested in hearing her.”
Simien is not the first transplant to find her voice here, or to see her individuality embraced by a community. But those developments have made the Louisiana kid a Memphian now, even post-graduation.
“I feel really, really lucky, because it’s such a hard business and such a hard profession to succeed in,” says Simien. “That’s why I’m sticking around, because people have really welcomed me. I feel like I have a place here.”