Marcella René Simien’s music originates from two geographically and atmospherically distinct roots. Hers is the hybrid and magnetic sound of Louisiana swamp and Memphis soul. At once visceral and celestial, Marcella’s music gives language both to the landscape of ordinary living, and to the smoky, ethereal dwelling place of the soul and spirit.
She grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, where she sang, wrote and played the accordion alongside a vibrantly artistic and driven family. “My family is so important to me,” says Marcella. “The Simien family, my paternal side of the family, is rich in Creole culture; Louisiana Creoles are descendants of African, French, Spanish and Native American people. And you can see that in all the faces of my relatives and hear it in the Creole French, which is still spoken among us.”
Marcella moved to Memphis to continue honing her craft at the Memphis College of Art, eventually forming her band, Marcella & Her Lovers. Read on for a dazzlingly deep look into Marcella Simien’s life and work!
Describe your early career. Where did you work, and what were your jobs?
I was always insanely determined and had a fierce work ethic. My first job was probably learning how to run an office with my mom from the age of 4 until I was about 14. I did some filing and clerical work with her. She was my dad’s manager and booking agent for the majority of my life. I had my first job outside the home working in a bakery in Lafayette at age 15. By senior year of high school I had a half-day school schedule and juggled three jobs: server at the Indian restaurant, nanny to two amazing kids, and I was the art director’s assistant at Cité des Arts, a multi-discipline arts center in Lafayette. I then moved to Memphis in August of my 18th year to attend Memphis College of Art.
I started playing music solo more frequently when I moved here. I just played at any venue that would have me, singing Nina Simone and Buzzcocks tunes a cappella interspersed with original songs on my accordion. I sang like I was fighting for something. And I was. I was fighting to become my best self through my art, through my music and fighting to find some real love; fighting off demons, apparent ones and the not-so-apparent ones. I didn’t get paid much for those performances or nothing at all. Those were some of my rawest moments performing in front of people. My instruments (the accordion and my voice) really were like new instruments to me.
There’s a certain kind of luxury to your music – it’s abundantly imagistic and tactile. Tell us about your sound, and describe your music and lyric writing process.
You know, a lot of my words come from journals I’ve carried with me since I was 14. I started writing songs when I was 12 in an attempt to try and keep up with an imagination that was always running away from me. It’s still like that now, in a way. My creative imagination allows me to face the world with less hate, to look at it and everyone in it with more trust. It helps me to live and let go and free myself. Writing a song allows me to deal with the obvious stressors of everyday life, and the sometimes hum-drum monotony of life. Writing helps me cope with living away from my family and my Creole roots. I miss Louisiana dearly all the time, and I find myself writing love letters to it pretty regularly, through song. Or words will just come because of the way the melody sounds when I hum it or when I play it on accordion. The accordion breathes and talks to me like a writing partner. Playing the melody over and over again alone in a room by myself until it becomes a mantra helps. I have to get hypnotized by it before it can hypnotize anyone else.
Then the work comes in trying to get the song to be seen by others. Not just heard. And then once it’s played with your band, you then start to hear different things. Maybe if I decided to hold out on writing the horn part, and just waited to hear what my horn player hears within the song, that will help me figure out what should be played. And sometimes once you hear it played together, the entire feel of the song can change in such a way that the meaning is altered. It’s a mad and magical journey, songwriting. Once the song is ready to be presented to an audience, and if an audience member gets it like I do and feels the wave rush through them like I feel when I hear it, then life feels less lonely.
We’ve read (and heard!) that your voice is “an instrument fierce and galloping with dignified pleading.” Would you say that your voice pleads for something in particular in your songs?
I think the pleading depends on the context of the song. The lyrics. Even if I am performing a song written by someone else, I put myself in the song as though I did write it. Most of the time I’m not conscious of this, like I don’t usually go into a gig and say “I’m gonna channel all this pain from this one breakup.” Sometimes those thoughts can certainly help and guide my voice through this journey of emotional responses in order to color the song, but most of the time you simply leave thoughts out of it and lead from your soul.
It’s about being as present as possible and feeling the words, which can be interpreted a million different ways by a million different people. That takes the pressure off of me and allows me to let go and let myself experience the moment. It means totally getting outside of your mind sometimes, and sometimes completely out of your own body.
What one word describes you?
What inspires you?
This restlessness to explore the unknown or unfamiliar territory, tempered by the desire to always order my favorite dish on the menu: this subtle (and often not so subtle) dance between wanting to grow and wanting to be comfortable. Music from all over the world inspires me. Travel. Any opportunity I can get to explore the roads of this beautiful country we live in and travel anywhere all over the world, I will take it. Seeing something far away from home can jolt you into the best kind of cyclone of creativity.
What’s your best piece of advice for others?
Don’t let anyone or anything make you think or feel you can’t do (nor discourage you from doing) what you aspire to do. Be confident in your exploration, but you must be open to learn every single minute you’re alive. Listen and learn. Don’t miss out on an opportunity because you’re afraid of the risks. Jump in and jump out of your comfort zone.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
I’m gonna have to pick four things: Yoga, my dad’s road stories, and my guitarist David Cousar’s Facebook status updates. And my Tempur-Pedic pillow.
Thanks to Micki Martin for her awesome photos of Marcella and the band!
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