If you’re under the age of 15 you could be forgiven for not knowing of Marcella Detroit‘s music. Unless you live in Japan, where her last album sold 55,000 copies.
If you’re older, you’ll have no excuse for forgetting that she played at Live Aid with Eric Clapton, she’s recorded with Aretha Franklin and Elton John and, of course, is a third of Shakespears Sister, whose song Stay did indeed stay – at no.1 in the UK for eight weeks in 1992.
musicOMH caught up with her to find out what she’s been up to since…
All this was some while ago, as we sit in the basement of an East London gighouse, Marcella sipping specially-brewed peppermint tea and I marvelling at just how young she still looks; and she is much prettier than most of her peculiarly-angled photos would have you believe.
I asked Marcella to tell the story of Shakespears Sister – the rise and fall. She seemed happy to oblige. “A friend of mine called Richard Feldman had a little house in LA,” she tells, beginning at the beginning. “Dave (Stewart, of Eurythmics) and Siobhan (Fahy, of Bananarama) bought a house across the street from him – this would have been 1987. Richard introduced himself as someone with a twenty-four track studio across the road, a neighbour; they became friends.”
“I didn’t just want to be a background singer” – Marcella Detroit
“Siobhan was thinking of leaving Bananarama and was about eight months pregnant, so Richard started writing with them, then he called me in to help write. I was asked to join the band and we wrote Hormonially Yours.” It all sounds remarkably simple, this forming of a band business. I’m about to ask Marcella who asked her to join when we are interrupted by the arrival of her management people, laden down with a bucket of ice, inside of which lies a bottle of water; and a banana. Marcella bursts into laughter, an infectious, friendly, natural laughter. “Great! Thanks! You never know when you’re going to need a banana!” I overlooked the chance to make an ironic quip and Marcella decides against tucking in to the fruit.
“Being a session singer was not my highest aspiration. I was always trying my own thing. I had deals that almost happened with RSO Records when I was with (Eric) Clapton but it never happened because RSO Records folded. But then I met Siobhan and a friend of mine said ‘you should do it, you’ll possibly never do anything on your own anyway’. So I thought, oh yeah, great!”
Charming friend, I say, but this was not the only advice she received. “Dave kept saying ‘you guys should be in a band’. I didn’t really want to be, and as Siobhan was leaving Bananarama she didn’t really want to be either, with me or with anyone else, but it kept evolving and moving in that direction. By the time we did the last song on the first album (Sacred Heart), my role became more integral… I was asked… to become a 50% member. I didn’t just want to be a background singer.”
Being a “50% member” should have put paid to such notions of being in the background. There must have been a degree of hope for the future when she became a member of the band; did the reality measure up to the hope? “No. It was Siobhan’s band, this was made perfectly clear. But I was cool with that – that’s the way it was. Then Stay was released and it went to Number 1 for eight weeks and we were all in shock. Chris Thomas, who produced and mixed the track said, when we demoed it, “number 1, number 1!” And it was. That would have been February 1992. It all ended in October 1992 though.”
Why? Okay, so the two main people in the band didn’t see eye to eye on everything, but was there no way to accommodate the differences and use them to the greater good?
“(Siobhan Fahy) was the Angel of Death… it was a little too real!” – Marcella Detroit
“To put two people as different as we were together – well, we were bound to have differences personality-wise. In the video for Stay, I was singing to this guy who was dying and she (Siobhan) was the Angel of Death. We used our personality differences to our advantage, but it was a little too real!” What, Siobhan really is the Angel of Death?! Marcella chuckles. “I have no ill feelings towards her and I wish her all the best. She decided to end the band, didn’t want me to be a part of it anymore. But I always knew, when we were touring for Hormonially Yours, the understanding was that I’d do a solo album next and she’d take a break to be with her family, so I was writing for my own record. She said it would be a shame if I didn’t.”
All this was eight years ago though, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Marcella and Siobhan had sorted out their differences since then. “I haven’t seen her and I haven’t talked to her since. I was never in it to steal anyone’s glory away; I just did my job. I was asked by everybody to become part of it and then everybody wanted me out… I learned a lot about what it means to be an artist.”
With the profile Shakespears Sister enjoyed, it was clear Marcella Detroit was not going to fade away, particularly as she had indeed been writing solo material. Her first solo album, released after the demise of Shakespears Sister, sold 55,000 copies in Japan alone. She was understandably delighted with the reaction to her solo work there.
“The audiences there are so receptive, and they do politely clap. You can hear a pin drop, but if they really like something they go mad at the end. The Japanese are very considerate, polite people and I really appreciate that… The other night I was doing a gig at Ronnie Scotts in Birmingham. It was supposed to be a songwriters showcase, and people were yacking on throughout the set. I asked this guy, ‘are you having fun over there? Are you a songwriter?’ and he says, ‘yeah yeah’, and I said, ‘well, that’s nice, but how would you like it if I talked during the whole of your set?’ and the whole crowd agreed, they were all so sick of hearing him.”
But there were plenty of other gigs (and doubtless there will be more) where Marcella has really enjoyed herself. “There have been some highlights,” she understates. “When I played with Eric Clapton at Live Aid in 1985, that was amazing. It was a real thrill. We were on this revolving stage and the whole band was waiting to go out. We opened the curtain and looked out and Eric goes, “WOW!” and I said “WOW!” Such a rush. We played a festival in Ireland called the Fleadh. It was raining, misty when we went on; it was great. I’ve done gigs on my own when I’ve felt not only that people there liked it, but I liked it. Recently I’ve been playing in LA and I’ve just felt so emotionally involved with what I was doing. And right here, right now is one of the highlights.”
“I can’t help but write pop songs…” – Marcella Detroit
Having worked with all these household names, is there anything musically left for Marcella to do in the way of collaboration? She mentions the producers of Fiona Apple and Luscious Jackson as people she admires and would like to work with, and states that she would still like to write a song for Aretha Franklin and work with Stevie Wonder. “But I’m not into doing duets. If it comes along and it makes sense then yeah, but I’m just trying to get on with my life.”
Music hacks have a tendency to pigeonhole artists and bands into genres, many of which seem to bear no resemblance to any factual music type beyond their own invention. I asked Marcella to turn music hack and pigeonhole herself. What sort of music does she think she produces?
“I can’t help but write pop songs; I’ve been doing that music my whole life. My music is melodic and slightly alternative; it may not be immediately accessible for six to 12 year olds as it’s a little bit older than that.” Indeed, but there aren’t too many pop acts with as distinctive a voice as Marcella’s – somewhere between Kate Bush on helium and Tori Amos.
The marketplace for music of all kinds is changing, perhaps more now than it ever has, with the mega-mergers in the industry and the advent of the internet changing the way the music business operates. At the same time, the concentration of musical acts in the hands of a few industry goliaths mean a domination of pop-music culture by manufactured bands. “It is a bit more difficult to tour now without a label and get people interested because it is all so expensive,” Marcella, currently without a record deal, agrees. “We’re looking to get a record deal, but what’s the future of record companies? All the big people are swallowing up the little people and it’s all becoming one huge conglomerate. The alternative, using MP3 technology on the web, is a great idea, but the problem there is the lack of ability of the artist to make money from what they do. I’ve got a family and a home and bills up to my eyeballs…”
So, when you have bills up to your eyeballs and touring music costs so much when you don’t have a deal, why carry on doing it? “I want to write my best song; I haven’t written it yet. There are certain songs I hear and I say to myself, ‘God I wish I’d written that’. I think life is this journey where we’re always learning. If you stop learning you might as well be dead.”
“I’ve got a family and a home and bills up to my eyeballs…” – Marcella Detroit
This leads us on to chat about music technology, a subject of personal interest to me, and I was pleased that an artist who has been at number 1 for eight weeks was willing to discuss the tricks of her trade. I used a four-track tape recorder to record stuff, around the time when Shakespears Sister was at number one in the charts, but now computers are a necessity, even if you’re only demo-ing acoustic guitar-based music. Marcella is well up on all this.
“I use a Mac with Logic. It is state of the art, so I persevered with it until I got the basics. There’s always this learning curve; there’s all this stuff on top that you’ve got to learn to get what you need, all these different programmes, software and so on. At times it gets in the way of music. Sometimes all I want to do is take a guitar, put my voice on and forget the technology. It’s good not to forget the real side of music, but to use the technology to enhance it and take it to a different level. But you should still be able to play it on a guitar or a piano if it is a good song.”
I wondered if she composed on Logic or on more traditional instruments. “I compose mostly on guitar, but sometimes piano. Visually, the piano is more logical, linear, all laid out. The guitar neck looks so complicated to me, even if you know you know where everything is. I played piano at 12 and went to guitar right after that. I played ukulele and violin – and then accordion, for one minute! It was fun, but too heavy.”
What comes first though; music or lyrics? “Ideally I like to come up with a good title or idea or concept. If I don’t have that I flounder. I might have these really interesting lyrical ideas but when I get to the chorus, well, where is it? But if I start with a really strong title… well, there’s got to be an idea that inspires me. Something somebody says, or something on the TV, or if I read a book. Then I’ll compose the music. Then I’ll sit down at the computer and I’ll program it, then I’ll put my guitar on it.”
And what would she do if she ever did quit music? “I could sell shoes! I’m sorry sir, we don’t have that in your size, maybe you’d like it in the brown?” Er, no… after some chuckles, she answers seriously. “When I was at college my major was art. Music was my minor. But I found music more immediately gratifying. If not music… I’d probably be a fashion designer. I want things and I’m never able to find them, or if I find them I have to wait eight months to get them, so I could make them! Otherwise, a psychologist. I find people frighteningly fascinating.”
Another turning-of-the-tables on music hacks. Rather than some pithy summary of Marcella from me, why not ask her to describe herself? After initially declaring how difficult that would be, she launched into full flow… “I am somebody who is always trying to live with myself, live with the idea of being alive, trying to be happy, trying to use my experiences in music, maybe to help myself, or to help other people.”
“(My music is) emotional – that’s vital to what I do…” – Marcella Detroit
Music therapy? “Could be! MD does MT! My current stuff is musical therapy. Introspective, me observing life around me and trying to make sense of it. And it is emotional – that’s vital to what I do, that it has a life to it. It makes me a little vulnerable, but when it is right it is very fulfilling.”
The interview finished, we climbed the stairs, Marcella to play an excellent gig and I to watch her. Her first words of the evening are “Hello. I’m not your mother.” Among the more recognisable tunes was Stay, sans Siobhan. Like a good wine, it has improved with age. Her voice is as poignant as ever, her songs are better than ever, she has an excellently drilled backing band and a real sense of where she’s at. And now she has only herself to answer to. Marcella Detroit is a potent possibility in an industry that so lacks her like.