Interview and Photos: Marian Hill in Phoenix
On Tuesday, September 20, 2016, Marian Hill played at the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix. The band played in a completely packed room as one of the stops on their ACT ONE tour, which promotes their latest LP. It contains new songs that have been tantalizing audiences, such as “Down” which opened up the show and “I Want You”, which the band discusses in this interview. The band played on a beautiful stage, with backlit curtains, lights that were perfectly synchronized with the music, and lots of space. Their setlist included tracks from their original EP, Sway, which is what first got the band recognition with their unique style. While Jeremy Lloyd moves energetically at his DJ station and Steve Davit makes his saxophone wail, Samantha Gongol struts and rolls seductively around the stage, whipping up the audience into a swaying happy mob. Her voice and lyrics accompany Lloyd’s smooth beats to create a feel of sensuality and jazzy independence. I sat down to a phone interview with the band the day of their concert.
William: First off, I wanted to say thank you so much, like so, so much, for agreeing to this.
Samantha: Yeah, of course! Thanks for having us!
W:We’re super excited to see the show tonight. We’ve been watching concert footage, and we’re very excited to see what y’all do.
S: Many things.
W: So how did Marian Hill come into existence?
S: So Jeremy and I have known each other for a really long time – since middle school, actually – I mean that, in eighth, seventh, seventh and eighth grade – and then we had remained friends throughout college. Jeremy was on a break and came home – I think it was in March of 2015, and he came to me with this beat that would become “Whisky” and was like, “Hey, why don’t we try writing something together?”
Jeremy: We’d written together before that, though.
S: We did!
J: It was not the first song we wrote together. We had been playing with a bunch of different things over our break but “Whisky” was definitely far and away the best one.
W: Awesome. It really worked out, too.
S+J: Thank you!
W:You two went to Haverford High School, right?
W:Were you performing back then?
J: Yeah, I was – I mean, I’ve played violin since I was four and piano since I was ten or so, and I mean at that point, by high school, I was doing a lot of singing and a lot of acting. But not a ton – I started to write my own songs – it was very early stage, and I wasn’t performing that stuff very much yet. I think I maybe did a little bit at the end of high school.
W:So what does the songwriting process look like?
J: It’s very collaborative. I’m always making beats, and when Sam and I get together to work, I’ll play the beginning skeletons of a bunch of different beats- they’re never fully-fleshed songs already, they’ll just be a groove or an idea. And then Sam and I will find one that we like and start throwing melody ideas back and forth at each other. We’re all about really constructing out of the groove and deciding on melodies, and then we write lyrics together. A lot of the time we also like to just really riff to the music and the melodies we’re finding and be like, “What does this need to be about? What does this music feel like it’s about?” It’s just really important to me that the feeling of the music and the lyrics are very entwined with each other.
W:How did you incorporate the idea of the saxophone into it?
J: Well, early on, our first two songs were “Whisky” and “Lovit”, so we already had kind of a, like, jazzy and bluesy instrumentation thing going on, and one of my best friends, Steve Davit that now tours with us, is backed on it. I just asked if he could send me recordings of him improvising so that I could chop up that audio and turn it into something, and when I chopped up something that he sent me and sampled it, it became the main riff for “One Time.” That really connected to people and when we were getting ready to make this thing live we asked him for a live setup, and that has been a part of it ever since.
W: So what went into the creation of ACT ONE?
J: To me, ACT ONE was basically the culmination of the writing process that started when we wrote “Whisky”. There was a first part of that process that went into Sway that was about figuring out what our sound was, and then writing ACT ONE, which happened over the next year, was really just pushing it to its fullest extent and seeing everything we could do. We realized that once we got in a groove after Sway that anything that we wrote together and both loved would sound like Marian Hill for the most part, so then ACT ONE really became about, “Well, what can we do, what different things can we say, what different sonic world can we explore while it’s still in the Marian Hill world?” And I think we ended up with something where every song is really its own unique world and I’m really proud of that.
W: So you feel like ACT ONE is the culmination of your artistic ventures up to this point?
J: Yeah, definitely.
W:Alright, what’s your favorite song off of ACT ONE and why that one in particular?
J: I can’t pick a favorite. I actually finished writing the album and spent months mixing it and getting it mastered and over the course of that they all became my favorites, so it’s truly impossible for me to pick.
S: If you’re just talking about the performance, I love “I Want You” ‘cause it’s always really joyous to perform and fun to sing. That and “I Know Why”, actually. It changes sometimes, but that’s my favorite at the moment.
W: Specifically “I Want You”, that one’s in a major key, and that’s a little different. What made you guys choose to do that?
J: I mean, it wasn’t super conscious at the time. I was just messing around with chords and we were jamming out to that beat. The drums came first, then we were playing different chords with that brass instrument, and we kind of realized, “Oh shit, this is in major, but it’s still bluesy and it feels kinda nice.” The thing is, we don’t tend to write in major, ‘cause I find it really restricting and difficult to write in, whereas minor has so many more possibilities in terms of the range of moods. But it was really exciting to have something in major that we like, and I think, in a lot of ways, that’s a lot of why we were drawn to the song and why we love it so much. It’s one of two songs, you know, released in major and it’s definitely our favorite. It’s also really special in that it’s at the end of the album after a lot of contemplative sex stuff to have just a powerful positive moment.
W:Which artists would you say have most influenced the aesthetic of Marian Hill?
S: We like to say that it’s Drake meets Ella Fitzgerald. It just sort of sums it up. Definitely compliments our “old meets new.” Jeremy can speak for his sources, but I love the old jazz singers. I love Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Nina Simone, I’m a huge Norah Jones fan… I mean, there’s so many.
J: I think in my production there’s really a lot of the big hip-hop producers I grew up with. Kanye, Timbaland, (and) Pharrell are all really big influences that I realize every day. I recently was digging through eight-year-old Pharrell stuff, listening to Clipse’s “Grindin’”. I realized that that is just such a foundational, like, what I think a good beat is. (It’s) a beat that really defines my sound in a lot of ways, like “Whisky” and that are pretty one-to-one, I think. James Blake is obviously a huge influence; I think that if you talk to anybody in electronic music they’ll say him. Cashmere Cat is somebody I’m really inspired by, Lido is somebody I’m really inspired by, and I also think I owe a lot to – I studied musical theater songwriting in college and just thinking about songwriting as a craft with high standards and every aspect of the song needing to tie in to its central idea. So great songwriters like Sondheim and Gershwin and Jerome Kern are definitely also influences in more abstract ways.
W:Do you feel like that musical theater background has influenced how you guys perform?
J: I wouldn’t say directly, but certainly at least for me indirectly. Having that background has made me a lot more comfortable onstage and comfortable performing and made it easier for me to transition to the world of performing electronic music live, because it was definitely something I hadn’t done before. I move around a lot and dance and get very animated on stage. It is a performance and that’s something I’ve been doing for like a decade before this so it was easy to slip into.
W: If you could perform with any living artist, who would it be?
J: I’ve been dreaming about a “Lovit” verse from Drake for years, and that’ll probably never happen but I’m gonna keep holding onto that dream – I actually literally dreamt about it the other night. Collaborations? I love SOHN, I’ve been wanting to work with him for a while. Love Cashmere Cat, be willing to work with him. I‘d say James Blake, but I honestly feel like James Blake does his own thing and that’s what he’s best at. Ever having any like sub-credit on a Kanye album is a life dream. I don’t know, Sam, do you have any?
S: It’s funny, recently we get asked this a lot, you think I’d have one person at the top of my mind. I think it’d be just really cool personally to duet or do something with Norah Jones, make everything come full circle. I am such a big fan. There’s just so many- I love so many different people and it would be an honor to collaborate with all of them.
W:Sam, would you consider going on tour with Norah Jones if she approached you with that?
S: Oh, I don’t know. As flattered as I’d be, I do think our music is very different and we’re sort of in our own unique lanes. So I probably wouldn’t, but it would definitely be an incredible honor and an ask.
W:Do you have any pre-show or post-show rituals, and if so, what are they?
J: Shot of whiskey! That’s pretty much tradition of ours since our first show.
W:Any favorite brand?
S: We ask for Jameson’s, but really – I mean, whiskey is, Jameson is at this point just a feel good, it’s just sort of what we get every show, but I mean – if you bring us Black Label we’ll do a shot, too.
W:Have you tried an Irish Catholic? It’s Jameson’s mixed with Amaretto, and it’s, you know, really different.
J: That’s so interesting! I love the cocktail called “The Godfather” which is Black Label and Amaretto, so I imagine I’d like an Irish Catholic as well.
W: It’s really good, I recommend it. It’s got this caramel note.
W:So back to this tour, back to when you guys have blown up and everyone knows your names. What have been some differences between this tour and your first tour?
J: I think what’s really exciting to me is that in our first tour we were playing stuff from Sway that everybody knew, and then we were playing stuff that wasn’t out yet, that nobody knew, and it was very exciting to see reactions to that new stuff. But what’s really exciting about this tour is that pretty much everything we’re playing in the set is out and everybody knows everything. It’s our first time playing this album live, a lot of the songs from it, and having such an amazing response. It’s just been really gratifying in that way to be, like, we’ve released a lot of work now and our fans know that and appreciate that and love that.
W:Alright! Sam, do you have any comments?
S: Yeah, I’d agree with that. I mean, Jeremy and I were talking about it the other day. It’s been incredible because you write this album by yourself in the studio, and you like it, and you hope that other people like it, and then to have people fill the room every night and be singing along to things that you created is one of the best feelings in the world.
W: That’s awesome! It’s been crazy seeing how much you guys have blown up since Sway came out and changed everything. Now we’re gonna try to wind this down because we know that you need to prep for the show tonight, but we’ve got a few last questions. What are you reading at the moment?
S: What are we reading at the moment?
S: What an amazing question! (laughing)
J: This is a little cliche, but I’ve been working on Infinite Jest, trying to see what I can do. It’s a long read but I’ve been thinking about doing it for a while so that’s exciting. I’m at the very beginning.
S: I am reading War and Peace and I’m on page eighty-six out of 1356 in this edition. I’m making great progress. It’s been quite entertaining, and that’s sort of my tour project and I’m really excited about it. It’s a journey, you know?
W: You’ve been taking these books on tour with you?
S: This is really the only one, because it’s so long. And it’s perfect, because it’s never-ending.
W:What is the number-one comfiest thing you have brought on tour?
S: Ooh! Definitely a blanket. There’s this incredible, really soft blanket that I’ve been cuddling with every night, and I can’t imagine touring without it now.
J: The blankets are pretty good. I would also say I brought my pillow from my bed at home which has definitely been a comfort both in the literal physical sense and the metaphorical emotional sense.
W: Three items, alright? You’re on a deserted island. What are you bringing?
S: Ugh, God. Definitely lipstick because you can’t live without it. Lipstick, that’s all I need. Jeremy, do you have any?
J: A laptop, a microphone, and a device that gives me great internet access.
S: Not to send out an SOS. Probably music. Music is so important in some capacity to keep myself from going totally crazy.
W: Gonna release a desert island track?
S: Oh, yeah- ACT ONE: Stranded Edition! I’ll have to get back to you about the third thing
W: The final one that we have is- it’s been floating around recently. Would you rather fight a hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?
S: Oh no! One horse-sized duck.
J: A hundred duck-sized horses.
W: What is the reasoning behind that one?
J: Mine is the hundred duck-sized horses ‘cause I could just get up in a tree or something and it’d be easier to get away from them. Kicking at them would be semi-productive and they wouldn’t be able to do as much damage, you know? Whereas ducks have really vicious mouths and can really bite and a big horse-sized duck would really be a terror. It could fly, too, so you couldn’t run away in that way.
S: I feel like things are always stronger in numbers and packs, and I think that if you just have one singular focus, you can maybe find its weakness and just go for it. Whereas a hundred of them might be a little bit. I’d be overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed.
W: Samantha, an idea for the third item for the island?
S: It’s so soon! Candy. I have like a crazy sweet tooth. After every show, it’s really crazy. I should be eating healthier but I just have a sugar rush. I actually recently discovered Hot Tamales thanks to some people that are with us on this tour. They’re incredible. I think I’ve had them every night! They’re so good! Hot Tamales for sure.
The band had a hot performance that night, with a young crowd packed wall to wall singing every word to their songs. Gongol and Lloyd had plenty to work with, and really seemed to enjoy themselves. Gongol would take her mic for a walk around the stage, doing body rolls and beckoning to audience members as she serenaded. The duo worked in perfect synch, a well-oiled machine, and it made for an engaging and entrancing show to watch.