Marcella Simien is a Memphis-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist hailing from Louisiana. The daughter of zydeco legend Terrance Simien, her music blends Memphis soul with New Orleans funk to create something altogether new. Although the ongoing pandemic has kept Marcella from her regular slate of live performances, we caught up with the swamp-soul queen to ask 5 questions about her influences, artistic process, and upcoming projects.
You come from a prominent musical family, which I’ve heard allowed you to spend some time with some true icons of music while you were growing up. Do you have a particularly memorable story that you could share?
I guess because I was such a huge fan of his growing up, I’ll go with my Bob Dylan story. So I was about 15 and we were at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. My dad was friends with Dylan’s band leader Tony Garnier and also knew Kerry Boutte, who owns a Cajun restaurant called Mulate’s. Anyway, Kerry was hosting a dinner at his house for about 10 people or so, including bob Dylan, and invited my dad. I had brought one of my friends Tracy down with me, so dad wasn’t sure if we should come because there was a good chance there would be some illicit activities going on. Well, we figured we wouldn’t get invited, so unbeknownst to my parents, the two of us started drinking vodka by the pool at the hotel. As soon as we got a good buzz, dad called and told us to get dressed because we were coming to the dinner! I remember that this was around May, so it was hot as hell in New Orleans, and Dylan walks in with a pull-over sweatshirt, sweatpants, and a beanie. There was an immediate feeling that fell over me when he walked in the room…I was just overcome by his presence. Anyway, we sat down and ate dinner and he didn’t talk much, but afterwards I was able to introduce myself and shake his hand. I told him what a huge fan I was, although it was hard to articulate just how much his music really meant to me. This was the only time in my life that I ever felt starstruck and I had to go to the bathroom and just cry. It was honestly like meeting a supernatural being.
You mention Dylan’s influence on you as a songwriter. I think most people who know your music are aware that you’re a singer and a multi-instrumentalist, but tell me a bit about your process as a songwriter.
You know, it’s really a different process every time, because there are so many different ways you can approach it. You can either wait for the muse to come to you, or you can really work to invite it. For me, one of the most important things is taking the time to really sit with your instrument or sit with your melody for a while. I’ve always had a love for words, even as a kid. I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time by myself just writing and writing and writing. That never really went away and I’m still a prolific writer, but the stuff that I feel carries the most weight is always the writing that is based in my own experiences. Early on in the pandemic, the sensation was a bit like getting pulled from a moving train. I was used to playing multiple shows a week, which I counted on for both the infectious connection you have with an audience, but also a regular paycheck every week. All of a sudden, I had to reevaluate what my purpose was, so a lot of what I’ve written lately is about those feelings, which has allowed me to dig deeper into my inner self.
I think of your music as being a blend of the Memphis soul sound with classic Louisiana music. I know this is probably impossible, but if you were to dissect your music into individual parts, what influences do you think come from Memphis, and which are from Louisiana?
That’s a really good question. I think there are so many parallels between the two cultures that it can be a bit hard to separate them, but I can definitely pinpoint certain influences. For example, Mavis Staples is a huge influence on me as a vocalist, which points to the Memphis soul side of things, but I also owe a lot to the energy and attack of someone like Clifton Chenier, a Creole Zydeco accordion player. With Creole music, which is what I’m most familiar with, there’s a lot of influences from blues and rock ‘n’ roll and soul, so it feels almost impossible to divide the two.
Most Memphians know you primarily as the leader of the band Marcella & Her Lovers, but you play in several other groups as well. What can you tell us about your other projects that folks may be unfamiliar with, such as Gumbo Grits & Gravy and Marcella & Les Vagues?
Yeah, so I started Gumbo Grits & Gravy with Guy Davis, who’s the son of Ossie David and Ruby Dee. He’s a great songwriter and storyteller, so working with him has been really cool. The group also includes Anne Harris, whose an unbelievably talented violinist. We got the project started in 2019 and were scheduled to travel to several different countries last year, but obviously, that wasn’t able to happen. Thankfully, we’ve tentatively rescheduled for this year. I knew both of them before we started the group from the blues festival circuit, and in early 2019 we got together and played a few shows. I’m excited to reunite with them. I also play with my dad’s band Terrance Simien’s Krewe de Monifique, which is always a ton of fun. He recently made the first album melding brass band music with zydeco, so that was amazing. I also did a project at the end of 2017 with a friend of mine from Switzerland called Marcella & Les Vagues, which was a dreamy Europop-type of album.
So the past year has been tough on everyone, especially for musicians such as yourself who depend on live performances. That said, what have you been working on during quarantine?
The pandemic really gave me an opportunity to figure out what is important to me, what brings me joy, and what I want to focus on both as an artist and a person. It really gave me an opportunity to just survey it all, which can definitely be overwhelming, but which I’m thankful for. I’ve just been working on a lot of stuff at home and have tons and tons of demos that I’m working on fully developing. I’ve also been working on the formula of focusing on singles, so I’m thinking about going to different studios around town and trying out different sounds. During quarantine, I also had Keith Cooper and Jack Yarber come over and we’d make these videos in front of the greenscreen, which was just a fun experiment in video editing and stuff like that. I also took this opportunity to do a bit of a rebrand and consolidate everything under the name Marcella Simien, just so that it would be easier for people to access all of my different projects. So now folks can find all of my different projects at https://marcellasimien.com, which also includes some great new merch.