The Blog

Marcella Detroit: After Three Decades in Music, She Can't Forget the Motor City

We're on the King's Road and Marcella has just wrapped up the final gig of a short UK tour to promote her new album(Right Recordings, 2013).

'It's still got that buzz about it, London has. I was sitting on Regent Street today and seeing all the different ethnicities, for me, was fascinating,' says Marcella Detroit.

Marcella looks around you, sensing the space to either side and above as if some mid-air vestige of yourself can better explain who you are than the actual person who issues her with questions which, perhaps, she'd rather not hear.

Between the three of us on the table sits a chocolate cupcake. I stare at it and collect my thoughts. The third personage is Deirdre who works as a medical illustrator in London. Deirdre is Marcella's friend from way back and is enjoying the spectacle of interrogation. Her role tonight, post gig, is that of consigliere.

We're on the King's Road and Marcella has just wrapped up the final gig of a short UK tour to promote her new album The Vehicle (Right Recordings, 2013). For 90 minutes, the black Sassoon geometry of her bob stood resolute as she moved from guitar to piano, then from ukulele to harmonica with exemplary playing from Mike Brown on guitar and Robert "Skins" Anderson on percussion.

If she's worn out, she doesn't look it.

She's angular, her presence stark, her speaking voice ageless and kind, but her movements betray the restlessness of too active a mind. 'Writing is not difficult, writing's fun, writing is my saviour. If I couldn't write I would have banged my head against the wall and died a long time ago,' she says.

'I've had some successes in my career, but I'm a results-oriented person, so I can get frustrated if, when I do something, there isn't a big result. Like... success, you know?'

And she's had a fair share of it. Born and bred in Detroit, Michigan she sang as Marcy Levy with myriad bands on the rock scene in the Motor City in the early Seventies before signing to RSO Records in 1976. 'In the beginning they put me with a great producer called David Foster, but the album was never released.

'It was an R'n'B album because I've always been involved in blues and soul, but they were always trying to pigeonhole me. You're either rock or R'n'B or singer-songwriter!'

The most accurate definition of what she does now is singer-songwriter. Despite having toured with Eric Clapton and sung for Burt Bacharach, and always having written for artists such as Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan over a career spanning three decades, she is perhaps best known (in the UK, at any rate) for Shakespear's Sister, the partnership brokered with Siobhan Fahey which lasted from 1988 to 1993 and spawned the hits You're History (1989) and Stay (1992) and which ended, if not acrimoniously, then without a great deal of goodwill.

'When I first started making records it was more me and a band,' she says. But it's difficult to picture Marcella sharing a stage with a rock outfit given that the soulful sparseness of the set she has just played put me in mind of Bobbie Gentry.

The Gentry comparison stills her momentarily, but Deirdre is suddenly animated and in full agreement.

Has she ever been compared to Gentry before? Marcella thinks for a few beats then says 'No'. Then we all regard the cupcake in unspoken hope that it might divest itself of some wisdom regarding Bobbie Gentry.

'I don't have a manager, and I'm going home tomorrow, so I don't really know what's going to happen next,' she says. 'I've always wanted a manager, but everyone I've had in the past 10 years or so has been completely ineffectual.

'That's what my song Good Girl Down is all about. After all the promises made and all the mistakes, maybe this time someone will come through for me. There's been a lot of frustration in my career.'

But that's good for writing, no? 'Yeah, but it's not good for my head. I can sit in my front room forever and sing, but if people never get to hear it, I may as well not even bother.'

Has she ever thought of packing it all in? 'Oh yeah,' she says emphatically. 'And on any given day.'

Her father, a veteran of the Korean war, was a tool and die maker and 'a very smart man, self taught and who left high school at 15 to take care of the family. He got me into music. He always supported me. Although when I told him that this is what I was going to do, he said my chances of making it were a million to one. And I was thinking "...Watch me!"

'My success can be attributed to hard work, meeting the right people and a dose of luck. But if I didn't have any talent at all, I don't think my career would have sustained itself.'

Asked about her trademark falsetto, she laughs. 'I started to sing high when I was 19 in Detroit in my first band, which was a blues band. I only did it because I couldn't hear myself over the din.'

As a Detroit-born resident of Los Angeles, she must bring a measure of industrial angst to her West Coast idyll. 'Someone stole my fucking Xanax from my room the other night ,' she laughs. 'I'm my mother's daughter, you know. She always had anxiety, so it's genetic.

'But I'm sure all the drink and drugs I've done hasn't helped. They take their toll. We were always getting high. I don't know about you,' she says, looking at Deirdre, 'but yeah, we did God knows what. You name it, we did it.'

But she's still hooked on music, telling me that writing constantly is the only way of ensuring the songs keep coming. Is her sound today that of Detroit? 'I think so. My new album The Vehicle, more so than any of my other albums, sees me get back to my soul roots. The Detroit sound is very blue collar, rock'n'roll and very soulful.'

She checks the time of tomorrow's flight back home, a mind at work even at this late hour, then says: 'The trick is not to base your self esteem on your success. That is very important. And it's an ongoing thing.'

It therefore appears that the hole that would accommodate a pigeon possessing the angularity of Marcella Detroit has never existed. She's doing her own thing with guitar in hand and her husband of 24 years by her side and tomorrow she'll catch a flight back to LA where she'll swim, meditate and write in peace without fear of Los Angelinos robbing her stash of Xanax.

Earthquakes permitting, of course.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / / @JasonAHolmes

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Images by Rachael Cummings /