Honey-voiced singer Susan Marshall celebrates the release of her second solo album, the soulful, jazzy ballad collection Firefly, with two radically different record-release parties this weekend.
The first will be Friday, February 4th, for Marshall's alma mater, Germantown High School. A 1982 graduate of the school's then-fledgling fine arts program, where Marshall was named "fine arts student of the year," the singer parlayed her experiences at GHS into a six-year run with the off-Broadway rep company Light Opera of Manhattan before embarking on a career as a singer in more personal, less structured genres such as rock, soul, country, and whatever else you'd care to ask her to sing. Marshall, whose family moved to Memphis from New Mexico in part to put her in the program, still appreciates the opportunity Germantown High provided.
"It overwhelmingly supported every aspect of what I needed," Marshall says of the program. "This is the third year in a row that I've done a fund-raiser for the fine arts department. I want to see that program thrive and succeed because I was in it, in the groundling stages."
This is the second year in which Marshall will get the kids involved in her performance, with GHS students playing alongside her band (drummer Harry Peel, bassist Sam Shoup, keyboardist Rick Steff), singing backup, designing the set, and filming the concert.
The next night, Marshall will hold a very different release party for Firefly, an adults-only affair downtown at the new Paddy's Memphis Pub, located at the Stop 345 location downtown at 345 Madison Avenue.
Marshall says having two shows is the best of both worlds. "I have a lot of friends in Germantown, and I never play out there," Marshall says. "And I have a lot of friends who have babies. You can't keep babysitters out until 2 in the morning, and you don't want to stay out until 2 in the morning. So this is good all around. [The GHS show] is early. It's smoke-free. And then the next night will be the 'debauchery' night -- downtown with smoking and drinking, out late. So there's something for everyone."
The record Marshall is celebrating is a bit of a departure from her eclectic, rootsy debut, 2002's Honey Mouth. Again produced by husband Jeff Powell, Firefly is a tightly constructed genre record some might compare to the work of Norah Jones. Marshall wasn't inspired by the success of the "Don't Know Why" chanteuse, but by an impulse to pay tribute to her parents. The album mixes originals, standards (Irving Berlin, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald), and reconfigured rock-era covers (including a slow-burn version of Steely Dan's "Dirty Work," which Marshall dubs a "modern-day torch song"), giving all a soft, soulful treatment.
"Firefly wasn't even supposed to be a record," Marshall says. "It was supposed to be for my mom and dad. They had just moved from Germantown to Florida. And they had been bugging me. 'When are you gonna come down? We want you to sing down here.' And I would tell them, 'I really don't sing anything that you and your friends would like.'"
As it turned out, Marshall had some extra studio time left after a session working on an arrangement for a Gram Parsons tribute concert she participated in last summer and, with her husband's prodding, decided to use the time to work on something to send her parents.
"We were just messing around," Marshall says, "with no notion of it being anything but something for Mom and Dad. But the more that Jeff and I listened to it, we thought it was cool. So we got Rick and Sam and Harry together and just did it real stripped down."
Marshall hopes to capture the intimacy of those sessions in both release parties this weekend. The Friday-night show starts at 7 p.m. at the Poplar Pike Playhouse on the Germantown High campus. Tickets for the smoke-free, theater-setting concert are $15 for adults and $10 for students, with proceeds going back into the GHS fine arts program. Tickets are on sale in advance or at the door. Contact the Poplar Pike Playhouse box office at 755-7775. The Saturday-night show will be done in a candlelit, cabaret-style setting, with tables on a first-come/first-served basis. The show begins at 10 p.m. with a $5 cover. For more information, call 507-2720 or 502-1110.