When Marcella René Simien first moved to Memphis to go to Memphis College of Art (MCA) and join the local music scene, she had a bit of a leg-up on her contemporaries making noise in basements at house parties. Trained on piano, mandolin, guitar, and drums and well-schooled by her Grammy Award-winning father, Terrance Simien, Marcella quickly left the house-show scene and began playing at clubs like Bar DKDC, the Beauty Shop, and the Mollie Fontaine Lounge. Since then, it's almost impossible to have a week go by without Marcella Simien appearing somewhere in town. She's at the Hi-Tone on Monday. We sat down with Marcella to find out more about what drives this immensely talented Louisiana native, how she's made music her career, and what it was like to sing a song on a Grammy-winning album.
Flyer: You've been around music your whole life, and other members of your family have had success in the music industry. When did you decide to start playing music?
Marcella René Simien: I started playing music when I was really young. My dad has had a pretty successful music career for the past 30 years. He's traveled the world playing music ever since I was young. My mom was his manager and his booking agent, so we were pretty much all in it together. I started playing piano when I was 7, then moved on to guitar and mandolin, and then I started playing drums when I was 15.
Were you able to travel with your dad while he was on the road performing?
Not as much of the international traveling that I would have liked to do. My parents thought about home-schooling at me at one point, but my mom and I decided to stay at home base, which was Louisiana at the time.
When did you move to Memphis?
In August of 2009, I received a good scholarship to Memphis College of Art and just kind of fell into the music scene that was happening.
Can you give me a rundown of some of the groups you were playing with when you first moved here?
The first performance was just me and an accordion, in March of 2010, and we would do parties at MCA houses. We also played DIY spaces like the Dairy. I teamed up with [local rapper Cities Aviv] Gavin and sang two songs on his first release, Digital Lows. After that, I played a lot with Tout Le Mon, which was more of a loose cover band that played places like the P&H. Since then, it's just been me solo playing the piano at Mollie Fontaine or with my band Marcella and Her Lovers.
At what point did playing locally become the way you make a living? How hard was that to achieve?
It's rough, because it was only until last year that I felt comfortable asking what I felt was fair for a performance. And some places turned me down. I had to negotiate a little bit. But I learned a lot from my parents when it comes to dealing with people in the music industry. There's a lot that goes into performing, but thankfully there are venues here that understand all that and they want to pay their entertainment well. In a city that has so much talent and so many great bands, sometimes people don't want to pay for it. It's been a slow, progressive thing for me, but I'm almost able to make a living doing this and waiting tables on the side.
Karen Carrier [owner of the Beauty Shop, Bar DKDC, and Mollie Fontaine]has played a huge part in my success locally. She makes it possible for me to play weekly shows and sincerely supports what I do. I love her like family. Making a living in music is the ultimate goal for me, and Karen is an artist so she understands that and encourages me in every way.
How many times a week do you normally perform?
About three times a week on average. Sometimes it's one, sometimes it's four.
As a singer-songwriter, how do you balance the number of covers you do as opposed to original songs?
Right now, my set is almost all covers, and that's not something I like to admit, because I have so many originals I'd love to work into the set. Doing covers hasn't been a terrible thing, because it allows me to make the songs my own. I like being able to do my own arrangements of some of my favorites. We cover Otis Redding, Outkast, the Animals, Dr. John, Etta James, Lil Bob and the Lollipops, and it's one of the most flattering, and comical, things to have an audience member come up after a gig and ask if I wrote one of the covers we did that night. It's really just cool that any audience member is into what we do. If I can reach one or two people out of an audience and know that they had a good time and got to escape their daily life for an hour at our show, then that's enough for me.
Your father won a Grammy last year for an album that you appear on. Can you tell me more about that?
Well, to clarify, I was on one song on my dad's latest album, Dockside Sessions, and it won a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Record. The producer, George Receli, had a song that he wrote for his granddaughter. He wanted it translated into French, and he was going to have my dad sing it. In the middle of recording it, my dad was just not in the mood to go through all the translating, so he had my grandfather translate it into Creole French. I sang the melody of how it should go to George, and he decided I should sing it. So I just have one track on the album, and I got credit as a composer and as the singer on the song.
What else do you have planned for the rest of the year?
We're going into the studio soon to record with Scott Bomar at Electrophonic, and we are going to be cutting a single there. I'd really like to get out of town now that I'm done with college. Up until then, I was trying to balance school and start my career, but now that I'm finished with school I'd like to do some regional tours and take my music out of town.