ICYMI: Meet Marcella

by Nick Pittman

Terrance Simien’s daughter makes her hometown debut tonight (Wednesday) for the Horsefarm concert series, relocated to Parc International Downtown due to muddy conditions at the 'farm.

When Marcella Simien reminisces about growing up in Acadiana, it’s almost poetry — a sort of free verse, South Louisiana haiku. The daughter of Terrance Simien, she is firmly rooted in the area’s musical legacy. With a life-long leaning toward music, she could have easily fell right in line and — to borrow a cliché — tried to fill his enormous, Grammywinning shoes, which have travelled the world and have shared the stage with big ticket artists such as Paul Simon, Robert Palmer, Stevie Wonder, Los Lobos and the Dave Matthews Band. However, she’s got too much of her mom Cynthia, who is also Terrance’s manager/business partner, in her for that. After all, it was her mother who ventured South from Ohio and, in some ways, is an even bigger influence on her (and her dad). Not only did Marcella strike out to Nashville after graduating from Comeaux High School in 2006 — earning her degree at the Memphis College of Art in December of 2013 — she counts Nina Simone, Nico, A Tribe Called Quest, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Tosh, Brian Eno and Fela Kuti as key influences outside of her father and his extended musical family.

Her music, as a result, is an eclectic blend of genres and sounds devoid of restrictions that would have been placed on her had she stayed to become the next queen of zydeco. It is reflected on her EP, The Bronze Age, and further in her live shows, which she will bring to The Park at the Horse Farm on June 10, her first gig in Lafayette on her own and not as a guest of her father’s. (Instead, he will appear as a special guest to back her up.)

The Bronze Age is no argument for his crown. Instead it’s a celebration of who Marcella is. The closest she comes to the sounds of her home is a cover of Lil’ Bob & The Lollipop’s “My Heart’s on Fire,” which has a scaled-down Supremes sound, and “Ethel,” on which Terrance makes an appearance. Though Creole music is populated with tales of woe, “Ethel” is nowhere near a zydeco track as it features him playing the slowest accordion licks he’s likely ever squeezed while Marcella’s piano paints the background strokes as she sadly waxes poetic. In a near spoken-word style, she delivers poetry again with lines like “... those fangs turned to sugar cane at the mere mention of her name.”

The rest of the album is relatively free of South Louisiana. Other cuts display a soul meets reggae and post-punk vibe with an occasional indie rock feel (she was a fan of local indie rock before heading east). The album’s starter, “Put that Bronze,” establishes a low key reggae or even mellowed rocksteady feel. On “Branch Strewn Sky” it adds post-punk punch and irreverence as she barks at herself, “Don’t be stupid.” “We Rewind” incorporates her more modern indie rock influences coupled with a lounge quality.

Overall, it is a warm album that feels like hanging out on a weeknight — relaxed, subdued but still a good time. The pace works well with her voice — a multidimensional instrument that comes off as smoky, a touch sweet but not saccharinely pretty. Instead, Marcella’s voice is strong, yet conveys instant intimacy and possesses a much-older-thanher-age quality.

The IND: Growing up with a famous musicians as a father and a mother who was involved in the business end of things, was there ever any doubt you would be a musician?

Marcella Simien: Personally, ever since I was a young, I always knew I wanted to be on stage in some way. Watching dad, and being on stage in his or my mom’s arms — these are some of my earliest and dearest memories. But even coming up like I did, surrounded with music, it still took me a minute to find my place. I tried guitar, piano, mandolin, drums and never seemed to find one that I was passionate about. My parents saw me pick up instruments here and there, dabbling, not really taking music seriously. But they stuck with me as I found my way, always encouraging me, always pushing me.

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue music professionally?

I recognized this was something I was meant to do at a very early age. It just made sense, I felt it more than anything else. I was drawn to it. The dream became more and more real the more work I did and got in Memphis. But there was no “a-ha!” moment. It was more like a slow dawning, a gradual realization, like, “Oh … I can’t go into work that day because I have a gig that night.” I worked at other jobs until I found I didn’t have the time for them I once had.

Why did you move away for school?

Why not? I think on one level I was really interested by the idea of starting a new chapter of my life in a new place, far away from the opinions and preconceptions of my sweet Louisiana, free from pantry politics and gossip. I mean, for me there’s hardly ever a good reason to not try something new, especially if this “something new” was an invitation to study at a college deep in the pocket of funky, vibe-heavy Midtown Memphis, surrounded on all sides by Stax [Records] soul, barbecue shops, record stores and the best musicians anybody’s ever heard, ever. Wanna make a go of it? Why not? So that’s what I did. And soon thereafter two key things happened: I taught myself to play accordion, and I got ink of Louisiana on my wrist.

I missed my family so much that I was motivated to learn and to interact with the culture — the instruments and ideas, which makes Louisiana so special. But I was doing it, coming up artistically in this way, now surrounded by the history of Memphis, that tremendous blues culture, all front porch easy and open arms, that’s still such a huge part of everyday life in Memphis. So I found my identity artistically by building on the foundation of my Louisiana heritage, a rocking, searing house made of grinding Memphis soul. Would I have been as motivated to do this had I not left? Would I have even known where to start? Would I have ever found my voice or picked up an accordion? Hard to say, but I tend to doubt it.

The idea that leaving home means a betrayal of that home doesn’t work because a large part of why I left was/is that I wanted to share the culture, history and beauty of Louisiana’s heritage with as many people, and in as many places, as possible. Memphis, this music city, has allowed me the opportunity to survive and make a living out of my art.

Your dad has a pretty open approach to zydeco, playing with Paul Simon, incorporating outside flavors in his zydeco, etc. How did that influence your sound?

He taught me the value of having an open heart. There was never any condemnation of other art forms or artists. He approached it all as a student, knowing without ever saying it that it’s only after this, after learning this kind of humility and open heartedness, that one learns to open their ears, and to really listen to and learn from all the different artists and cultures out there.

So in that respect, he was a tremendous influence. Never, not once, did I wonder if it was “okay” to play Velvet Underground or Brian Eno songs on the accordion. I make what I make, sing what I sing, as honestly and with as much feeling as I can and let the rest work itself out.

You talk a lot about your dad (obviously) but I saw your influences include Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, which your mom once told me about her affinity for and how they are from towns near each other in Ohio. How much did your mom influence you musically?

As much music as my dad listened to, my mom’s taste influenced me even further — artists like Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, sure, but even further and unusual (bands) like Zap Mama, Sade, Talking Heads, Roxy Music — stuff that may not have always been on my dad’s radar. In that way, she influenced us both.

The EP is an eclectic mix of songs. What is the rest of your set like?

The rest of my set is pretty eclectic. The press in Memphis has been especially keen on this, the diversity of our sets. There’s something there for everyone, from the Baby Boomers all the way to the punks I met when I started doing house shows in 2010 in Memphis at punk shows; they’re the mainstays of the present day Goner Records roster, bands like NOTS, Ex- Cult and Manatees all made up my first Memphis audiences. Guitar Wolf even was at one of those shows of mine.

At that time, I used to cover Buzzcocks, Nina Simone, Odetta, all on my own, with only an accordion and my voice, draping the often angular and uncompromising sounds of those artists with the sounds of the Creole culture of where I come from.

Now that school is finished, your first release is wrapped, where to next?

Everywhere. Nuts and bolts wise, we’re in the process of putting together our first couple of tours. Creatively, we’re in the process of smashing all the ideas and tropes and artistic crutches we’ve come to rely a little too much upon, always trying new ideas, new sounds, never getting too comfy in/with any one style or one way of going about making things. Some artists use their recordings as the gold standard of what their material sounds, or should sound, like. But it’s the exact opposite for us. We’re always tinkering with the songs, always ending them differently, tweaking the beat here, pushing vocal there.

Having gone away and come back again, what do you look forward to when you come back to town?

I look forward to sharing all I’ve learned with everyone who’s watched me come up; I look forward to showing everybody what the present day music of Memphis sounds like. I look forward to showing that Memphis is not just a museum town bent on enshrining the music of its past, but instead that there is music being made there that’s every bit as essential as the stuff everybody everywhere around the world knows about. Love seeing my aunts, uncles and friends. And of course my papaw. I’d love it if he could come out and see us.

What are some of your fondest memories of music in Lafayette?

Music was an everyday thing in our household, whether it had to do with the creative or business side of things — it was and is our life. I liked best listening to music with my dad in the studio. That was our thing. I’d bring him new things I discovered, and he’d show me songs or artists I’d never heard of. I love spending time with my family. My dad had to be gone for work a lot of the time during my childhood, so any time we can catch up on that time means the world to me.

Marcella Simien

6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 10

The Park at the Horse Farm