An Interview Gabrielle Marlena
Canvas & Cassette: When did you move to New York, and did you move here specifically to pursue music?
Gabrielle Marlena: I moved here May of 2016, right after I graduated. I had my last exam at McGill and the next morning I moved to New York. At the time music was a side thing; I would perform at open mics, play for my friends, and I got involved in some student shows that benefited charities. But it was always on the side, my main thing was getting a college degree, which in my mind couldn’t be in music. Academia and music had always been totally separate things for me. I studied economics because I was good at it, but when I graduated with honors, I was like, "what the fuck am I doing?" So I moved to New York for an internship for a non-profit trade association called the American Association of Independent Music, which has all of these member organizations that are independent labels and other music companies. So I was thrown into a situation that was way beyond my experience with music at the time.
C&C: What was your entry point in terms of playing and writing music? I remember at your show at Rockwood Music Hall a few months back, you said that Avril Lavigne was a huge reason that you picked up a guitar.
GM: Yeah, anytime anyone asks me who my influences are I immediately say Avril Lavigne and it comes across as a joke, but it's not. I'm still obsessed with her first album, I'll listen to it in the car and just freak out. I've been singing since I was a toddler, and I'd taken a lot of classical piano lessons and played clarinet with the school band, but when I was twelve I wanted to learn to play the guitar. I had a really great teacher and started by just learning basic chords, which I think helped me grow my songwriting because I would basically bring a mixed CD–my twelve-year-old self would bring a mixed CD–of songs I wanted to be able to play on guitar and sing. So instead of just taking guitar lessons, I was singing and playing guitar. Avril Lavigne songs, Dido songs, Kelly Clarkson and stuff. Once I knew basic chords I started to write songs, and they were really bad. But now they're great so it's okay.
C&C: Do you ever go back and revisit your original songs?
GM: Every once in a while my friends will send me really crappy recordings of things they found from when I was thirteen or fourteen. I would write about crushes—most of the time I would make up scenarios, because I had no life experience. I used to make up stories about people who had important things going on (laughs). And I was like, getting ready for my bat mitzvah.
C&C: Did that make it in any songs?
GM: No, but I totally played guitar at my bat mitzvah, I played guitar to accompany all the prayers.
C&C: What is your process for writing songs now?
GM: It always starts on my iPhone. If I sit down and try to write a song out of nowhere it's really hard. Either it'll start when I'm crying in my room and need to get it out, or I'll be on the train and be like, "oh fuck this is a really good lyric." I'll write it down on my phone and I'll go back to it when I have my guitar. I guess it starts with lyrics and then I just start singing, there's no real science to it.
C&C: Do you work on multiple songs concurrently?
GM: I will sit and write a song front to end, and maybe a couple words or a melody will change, but that's usually the song. The next time I sit down to write, I'll start a new song. I imagine that's how my songwriting will grow in the future, I'll get a lot better at being able to craft them more intentionally, and write with other people. Because right now it's a very, very personal thing for me. And afterwards I want to tell the whole world that I wrote it, but it's hard for me to imagine writing with other people because it isn't about... you (laughs).
C&C: They're super autobiographical, it seems.
GM: All of the songs on my record are true. This album is about the only serious relationship I've ever had.
C&C: Does he know that it's about him?
GM: (Pauses) I'm trying to figure out what I should tell you... I was in Montréal in school and I went on an exchange program. We dated for six months and it was really intense, it was everything I wanted, it was perfect. The program was in Melbourne, the farthest away I could have possibly gone. And in the end I had to go back to Montréal to finish my degree, hence why I was miserable my last year of college because after leaving that, I wasn't really coming back to anything I wanted to go back to. It was a lot of inner turmoil (laughs). But yeah, he knows it's about him. I would send him the songs as I was writing them.
C&C: What is that experience like, processing a relationship through writing, recording and performing? It seems like performing, at least, must be a bit of a nightly confessional, revealing parts of your relationship to people you don't necessarily know.
GM: At this point, I'm still attached to the experience of it; I'm not completely over that part of my life yet. But the songs themselves I'm pretty disconnected to, because they've become this project that I've heard so many times. When I'm performing these songs I have to remember that the people in the audience are hearing it for the first time, and that's really hard because for me, they're so outdated. But I know they're powerful and I know they're good, so I want to keep sharing them with people.
In terms of writing, that process was obviously very therapeutic. On the record, the songs are chronologically in the order that I wrote them. The first song was written in Australia while I was still in this relationship; I never thought that would be a title track to a record. I think I wrote two songs while I was there, they kind of came every couple of months while I was in school in Montréal after that. The breakup itself came in stages, too, I'm sure you know what that's like, when it's like "okay, it's over. Wait, wait, wait—is it really over? Yeah, it's really, really over." So the songs would come in a different stage of the... spiraling (laughs). And some of them I wrote once I moved to New York, which was already a year and a half almost after the relationship had ended. And at that point you're writing music, and you're like, "this is so embarrassing that I'm still writing music about this person." But when you have that one amazing, horrible experience and it's the only one you can think about... everyone has that one person that they associate most strongly with love, you know? I think most people have that one, not only first love, but strongest love.
So I was still writing music about that relationship a year and a half later, and then there was one song where I thought, "okay, this is the final song." I went to record with my producer, Katie Buchanan, with a folder of the demos that I thought were my best songs, and they weren't all about this relationship. We were going to make a short EP. There were some about previous "flings" or whatever, because all my songs are about that (laughs). I thought they were great, and I still think they're great, but they felt a little random. So I decided to do a full record of all these songs about this one person, in the order they were written, because it's like a story. Which was the more expensive route because it was eleven songs versus five, and everyone around me was like, "why are you recording a full album as your first project?" But I felt strongly that it made sense to do it this way, so I did. And I'm happy about it.
C&C: When you first listened to your album in its entirety with the accompaniment, did it feel dramatic in any sort of way?
GM: It wasn't until I heard the final mastered songs that I had that moment of, "holy shit, this is so good." Part of the mastering process ensures that the album sounds good on every device that you can listen to it on. My favorite way to listen to music is with my Apple ear buds, so when I listened to the mastered version on my headphones I was like, "oh great, this is good." That was my wow moment.
C&C: At what point did your ex know that the album was about him, or that it was coming out?
GM: At least the first seven songs were written when I was still trying to get him to move here for me. I was still sending him these things like, "I know you're coming, you remember how good this was, look at how sad I am." So he had heard most of them, and then when I stopped trying to get him to move, the songs became a little more hurtful and about other guys that I was seeing trying to get over him... so there were things that I was no longer sending him. But once the whole thing was done in February I immediately sent it to him and he was like, "this made me cry" and I was like, "good, fuck you" (both laugh). So that felt really good, to be like, "look at what I did with all your stupid shit." It wasn't until the fall that I decided I wanted to do physical copies, and I mailed him one. Mailed it all the way to Australia, it cost me seventeen dollars (laughs). It was so expensive, but I mailed him one and he messaged me. He was very supportive, he was like, "I'm really proud of you for doing this." Every time I would send my ex a song, every time I would tell him I was writing about him, he would always be like, "I support you," and I was like ,"no, I want you to get angry or feel something, feel anything." But he never did, well I'm sure he did feel something, but his response was always, "this is so great, I'm so happy."
C&C: That's part of what's so relatable with the album as a whole, with any relationship there's this feeling of wanting somebody to come back when things are over. But on the album it's not only this confessional sadness, there are also these sort of self declarations—I love the lyric, "I am deserving, I am worthy, and I've been all along."
GM: I'm very emotionally volatile, any guy I've ever dated will tell you that, any of my friends will tell you that. So some of my songs are like that, too, where the whole song is sad and then there's this realization of, "oh wait, fuck you, I am deserving of this." Everyone experiences that, when you're so sad and then you have this moment of empowerment.
C&C: That seems to be reflected in your singing style, too, where you have the raspy, almost falsetto moments in a lyric and then the next moment you're belting. It seems that within a song, or within a single lyric, you walk that line of being both vulnerable and guarded.
GM: When I'm writing my emotions will change within a song and it's not practiced, it's natural. Even in that song, "Love Me Out Loud," which is about watching everyone around me having successful relationships and moving across the world for each other, there's a reason that the last line is "I am deserving," because at the end of writing I was like, "wait, I'm not this pathetic" (laughs). And I don't know... I feel powerful after writing a song, so they tend to end on a higher note most of the time.
C&C: Do you ever feel that as you've worked through a song or as you've performed it over a period of time, that something different is revealed to you in the lyrics? Or you see a different perspective of the relationship?
GM: Well, one thing that happens, I'll write a song about one guy and then I'll sing it three months later and I'll be like, "oh my God this is about this guy that I'm seeing right now." Those are moments where I realize, we're human and we barely ever learn anything. But also, sometimes people will hear my lyrics and interpret them differently than I do or what I intended when I wrote them. Just recently my mom—who's obviously my biggest fan (laughs) told me something about my song "The Bad Parts," where I say, "will you help me hate you so I can finish this book." For me, that was always literally a moment of, "I'm trying to read right now and I can't get to the end of the page because you're on my mind and I need to get over this." But my mom always thought I was saying metaphorically I need to finish this book, this relationship, and I'd never thought about it like that. I love that song because it's about when you're looking through all of the photos of your relationship and you're like, "fuck this was so good."
C&C: To go back to touring—I feel like every time I see you post on social media, you're playing on a different rooftop in Bushwick.
GM: That's actually funny because I haven't played a rooftop in Bushwick in a long time, the show I was supposed to play last night was moved to an apartment because of the rain. So I called it a rooftop show but it ended up being a kitchen show. I've been doing a lot of backyard shows recently because of this website called Artery, which is a platform that makes it really easy to organize house shows. For my fall tour, I've been booking a lot of shows at little venues. One of them is at a poetry bookstore kind of like Brooklyn Art Library, one of them is like a regular café that doesn't even usually host music, in Chicago. Everyone was like, "you're crazy—you need to book a tour four months in advance." And it was like a month in advance.
C&C: Is this your first time doing a full cross-country tour?
GM: Yeah, the thing about me as an artist right now is—no one knows me outside of New York. There's little room for disappointment because I've been wanting to drive across the country for so long. I'll be happy even if I'm playing to five people in a room. If I can play to five people every night, and they become actual fans, then that's great. Because I'm still at that scale right now where each person who is genuinely interested in my music really matters.
C&C: Playing intimate shows like that, what is that experience like? Is it something that you consciously think about when you're performing?
GM: I get more nervous when I'm playing to five people than when I'm playing to forty people. Usually if it's dark on stage and I can't see anyone, I'm myself and in my element. But when you're sitting in a very quiet room, you're asking for people's attention in such a different way, because you're asking them to just sit there.
C&C: Especially now, when everyone's so fidgety by nature.
GM: Yeah, if I look at people, and they're not on their phones, that's a huge win. Or when they have their phones out but they're recording, that's even better.
C&C: Speaking of recording, I wanted to ask about your music videos for this album.
GM: Both of the music videos I have out are by Logan Floyd. It was a very collaborative thing, super low budget. The one for "Second Guess" was really fun because I’d been meaning to get a tattoo for a while from my friend Rosa Bluestone Perr. We shot the whole thing in three hours, it starts on my face and then zooms out, revealing that I'm getting a tattoo. So I'm singing about not second guessing people’s emotions, while getting a very permanent tattoo—no room for second guessing there. I was actually singing, too; it hurt less than getting a normal tattoo because it was hand poke, the hardest part was just keeping my arm in that position for so long.
It's funny, musicians of our generation on social media tend to make themselves look pretty somber, unless you're like Pharrell just singing about being happy. Most indie artists' press photos will be very straight-faced or sad or serious—and my grandma hates it. She sees these photos that I'm taking for press and she's like, "that's not a good photo of you. You don't look good." And it'll be my favorite photo. It's just a generational divide.
The video for "Second Guess" is so sad, and I remember I showed it to my grandmother and she was so concerned, like, "why do you have this blank stare in your eyes?"
As for the tattoo itself, it doesn't have a particular meaning. A lot of my tattoos have no meaning, like I have a random daffodil. I wanted Rosa to design something, and a lot of designs she does have to do with women, which I guess was fitting. A woman produced my record, a woman made my album art, there are certain emotions that women tend to feel more than men. Not to enforce the gender binary.
C&C: Along the same vein of visual representation of your music—is there significance to the album cover for Good Music For You?
GM: Yeah, Katerina Gribkoff drew this artwork for me. If we're going to get real personal, the album artwork is based off of a photo of me and my ex, like a really intimate photo (laughs). It was always this photo that stuck out in my mind as the embodiment of "our love." The way that the photo was, our faces are kind of overlapping, so I always had the idea of pulling apart those puzzle pieces, two people enmeshed in each other being pulled apart. Because that's what happened, I mean I got on a plane. The fact that we’re able to travel, and communicate from afar, and be in all these places at once, you can just get on another side of the world—it just felt like such an unnatural way to end a relationship. But people do it all the time, I'm sure this is not a unique story.
- Marissa Passi