image © Natural Girl Records 2004
Ready or Not
music review and artist reflections
review, interview and HTML © Russell W Elliot 2004
images © Natural Girl Records 2004
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Last updated: 21 November 2004
Marlee Grabiel is a classically trained emerging singer songwriter whose work spans modern jazz-blues like Katie Melua (feature) and Norah Jones (review), the alternative-pop sounds of Jewel and Sarah McLachlan (review) and, with her band Past Forever, the melodic hard rock sounds of Within Temptation (feature), Evanescence (Origin review) and Goddess Is Human (feature).
Marlee's clear voice, extensive range and tremendous power perfectly suits this broad range of material. Read about Marlee's background, the making of her solo album and formation of Past Forever in our interview. We also review her album below. Additional comments on the four track Past Forever EP are included as well. Visit Marlee's website for additional information, soundbites and additional photographs of the artist.
Musical Discoveries: Hi Marlee, how about we begin by you telling us a bit about how you got into music?
Marlee Grabiel: My parents owned a music studio when I was growing up where they, along with some other teachers they hired, taught music lessons--piano, guitar, voice, etc. Apparently when I was three, I went to my Dad and asked him to show me how to play the piano so that's when I started taking lessons. I insisted on being treated not as his daughter when it was time for my lesson, but as any other student. Instead of calling him Dad once we entered the practice room, I would only call him Mr. Grabiel, as though I was another one of his students. I was at the studio quite a bit. I remember taking my daily naps on a cot in the back in the area where we kept all the music books and inventory. I also remember eating a lot of crock pot dinners there as well.
And what kind of musical formation did you have?
I was classically trained, and I was encouraged to participate in all of the studio recitals we had and also the competitions through St. Cecilia's Music Society where you get rated based on pieces you play, and then you have a chance to go onto the statewide competition if you get two of the highest ratings consecutively at that lower level. I did that a few times, but when I was twelve I think, I won the state level. It was pretty cool.
I took a few voice lessons from my Dad, but mainly it was the piano that he taught me. However, I remember being in different choirs pretty consistently. I loved to sing and to have that opportunity anywhere it presented itself. I really didn't start with the guitar until I was fourteen. My mom played it quite a bit, and I really started taking an interest in it when I became a teenager and began listening to more rock music like Nirvana, Silverchair, Green Day and the like. I also met my first love around then who was a musician, and he turned me onto groups like Metallica and heavier music.
Did you play any other instruments?
I think my mom showed me a few things on the guitar, and I had maybe four outside lessons, but after that I basically taught myself how to play, grabbing chord charts, tabs and stuff. It wasn't too difficult since I was already pretty fluent on the piano. My mom is also a drummer so I messed around on her drumset a bit, but I never really got into the drums all that much. I was in two bands after that, and the one I'm in now is my third. The first one was more of a punk type band when I was sixteen, and then the second was for a short while in college.
What did you study?
I ended up going into Pre-Pharmacy, but that only lasted a semester. I was bored with it, and I hated getting up at eight o'clock a.m. for biology lab. I'm not a morning person, my professor would fall asleep in lab, and it just wasn't creative enough for me. My other classes weren't that exciting either. I remember watching an interview or something on TV with Herbie Hancock, I think it was, and he said he was learning to be an electrical engineer or something like that, and he just woke up one day, looked at himself in the mirror and said "What am I doing?" That inspired me because I'd been feeling the very same way.
So what did you do then?
Shortly after I decided to go into music professionally. One of the advisors I spoke with discouraged me from going into performance because it's really hard to break into the industry, but I knew that very same thing happened to my dad in college, and I didn't care what he said, that's really what I wanted to do. I needed to follow my heart, and I felt very strongly about it. I went into Music Industry Management thereafter. It was the only music program my college had, and at that time, I wasn't ready to transfer anywhere else.
To make a long story short, I graduated with that degree four years later and in the course of that, I ended up doing three different internships. I also took continued education courses in graphic design and also web design so that I could take charge of my CD project and create my own website.
How did you hook with your producers and band mates?
My very first solo recording was done in college with the help of my parents. That was just six songs that I had done by myself, with the exception of the first track, which my mom added drums to. But I went back to where I recorded that for my Ready or Not CD because I thought they did a good job, and they gave me a break on the price. It was through them that I hooked up with Wright who put other instruments on my songs to make them sound so much more full. I technically didn't have a producer other than myself and Wright who helped a lot during the sessions. Roy was great too. He engineered and mixed the whole thing. We did it in two very long days. It was pretty cool.
And how did Past Forever form?
I ended up meeting someone, and he got a job down here in Indiana, and I came down here with him. I met my band mates after being here for about six months or so. I was playing a few solo gigs down here, and I met our former drummer, Jay, and he introduced my to Chappy and Nick who are the bass and guitar players of the band. We became a band, and after Jay quit, we hired Glen, who is our current drummer. We have booked studio time to record our first album in January.
I guess you could say that I've done a 360 since I started playing with them. As a solo artist, for whatever reason, a lot of my music came out sounding like blues, purely by accident. I was into the whole coffeehouse thing, and I came across like a Sheryl/Jewel/Alanis type of artist. But then I had this opportunity to do a harder rock thing with the band, and it sounded like a lot of fun. I had this deep-seated desire to do a more aggressive kind of music, and I'm glad that I went with it. It's been a blast.
It's also been really cool because they come from a totally different style of music than I do. They were doing the heavy metal thing for a long time, especially my bass player. Their influences were Slayer, Zak Wylde and artists like that. I think that's why we now have such a unique thing going on because we've taken our backgrounds that are from opposite ends of the spectrum and merged them into our own sound.
What artists do you think have influenced your work?
I grew up listening to Abba, some classical music, opera, Simon and Garfunkle, stuff like that, and then when I became a teenager, I kind of listened to whatever I could get my hands on. I also remember being a kid and singing with my mom to the Judds. We used to say we were going to become a mother-daughter singing team like them. I was a big Kurt Cobain fan. I think I really could relate to him because like him, I suffer from depression so we had that in common. I started to write my own songs when I was fourteen, and a lot of my first songs were inspired by Tori Amos. I really liked her unique style and the fact that she didn't sound like anyone else. From there I got into Fiona Apple, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan and a lot of different female artists who were doing what I wanted to do.
And what about more recently?
When I first came to Indiana, I didn't work a day job. I spent all my time working on getting back into songwriting. It was too hard for me to work forty hours a week and then try to come home and write when I was all stressed out and tired from the day. That's the hard part about trying to be a musician. It's not like you can go up to a record label and get a job as their artist, not right off the bat anyhow. So you kind of have to make a decision if you want to be poor and follow your dream or work the 9-5 thing and be miserable. At least that's how it is for me as a writer. And I think I'm paying dues right now, and it's hard, but I really believe that someday it will be worth it.
Please tell us about the making of your album.
I wish I would have had the budget to be able to work in various studios, but there was just the one, and as I said, it took me basically a weekend to record the album. The six track CD I mentioned earlier is how I financed the project. I was selling them with the help of my parents to different people and saved for about six months before I had enought to finance this album. However, I had met with Wright earlier and played him the songs I wanted to put on the album. He recorded everything on a tape recorder, figured out my tempos and took notes and then came up with instrumentation in about two weeks to add to what I had done. We then went into the studio. He layed everything down, and then I came in, laid down my parts and the vocals, and then mixed everything at the end.
Why did you start your own label?
I had thought about owning a label, but that was maybe a secondary goal. All I've wanted to really do was be the artist, the performer, the songwriter, the musician. I learned the business to cover my own butt basically so I wouldn't get taken advantage of, as it is easy to do, especially in the music industry. I met with Ralph Murphy from ASCAP when I was living in Nashville, and he encouraged me to just register my own publishing company, which made sense rather than waiting for a publishing company to pick me up, especially since they'd take half my royalties anyway.
I've always kind of been the type of person to just do things myself so I think it was a good decision. I didn't really think anything would come of it, but then I started making these records, and this attorney I had been getting advice from just told me to make it Natural Girl Records. It has worked out for me, and I haven't been waiting around to get picked up. I guess you could say I picked up myself. It's probably for the best because anyone that knows me will tell you I'm not a very patient person.
The label has kind of been a base for my being able to do all the business stuff that I've needed to do to help promote my music. Right now it's really new so I don't have other clients. I really don't have time for that yet not to say that I won't eventually. But between releasing the CD, playing out quite a bit with the band, doing pre-production for the album and working a part-time day job, I'm a pretty busy girl.
How have you been affected by the publicity of your debut album?
Not yet. I've gotten some airplay which has definitely helped me to sell records, but I think I'm in the beginning stages of it all so it's not like I'm in the Enquirer or on the cover of Rolling Stone or anything like that. This is really the first time that my dream is becoming a reality, and that for me is really very cool. I really enjoy doing interviews, shows, all of that. Maybe it'll get old after a while, but for now I embrace it because I know it's helping to promote my music, and that's something I really believe is positive. I think that my songs have the potential to maybe help people with the messages I'm sending out, and knowing that I'm trying is really a good feeling.
How do you describe the style of your music--solo and with Past Forever?It's definitely very different. People who have heard my solo stuff on the radio did recognize my voice after hearing me in the band, but stylistically it's totally different. Solo I was more folk/blues, and with the band, I'm hard rock. Here I was being compared to Nora Jones, and now it's Evanescence with the band.
What can you tell us about your work with Past Forever?
The experience with Past Forever has been so great. For starters, the guys in the band are like family to me. We all care about each other and have the same dream so our goals are in line. We're all really willing to work with each other too, which has been really great as well. I don't think any one of us has a huge ego problem either, which is so nice. It makes it really difficult when someone in the band thinks of himself or herself as being above everyone else. It causes more problems than it alleviates, and it's really great not to have to deal with that. It's hard enough for four people to come together and arrange their schedules so they can practice a bunch during the week and write and perform together.
It's also taken a lot of pressure off of me, especially when it comes to performing. It has presented new challenges, but when I have a show, it's not like I'm the only one who gets nervous and has to worry about screwing up or about people not paying attention or whatever. Now I share that with three other people, and I think as a result, I'm able to relax a lot more and have fun on stage. I also think having a band makes the performance more entertaining because we all feed off each other and if you're having fun, your audience will pick that up and have fun as well.
I still sing and play the piano in the band--it's just a lot more rock with strings and stuff. It sounds very gothic compared to the solo stuff I was doing, although we do a version of "Haunting My Every Day," which is the fourth song on my solo album. I've also written some of our songs on the guitar, but I haven't played them on the guitar yet. If I write a song on the guitar, I'll usually show it to Nick, and he'll play it on the guitar, and then I'll add a piano part to it. But I would like to start playing both instruments on stage just for some variety.
How do the audiences react to your live performances and on-stage persona?
So far we've gotten a great response as a band. A lot of people have told us how blown away they were because we're so good. I know that we're good, and that's really cool to have people tell us that. I just didn't realize they'd be raving about it as they are. I'm just glad they are out there having a good time and coming back to see us again because that's really what it's about. It's cool to see our audiences getting up and dancing and getting into the music. They did that a bit with some of my solo songs too, and that's always cool to play songs that people can and want to dance to. My solo stuff was pretty laid back so it was more mood music for people to sit down, eat, drink some wine and talk to their friends and family while I played. I definitely like the vibe we have with the band because there's just more energy, and the spotlight is right on us.
How would you describe the influences to your songwriting and vocal style?
My songs are all written from inspirations in my life. I write about almost everything that happens to me that has had some type of emotional experience. I don't really try to emulate anyone in my songwriting. I want to make the songs my own, and although I've been influenced by different artists, I haven't really tried to copy any one individual for a very long time. I'm much more individualistic than that I think. Vocally there's people I like, but I don't try to be like anyone with that either. I just sing the song how I feel it, if that makes sense. I like to belt out the songs with the band, and that's something I really didn't do as a solo act. I was more shy I think than I am now with three guys backing me. Thanks to them I've had more confidence to be more aggressive on the mic.
From what do you draw inspiration for the music and the lyrics?
Primarily I draw my inspiration from life events, from the things that happen to me, to those around me, the emotions that go along with the events, all of that.
How do you think your album has impacted the public's interest in your music?
Well I think that because I have a marketable product now, I have more opportunities to connect with people because there's something they can bring home with them that is tangible. I hope that my music will gain more popularity as a result of reviews and airplay of my album. So far the response has been very positive.
I've heard a lot of really exciting positive feedback from everyone that has heard the album, and so I think my career will continue to progress and to grow as more and more people hear my songs and learn more about me and what I'm all about. It's hard at the beginning because I don't have the means or the connections to put it out in every retail store available and on every radio station, but I'll do what I can on my own, and hopefully enough people will latch onto it to create substantial interest.
What are your interests outside of music? Do you have a "day" job?
I work part-time--three days a week--right now for the "day" job. I do data entry and I assist a maintenance manager with office type work at a large manufacturing company. I really enjoy working out and reading. Sometimes I'll draw or use pastels, but that's only occassionally. I was painting there for a while, and I like to do create stuff sometimes like make jewelry or clothes. I'm not extremely skilled with clothes, but I've only done a few things, and I'd like to keep working on that as well. I also like to write sometimes. I wrote a fictional book a while back, but it isn't published or anything. It was just something I wanted to do. I also really love cats, and I had one for the past two years, but he had leukemia, and I recently had to put him to sleep so I've been very sad about that.
How do you think the internet has influenced your musical career?
I think the internet has both hurt and helped my music career. It's a lot easier to find out about people and different organizations, especially because now everyone realizes they need to have a website. I've also made a lot of contacts to different magazines, radio stations and such through the internet. I really love e-mail. I think partly because I'd rather write to someone just because I'm more comfortable with it. So in that aspect it's been cool, plus I've been able to reach people who have stumbled onto my website who might have otherwise not ever heard of me. That's all been very positive.
The other side of the coin is that the internet makes it that much easier for just anyone to put their music out there and take up space with it. It's frustrating for a serious artist like myself who is trying to build a following and develop a fanbase and make connections with people in the business. It makes it that much harder for people like me because everyone we want to listen to our stuff has to wade through that much more music that's not necessarily that strong before ours is even given a chance. It can be really discouraging.
What are your musical hopes, plans and dreams?
I have come to realize and accept the fact that I am and always will be an artist and a musician. For a while I tried to deny it and become the 9-5er, but I was miserable, and I was in denial about who I really am, and I felt like I was only stifling a bunch of creative energy that I was supposed to use. I really hope that things with the band will take off. I want the whole thing, the going on tour, the making albums. I've always had really high hopes and dreams for my career, and I've sacrificed a lot to try to make it happen. But realistically I want to be successful, I want to do this professionally, and I want to reach people and give them some positive messages because I think the world could use it.
Marlee's debut album, Ready Or Not(Natural Girl Publishing (USA) 0402, 2004) is a varied ten track collection exploring a range of styles. Listeners will be drawn in by Marlee's vocals in "Small Town Blues," reminscent of Katie Melua from the outset. Crisp percussion and keyboard washes join Marlee's piano in an album standout, the tender ballad "Behind Closed Doors." The album then combines upbeat tempos with bluesy textures in the stunning "Devoid Of Meaning." Marlee's evocatively delivered vocal is mixed perfectly atop the guitar and keyboard-based arrangement. Also performed with Past Forever on the EP, Marlee delivers the stunning and emotionally wrenched ballad "Haunting Me Everyday," accompanied primarily by piano with percussion, guitar and bass also in the background. Layers of Marlee's harmony vocals add a superb texture to the chorus.
In "Me & My Guitar," Marlee returns to the bluesy singer songwriter sound with guitar and standup bass accompanying. It is here where the striking similarity to Katie Melua is most evident and Marlee's vocal prowess shows in the power of her delivery. The tempo picks up in "Past Midnight," with the piano, acoustic guitar and percussion perfectly underscoring Marlee's soaring vocal energy. The singer perfectly delivers the country-styled ballad "Please Don't Ask Me to Stay." The chorus naturally draws listeners into the tune. "That Kind Of Feeling" is even more contry and western influenced tune with lots of vocal reverb with acoustic guitar and standup bass supporting.
"Rise Above" is a tender ballad sung atop piano. Marlee's vocals could have been mixed a bit further up to better illustrate the heart wrenching emotion she delivers in the tune. The album concludes with the stunning track "What About Us?" that beings with light acoustic guitar support and then whose arrangement develops to full splendour as the song reaches its midpoint. Additional harmony vocals contribute to a great sound. Ready or Not is a noteworthy debut album and we certainly expect to hear a lot more from Marlee Grabiel in the coming months and years. Modest production has done the material justice, and Marlee shows a lot of promise both as a songwriter and a female vocalist. Her self-accompanied material demonstrates her superb virtuousity as well.
Past Forever EP. The band are going into the studio in January 2005 to produce their debut album but have self released an EP with four pre-album tracks that illustrate a range of their material in the meantime. The powerful symphonic keyboards and heavy guitars in "Left Behind," reminiscent of Evanescence and Within Temptation, perfectly support the most powerful vocal lead we've heard from Marlee thusfar. Layers of supporting harmonies perfectly compliment the sound. The band's arrangement for "Haunting My Every Day" is richer with guitar and keyboard excursions adding texture to the track from Marlee's solo album but never overpowering the vocals.
"Sanctified" is a richly arranged metal-oriented ballad with arrangements complementing Marlee's evocative vocal delivery. Here the band could have mixed Marlee to be more prominent in the arrangement, especially in chorus segments where her vocals soar to the upper end of her range. Further work on this tune during production will likely improve it substantially. The EP concludes with "Draw The Line," a rapid paced heavy metal-sounding tune most reminscent of (there we said it) After Forever with percussion and powerful electric guitar riffs providing the instrumental foundation. Heavily reverbed vocals present the lyrics. While the track has tremendous promise, further work on vocal production in the studio will make a vast improvement in the final result. We especially enjoyed guitar solos and Marlee's powerfully soaring vocals on the EP's last two tracks.
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