BY ZOE MILLS
It’s a warm December morning, and instead of being at the beach, I’m weaving my way through the busy street of Auckland’s Britomart – that’s because I’m on my way to chat to rising singer-songwriter Marianne Leigh and producer Nate Selway on the release of her debut E.P Timeline.
The young singer-songwriter has quickly established herself as one to watch on the New Zealand music scene this year – through winning the Auckland regional finals of Smokefree Rockquest, countless live shows and music releases, it’s clear to see that the singer has been building momentum towards her E.P release this January.
However, throughout all of the success she has received this year, Marianne has remained very grounded. She talks to me with the sincerity of a true writer and artist, not just a performer. It’s strange to hear that she was once scared of performing – “I’ve gotten to a point where I’m not as self-conscious about performing anymore. When I was around 14, I decided that I was going to take my music out of my bedroom and get over my fear of performing. In year 8, I got up on stage, sang for 2 seconds, put the mic down and just walked off. I thought that I would never perform again. [The stage] has become my safe place”, she tells me. “I’ve got a gig tomorrow that I’m not really stressing out about – and if you know me, like many other young musicians, I’m super anxious! Being able to perform on stage and be confident was always a goal that I wanted to reach, and I think that I’ve finally got there”.
I’m struck with just how much energy she has, in her music and as a person. The 17-year-old credits most of her musical influence on her family. “My family is a very loud musical family – we’re Polish”, she explains, “One of my earliest memories are singing along with my parents to the radio. My mum is tone deaf! My work ethic inspiration is definitely my mum. She is superwoman! She’s not a singer, but my dad is. I used to sing along with to lots of different eighties bands”. Marianne explains how her older brother in particular has shaped her music and sound – “My older brother Tommy is a huge influence on my life and my music. He’s written music for as long as I could remember. We’ve always been so close because we have that connection through music”.
A defining feature of Marianne’s artistry is her ability to write such poignant yet catchy lyrics. She explained to me how her sophisticated writing style developed from very humble beginnings: “When I was 10, I joined the ukulele group at school. We had an assignment – we had to go home and write a song – it was so bad! I was singing about a breakup that I never had! Ever since then I just continued writing about my life”.
As we’re talking, I’m finding it difficult to believe that that Marianne is barely 17 years old. So, how does she balance being a musician with a regular teenage girl? She laughs. “A lot of people forget that we have school. I’ll be performing super late one night, but then I’ll have to get up super early the next day for orchestra and go to school. Life doesn’t just stop [for music].”
And that it doesn’t. Amidst the busy commitments of the school year, Leigh emerged 1st place in the Auckland regional finals for Smokefree Rockquest, while also sharing the stage with school friend Katie Lee Webster. “This year, I told myself that any opportunity I see, I just have to take it, even if I don’t want to. I never entered [Rockquest] before because I just didn’t think it was my thing. I never realised that I was holding myself back”, Marianne tells me. Winning the competition came as complete surprise, she explains – “I was on stage, they were reading out the awards and everyone was getting awards except me – I was thinking ‘Wow, Marianne. You suck”, she laughs. “But then I heard my name!”.
The songstress was awarded the top prize through her performance of her emotional ballad Best of Me – “I decided to write it about a girl who had been used by a guy. A lot of girls around me had been in situations like that, and so I decided to write from their perspective.”
“My main takeaway from Rockquest… there are so many talented people, and you don’t have to make it a competition. Although we all placed differently, we all came away with friendship. It’s so great!”
Alongside studying full time, performing shows all over Auckland, and competing in Rockquest, Marianne has still managed to find the time to write and record her debut E.P Timeline over the past year. Nate Selway is a producer studying a Bachelor of Audio Engineering at SAE, and a close friend of Leigh’s. Nate is also an accomplished musician, who plays piano, drums, bass, and ukulele, as well as song writing and singing. Selway met Marianne during a show this year, and ever since they have collaborated to record Timeline together.
“I met Marianne at the YouthsArtsX festival when I was volunteering as an audio-engineer. I was put in charge of a small stage for acoustic singer-songwriters. I think Marianne was third of the list. I’ve still got the run sheet somewhere!” Nate explains, and Leigh starts to laugh – “I almost wasn’t going to go! Imagine if I hadn’t gone! Nate had actually crossed me out because I didn’t arrive on time”.
“When she showed up, I was actually annoyed. But she started singing – when she got to Best of Me, I stood there staring for a second and just thought ‘this girl is going somewhere’. I wanted to help her”, Selway tells me. “She was walking off after her set and I asked her if she was being recorded – she wasn’t – and I tore off a corner of the run sheet, gave her my number. She actually texted me back!”.
The upcoming Timeline E.P has gone through a number of shifts and changes over the past few months, but it is clear to see that both Leigh and Selway have a clear vision of what they want the E.P to be – (The E.P) is called Timeline because it’s one of the lyrics from the featured songs Look At Me. “Each song represents a different moment in the past year where everything has changed for me”, explains Marianne. “In one of our first sessions we agreed that we wanted this E.P to be a soft sounding that you can listen to while it’s raining outside, sitting on your bed with fairy lights on… it’s just emotion and being honest. I’m a teenager, I go through a lot of emotions. (Nate) has always been so welcoming, and he’s never forced me to have a specific sound. This EP is really what I wanted”.
Being the main producer for the release, Nate explained the inspiration behind the almost lo-fi tone of the E.P – “Production wise for the EP, I’ve looked at artists like Grace Vanderwaal. Her producer is a really solid guy, and his sound design is really neat. I’ve drawn from them the most. Marianne is a really well-developed artist – she’s got a lot in her toolkit. It challenges me to be adaptable to all of her different styles”.
Although with a clear vision, both Selway and Leigh have found obstacles through the recording process. The E.P itself is cleverly put together – a mix of diverse beats and sounds that still portray a gentle and soft atmosphere. The most recent single from Timeline – Little Out of Reach – reflects this perfectly: “I wrote Little Out Of Reach when I was at a songwriting workshop with Bic Runga in Christchurch”, Marianne tells me. “We had an hour to go away and write a song, and it just came out all at once. The reason that I wanted it to be the second single was usually singles are usually loud, upbeat and poppy. Little Out Of Reach is more emotional and honest – very honest. I just wanted to be vulnerable”.
If there’s one word to describe the E.P, it’s honest. When I asked Marianne, which track was the most significant to her, she immediately answered with Say You Love Me. “It’s real. Every word is true – it’s about someone loving the person you love”, Marianne tells me. “I went into a practise room at school, I just started playing the piano – I wrote the line “Maybe I’m silly, and she’s just a friend / but silence is lonely, and yours never ends”. It really hit me. I just had to write it. I hope people listen to it and they love it because it’s so real, its personal, its honest. I feel like I’m gonna get some worried phone calls after releasing it!”, she laughs.
The Timeline E.P will be released on January 20th, and Marianne will be playing gigs all over Auckland. “I’ve got some really big gigs coming up in early January-February. I’ll be doing lots of open mics, I’m hopefully going to do radio! I’ll be posting everything that’s happening on my social media”. (@marianneleighmusic on Instagram).
If anything, it’s very clear that Marianne has a very promising future ahead of her – one that will most certainly carry her music far beyond this most recent timeline.
This girl is one to watch.
The Timeline E.P will be released onto all streaming services on January 20th 2020.
Feisty, always up for a debate and smashing down the patriarchy, ZOE MILLS is a politics nerd with a huge passion for social justice. Keep up with her antics on Instagram: @zoeemills_
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