Bozeman’s Marcedes Carroll draws upon Texas, Tennessee in debut EP
by Skip Anderson
Born in Colorado, raised in Montana, and attended college in Idaho, the Rocky Mountains have all but shaped emerging Americana artist Marcedes Carroll. And the music that comprises her debut EP, She’s Pretty, reflects it. She’s a powerhouse singer who can boom like Etta and croon like Ella, and she writes visual lyrics that draw upon her the mountains and streams that define the Last Best Place as much as they do her own well-rounded sensibilities. At 29, Carroll grew up singing along with Mary Chapin Carpenter songs. And she appreciates the blues more than most other genres, she says. Although these days she’s seems more likely to turn to Texas as much as Tennessee for inspiration, citing, among others, Townes Van Zandt, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, and Jamie Lin Wilson as artistic influences. Her record reflects that, too.
Rolling Zone: Was music an important part of your childhood?
Marcedes Carroll: When I was younger I was more of an athlete, but I always wanted to be a singer. I sang everywhere I went, and I sang lullabies to my little brothers at night. I also sang the Titanic theme song to my grandmother over and over. Then, when I was 15, the pastor at my church taught me a few chords on guitar and I began learning songs by watching YouTube, and I did a little choir in high school. When I started writing [songs] at 19, I quickly realized was that a great way for me to get my emotions out.
RZ: Are you parents musical?
MC: My mom played saxophone growing up. But, two summers ago, we visited her family in North Dakota and I found out my biological dad was incredibly musical. He never played a big part in my life, but on that trip I learned that he could play piano by ear. His brother was a singer/songwriter and his cousin was an indie performer in Nashville. So, music has always been a part of me, but I didn’t know that until a couple of years ago. That was a big revelation moment.
RZ: Montana seems to inform your songwriting. There’s no better example of that than “Downriver” from She’s Pretty in which the narrator is offering herself to a love interest using a river as the metaphor.
MC: I co-wrote that with Jennifer Schmitt. She started it, and I immediately thought it should have a blues feel to it. Then [Grammy-winning producer and co-owner of Life from the Divide] Doc Wiley helped us create the intro you hear on the EP. I absolutely love the combination of the metaphor of the river and making love. [My husband Isaac Carroll] and I have spent a lot of time at the river and playing our guitars. So, when we put this song together, it’s my favorite song on this EP. That song means a lot to me, actually.
RZ: It’s not a naïve song. There’s an acknowledgment at the onset of this emerging love story that there will be trials along the way. That dash of realism keeps the song from becoming saccharine.
MC: That’s something you have to be careful of when writing love songs. They can be very corny.
RZ: There’s a bit of a Patsy Cline feel to it. Was she an influence on you?
MC: I do like Patsy. I used to sing karaoke to “Walking After Midnight” in my early 20s. But Norah Jones is who inspired that feel – she really influenced me in how I approached “Downriver.”
RZ: You only have to listen to the first four lines of “Gasoline” to know that you’re playing for keeps as a vocalist. That’s a statement performance, for sure. Did that figure into your decision to open the EP with that song?
MC: I’ve always gravitated to strong vocalists like Celine Dion, Patty Loveless and Linda Ronstadt – those are the voices I have tried to mimic. I wrote that song about 6 years ago. It was a frustrated-love song; I thought we had so much potential, but he didn’t see it that way. It takes an extreme turn at the end – that’s perhaps a bit of the Old West that we were talking about coming through. I really like that one chord on the piano in the intro. That was my little brother playing, and I thought it opened it up so nicely and really pulls you in.
RZ: Your voice has power, but it also has range. You tend to stay in your lower register, but you seem comfortable shifting up an octave or two.
MC: I really like spreading it out. I’ve been working with Krista Barnett from Pinky and the Floyd. She’s an amazing singer, and she has really helped me move into different ranges with a little more ease and helped me shift into those higher octaves and pushing those notes forward and out. She’s going to sing a few songs with me at the Live from the Divide show Oct. 18.
RZ: You’ve worked at Live from the Divide behind the scenes, and now you’ll be the one on the stage.
MC: I volunteered there for four seasons and have worked there full-time for the past two. At the end of 2017, I made the decision to pursue music as hard as I can. So, going into the 2018 and 2019 seasons, I made it a point to be at almost every show. When I was working an office job, 10 minutes would feel like 10 hours. And when I’m at Live from the Divide, 10 hours feels like 10 minutes. That told me something. I’ve learned so much there. I’ve been working closely with Doc [Wiley]. He’s taught me so much about the technological side of a show, and I’ve developed a much sharper ear as a result. The thought of performing there feels really cool. I have worked really hard to get to this point, and I think it will be a really cool full-circle moment.
RZ: What have you learned from all the heavy-hitting songwriters and performers you’ve had access to?
MC: There’s a lot of continuity to what many of those artists say. Talking with them, I see that there are insecurities to overcome no matter where you are in your career. I also have learned to write every morning no matter what. Even if you’re not feeling it at the time, write anyway. There is one thing that a performer said to me really stands out. Jamie Lin Wilson told me, ‘You know when the audience is laughing at your jokes, you have them.’ She just amazes me.
RZ: What’s your process for songwriting?
MC: I write the lyrics first then the melody later. And I read a lot of books, lyrics, and poetry. Townes Van Zandt’s lyrics are absolutely poetic. Jamie Lin Wilson sang in the song “Eyes for You,” ‘The melody moves on the words you choose.’ And there’s truth in that. I write the lyrics first, and it’s so much fun to go back and rework a song to find the best way to say something.
RZ: Outlaw country songwriter Chris Gantry told me that great songs aren’t written, they’re rewritten.
RZ: Your husband Isaac backs you on guitar. Do the origins of your relationship trace back to music?
MC: We met at an Open Mic at 406 Brewery in Bozeman. And when I walked in, Isaac was playing “The Weight.” He has such a cool voice, and he had shoulder-length hair, and was a bit of a rocker. I was working to get better as a guitarist at the time. So, after his set, Isaac came up to me and introduced himself and I blurted out, ‘Can I get your phone number because I’d really like to play guitar with you sometime!’ He said it was the easiest phone number he ever got! Isaac has shown me a lot from the musical side of things, and I think he’s probably learned a lot about lyrics from me.
Marcedes Carroll will play to a sold-out Live from the Divide crowd at 8pm on Friday, October 18th. Her just-released debut, She’s Pretty, is available to purchase and stream now. Learn more at www.marcedescarroll.com.
Skip Anderson is an award-winning music journalist based in Bozeman, Montana. •