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Artist Profile: Craig Marshall
by Kate Howard / Sound Profile Magazine 8/5/15

I was introduced to Craig Marshall’s work by some of my favorite songwriters Tony Scalzo (Fastball, Wrenfro), Kevin McKinney (Soul Hat, Wrenfro), and Chris Dye (DYE4, Cats from Japan). Marshall quickly became one of my favorites as well. Some of his songs are profoundly moving, some are optimistic and uplifting, and some have all three of these qualities. Craig’s signature style has wide appeal. He also demonstrates a breadth of range that is rare among contemporary songwriters, excelling in penning pop songs, country tunes, and jazz numbers.

Craig Marshall might be best known as the frontman for the jazz/swing band, The Lucky Strikes. This profile doesn’t delve deeply into that aspect of Marshall’s career. Instead, it explores Marshall’s musical beginnings, influences, his approach to songwriting, and his more recent solo work. Marshall’s latest album, “After All”, the follow-up to his 2013 masterpiece, “Hiding in the Doorway”, will be released in August 2015.

I spoke with Craig during set breaks at a lakeside café gig one summer Sunday evening.

Howard: “What instruments do you play?”

Marshall: “I studied piano growing up and then guitar – both, really. Went back and forth. In high school and college, I played guitar. I played bass guitar in a band in college. Then, I had a band with my brothers in New York. We always played music together growing up and ended up in the band together.”

It might surprise some to learn the role that Johann Sebastian Bach plays in Craig’s songwriting. “Growing up, my parents played classical music records. A lot of Baroque music. A lot of chamber music. I was exposed to all that early on. I played a lot of Bach on piano and listened to his music on records. Harmonically, the chord movement in pop music takes a lot from that classical style. It’s just catchy. It’s really just kinda pop tunes. They have a lot of similarities.”

I interjected that this concept might not occur to most people who aren’t musicians. Marshall concurred, adding: “That might have been an early influence because I tend to write melody first — with a lot of chord harmonies and voice leading – and a lot of that came from that era – Baroque music.”

Marshall started writing songs when he was in high school and continued during his college years. He began working on his songwriting in earnest in his 20s. “I always wrote with a band in mind. I didn’t really write solo-minded stuff until much later.” Craig and his two brothers had a rock band for several years. They played punk, power pop, and indie rock. The music Craig wrote for the band “was very (Elvis) Costello, Cheap Trick, and all the great sort of pop, new wave bands that came out of the 80s. XTC, Crowded House, Squeeze, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe, Rockpile. We started to move into more indie rock in the late 80s. U2, REM and the Replacements were big influences. After about five years of trying to make it as an indie band out of Syracuse, we got tired of that.”

The Only Sound chord chartAround that time, Craig and one of his brothers started another band. “We got into classic country: Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Gram Parsons”. Marshall related that “Everything that I’ve played in a band, every style, it all started with the writing. So, I started writing country tunes for this side project.”

That project was the alt country band, the Delta Rays. Marshall said that it was the most fun and profitable project that he and his brothers pursued – even more popular than the rock bands. He attributes the act’s popularity to its uniqueness, song choices, and timing. According to him, the only other bands in the area playing country music were older gentlemen doing “awful covers” in a lounge format. What the Delta Rays offered was a sharp contrast: a group of young guys covering the Everly Brothers, Buck Owens, Buddy Holly, and Gram Parsons as well as playing original tunes in those styles. Marshall said, “It was the era of Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. It was this cool, alt country scene in New York. No other bands up there were playing that style of music.”

Then, in the early ‘90s, the Delta Rays migrated to the Southwest. Austin got its own version of the band, which featured Craig Marshall and singer Maura Kennedy. They had some success here, but not on the level they’d enjoyed in New York. At that time, alt country bands were a dime a dozen in this town.

The Delta Rays disbanded after Maura moved away from Austin (she went on to form The Kennedys). Marshall began performing country music as a solo artist. Then, he formed the jazz band, The Lucky Strikes. That band had a great run and still plays in smaller configurations with some frequency.

In the early 2000s, Marshall returned to his solo career. Several acclaimed pop albums followed, as did attention from Hollywood, with some of his songs landing on movie soundtracks and on TV shows. Craig’s 2013 release, “Hiding in the Doorway”, is a remarkable collection of finely crafted pop, country, and Americana songs. Marshall’s work shines on this album, with stellar production and brilliant collaborations with many of Austin’s most talented players and singers.

Marshall’s upcoming release, “After All”, is graced by singers who excel in the art of harmonizing: Betty Soo, Noëlle Hampton (Belle Sounds), and Shane Cooley. I asked Marshall why he thinks such artists are drawn to his work. “I try to write interesting melodies but also a lot of interesting vocal phrasing so that it’s fun to harmonize to. When you can match that type of phrasing, it brings a new element to the tune.”

I was curious about whether Marshall assigns harmony parts to such gifted collaborators or if they bring them to him. Working with this caliber of singers in the studio, Marshall doesn’t feel the need to call the shots. “They’re usually that good to come up with their own,” he said. “There’s a couple of moments when we might try a couple of different things, like ‘do it higher’, or ‘do it lower’, or ‘can you match the phrasing tighter?’ or not, or ‘try a different line and see how it fits.’ But they’re all so good that they were pretty close with their natural first attempts. But there were options, like Betty Soo, she would bring in four or five different options of a line, and they all sounded great, and we had to pick and choose.” In some cases, Betty would sing the same harmony for verse one and verse two but use a different option for the next verse. “That creates more interest as the song goes on. There was a lot of that,” said Marshall.

“I believe before you felt this way, One sound could always make you laugh and cry, Maybe the tone or what I said. Listen one more time, now that it’s the end. It’s the only sound you won’t hear again.”

– Excerpt from “The Only Sound” from the album “After All” © Craig Marshall 2015.

Singers Betty Soo and Noelle Hampton are well established in the Austin music community. Shane Cooley is starting to make a name for himself here but is not yet as well-known as they. I was eager to learn how Craig became familiar with Cooley. As it turns out, Craig first heard Shane perform at the Baker Street open mic; he liked Cooley’s songs as well as his vocals. Shane’s voice reminded him of Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. Marshall is a big fan of that group and Louris’s high harmonies and vocal texture. He thought that the texture of Shane’s vocals might blend well with his own. He hoped that their harmonies would resemble those of The Jayhawks. In the end, Craig was pleased with the sound they achieved.

There are threads of optimism and reassurance in quite a few songs on Marshall’s “Hiding in the Doorway”. “I continue that in some of the new stuff”, he adds. I inquired about whether the upbeat and hopeful messages in some of his work come from his own mindset. I asked if that’s part of what he wants to convey through his body of work. At first, he says, “No, it’s more how I can shape the lyric around the hookline. I’m still coming from that ‘melody first’ pop song(writing) craft where you come up with a melody and a hookline or a title. Often, the title is a play on words or a common phrase, and I explore ‘What could that mean?’ It can be sad and dark, but I like to counter that with a more hopeful message sometimes. The singer/songwriter who feels sorry for himself – there’s enough of that. I like a more universal message, which can just as easily be hopeful. I don’t set out to do that, but maybe that’s just my mindset in life in general; so I gravitate to those themes.”

“Everything you fear can only bring you down. Maybe your next tear will turn your luck around. But you wake up and wonder, When will you understand Why things won’t go your way? It’ll be someday.”

– Excerpt from “It’ll Be Someday” © Craig Marshall 2015.

In the decades since settling in Austin, Marshall’s masterful songwriting and performing have slowly and steadily attracted a following in Central Texas. It’s refreshing and not at all surprising to see that he’s garnering national praise for his upcoming release, “After All”. A few days after this interview took place, Guitar World magazine featured an article about him and the exclusive song premiere of “Something on Your Mind”, the album’s first single.

Craig Marshall’s music transcends categorization. Regardless of the genre he chooses, it is his authenticity and his sensitivity to the human condition that people respond to. These qualities come through in his studio work as well as his live performances.

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