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Classic Chats: Marques Toliver

The busking past and free spirit of the remarkable Marques Toliver – singer, composer, violinist – has led many to hold his talent dear, from Adele to Grizzly Bear, before he’s even released a record. His debut EP, finally here, is so good it’ll finally do away with one of music’s worst-kept secrets and launch him into the light.

WORDS: MICHAEL C LEWIN
PHOTOGRAPHY: MICHAEL HEILGEMEIR
FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS: NIINA HARTIKAINEN

Downstairs, the Lexington; two years ago: it’s late summer, and it’s very late in the evening – 1am, maybe 2 – and the wood-panelled barroom is hazy with smoke, at least in my mind, though that haze is maybe just the romantic blur of remembering. After a gig, drunk, everyone in the room is floored: there, hammering staccato on a piano in a corner – unbidden, unasked for, received like a miracle – an old bluesman’s soul reincarnated in a waif is wailing about a journey and it sounds like fallen angels or something, I can’t describe it, I’m drunk, and the rest of the night is lost to conversation and then nothing.

A year later, last year: high summer, at a festival. I’m presenting a documentary. The producer tells me some guy is going to be doing a session for us at our tepee: “Marquis Oliver”, maybe. I imagine a folkster with pretensions of gentry; I wince. The producer tells me he’s special, looks like Michael Jackson, tells me I’ll like him. He meets us, a handsome guy looking slightly disengaged. He sits down on a haystack and starts plucking at a violin, starts singing, and in this little backwater of the festival suddenly there’s a big crowd gathered, drawn to whatever the hell it is: a kind of magic, this magnetic, romantic stillness he creates – and then that memory of a year earlier comes back to me as I’m floored all over again, in the beating sun. This time, though, I don’t forget Marques Toliver.

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The sun is there, and hot, again, nine months later, for the first time in 2011: Marques is cavorting about (there’s no other word for it) before a mint green wall, teasing a trolley full of vibrant, thrusting flowers. The artist-florist responsible for them, Niina, is standing next to me; we watch on, smiling involuntarily. She’s telling me why she was keen to get involved with the shoot: a few years ago, she’d had her Marques moment, coming across him busking on Brick Lane with his violin, and was unable to forget him. And so it comes across how this rare, magnetic man, composer and violinist, had already amassed a good deal of fans, by 24, without ever having released his music in the usual way.

Nothing is usual about Marques, particularly. At 19, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio came across him busking in New York, playing Bach, and so began his career as a great unkept secret of hipsterdom: first in Brooklyn, then in London; favoured by everyone from Adele to Grizzly Bear.

You’ve taken your sweet time, I tell him. He grins this grin of his and laughs. Man, it’s a good grin. “Hey, I’m only twenty four!” You didn’t feel any pressure when you settled down to record, then? “Nah.” (The grin again.) You’ve developed these admirers, you have a huge repertoire, and you’ve settled on this particular four-track EP, ‘Butterflies Are Not Free’. You didn’t feel the pressure that this needed to be something? “No, because, you see, I have about 70 recordings that people – especially people in the UK – haven’t heard. So no, not really a pressure, because I have so many songs. I just needed a studio to put more layers of skin on top of it and build up the anatomy of the compositions.”

It would be useful, pausing in my overblown love letter to him, if I were to talk about Marques’ actual music and his comment about building up “the anatomy of the compositions” seems a good point to start from. “At the end of the day, all the songs are able to be played just on the violin,” he says, and this is how most people have so far heard them, primarily through the many wonderful video sessions kicking about online (Rockfeedback.com’s is a favourite of mine) or through the impromptu busking sets he’s played.

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In such spare circumstances, the songs are lovely, fluid things: loose and unstructured, they seem to lead his playing along, which fits of how he tells he first began writing – “when I was busking, playing a melodic line, then humming along with it, starting to sing with it”. He alternates between the bow and finger-plucking, and in the sparseness of this each melody seems to be written on water: notes likes ripples in a dark pool, catching moonlight. His rich voice, capable of a strident delivery or mournful coo, harmonises warmly, a blanket swaddling the frail melodies. Their tone, as I hope the metaphor conveys, is rather melancholy. (“If I’m sad, I’ll play something sad,” he’s said before. “And if I’m happy, I’ll probably just play something sad too.”) You wouldn’t want to, nor could you, classify their mix of soul, rnb and pop: the whole exercise would be futile and you’d risk in some way limiting them.

That very point – limiting them – is not a worry for Marques. In fact, his ambitions for his songs seem endless. Of course these aren’t definitive versions of the songs that he’s recorded, they’re just a beginning. “When I’m 33, they’ll be something wild, like a full orchestra and arranged for that, or with a children’s choir – because there will always be different arrangements, that’s what I enjoy doing. If I’m still playing them, that is,” the 24 year old with the 70 song repertoire reminds me.

That’s an interesting thing, actually, before we get on to the actual recordings. How and why does a man with such an enormous collection of songs choose to make just a four track EP? I don’t imagine this is simply four songs selected at random, chucked together. There’s a reason and a logic it is as it is, right? “For sure! Particularly, just to serve as an introduction to me, as a musician and a composer, in a way. As a teaser, to get everyone excited for when the album does come out.”

“The EP in itself is a bit of a long EP, anyway,” he says. “Just because it is not solely, really, four songs. There’s an intro, then the actual song ‘Charter Magic’, then an outro, a string interlude, so that’s three songs in itself. There’s a hint of the song ‘White Sails’ in that outro. There’s this bit…” Here, Marques starts playing the violin – which has been in his hand the whole interview – and singing to illustrate his point. “It’s in at the end, but it’s played a lot slower. That’s how the trailer idea works: like, ‘COMING SOON’, y’know?” He grins again.

Inevitably, for such an accomplished and considered artist, those songs so transient-seeming when played solo have on record become remarkable yet very different beasts. The violin is multi-tracked and supported by autoharp and cello, which by now you’ll be unsurprised to learn are also played by Marques—who also happens to sing his own backing vocals. The richness created by the arrangements, these multiplicities of Marques, means songs which formerly seemed loose and improvised now have striking, poignant narrative; emotions formerly created by an increased intensity in playing and singing are now magnified by structure, creating high drama: this is most brilliantly evident in the progressive build-up of backing tracks for Charter Magic’s choruses burst in a string explosion during the middle eight, emphasising its lyric, “Made from white fire / My spirits left the floor”. Such intricate, intelligent arrangements, unobtrusively marrying vocal, lyric and performance, once more have his music having its way with me, uncomplaining, on the floor.

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This (for want of better) creative cohesiveness is evident in everything he does. Knowing the attention he lavishes on it, I guess that the EP’s name, ‘Butterflies Are Not Free’, is not simply a meaningless phrase. “You know, I was going to give it a very simple name, like ‘String Compositions by Marques Toliver’, something classical, in a way. I chose ‘Butterflies…’ because that is a line that has stuck with me. I think I made it up myself, back when I first started recording songs, back at Uni. It’s a metaphor: ‘butterflies’ meaning youthfulness, your childhood, or innocence – youthful innocence isn’t free, it comes at a cost.”

“Butterflies die relatively quickly, within two days I think. Touring and your music – they’re your butterflies, but they will die at some point, they come at a cost – maybe celebrity, or scrutiny, or the music never being heard. These butterflies come at a price,” he finishes, rather wistfully, and plucks at his violin.

That plucking reminds me: does he fear that success might mean he’d lose the freedom to be this travelling, busking musician? “No. I think it’s part of the craft, or the artform – you can’t stay in one place too long, because then it becomes mundane, and the creativity or the magic or whatever leaves. I think I’ll always be somewhat of a wandering minstrel, to a degree.” And then he grins, of course.

So is there ever a time you’re ‘sans violin’? “I try not to be! I go through withdrawls. If I show up to a place and I don’t have it, if I’m feeling awkward or something I want to go off into a corner – you know, if you’re at a party. It’s kinda like my Blackberry, in a way.” That object to hide behind? “Yeah, exactly! It’s a social and an anti-social thing: to go off into a corner and play, after a while being anti-social other people will hear this music and start socialising and creating. He’s my wingman.”

It’s perfectly illustrated on the shoot. We’re at an old NHS building in Bermondsey, now a big artists commune. Workmen are taking archive files from one door to another nearby. Marques bounds around before the camera, sometimes playing. A crowd of the men, and some builders from nearby – hulking guys, big, strong – and Marques, fey and giddy, skips over and plays for them, sings for them, and they’re rapt. This charisma of his is remarkable. Afterwards, I catch a few deciding amongst themselves to buy tickets for his show at St Giles in the Field. I bet his management are delighted by this kind of self-publicity.

We talked of plenty more. The scope of his contemplation of his music is quite astonishing. He compares the sound of the EP over its length to the emotions of teens going to their first party: that strange excited calm of getting ready through wary acclimatising, to euphoric involvement and finally reaching that point of “shit just getting crazy”.

For two reasons, though, I won’t recount much more of it. Firstly, prosaically, because my Dictaphone cut out a third of the way in so I can’t quote him. But more romantically, and selfishly, I’m glad it did: I’m glad to keep it to myself, in a way. It’s an emotion I thought I was beyond, jealously clinging on to an artist in their early less-known days before it all goes wild, but Marques has brought it out in me. Another example, I suppose, of how butterflies are not free.

The final question I asked him, though, is worth repeating. How much of himself does he recognised in his music? Everything, he answered, he was there in every song. Playing them is like an act of remembering, he said. The songs are “my memoir.” I said he should play them in order, from the first he’d written to the most recent; he liked the idea. I wonder what that would be like. We finished the interview and were going to go do the next set of photos on the roof. I noticed that the Dictaphone hadn’t record some of our interview, and then I probably swore. He said, “Don’t worry! It’s all in your head, man. You’ll be ok.” And then he grinned.



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