XPoNential Artist Spotlight: The beat-heavy road to the top of Marian Hill

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Photo by Paul Gilmore via facebook.com/marianhillmusic
Photo by Paul Gilmore via facebook.com/marianhillmusic

Of all the shining local stars we’ve featured on WXPN, few have seen their fortunes rise quickly as Marian Hill. When they take the stage this Friday at the XPoNential Music Festival, they will be doing so on the heels of escalating tour momentum, glowing reviews in national news outlets, and a boatload of raw talent – all of which has come together within only a year-and-a-half of their official formation.

It would be foolish, however, to think too much of the duo’s relative youth (both as a band and as 24-year-olds). Vocalist Samantha Gongol and producer/beatsmith Jeremy Lloyd possess the rare mix of gracious humility and insatiable, studied ambition that strongly correlates with creative longevity.

“We still have a long way to go, but already realizing so many dreams and having this type of audience…it’s been out of this world,” says Lloyd. Earlier, he relayed a story of a show played in San Francisco where people in the audience knew the words to their songs – a rare feat here, let alone 3000 miles from home.

“On the flip side of that…you can always wonder how to move things faster,” adds Gongol.

Marian Hill have the right to be this ambitious. Their music – a tapestry-like blend of snappy beats and playfully sultry vocals and synths – puts a timeless spin on current downtempo RnB trends. The result, manifest on their stellar debut EP Play, is a subdued complexity that reveals itself over repeat listens – easy listens, mind you, since they’re also instantaneously catchy. Lloyd and Gongol developed their blueprint over studied attempts at channeling their various musical predilections into pop-styled songwriting.

“In college, I took classes in musical theatre and composition. In parallel, I’d create beats on my computer and work on programming,” describes Lloyd. “Around two years ago, I started thinking about this much more seriously and started applying the songwriting craft into electronic music. I think for most people who write songs, you want to make music that makes people feel something.”

“For the past three years, I’ve been really focused on pop writing,” says Gongol. “I’d been out to LA and was considering a move, before Marian Hill took off, to immerse myself in that scene. But the whole while, I was experimenting with mixed sounds. I love the way that Jeremy’s production compliments vocals.” Both Lloyd and Gongol see what they do as an intentional move to make the vocal more prominent in a production style that typically deemphasizes vocalists.

The two musicians, who have been friends and making their own music since their shared childhood in the suburbs of Philly, share an electric interpersonal chemistry that’s apparent even through a distorted conference call line. Their chemistry transcends their geographic distance (Lloyd lives in Brooklyn while Gongol lives in Philadelphia) and compels a very tight working relationship, enacted in frequent weekend meet-ups and music-making sessions: “We like to work in the same room with each other. We’ll have fragments of ideas separately, but  when we’re working actual tracks, Sam will have ideas for the production, I’ll have be coaching vocal takes, and we write the lyrics and melody together,” notes Lloyd.

The most underrated part of Play is the lyrics, seductive narratives of lust and precocious longing that take on their full dimensions through Gongol’s jazz-inspired vocals (she sites Billie Holliday and Etta Fitzgerald as perennial favorites). These lyrics are inspired by a fictional character, a modern woman who controls her own narrative of lust.

 “So much RnB music has a woman singing sexily and being a total sex object. For us, it was important to write this powerful woman who was calling the shots, and was extremely sexy but on her own terms,” says Lloyd. “That excited us to move forward.”

Few musicians on Marian Hill’s level are so thoughtful and intentional in the art that they create. Their presence in Friday’s XPoNential line-up adds something wholly new to the festival’s already-eclectic mix of sounds and sensations. If their current success is any indication, their star will continue to shine brighter, and they are well worth your attention.

Marian Hill plays the Marina Stage at 6:30 PM on Friday. Visit the XPoNential website for the full festival line up, and check back in for more previews on artists playing this year’s festival.

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