Danny Marcus finds his inspiration in the heart of New York City. As the former lead singer of the quartet Kharma Zhu, Marcus helped develop and fine-tune the NY band's unique blend of traditional Latin rhythms and catchy rock phrasings. The group parted ways last year, and now Marcus has risen from the ashes of Kharma Zhu with a self-titled solo debut. It's a lonely and highly introspective piece of work. Gone are the complex dynamics of the group setting, replaced by the stark sounds of Marcus and his lone guitar. Yet, in this seemingly limited design, we see Marcus exposed as a powerful and creative force.
His songs are piercing and poignant, whether it's the spiritual questioning of Bury Me or the renewing attitude of Born Again, where Marcus wraps his soaring melodies in the guise of acoustic guitar pop . He shines brightest on America, although it is perhaps by default considering the subject matter. Before the events of September 11th, the song could probably be simply seen as a cynical yet hopeful rant against pop culture, yet it now seems to stand as an inspiring message to stand against the evils of this world, telling us to "heal the wounds with passion." A meaning surely lost on most of us before that fateful day in September.
Being from New York, you're right in the middle of all these world changing events. Has it changed you from a musical standpoint? For example, listening to your song "America" has a starkly different meaning to me after Sept. 11.
That's a really good question...I think recent events have changed everybody, at least to some extent. Things have certainly changed here in NYC, and I've witnessed that change firsthand in myself and in those around me. From a musical standpoint, in general, my music is an expression of who I am: my highs, my lows, my joys and my sorrows. So any big event, any fundamental change in my life, or in the world, will eventually find its way into the songs that I write, whether it's on a conscious or a sub-conscious level. My music changes as I change and as the world changes. In the same way, the meaning or interpretation that we give to music changes as our perspective changes, which is why you hear "America" differently today, than you did before the WTC attacks. I'd actually be really interested to hear how your interpretation changed as the context that you listened to it in changed. For me, that song continues to carry a lot of weight, possibly even more weight after 9/11. To me that song addresses America's wounds, which at the time I wrote it, I felt were a kind of emptiness and a cultural reliance on things like television and movies and entertainment to bring meaning into our lives. Americans, however, have certainly done their part in proving that America does in fact have a soul and, really, an indomitable spirit. So the "wounds" that the song literally speaks to have actually been healed in a way. Now there are other wounds to be healed, and some of the lines in that song, resonate even stronger now. "Heal the wounds with passion..." and "Look into the mirrors eyes, she'll (America) tell you she's okay..." I actually played that song at the Lion's Den in the West Village the week after the attacks, and it received a very warm response, during a very emotional show.
On to other things---what happened to Kharma Zhu?
Kharma Zhu (KZ) was a great experience for me, and because of the group's success it gave me the opportunity to play in front of a wide audience at some of NYC's best venues like the Mercury Lounge and the Bowery Ballroom. But in the end, despite all of the potential, the chemistry was just off. There was a lot of infighting among the members and different points of view that just couldn't be reconciled. KZ was also somewhat stifling to me from a creative standpoint, in that we sort of stylistically pigeon-holed ourselves into a particular sound, and a lot of the material that I was writing was never really given the chance to see the light of the day. So that frustration was really the impetus behind me striking out on my own.
How is it working solo instead of in a group setting?
Working solo is extremely rewarding. The freedom that I have is amazing. I can play with tempos and dynamics in ways that it would take a band a lifetime to be able to do. I can break into extended verses or go into a cover in the middle of a bridge. And best of all, I can bring a new song to the stage much quicker than I could in a band situation. I feel that playing a rough, new song is better than playing a polished, over-rehearsed song. The energy and excitement of a new song, even if it's unfinished and a little rough around the edges, almost always takes it to another level.
Many of your songs lend themselves to more instrumentation---I can almost hear the bass and drums. Is there any reason why you avoided adding more instruments?
I know what you mean. And despite the freedom and versatility of being a solo artist, I also miss some of the benefits of being in a band. The mix of textures and the merging of ideas, not to mention the sheer volume and power that can be achieved when 4 or 5 guys just go balls out. But for my CD, I wanted to try and avoid the trappings and some of the bull**** that comes with working with a band. I really just wanted to break things down into their simplest parts: words, guitars, melodies and harmonies. To me, those are the basic elements of great songwriting, and I didn't want anything to get in the way of that.
Having recorded the CD, however, I'm starting to itch again for that spirit of collaboration and camaraderie that comes with a band. I've been holding some rehearsals, and if things go well, I may start doing some shows with a back-up band, which I hope will really bring a new life to the songs on my CD.
What is your songwriting process?
It is very unscientific. And I don't really have a proven process. Usually, songs come in spurts. But I'm always writing. I actually have a hard time rehearsing my songs, because whenever I sit down to play, I somehow end up on a tangent, playing new ideas for hours. Creatively, though, the music and the melody almost always come first. Usually they kind of come together simultaneously. Then I put words to my mumblings based on whatever it is that is spinning around in my head at the time. I write a lot while walking actually. There's something about walking around crowded city streets that really inspires me. I wrote the main parts of Track 3 on my CD, "So You Say," while walking to the bus station. The verse and the chorus melody and lyrics came very easily, and I left a message for myself on my cell phone so that I wouldn't forget it. Then I went home, listened to the message and picked out the chords, fussed a bit over the lyrics, and it was done.
How important is playing live to you?
Playing live is very important. I've been performing on the stage since I was about 8 years old, so I've always been pretty comfortable in front of people. Playing live allows you to take a moment and make it special. I try to improvise as much as possible, within each song, in my live performances. I try to bring a new experience, or a new color, or a new idea into a familiar song. And I think that the audience really appreciates that. For me it's not so much about whether it works or not. My biggest idols f***ed-up just like everybody else does, but they always made the attempt to take that extra step and to seize the moment. And more often than not they nailed it. That's what I hope to do when I'm playing. I always give it my all, and hopefully I nail it. And if not, then I'll nail it the next time, you know what I mean? But there's nothing like being on a stage in front of 6-700 people, who are singing, sweating and dancing along with you. If you can't share your music with a live and a loud audience, then what's the point?
Do you plan on touring outside of your area?
Actually, I'm currently speaking with a booking agency called "Seen & Heard," and if things go well and we begin working together, I may be visiting D.C., Philly, Boston, N.J, as well as my regular NYC shows. I've been up to play at Harper's Ferry in Boston a few times, and those shows have been great, so I'm really looking forward to the possibility of doing some more traveling and getting some increased exposure. For the time being, though, I'll probably be staying in the Northeast.
Anything else you want to add?
Thanks for supporting my album and independent music. And just that I hope people are doing well and living their lives, and listening to good music, and eating good food, and drinking good beer, and laughing, and crying and doing all of the things that they can to help themselves and each other heal.