Act One: The Volatility of Desire and Marian Hill

Not a solo artist, but a boy-girl duo, who excavate romantic relationships and turn that frisson into unpigeonholeable pop magic.
August 10, 2016, 4:58pm

That element of surprise, that elusive “it” factor, that je ne sais quoi—whatever you want to call it, Marian Hill has it. Throw on the first track of the electronic duo’s debut LP, ACT ONE (out now via Republic Records), and lean in to hear the pair’s appeal distilled in some 50-odd seconds of “Down” where Samantha Gongol's airy vocals drift above a simple piano riff. You think you know what you’re getting. But then, as Gongol begins the sultry refrain, a skittering beat drops and the song morphs into an unlikely, but enthralling colluision of old-time jazz club meets 2016 dance club.

From the very first time Marian Hill—that’s vocalist/songwriter Gongol, and producer/songwriter Jeremy Lloyd—started dropping songs online they’ve snared listeners with their unexpected genre-blending. In July 2013, the duo released their first song, the syncopated and seductive “Whisky.” It accrued press repeat clicks in enough numbers to insinuate its way into Hype Machine’s Top 10. At that time, Gongol recalls, they thought they’d really hit the jackpot. They were so ecstatic they invited their parents over and toasted with—what else?—glasses of whisky.)

“You don’t realize it on the outside [of the music industry] but everybody in the industry is watching Hype Machine,” says 26-year-old Lloyd, over the phone. “And if somebody shows up that they haven’t seen before and it does well, they’re like ‘what is that?’ There’s something so magical about being that thing that nobody knows about that everyone is curious about. [When ‘Whisky’ got noticed], we were getting emails from so many labels… it was definitely a moment where it became very clear to us quickly that we could have a career doing this if we did things right.”

But that next step is the toughest part: It’s one thing to sound fresh and make people curious; it’s another entirely to stay fresh and keep people curious. Still, three years later, Marian Hill’s ACT ONE proves they have what it takes to do just that. Each song titillates in its own way, yet no two tunes sound the same: from the Neptunes-esque snaps that drive standout track “Wild,” to Steve Davit’s irresistible saxophone riff in “Mistaken,” this diversity marks an evolution from the duo’s 2015 Sway EP, where the songs are recognizable like siblings (that is, with the exception of the quieter, dubstep-infused “Deep”).

Lloyd has a clue about why this evolution occurred: “Six months into writing Marian Hill songs, we definitely had a moment when we found ourselves in a bit of a rut. We’d been spending all of this time trying to write the ‘Marian Hill sound’ when it didn’t exist. We’d boxed ourselves in [and everything we wrote] all felt like lesser versions of existing songs. But ‘Deep’ got us out of that… I’d never used a bass synth, we’d never had a wobble bass before. There were a couple things that didn’t feel ‘Marian Hill’ to us, but we really liked them and just followed it. At that point, we realized we’d been writing together long enough that we started writing what

we

thought was exciting, and it would sound like Marian Hill.”

The way Lloyd and Gongol broke out of their first big rut together is a mark of their strength as collaborators—not a total surprise, given they go way, way back. Their roots lie in suburban Philadelphia where the two went to middle school and even acted in a production of The Music Man. This experience would be the eventual inspiration for the stage name Marian Hill—Gongol played Marian the Librarian while Lloyd played Harold Hill. But even before The Music Man, they sang in the same seventh grade choir, cheekily titled “Seventh Heaven.” Lloyd can also recall the very first time he heard Gongol sing, solo: at a seventh grade talent show, when she crushed Norah Jones’ smash “Don’t Know Why. (“She sounded just like Norah Jones,” Lloyd affirms.)

Although they remained friends through high school, the pair didn’t start making music together until college, holing up to write when they came home for break. Gongol majored in Music Business at New York University, while Lloyd opted for the Theater Studies major (with a music concentration] at Yale, making beats on the side. “We were both aware that the other was experimenting with writing songs,” Lloyd says. “We’d chat about that every now and then, but it wasn’t until college that both of us started getting confident enough with what we were doing to start collaborating.”

“Whisky” was a result of one of these casual break-time sessions. Lloyd showed Gongol the beat, and they took it from there: “[Sam] started singing something, and the two of us wrote the whole song together—that’s our style,” Lloyd explains. “It’s a lot of back and forth. Pitching one thing, both of us singing melodic ideas at each other, picking our favorites, building things out, arguing about lyrics. It’s always been very collaborative… Early on when we were writing, we established what we call the ‘Love It’ rule. If one of us doesn’t love any idea in a song, then we scrap that idea and come up with a better one. The flipside is if we love something, we don’t question it. We keep moving.”

This ability to keep moving, to try things out without fear of failure, explains ACT ONE's eclecticism. Even Lloyd is hard pressed to pick a song on the album that he thinks represents the duo’s sound entirely: “Every song feels like its own distinct world, but a facet of the whole.” Gongol, on the other hand, names one right away: “I feel like [‘Down’ is] a perfect example of old-meets-new. And people know us for very strong female-centered lyrics, and I think ‘Down’ has that.”

She’s right. If ACT ONE has a common thread, it’s that the songs focus largely on romantic relationships and the volatility of desire, all from a woman’s perspective. But still, this female protagonist never seems to say the same thing twice. On “Good,” she throws up the middle finger to an ex (“I don’t need your pleas / I don’t need your time / So get off your knees / And get off my mind”), while on “I Want You,” she watches the object of her desire, teasing, “Maybe you’re the one for me / We could be so cliché / I hate to see you leave / But love to watch you walk away.”

This lyrical variation while continuing explore a central theme is no accident: they made it a goal to only include songs that didn’t repeat the same themes: “At one point I think I made a graph of it that said, ‘How is each relationship in each song distinct? What is the specific situation we’re talking about, and is it a thing we haven’t addressed before?’” explains Lloyd. “Everybody experiences relationships in so many diverse ways, but I feel like the more you can drill down [the specific emotion], the more people can have a moment of, ‘Yes, I know this feeling!’”

By now, this much is abundantly clear: Marian Hill are meticulous about every part of the process, but they don’t just look to each other—or even just to music—for inspiration. For instance their biggest non-music influence is author F. Scott Fitzgerald, specifically his classic jazz-age novel The Great Gatsby.

“I think [Gatsby] was definitely in the back of my mind, especially with ‘Sway,’” Gongol says. “I never read books twice, and that’s one of three that I’ve read more than once. [Fitzgerald is] just a master of creating atmosphere; I thought that was really helpful in creating the world of Marian Hill.”

Lloyd agrees, adding: “With Gatsby, It’s really about the language. There’s a classiness and a simplicity and a playfulness in our lyrics. I’d say those are three values that are really important to us and if I had to pinpoint where that came from, I think one of the places would be Gatsby and the way [the book is] written. Those chapters are short, and not a word is out of place. It’s so exciting and evocative without ever being overdone. There’s this serene classiness to it. When we think about our aesthetic in a zoomed-out way, I think a lot of it comes from the aesthetic he created.”

Another big part of that Marian Hill aesthetic is their live performances. Up until this point, they’ve performed mostly in smaller, intimate clubs that suit their jazzy vibe. But, this fall, they’ll head out on a North American headline tour, by far their biggest outing yet, and upgrade to larger stages. “It’s really cool as you pass through these cities [again] to play the next size up in venues,” Gongol says. “In Minneapolis, I think we’re going from 250 people last fall to 1500 [at First Avenue]. It’s really exciting to look out into the crowd and notice how far you’ve come.”

Lloyd echoes his partner’s enthusiasm: “I’m most excited for the drive and the journey, the fact that we get to travel around America. Also, playing New York's Webster Hall is a hugely exciting thing and very much a rite of passage as a touring musician. It’s our last show on the tour, the icing on the cake. It’s going to be a real arrival.”

Marian Hill Tour Dates

Sept 9 Providence, RI The Met Café
Sept 10 Washington, D.C. 9:30 Club
Sept 11 Charlottesville, VA Jefferson Theater
Sept 13 Atlanta, GA Terminal West @ King Plow Arts Center
Sept 14 Orlando, FL The Social
Sept 16 Houston, TX White Oak Music Hall
Sept 17 Austin, TX The Parish
Sept 18 Dallas, TX Club Dada
Sept 20 Phoenix, AZ The Crescent Ballroom
Sept 21 Los Angeles, CA El Rey Theatre
Sept 22 Santa Ana, CA The Observatory
Sept 27 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom
Sept 28 Seattle, WA Showbox Theatre
Sept 30 Salt Lake City, UT Urban Lounge
Oct 1 Denver, CO Bluebird Theater
Oct 2 Boulder, CO Fox Theatre
Oct 4 St. Louis, MO The Ready Room
Oct 5 Milwaukee, WI Turner Hall Ballroom
Oct 6 Minneapolis, MN First Avenue
Oct 9 Columbus, OH The A&R Music Bar
Oct 11 Boston, MA Royale Boston
Oct 12 New York, NY Webster Hall
Oct 14 Philadelphia, PA Union Transfer

UK/EU Tour Dates:
Nov 2 Paris, France La Maroquinerie
Nov 3 London, England The Lexington
Nov 5 Berlin, Germany Berghain/Kantine
Nov 7 Amsterdam, Netherlands Bitterzoet

ACT ONE is out now on Republic Records.

Avery Stone is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.