Life’s biggest turning points are often uninvited: breakups, job losses, moving away. Feeling untethered and adrift can force new perspectives. When Etta Marcus was in her first year at London’s Trinity Conservatoire studying jazz, the head of department called to tell her she didn’t belong there. As the daughter of two teachers, university had always been part of the south London singer-songwriter’s plan – but now that was gone, she didn’t know where to go next.
“When I told my parents, I was sobbing,” she recalls two years later, browsing the world music section at a record store in central London. It’s a Friday morning and we’re among the first customers, but they’re already pumping loud electronic music through the speakers to kick off the weekend early. Marcus recalls her experience to NME distractedly, half her focus on the Brazilian samba records she’s sifting through. “I was so overwhelmed,” she continues, looking up briefly. “Jazz school was intense. The teachers there were like JK Simmons in Whiplash.”
For Marcus, getting kicked out of school turned out to be a strange moment of serendipity. While her friends were studying, she started releasing her dreamy, 70s-inspired pop from her bedroom in her parents’ house in Brixton. Her first EP, ‘View From The Bridge’, was released in January and featured a haunting duet with Matt Maltese. Now, she’s preparing to unveil its follow-up, ‘Heart Shaped Bruise’ (due early 2023), an exploration of falling in and out of love, and the feelings of self-sabotage and retribution that come with it. The new EP takes her sound in a more upbeat and defiant direction, away from what she calls “the slow, sad songs” of her debut release. “I don’t dream in colour, I dream in anger,” she purrs on lead single ‘Crown’, expressing her new sonic direction.
It’s no wonder then that jazz school felt restrictive, then. “I like jazz,” Marcus says, “but I like other music too, and all anyone talked about [at school] was jazz. If you went in and said, “I like ‘Melodrama’ by Lorde”, you’d get laughed at.” That Marcus has drawn comparisons to the New Zealand popstar is down to her own husky vocals and dark imagery, which recall Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’ era. “I wanted to do weird shit,” Marcus says of creating the visuals for her second EP. “There’s no point in being safe.”
From black bathtubs to bruises shaped like hearts, the violent, gothic undercurrent to Marcus’ new EP was part of a conscious decision to distance herself from the ubiquitous ‘sad girl’ label. Artists from Mitski to Soccer Mommy have spoken about how they find the label unhelpful and reductive, but it’s a box that many contemporary female singer-songwriters get put in. “It’s a big market,” she notes. “It’s horrible to call it a market, but [the tag] is a big place in music, especially at the moment. Fiona Apple is a huge inspiration, but I think it limits you if you immediately get placed in this ‘sad girl’ bubble. If anyone calls me something, I immediately want to do the opposite.”
Marcus shyly admits that music’s now her full-time job, but despite her success as an artist, old insecurities continue to rear their heads, as her latest EP is laced with bitter self-deprecation. On the deceptively sunny track ‘Smile For The Camera’, she sings about an inability to enjoy special occasions. What was it that triggered such bleak introspection? “My brother’s graduation,” she says carefully. “He’s so clever. Academically, he’s very different from me. I was supposed to have four years at university, and graduation is a normal thing for most people. Everyone was in graduation gowns, and I was like, ‘That should be me.’”
Marcus wanders over to the in-store record players to give the ones she’s picked out a spin: ESG’s ‘Come Away with ESG’, Gal Costa’s ‘India’, LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Electric Lady Sessions’ and PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid Of Me’. If she seems hesitant to discuss her own ambition, her knowledge and passion about her eclectic musical influences is unbounded. We take turns listening to the albums, and Marcus’ unwavering focus to studying the liner notes of each one proves that, sometimes, record stores can be as educational as universities anyway.
Graduating university might be an experience that Marcus bypassed, but while she watches those around her go through what some see as a rite of passage, she’s been having new experiences for the first time all the same. “I’m experiencing a lot of different firsts at the moment,” she says. “When I was writing my first EP, I was subconsciously searching for bad things to happen so I could feel something. I don’t want to feel like I know myself enough. That’s scary. I want to feel surprised about something.”
But Marcus isn’t afraid to surprise herself, whether through shifting her sound so early in her career, turning dreams she’s had into gloomy music videos, or discovering new genres to add to her unpredictable record collection. With her headline show at the capital’s Courtyard Theatre coming up this month, there are surely plenty more unexpected turning points in store that might have never happened had she stuck it out at jazz school. “I look back and I thank the head of department who kicked me out,” she says with a wry smile. “Although he was a dick, he was probably right.”
Etta Marcus’ forthcoming EP ‘Heart Shaped Bruise’ is due in early 2023