Skeleton Key Records’ latest signing MARVIN POWELL is a purveyor of fine folk outings and captivating lyricism. Joshua Potts speaks to the Wavertree native about his musical history, his work and performing live.
When I was 18, I bought an album I didn’t care for, at the basement price of £3.99. I’d heard everything there was to hear about it already (minus most of the songs), and the CD’s cover and booklet certainly had my attention – that carnival red, the wreath, the photographs documenting a new approach to pop music, and those four uniforms, each tailored to the illusion that I was seeing ageless symbols instead of people. Yet listening to Sgt. Pepper’s took a good while to be fun. My tastes at the time were… malnourished, to be kind. Yet I kept going back to the album in a vain hope for some kind of road to Damascus moment, knowing that so much had been said about it, that so many writers and music fans felt its power every day, even as it seemed to have been there from the beginning of time. And, quite unexpectedly, the sounds of Pepper wormed into me too; unexpected, that is, for just how long it took me to ‘get it’. I was a fan before I knew that I was. I might still wish a loop of Yellow Submarine on my worst enemy, but I’ve come to see those other tracks as old friends, waiting for me to arrive at the adult’s table. I kept going back to them. I might not have understood why, but I persisted. If the reason was solely down to expectation, well – that’s what good criticism does to you, I suppose.
I’ve made this rather egregious introduction because Marvin Powell is the polar opposite of my Beatles experience. He is almost entirely unknown. He does not project buckets of character beyond his stature as a normal, chirpy bloke from Wavertree. There is no flurry of orgasmic press to shepherd him into the spotlight. Somehow, though, he is immediately familiar, comforting and brilliant, enough to draw you in from the off. I have heard three of his songs, and I’m only allowed to talk about one of them. The man himself is strikingly low-key. Mystery is a large part of his appeal, particularly since his voice, aching with sadness, has emerged out of nowhere as a fully-formed instrument. But there are no needless and off-putting layers of mystique to wade through with Powell: this guy feels box-fresh and ready to go, and he seems as bewildered by it as I am.
“I was never one of those people who would sit down and learn Wonderwall,” he says over a patchy phone line, explaining just how he’s arrived at a deal with Skeleton Key Records after years spent on the open-mic circuit. He speaks in fits and starts, getting reedier when he debates his finer points of expression. In fact, Powell admits he isn’t great at interviews – “rambling” is the cause, apparently, but I assure him that’s a common affair with feature pieces, like long intros and professional self-loathing, so he can chill. “I know where I’m going,” he tells me, most definitely not referring to our conversation.
“I suppose music has always been a big part of my life. I had violin lessons all the time when I was a kid, and I used to sing in the school choir. The guitar didn’t come until later. When it did, it was better for me somehow.” The image of a pleasant young Powell, jiving away to his parents’ Motown records while working on his treble, seems coloured by a greater ambition, albeit one that took a decade or more to surface. Refusing to play covers like his friends, he built songs from scratch, a skill that paid off when he landed a job at Urban Coffee on Smithdown Road when he was sixteen. It was there that Powell was exposed to Liverpool’s strong amateur performance tradition. The die was cast: “A lot of people came down, dead folky, and I slowly got involved. I enjoyed watching people sing and tell stories as they were doing it. Lyrics are so important to me – honesty, personal or political. I’d seen gigs live on telly, but I remember seeing these kind of players right in front of me for the first time, and that lit me up.”
If he’s honest about finding his eureka moment in the Trojan Horse of youth employment, he’s also forthcoming about his influences. Nick Drake inevitably comes up – the folk-hero’s fingerprints are all over Buried, Powell’s debut single – yet other classic songwriters, like Neil Young and Paul Simon, skirt at its edges. Perhaps this sense of sharpened heritage is what helps lift the song to the effortless height it achieves: Powell’s vocals are smooth and nervous all at once, hiccupping with melancholy, supported by some dazzling 12-string guitar work. The main riff sounds like it’s caught sight of Jimmy Page fiddling by a cottage fireplace. ‘Lucifer’ is namechecked, a word 98% guaranteed to sink anything, but amazingly he gets away with it. The impression is of a confident artist avoiding a jamboree, committed to translating the confessional element of the 70s for the here and now.
Like his heroes, Powell can be conflicted about performing. “There’ve been occasions when I’ve thought, ‘I’m never, ever doing this again. It’s pointless. I might as well be farting down the microphone,’” he explains, specifically about rowdy audience members who don’t grant his lyrics their deserved effect. “People who stand at bars with their haircuts, nothing more, do my head in. And even if you get a good crowd, then you’re like, ‘Shit, I have to focus completely now.’ I still crap myself on stage.”
This is strange, because up until now I’ve been thinking how clearly those years spent paying dues for simple pleasures have paid off. At any rate, it’s what led him to be spotted by Alfie Skelly of The Sundowners, who agreed to cut a demo for him, which quickly escalated into a four-track EP, then a full album of material. The days of an artist banging out a proper record as quickly as they are able have largely retreated into the blinkered hell of VH1 docs; how refreshing to see someone buck the trend of tentative songwriting, at the behest of their own principles.
Thematically, there’s a hazy psychological aspect to Powell’s music, which he terms “light and dark”, or the struggle of reconciling the human animal with its proper, civilised counterpart. Although Freud “frazzles [his] brain”, he’s fascinated by “trying to be emotional and feel things and be a good person all at once.” There’s a definition here between intuitively accepting the worst in ourselves, while supressing it to remain good, positive and hopeful that our socialable selves will win out. “A lot of people can be introverted or extroverted when they want to be. One day you might not want to speak to anyone, and the next you’re out having a drink with your mates and it’s cool. I don’t think people are one or the other.” While it’s easy to see why a round-the-clock wallflower might respond to a line like Buried’s “couldn’t find the beast bound in wires”, it’s Powell’s loose, freeform imagery that makes a case for imaginative redemption.
So what should people know about him that’s weird and unusual, a stand-out fact in a sea of acoustic attention-seekers? He can’t answer. Then he mentions the androgyny of his singing voice, and the fact that he’s often mistaken for a woman till he turns around and blokes notice his beard. A final conversational stab draws a link between his lyrical ability and actor/playwright/novelist Sam Shepard, who “rambles on for a chapter or two, and the next page isn’t related to anything that’s happened previously in the book. What he says is spontaneous, yet it links together by the end and has this greater meaning to it.” Whatever strands of importance Powell can muster will be thrilling to observe in the months to come, just as his future takes tips from the past, slotting seamlessly into our city’s aural veins.
Buried is out now, available through Skeleton Key Records.