Words by Keane Fletcher
New Zealand-based composer Marshall Smith (aka Marshmellow) is like a musical Swiss Army knife. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a musical genre he hasn't dipped his toe into. Whether it be orchestrating scores for movies or writing jingles for Korean shampoo ads, he's done it all. So colour me impressed when after all that, in his downtime, he still finds the time to write his own music, including his latest release 'A Serious Boy', a cinematic ode to love and acceptance inspired by the 35th anniversary of the New Zealand Gay Law Reform.
I guess the song speaks [to] growing up gay in a very different era, just after gay law reform here in NZ...it also speaks to the way we romanticise the past, of our first loves and how they really shook you up in a way that perhaps fades with age.
Not only is the song itself a beautiful way to immortalise the importance of this event, but the music video goes even further, showcasing the legacy of LGBTQI+ love through a series of photos featuring historic queer relationships. Says Smith:
I think queer representation has immeasurably changed for the better in my lifetime. It's incredible for me sometimes to see how open many young LGBTQI+ are able to be, and it's very inspiring. I hope we are moving slowly to a world where we just move beyond any question of gender or sexuality and people just are allowed to be - and make music that moves and inspires them.
We recently sat down with Smith to talk all things music, inspo, and what being an artist means to him. Check it out below!
1- Where in the world are you based?
Auckland, New Zealand - in the trees!
2- How would you describe your sound? Who are your musical influences?
My sound is super varied as I just really make music that I like the sound of. It varies between pop/singer-songwriter sort of stuff to electronica, world and even big band and jazz. I like to collaborate widely and with a genre or style that pushes me musically, especially using unusual instrumentation or guest musicians from all around the globe. I am influenced by classic artists and songwriters, especially Paul Simon, The Pet Shop Boys, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Prince, Aretha, Stevie...
3- What’s your song writing process like?
Sometimes songs come to me fully formed in the early hours, sometimes I just need a break from writing heavy orchestral scores for documentaries or k-pop for shampoo adverts! I often collaborate musically too - or am inspired by the general chaos of life on earth.
4- Can you tell us a bit about your latest release ‘A Serious Boy’? How did the idea come about?
The song came from a feeling of nostalgia for youth and missed chances (perhaps middle aged ennui?!) - and I wanted to harken back to classic British pop of the 80s that I grew up listening to. ELO, John Lennon, Pet Shop Boys, Suede... I was drawn to the historic pictures of gay couples for the video as it seemed to marry the sense of nostalgia and the message of the song so perfectly.
5- The song feels so personal, yet the ideas around empathy, inclusion and outsiderness feel as though they can be applied to any number of issues. Were you aiming for a sort of universality with the song? How much of it is drawn from your own experience?
I always try and write songs that are universal. As a songwriter I think my main aim is to connect with people; if it moves even one person I think that is a success. I guess the song speaks of my youth growing up gay in a very different era, just after gay law reform here in NZ. The songs speaks to my doubts and fears about being myself, or surviving in a big heterosexual rugby world at a large boys high school. The song also speaks to the way we romanticise the past, of our first loves and how they really shook you up in a way that perhaps fades with age. The song is about the outsiders, the freaks, the queers I guess, and how we made it through, and things got better.
6- In what ways do you think queer representation has changed for the better in the music industry? What aspects would you still like to see improved upon?
I think queer representation has immeasurably changed for the better in my lifetime. It's incredible for me sometimes to see how open many young LGBTQI+ are able to be, and it's very inspiring. I hope we are moving slowly to a world where we just move beyond any question of gender or sexuality and people just are allowed to be - and make music that moves and inspires them. I am very hopeful that this new generation are moving in a higher sphere in this regard. Of course, huge parts of the world are still lost in fear around queerness; there is much more work to go. But maybe the perfect pop song will make it happen one day...
7- You’ve written music for a variety of different mediums including movies, documentaries, and commercials. How does the process differ from when you’re writing music for yourself? Is there a particular medium you prefer?
I've written music for pretty much everything and everyone over the years as a full time gig. I love the challenge of exploring new genres/styles/media - I could never focus on writing just one style of music, it would bore me to tears. I've always struggled with the idea of music genre - I just like music that makes me feel. In some ways I find it easier writing to a brief - it's good to be creatively constrained. With my own songs that just randomly happens when I have an idea that intrigues me. My favourite medium however is unquestionably writing for feature films - it marries my love of music and cinema in a perfect way.
8- How do you feel the Internet has impacted the music business? Are streaming and video services like YouTube, Spotify and Soundcloud making things easier or harder for artists to get their music out there?
The internet has massively democratised the music business in many ways - the barrier to entry is wonderfully low. The income models for Spotify and Apple Music are a disaster however for most artists except the ones at the top. It's not sustainable based on the current model - It's an enormous amount of work to make any sort of living out of streaming income and pretty disheartening for many artists we work with. The main issue is trying to get any cut through for your music in a world where millions of artists are releasing music and videos every day of the week. Something will have to give at some point. In the meantime I write music at my own cost, for my own enjoyment - But I still think good music finds listeners - with patience!
9- What's next for you?
I'm creating my first musical theatre production World On Fire - https://www.worldonfire.co.nz/ - with plans to tour NZ and Australia in 2022/23.
I also am co-creating a number of feature films and series including animated feature China/NZ co-production Goldpaw: https://www.goldpawfilm.com/
I am also working on an exciting pop musical collaboration between Tunisia, Pakistan and New Zealand - 'Halcyon Days' - watch this space.
Thanks for stopping by Hipland!