Marian Mereba

Marian Mereba on Dixie Chicks, “Young Thug Atlanta” and her ‘Radio Flyer’

Christina Lee

By Christina Lee

on 08.14.14 in Features

File under: Dreamy folk meets “’03 Bonnie & Clyde”
For fans of: Lauryn Hill, Cody ChesnuTT, Nneka
From: Atlanta, Georgia

“You won’t write, and I won’t call you often,” Marian Mereba sings in “Go to London,” a song that first appeared on her 2013 debut EP Room for Living. In its songs, Mereba sings about pursuing her dreams over washes of understated guitar. In that context, the line sounds harsh — and for good reason. By the time she recorded it, Mereba had tried writing songs for stars like Rihanna, only to be told by executives at Def Jam — where she was under contract — to keep them for herself.

“I was young and broke, and I didn’t know where I was really gonna go,” Mereba says. Soon however, “Go to London” became a local hit in Atlanta. She forged ties with the city’s soul and hip-hop communities, and toured with R&B chart darling Jazmine Sullivan and soul troubadour Cody ChesnuTT. So it’s little surprise that the second version of “Go to London,” on her forthcoming debut Radio Flyer, feels momentous — horns swelling and drums booming from afar.

Christina Lee talked with Mereba about revisiting her roots, embracing the Dixie Chicks and calling Atlanta home.

On watching CMT as a teen:

I loved the Dixie Chicks. I had heard of them before, and I knew they were really big, but I hadn’t heard or really connected with any of their songs growing up. I was really quiet when we moved [to North Carolina] because I didn’t know anybody, and I was at that weird age in puberty where I was like, “No one gets me. I don’t know anyone.” So I spent a lot of time researching music. I remember I was watching CMT. Have you seen the show Crossroads? They have two artists come together and blend their sounds, basically. I remember Dixie Chicks were on it and I was like, “Whoa.” It was three women and they were all playing instruments: one, the violin; one, the guitar; and one, the Dobro. I was blown away.

On writing for a Def Jam imprint:

Writing songs for me was always more therapeutic; I didn’t write songs and say, “Oh, this would be great if so-and-so sang it” — I just wrote songs for myself. So to be writing songs that are universal enough that someone else could sing it and make it their own…I learned more about what makes a great song, even a timeless song. But no matter what style I was writing, I always had to write a song that wasn’t too “me.” I wrote for a few independent projects and a lot of potential songs for big artists, but a lot of feedback I got was like, “This would sound better if you sang it.” So I held onto a lot of those songs. I wrote for Rihanna. At that time she was releasing an album every year, which she did for a long time. Kelly Rowland. I wrote a few to pitch to Kelly Clarkson, which was cool because I felt that she was closer to me stylistically.

‘There’s so much amazing innovation happening with artists in Atlanta, and it’s just now starting to get shine. Yeah, I’m from Young Thug Atlanta — but I’m from the other side, too.’

On writing her debut EP, Room for Living, in her (unusual) living room:

I was dead broke, so I was just going to record with what I had, which was a computer. I used to have my friends come over to my old spot, this old high school in East Atlanta. [Mereba lived in a high school that was converted into an apartment building in the late '80s. — Ed.] All my friends were doing music, and they were like, “This [music] is so crazy, so you and so unique. You need to put it out.” It got to a point where I was like, “This would be dope. People don’t really know who I am.” In Atlanta I was performing with a full band, so I wanted people to understand who my influences were.

I was at this old school called Girls’ High School. For a long time it was an all-girls school, and then it became co-ed. If you walk into the apartment, you can see where the blackboard would have been. I was so inspired. I guess there was something about the spirit of that place and where I was in my life that gelled perfectly. I mean, it’s kind of creepy — I ‘m not going to lie. There’s the whole myth about high schools being haunted. It was kind of creepy at certain points, but that just added to the coolness.

On the Atlanta she knows:

All of my friends growing up are now teachers or in law school, but JID, Earthgang, ForteBowie, India Shawn, Miloh Smith — I consider them my actual friends. Atlanta is super eclectic, and I’m glad. When I went to London, I was having a conversation with somebody and they were like, “You’re from Atlanta? Like, Young Thug Atlanta? T.I. Atlanta?” I’m like, “No. I’m from the other side of Atlanta.” I have a song on my album called “Eastside Jungle.” I’m telling people about my side of the city, which is not a geographical side as much as a way of thinking and style. There’s so much amazing innovation happening with artists in Atlanta, and it’s just now starting to get shine. Yeah, I’m from Young Thug Atlanta — but I’m from the other side, too.

On how a trip to Ethiopia inspired Radio Flyer:

The most recent time I went was last year, a week before I started recording. My closest cousin was getting married. We’ve been planning this since we were kids; I was gonna be singing at her wedding. My family has always really believed in me as a musician, but they were like, “When are you gonna make some songs that have some drums? We’re African. We like to dance.” They’re not super-duper into acoustic music there. They wanna hear some bass and drums. They were like, “Don’t forget you’re Ethiopian. Do something for us.” That replayed over and over in my head. I just want something the whole world can feel. I want to be able to sing my songs at the World Cup, but I want to also be able to sing at Apache [Cafe] or at a coffee shop. So I had to take their constructive criticism to heart.

‘I used to sneak out of the house and go beyond where I was supposed to go. That would take place on my Radio Flyer or on my Big Wheel.’

On the solo adventuring that inspired Radio Flyer‘s title track (“And my big brother never wanted me to hang with his friends…”):

I think any girl who had an older brother can understand that at a certain point, your older brother will be embarrassed by you. He’s four years older. We were best friends in a lot of ways — kind of by force — but he didn’t want his friends to have a crush on me, so he didn’t want me around that much. Also, he didn’t want me to like them. He didn’t want to be slowed down by his baby sister. I wrote ["Radio Flyer"] about the time we lived in State College, Pennsylvania, where a lot of my first memories are from. He had a group of six or seven dudes. We would all just be around the neighborhood, playing football, skateboarding and riding bikes together. State College is almost rural, where Penn State is but outside of that, with mountains, woods and huge forests behind our own homes.

He and his friends used to explore everywhere. I used to try and come, and he didn’t really want me around. So I used to sneak out of the house and go beyond where I was supposed to go. That would take place on my Radio Flyer or on my Big Wheel. The first sport I ever tried was skateboarding, and that was a terrible experience. I still have scars on my legs because of that. I guess I spent a lot of time, just trying to do what a lot of them did but like, without him. So ["Radio Flyer"] is so true life. I had sent the song to my brother. He was touched, but then he was like, “Why did you have to call me out like that?”