If Marques Toliver comes across a bit brash, it’s because there’s little precedent for him. Both a classical violinist and R&B singer-songwriter, this 26-year-old world traveler boasts talents too big and broad to fit into any one box. On his stunning London-recorded Bella Union debut album Land of CanAan, Toliver combines literary and historical influences — among them, Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin — with music that ably blends an unlikely combination of Bach, Bobby Womack and Antony and the Johnsons. His voice may be urgent, but his virtuoso playing, elegant melodies and heavenly arrangements are the height of refinement. It’s not pop with strings tacked on: Violins supply the heart of nearly every song and Toliver plays all of them plus cello, guitar, keys and more. The result is southern soul mixed with equally intimate chamber music to create a third deeply spiritual, yet-to-be-named thing.
Barry Walters talked with Toliver about busking, determination and his status as Adele’s favorite new artist.
On how he spent his teenage years:
I was in orchestra from the age 10 all the way up until I was about 20. I was just immersed in the classical setting, the classical doctrine and classical foundation of music starting with the Suzuki method. When it was time for middle school, there was only one school in the county that had a string program, so I had to wake up at 5:30 to get to school before the bell rang at 7:30, and I did that for three years. I just kept studying the violin and going to specialized schools for the instrument. I was a part of the university and youth orchestra, which was about 45 minutes away from my home town, so I was always taking long trips to be a part of these musical ensembles that were a part of my public school training.
On moving to New York:
I came to New York just to visit a friend, and from that I started busking in the subway because the friend who invited me to New York wasn’t picking up her phone. I went to the gay and lesbian center to go online to find an orchestra friend who moved to the city — and luckily I did, through Facebook. From there, I just stayed in Brooklyn. One week led to two weeks because I was being asked to come to casting for modeling, so I got wrapped up in that world of being a 20-something in New York City. So between playing violin on albums of people I’d meet in the subway, I split my time working as a barback in Williamsburg and also teaching violin lessons. I was doing sessions for Kyp Malone and TV on the Radio, which would later lead to David Sitek of the same band asking me to work on another musician’s album [Holly Miranda's 2010 Sitek-produced The Magician's Private Library]. Then from that I was touring North America and that lead to England, and it just kinda snowballed.
On splitting his time between Brooklyn, London and Antwerp:
I’m a citizen of the world, similar to James Baldwin when he left the States during the Civil Rights movement and went abroad to Europe. When you’re African-American, your sense of home is a bit of a gray area because of the uncertainties when it comes to heritage due to slavery. That’s why church has always been such a big connecting factor for blacks in America, because it brings you all together despite not knowing what tribe or what region of Africa you may be from. You all can rejoice in the fact that you have this religion holding you together, despite it being a western religion [laughs].
On Adele proclaiming Toliver her “favorite new artist”:
Adele and I have a mutual friend, Richie Culver, and he’s an up-and-coming artist. He saw me busking on the Lower East Side and basically told Adele that Marques Toliver exists and that she should check out his music. And she did. So she decided to put up a little blog entry that I was her new favorite artist. Adele sat in on the first [A&R] meeting with Island Records because I had never met with a label before. It was definitely a good platform to gain a bit of notoriety within the industry without having to tour.
On working with UK pop songwriter/producer Eg White:
Eg White came into the picture simply because of his arrangements and what he had done for Adele with the string influence on songs such as “Chasing Pavements.” Eg’s father is a violinist, so Eg has a big classical foundation. We joined forces to create three songs for the album. We seized a lot of classical motifs, such Bach’s three Sonatas and three Partitas for solo violin, and we also created our own similar motifs with songs such as “If Only” and “Find Your Way Back Home.”
On the YouTube clip of Toliver jamming backstage with Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes and Sir Paul McCartney:
That was around the time of the Olympics in the UK. We were all on a tour together called the Africa Express, and the last gig was at St. Pancras train station, where there were about 15,000 people. Shingai and I had been rehearsing a song, and Paul shows up. There was just an extra third mic, so we were like, “Hey, just sing with us.” I was just amazed by the fact that it was going on, and then the next day it’s on YouTube.
On his predecessors:
Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, all those things have contributed to my music along with a lot of classical violinists, such as Jascha Heifetz, Pinchas Zukerman, Yehudi Menuhin, and [cellist] Jacqueline du Pré. And so many things within literature, like James Baldwin and his conflict with being religious and homosexual and a Civil Rights leader. I think I need a radio show to go into more detail.
On showing off his torso in his videos for “Control” and “Deep in My Heart”:
It’s just a way to document one’s being. Maybe for the American market it’s a bit risqué, but for Europeans the body is no different from a leaf falling from a tree or the lightening striking. It’s just life. I wouldn’t put myself in the same category as D’Angelo. He’s more of a heterosexual eye-candy thing.
On taking the high road:
I’m all about being elite and pushing myself. The easy thing would be to lie about one’s sexuality, go on a reality show, and try to make it big that way as opposed to forging your own path and clearing the dirt and paving the cement — or maybe not even using cement. Maybe using some solar powered device to create your journey. [Laughs] I just don’t think about it that much. Because if you’re a violinist, your palate is a bit more refined. I’m still immersed in things considered brutish or unmusical when it comes to contemporary things. Introducing different types of sounds into my world I find helps, as opposed to limiting myself or dumbing down my music.
On his ultimate goals:
I would like to sell enough so that I can invest in property and create music schools and ensure that student programs won’t diminish because of budget cuts. [I'd like to] become the male version of Oprah and introduce cultures to one another. I take it for granted that I can live in Belgium and two days later go to Paris and then be in London and then go to Berlin. I know we all have computers, but there’s a difference between having a screen show you photos of a world far away, and going to a concert and being transported to one of these worlds. And [I'd also like to] collaborate with musicians I’ve looked up to, such as Quincy Jones or Herbie Hancock or Beyoncé or, I don’t know, Katy Perry. Or just go very traditional and do things with Smokey Robinson or Adele. I’m really at the beginning of my career, so it’s hard to say, but I definitely want to be playing music and composing.