Samantha Gongol and Jeremy Lloyd of duo Marian Hill turn the tables and interview each other about songwriting, the importance of vocalists, and the age-old comparison: Britney and Christina.
Samantha Gongol and Jeremy Lloyd of duo Marian Hill turn the tables and interview each other about songwriting, the importance of vocalists, and the age-old comparison: Britney and Christina.
Text: Jake Viswanath
Marian Hill can get down. The songwriting duo, consisting of vocalist Samantha Gongol and producer Jeremy Lloyd, has been making melodic, jazz-infused electronic R&B for the past five years, steadily climbing industry ranks to become a solid presence on the music scene. The title of their latest album Unusual aptly describes the material on it, a notable blend of chill soul, soft electro synths, and bluesy emotion. But it's the classic songwriting of Gongol and Lloyd, a style that focuses on narrative and impact, that gives the record a clean, modern twist and prevents it from becoming too unusual. Although they've worked together closely for over half a decade, they've never been able to turn the tables and have an in-depth interview between them two—until now.
For our Artist to Artist series, Sam and Jeremy (almost) cut out the middleman and talk to each other about life in the music industry, the struggles of writing on the road, and of course, their favorite powerful vocalists. It's never a bad time to have a spirited Britney vs. Christina conversation, is it?
Jeremy: Sam, you always talking about vocalists and what different vocalists are trying. When you are evaluating a vocalist or performer, what are the things that are most important to you?
Sam: One of the things I look for in a singer is authenticity. It’s so funny because I love pop music, but not all pop singers and pop songs are created equally. One of my pet peeves is hearing a pop song and the singer sounds replaceable on their own track. There’s not something that I connect with or I feel is genuine about their performance, and I have a hard time getting behind them. I also look for character and for a voice that’s different, that’s unique, and that stands out to me. That’s what I love about old jazz singers like Dinah Washington. Her voice has so much character, so much color, and is so unique. Christina Aguilera was a huge inspiration to me growing up, I thought her voice sounded so different in the pop sphere. I love Adele and Amy Winehouse —Amy Winehouse is one that really changed the game for me. I really want to connect with their performance and feel the emotion in the song.
J: Just for fun, could you compare and contrast Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera for us?
S: Oh my gosh. It’s so funny. I was obsessed with Christina Aguilera, and still am. She hasn’t put anything out recently that I’ve connected with or been a huge fan of, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve gone back and re-listened to Britney Spears. I actually realized that although one could argue she’s maybe not technically a gifted singer, she was so talented and an incredible performer. I rediscovered her and learned to love her in retrospect. I always loved her music, but just as a performer. Christina just has so much range, and is so technically gifted. I remember listening to her runs when I was younger and trying to replicate every specific run she would do [laughs]. It was impossible. She has so many influences—Aretha Franklin, Etta James. She’s actually a blues and soul aficionado as well. That totally shows in her performance. She always had something in her performance that I found so authentic and genuine. I always felt her performances really were the best of pop music, and were tinged with a little bit of edge. There’s a little bit more depth to her performances. But I do love Britney, for the record!
S: Okay, Jeremy. What’s one thing you would change about the music industry? Not to put you on the spot or anything [laughs].
J: I think that, reflecting on our generation, when we came up as artists, there was this incredible ecosystem on the internet of at least a thousand blogs that were regularly posting about music. If you were an emerging artist, you could get on those sites like Hype Machine and build a fanbase. The industry was paying attention—Spotify was reading Hype Machine, Apple Music was reading Hype Machine. As a side effect of cracking down on piracy once and for all with streaming services, I feel we’ve lost so many curators of music in the process. Avenues that can take a new artist and give them a chance, and expose them to a bigger audience, are gone. I think the ideal music industry has so many different curators that all have different channels to audiences, because we know how it worked in the blog heyday, but in other times too. If you have different avenues, people like all different kinds of music. The less choices you have, and the more streamlined it gets, you lose that. I think the biggest central music scene right now is on the internet, with so many emerging artists coming up in the scene, sharing music with people they’re connected to on Twitter. The way we consume music is changing, and these avenues are opening up.
S: You touched on it briefly, but how would you fix it or what’s one possible solution?
J: This is where it gets tricky. I think in the ideal world, there is a much more true balance in the various digital platforms we have now—Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play. Right now, on most of those platforms, the playlisting that happens, the way songs are showcased on the interface of the app, it’s guided by the company themselves. In my perfect world, there’s a streaming ecosystem upheld by these companies. The structure is there, but there are playlists by independent curators given the same level of platform. They exist on all those platforms, which gives them great potential, but it’s hard to find them unless you’re seeking them out. I wish they could be more part of the whole, then everything could work together.
J: I’m gonna switch to our new album, Unusual. Was there a moment that was really fun, or exciting, or a moment you remember during the process of writing this album?
S: I think there are a few moments, but one of them was when we were writing “Go Quietly”. That was the first song we wrote for the upcoming record. I think the first song, to me, where there’s a mutual consensus where we were like, “we wrote this, love this, it has to be on the record” is one of the most exciting moments. You come off such a long cycle, and you live with the songs on your previous record or project for such a long time, that it can take a while to get to a new headspace where you’re free and unburdened enough to let yourself try something new, let go, and wrap your mind around a new project. That can be really challenging, and ”Go Quietly” really came pretty quickly, once we started getting back in the studio which was probably early summer of last year. We just went back into the studio and knew we had to be writing for this next record, but we didn’t have any expectations. That’s one of the best times because you can just go in and write. “Go Quietly” wasn’t our hit song, but we just wrote what we were feeling. It’s a slow song, a ballad, and in my opinion, it’s really different from songs we’d written before. We were privileged that it was the first song, and I’m excited to release it and finally let people here the recorded version of it. Another song is “Don’t Miss You”. It’s kind of a throwback. It’s the most blatant call to the '90s, and it’s really fun. I’m excited to play it. We were going back and forth about what to play on tour since the album isn’t out yet, and I’ve always been really excited about this song. It’s a fun pop song, and it’s one of my favorites.
J: “Don’t Miss You” was a pretty big moment for me, too, as a producer. It was the longest I’ve ever worked on a song, because we had the basic song written and then I sat on it for months because I couldn’t figure out the production.
S: You went all over too, New York, LA…
J: I’d pull it up and try to wrap my brain around it, I knew it was great but it was close to a year where I didn’t know how to make the song work. I finally figured it out, and it was a big moment for me, because before that as a producer I had the mindset that if it wasn’t happening in the moment and it didn’t feel good, then the song isn’t meant to be and it won’t feel right. This was a big lesson for me that if you feel something’s really good, sometimes you need to give it a lot of time and keep at it.
S: If you could collaborate or work with someone outside of music, who would it be and in what capacity?
J: I love TV a lot. There are several shows that I wish I could write some kind of song for. I love Star Trek a lot, I have this personal pipe dream thing. I’ve just been enjoying new theories but there’s been one scene where they were in a bar and music was playing, and it did not feel at all like music people would be listening to 1000 years in the future. I think it would be really fun to make something for them that really feels like music of the future. I also really love the shows that Bryan Fuller works on, like Hannibal and American Gods. I’d love to be involved in a project with him. I’m generally really excited about finding a way to make songs that take place in the narrative that sound extremely fresh, modern, and of the moment right now. I love the show The Magicians, and similarly, they have music in it and I think it could be even better than it is. I’d love to do that.
J: When you’re writing melodies, obviously so much of it is instinct, but are there things that you know that you’re looking for and that you don’t want? How does that process work?
S: It’s almost hard to answer because I feel like, at least with me, so much of it is instinctual. When I’m writing a song, I feel like most songwriters do this anyway, I value repetition whether it’s catchy or not. We go back and forth about this a lot, we write a lot of melodies together and it’s contentious on whether we both like it and whether it’s catchy enough. I grew up on pop music and, to go back to Britney Spears, I was obsessed with every record, I love all the pop greats and their music was very given to the music we write now. Then I feel like I discovered Amy Winehouse and the jazz greats and that certainly influences Marian Hill and what we write. When we graduated, during college and at the end of college, Jeremy came to me and showed me AlunaGeorge and discovered UK R&B and soul, basically electronic R&B. I'm also a big fan of Kehlani. I feel like now when I write, I feel like I’m influenced by all of these genres and when I write melody, I used to be pretty sparse. Even lyrically, my verses would have far fewer words. Now I’m influenced by longer sentences and longer phrases, which is what I feel like what you would hear in a Kehlani song or a '90s R&B track. But a lot of it is instinctual, it depends on what the track is and what I’m feeling. Instinctual for the most part but influenced by many different genres.
S: What is an obstacle or a challenge you had to overcome early on as a producer? And what is one of the hardest things about being a touring musician?
J: My biggest obstacle as a producer is when I made the beat for “Whiskey”, it became clear just based on the reception to it, and I wrapped my head around it more, that it was the best thing that I had made and I definitely stumbled onto a higher level. Up until that point, producing music for me had been a hobby, it hadn’t been something that I was devoting all my thousand hours to and taking really seriously. I’d been working on songwriting and taking classes on that and really diving into that, mutating songs, but producing is a whole different thing. I had to get really serious really quick and prove that I was up to this and could do this. All of the work that led up to this EP, I was just constantly learning and constantly pushing myself to a standard. I definitely had some moments where I didn’t hit it. I really see that whole year and Act One as just me learning to the point that I could be confident as a producer going into a room with whomever. I’m still getting there in some ways because I’m not the best at any one thing, but I’ve built a lot of confidence and learned how I like things to sound and how to get them there, and I’m proud of that.
The hardest thing about being on the road as a musician is, I got a little studio set up in the back of the bus, we’re in it right now actually. To me it’s about time. I do my best work when I’ve got a whole day, or at least three or four hours to just be hanging out in the studio trying different things, throwing different ideas around, having an hour to just get in the vibe and not even make anything quite yet, and also doing that regularly. It’s all about time. It’s not like, once you’re good, every beat you make is good and every song you write is good. Just the odds are better. It’s still ultimately a numbers game. If you have less time, it’s less likely you’ll get the good stuff. I try really hard to make time on tour for making stuff every day, but it’s hard and it gets away from you. It’s still not the good creative place that I strive for when I have the time.
Jake: If I may interject, I’d actually like to ask the same question to Sam, what do you think the hardest thing about being on the road is?
S: It’s funny because one of the reasons I asked is because Jeremy and I have talked about it of course and we have slightly different opinions. Jeremy I feel like is more comfortable in the studio. One of my jobs is to sing this music live and I feel like I have, this is where I get to sit with this record and feel comfortable with it. When I’m on the road, it gives me a sense of structure that I don’t necessarily have at home, which I feel like Jeremy is really good at making a schedule for himself and scheduling time to work on music. I don’t often create totally on my own. I’m usually dependent on someone to give me a track or just to work with someone or collaborate in some way. So unless I have that, it’s really difficult to start on my own. Which is something I can certainly get better at, but at this point in my life I’m just dependent on someone else. So being on the road gives me structure. I just love performing, I love being on the road.
J: What’s your favorite from the album right now, but no pressure if you have a favorite overall.
S: I think my favorite from Act One, I really do genuinely love “Down”. I think “I Know Why” is one of my favorites. Oh, and on this record, weirdly probably “Differently”. I loved narrative twists. It’s funny because I don’t really know country music all that well and I don’t listen to it all that much but one of the things I do love in general is the dedication that the writers give and the priority that they give to the story. It’s not just about the coolest track or the best vocalist. It’s about the story, it’s about the song. That doesn't necessarily make it a great song, there are many other factors that make songs amazing, and there are other reasons why we love them. When a song is a great story, and when it’s able to be a pop hit with either a lyrical twist or a really complex narrative, or something unexpected, I do love that. It’s hard to do and we don’t do it all the time but “Differently” is certainly one of those times that we do that. “Wish You Would” as well.
J: And “Don’t Do It".
S: And “Don’t Do It”. We’re on a wave. I forgot where I heard this, but someone once said that if a song were a person, the melody would be the looks, and the lyrics would be the substance. So you’d fall in love with the melody, but the lyrics would always be there. Especially in an age where we prioritize quantity over quality, I personally always strive to be in a place with a song where I feel comfortable, that might just mean sitting with the lyrics. I never like to add a throwaway if I don’t have to. So some sort of narrative twist that makes something good.
J: I’m going to jump in because we write lyrics together, so it’s a very back and forth thing. One of the big things for us is something that you just said, which is we don’t want any throwaway. It’s really important to me that every lyric has value and every line—
S: Intention. That’s what I was trying to say.
J: Well another big thing that I’m always saying, which is probably annoying, but I think is really important, is I don’t want to say the same thing twice. If we’re trying to figure out the next lyric, sometimes it’s something that rhymes and feels great, but there’s no new information there. So with us, we’re always trying to make sure that every line is there for a reason. Every line takes us one step closer, give us more information to keep us going.
S: I realize too that you can interpret a metaphor in a different way, if you can use a word or a commonly respected phrase and turn it into something else. I love Kacey Musgraves's album. I think she is one of the best writers in the game right now. I fell in love with “Merry Go Round”. I heard that on country radio years ago when I was driving home at night and I was like, “What is this song?” It was incredible. Then “Space Cowboy” is one of my favorites off of this record. She just does such a good job of reinterpreting a metaphor or giving it new life or giving it new meaning.
J: I think that’s a big thing in music writing, I feel like it always has been, is finding a new way to say an old thing so that people remember it. We used to, early on, always go back to a line that we loved because it just felt so evocative and new, and it stuck in your head. I can throw out a few lines from the album that we loved that did that. I love the line “Got a lot of melodies in my mind / You turn me up, I’m down for a session”. It’s a line from “Listening” that I’m really proud of just because of the amount of metaphors we were able to get in there and how they’re all tied into writing a song, the session line specifically is an in-joke for the industry, but it works even if you don’t know. I love “Sideways” lyrically for different reasons. “Sideways” we use repetition of a word adding into it, stretch out the lie line, though that one’s harder to explain without hearing the song.
S: Just on a different note, I wanted to add too, hip-hop artists and rappers are incredible poets and lyricists. I’m constantly floored by the lyrics. We’re not writing rap, so I didn’t mention that, but just wanted to throw that in there. We could go on and on.
J: It’s amazing. I also think about how the making old ideas new thing, Drake coining the term “Hotline Bling” and making that the whole song, you’re striving for words and moments like that to become recontextualized, like “Oh shit, I understand this now."
S: What is your favorite song on Unusual and why?
J: “Wish You Would” is a beat that I’m really proud of. It’s also really funny because I don’t remember making it. It’s bizarre. Sometimes really late at night, right before I go to bed, I’ll make a few ideas and save them and then pass out. I don’t know if it was a couple days later or a week later, but at some point I was going through things that I had made that I couldn’t recognize the name of that we could maybe work on. Then I heard the “Wish You Would” beat and I was like, “Woah! This is so good”. It’s nice when that happens because I was looking for something really good and thinking I had to make it and I already had. I really love the way that song grooves and the way it feels. It makes me want to move. I feel it’s a new type of groove for me, which I’m always trying to do. It’s a weird thing as a producer, because I really don’t want to be too pragmatic about it or logical about it in terms of “Now I’m going to study this groove that exists and try to make it myself”. I like it to feel organic. But at the same time, I also always want to be switching things up and not gravitating towards the same tempo and grooves over and over. “Sideways” I love because it’s a new type of song for us to write, it feels really like a singer-songwriter type of song. The production really supports, but the production isn’t as intrinsic to the song itself. It was a fun challenge to write a song that existed independent of that. I think it tells a really cool story and the verses are really slow, you hear every word, it takes you through it. We’ve been playing it on tour and it’s a really cool moment to be able to share with audiences, we pull everybody in for that. It feels really good, and it also came from a place where songs don’t usually come from, which was after a show. We were in California, we were both really tired, we were just posted up in this little studio in Riverside and I think we both just wanted to make something relaxing. We were really exhausted and it just came together. The whole song wasn’t produced or anything, but I remember leaving that with verse and chorus and being like “This is a really cool thing”.
Jake: What’s each other’s most annoying habit?
J: I’ve got an easy one. Sam will frequently undermine a compliment by being like “I actually like that, that actually looks good”. And we’re always kind of like, well damn.
S: I do. I don’t know when it started or why I started doing it. Jeremy would play me a song that he’s really excited about and I’d be like “actually that’s really good” and I mean it genuinely, but obviously in the way that I phrase it it’s implying that I’m surprised, that I anticipated that it would be bad. So I need to stop that. Jeremy is so smart, and he knows me so well that sometimes I get really frustrated that his attention to detail is so insane that we’ll be working on a verse and if it’s not a perfect rhyme, like within the first two lines if it’s not exactly replicated I’m like “it’s a near rhyme, it’s fine” he’s like “that doesn’t rhyme”, I’m like “what are you talking about? Yes it does” and he’ll be like “no it doesn’t” and he will back it up with a very convincing argument that often I don’t have the energy to fight. But we do fight about lyrics.