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Just some little tunes she dreamed up ...
Amanda Marshall decided to take it easy with her latest album, Everybody's Got a Story. She likens it to 'a craft project at summer camp,' except this project is almost platinum


Barrett Hooper
National Post

Richard Sibbald, Sony Music


Amanda Marshall says her latest album "just came off the top of my head. It sounds like what I was thinking at the time without over-thinking. It feels very much like a conversation I'd have."

Amanda Marshall has a flair for the dramatic, at least when it comes to the music on her new album. The title track, Everybody's Got a Story, opens with an orchestral arrangement straight out of an old Hammer horror film before it drops into a funky acoustic groove. There's a marching band drum intro on the hip-hop flavoured The Voice Inside. An eerie violin solo succumbs to Marshall's cocktails-and-cotton candy vocals on the ballad The Gypsy. UFO whirs and nifty scratches set the stage for the autobiographical Double Agent. The chirp of a cell phone awakens Marshall before Sunday Morning After's classic guitar riffs kick in. And Hitchcockian strings and horns on the urban-sounding Brand New Beau foreshadow the deception to come, that of a woman who discovers her boyfriend in bed with someone else. (Lyrics like "I was under the distinct impression / that we were swingin' in the same direction" reveal it's another man.)

In person, Marshall makes somewhat less than a Nora Desmond entrance, sliding playfully over the arm of the couch and settling with one Adidas sneaker curled beneath her. "I love that stuff, all those strange little pieces that lead into the songs," she says. "It gives the record a more theatrical feel, like walking out of a musical."

Marshall looks like she walked out of a musical herself -- Rent. She's dressed in thrift-shop brown cords, a red Ball State University tank top over a black-and-white striped shirt, and her hair -- a lion's mane of kinks and curls -- is confined to a ponytail beneath a poor boy hat, which is pulled low over her eyes to convey maximum attitude and an air of mystery.

But there's very little attitude about Marshall, who laughs, jokes and gestures her way through an interview at the Toronto studio where she worked on her latest album. The nearby mantel is a charm bracelet of trophies and statuettes, including a SOCAN songwriting award for Dark Horse, a single she penned on her self-titled debut album, and a 1998 Gemini for best performance in a variety program for her CBC special.

Marshall is open and gregarious, and she answers questions about the critical and commercial disappointment of her last album in the same manner she talks about her latest success -- with typical forthrightness. She only shies away when questions veer toward her closely guarded personal life, hence the only mystery.

"People probably think that I'm deadly serious, and with the tone I've had in the past in my music -- very straightforward, earnest songs, but without a lot of autobiography -- I can understand that," says Marshall, who is at her most revealing on Double Agent, about the prejudice she's experienced as the child of a Canadian father and Trinidadian mother. She's at her most personal on Marry Me, a ballad she wrote with her long-time boyfriend and the bass player in her band, Rob Misener. "Sometimes when you're trying to balance a public life and private life you save some stuff for yourself."

The title track, which is also the album's first top-five single, is all about the misperceptions that can result from fame. "It came out of a conversation I had about the nature of celebrity and how it sort of shapes how people think of you, how they see you on TV or hear you on the radio and think they know you," says the 27-year-old, who was discovered as a teenager singing "open mike" gigs at Toronto nightclubs by blues rocker Jeff Healy. "But you don't have to be a celebrity to feel that way. I think everybody feels like no one really knows them sometimes, and the song just kind of came out -- everybody's got a story that could break your heart."

The album, meanwhile, came out of a difficult if not exactly heartbreaking period of reflection and re-evaluation for Marshall, a time when she says she was "at the proverbial crossroads."

Her sophomore album, Tuesday's Child, had just sold more than 240,000 copies in Canada and spawned three top-40 hits -- Believe in You, Love Lift Me and If I Didn't Have You. But it was considered by many as a failure both critically and commercially, coming as it did in the wake of her phenomenally successful 1996 debut. That album spawned seven Top-10 singles (including Let it Rain and Birmingham) en route to selling more than one million copies in Canada and two million worldwide. (Marshall still gets "a little freaked" to think that one in 30 Canadians owns that record).

Tuesday's Child was an even greater disappointment because, after writing one song and co-writing two others on her debut and bolstered by its success, Marshall co-wrote all but one track on the followup.

"After I finished a tour for the second record, I needed some time for myself," she says. "I needed to be off the radar, slip back into my everyday regular routine, which actually gave me a chance to think about how I wanted the [next] record to sound."

And while she says she could have easily taken an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude to Everybody's Got a Story and been satisfied with a milder critical and commercial reception, she was determined to "step out on a creative limb."

"I wanted to make a record that was going to fit in with the soundscape of modern radio that wasn't just another collection of vapid love songs," she says of the Sony release. "I wanted to make a record that had something interesting to say, where each song is a little slice of life."

No longer feeling the need to live up to the pop diva status that she had been tagged with early in her career (including frequent comparisons to Sheryl Crow, Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker), or to prove with every note the incredible range and power of her voice, Marshall has actually turned down the volume, tuned out the critics and had fun with this album.

"I don't feel I have to prove anything," says Marshall, who co-wrote all 12 tracks on the disc. As a result, "the album sounds more like the way I talk."

In the past, Marshall says she sometimes let her drive to be pitch-perfect and poetic get in the way of a good song. "My tendency as a writer has been to try and figure out the more flowery way to say things," she admits, adding that one of her main goals was to bring some of the spontaneity of her live performances to the record.

"This just came off the top of my head. It sounds like what I was thinking at the time without over-thinking. It feels very much like a conversation I'd have. The flow of it feels right in that it came in a very natural way."

To help create that off-the-cuff feel, Marshall wrote most of the songs in the studio as she was recording. She also enlisted the help of producers Peter Asher (James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt) and Billy Mann (Diana King, Art Garfunkel).

"One of the things that makes it sound lyrically as hip as it is, is whenever our conventional instincts told us to go left we went right," she says. "When a choice became obvious we tried to go against it and say something different, take a twist on something," like on Brand New Beau.

Everybody's Got a Story also relies on New York DJ Molecules for the hip urban rhythms on many of the tracks.

"The feel of the record is based on the fact that all of the songs were constructed around these beats, so the groove -- this thumpa-thumpa-thumpa -- is really prevalent, and we'd just play around with things, like a craft project at summer camp," she says.

"And Peter Asher brought a really classic feel to the music," she continues, likening him to her own personal Obi-Wan Kenobi. "Billy and I were free to just play in the studio and turn knobs and see what would happen, and he was able to bring it back to fit the overall tone of the album."

A perfect example is Sunday Morning After, Marshall's first party song and "something people can dance to and just have fun." It was written at the end of a particularly gruelling 18-hour recording session in which everybody was a little punchy.

"Peter, Billy and myself were just trying to make each other laugh and out came this string of ideas about the worst morning after ever," she says. The lyrics evolved from there as the trio joked about the possibilities: "First she wakes up, she's got a tattoo, her tongue's pierced too, and we needed another 'ooh' rhyme and 'who the hell are you?' just fit.

"The implication in the song is that I got loaded and woke up with someone I don't know," Marshall continues, laughing at a punchline she has yet to deliver. "The funny thing is I don't drink."

That's too bad. Everybody's Got a Story is receiving critical kudos across the board. It's nearing platinum-level sales in Canada after just a couple of weeks in release. A North American tour in support of its February release in the United States is in the works for early in the New Year. So Marshall has a lot to celebrate.


 

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