Music Interviews
5:41 am
Sun May 19, 2013

Marques Toliver: An R&B Crooner With Strings Attached

Originally published on Sun May 19, 2013 2:11 pm

Marques Toliver is an R&B singer, but his music is equally anchored around the violin, on which he is classically trained. He says he discovered the instrument on the first day of his fifth-grade music class — and in a way, the violin chose him.

"There were just tons of instruments, and basically you had to run to that seat, with whatever instrument was in there — and that's what instrument you would play for the year," he explains. "I was just flabbergasted by the fact that there were, like, cellos and violas. Up until that point I had only seen them in pictures."

Toliver says he stood agape for so long that by the time he came to, "everyone was in their seats, and the only thing that was left was the violin. So I really had no choice."

Toliver's debut album is called Land of CanAan. He discusses it here with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin, and performs live in NPR's studios. Click the audio link to hear more.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND OF CANAAN")

MARQUES TOLIVER: (Singing) Oh Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound to the land of Canaan...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's Marques Toliver and not too long ago he was busking in New York City. You could hear his soulful voice and violin on the street corners of Brooklyn. Now, Toliver has a new album. It's called the "Land of CanAan" and he is touring around the world. Tolliver brought his violin when he joined us here in our studios and he took us back to where his love affair with the instrument began, in a fifth grade music class in Daytona Beach, Florida.

TOLIVER: There were just tons of instruments. And basically you had to run to that seat, with whatever instrument was in there and that's what instrument you would play for the year.

MARTIN: So you could have run to the seat with the oboe.

TOLIVER: I was just flabbergasted by the fact that there were, like, cellos and violas. And up until that point I had only seen them in pictures in my old school on the wall, you know, like the cut out of the violin and the word of violin. In the fifth grade, that was when it was like, yeah. Yeah, that's the thing I want to do because I knew that I wanted to be a singer. And then picked up the violin, and I didn't really know how to fuse the two at that point.

MARTIN: So you got all of this training. And fast forward little bit, you start taking your music to the street.

TOLIVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: There is a lot of anonymity in that moment. And I imagine that's liberating in some ways as a musician and also quite humbling. I mean, people are just walking by you, I imagine.

TOLIVER: Yeah. I tend to survey the area, like hang around for at least 30 minutes and just watch what's going on.

MARTIN: What are you looking for when you're surveying?

TOLIVER: I don't really know. It's just a feeling because if it's gray outside I won't play, 'cause I'm inspired by the atmosphere and the sun and the weather and the birds and, like, trash flying around and me playing along to that.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLIVER: So, if it's cold outside then I really won't do it. It's kind of like a groundhog seeing his shadow or something.

MARTIN: So, can I put you on the spot a little bit? I realized you were in the studio. We're not out on the street corner but can you give me a sense of maybe that scene you described, that intersection. Give me a sense of something you might play on a day like that.

TOLIVER: Let's see. It's just something - it would usually start with me doing a pizzicato type of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

TOLIVER: And then I would start humming. I'd go...

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMMING AND VIOLIN MUSIC)

TOLIVER: And then just continue like that. And then if someone pays attention then I keep going. You know?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Is that how it works? Someone will make a little eye contact with you and you'll know, oh...

TOLIVER: Yeah. It's like, OK, I can keep going now, because at the end of the day you don't want to blow out your voice. I mean, it's nice to play to the Earth, but after a while it's like, Mm, my belly is hungry.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLIVER: So...

MARTIN: So how did you - maybe it wasn't a decision but it is pretty unique, your sound. I mean you're taking this very classical instrument and your classical training, and you're putting on top of it this layer of really smooth, lovely R&B sounds. Was that just a natural union for you?

TOLIVER: I don't think it was intentional. It was just something that I was hearing around me, whether it be like a Whitney Houston song that has string parts in it, or it would be like a Isley Brothers or a Roberta Flack song. There always string parts associated with rhythm and blues, especially with the Motown era. So I guess it was just me reaching out for something that was a bit dormant.

MARTIN: I wonder if you could pick a song off of the album that was perhaps a little more complicated to build, and kind of walk us through how you created the architecture. What do you start with in terms of laying down the violin parts first, or the song or the lyrics first?

TOLIVER: Well, there is a song entitled "Stay," and there's a theme of...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIOLIN MUSIC)

TOLIVER: That thing that happens, is from Bach's "Three Sonatas and Three Partitas for Solo Violin." And so, I took that excerpt, the dah-doe-do-dee-dee-dah-dah-dom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THREE SONATAS AND THREE PARTITAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN")

TOLIVER: And then we put drums on top of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THREE SONATAS AND THREE PARTITAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN")

TOLIVER: And then I started singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THREE SONATAS AND THREE PARTITAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN")

TOLIVER: (Singing) When you speak my heart is soothed, our minds become one. Constantly I breathe you in, for me you are the sun. Don't want to lose you and have to walk on by. If this is a dream, then please don't wake me up. Won't forget that you are the start of love. Don't want to just lose and have you walk on by...

So I think that's one of the ways I created the album, "Land of CanAan." Just through classical content and my own longing for something - a new sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THREE SONATAS AND THREE PARTITAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN")

TOLIVER: (Singing) You stay. Oh baby, please stay. This pain, you take it away, away...

MARTIN: Let's play another song off the album.

TOLIVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: This track is called "Control."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CONTROL")

TOLIVER: (Singing) Let the radio keep playing. Twenty-four hours to go. I couldn't move my head on Friday. Twenty-four hours to go and you're not here, baby...

MARTIN: It's a lovely throwback to Motown in there.

TOLIVER: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CONTROL")

TOLIVER: (Singing) Ain't no river wide, no valley low enough to keep me from getting to you, baby. Ain't no river wide, no valley low enough to keep me from getting to you, baby. To keep me from getting, to keep me from getting...

MARTIN: How did that come together?

TOLIVER: Well, the little excerpt that we did here was written by Ashford and Simpson. And we got in touch with their camp and asked if we would be able to use it. And, you know, I had to pay a certain amount of money for it.

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLIVER: And we got to use the ain't no river wide, no valley low enough to keep me from getting to you...

(LAUGHTER)

TOLIVER: ...in my bridge on my debut album.

MARTIN: That's pretty cool.

TOLIVER: It is kind of groovy, right?

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLIVER: Because I'm just used to making songs on my laptop and like sampling things and I actually got to use one of them. So that was pretty like humbling.

MARTIN: Yeah.

TOLIVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is there any part of you that misses the anonymity of busking on the street corner?

TOLIVER: No way.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CONTROL")

TOLIVER: (Singing) You make me want to say ooh-ooh-ooh...

MARTIN: Marques Toliver, his new album is called "Land of CanAan." He joined us in our studios in Washington.

Marques, thanks so much for coming in.

TOLIVER: Oh, thanks for, like, allowing me here.

MARTIN: I'd love if you could just play a song off the new album.

TOLIVER: OK.

MARTIN: What song comes to mind?

TOLIVER: So, this song is "Magic Look."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGIC LOOK")

TOLIVER: (Singing) Baby, it's a magic look, look, look you gave me to each way I feel. Baby, it's a magic look...

MARTIN: Marques Toliver performing in studio. His new album is "Land of CanAan." You can hear the full version of "Magic Look" on our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGIC LOOK")

TOLIVER: (Singing) Baby, I want you to know you're the one that I grow close to my heart forever more than...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION. And today, we bid a fond farewell to two colleagues. Leaving us for new adventures in journalism, producer Tom Dreisbach and editor Jeff Bennett. You are scholars. You are gentlemen. And yes, you are kings of karaoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "UP WHERE WE BELONG")

MARTIN: We miss you already. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.