Marci‘s self-titled debut album is out today on Arbutus Records.
Flip on a televised news broadcast, read the newspaper headlines—it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be assaulted with a non-stop parade of bad. At least that’s what it has felt like in recent memory, and it’s taking its toll on everyone. And while it is fully understandable, warranted, and expected for musical artists to release albums of songs written to help us process and make sense of our current sociopolitical conditions, kudos must also go to those who seek to give us a temporary respite from the mental-exhaustion that is our modern everyday existence. We’ve seen this very recently, for example, with Lizzo‘s disco-funk affirmation Special and Beyoncé‘s tour-de-dance Renaissance, two very different albums that may make some important statements about “life” and “the world,” but are perhaps more concerned with just giving people a damn good time.
That was certainly the goal for Marci, the self-titled solo debut from keyboardist Marta Cikojevic of Montreal’s TOPS, an album that sits confidently among our very favorites of the year. To quote Cikojevic from the release announcement, “I wanted to make people happy. I wanted to make people feel like they could dance even when there was negativity.” It’s a great reminder, especially at a time when it’s so easy to get bogged down by despair, but also: she was not kidding. As Marci, Cikojevic has put together a superb collection of irresistible, catchy, and just-plain-fun pop tunes that make you want to let go and move. No, you probably won’t be dripping sweat to it in a club, but this is most definitely a vibe that encourages you to take up just a little more of your surrounding space—even its mellowest moments consist of the kind of slow jam that makes it difficult not to close your eyes and sway (see Carly Rae Jepsen‘s “All That”).
Produced in close collaboration with TOPS guitarist David Carriere, Marci certainly shares some similarities with the sophisto-pop of their full-time project, but here the influences are broader and more varied (more on this below). Jazzy guitar chords and smooth, glossy synths provide the soft-rock foundation, but Cikojevic and Carriere also incorporate r&b, funk, and disco elements into their vision. Part of the fun, for lack of a better phrase, is in hearing what you hear—that opening riff sounds like Aja-era Steely Dan, that groove feels like Thriller-era Michael Jackson. But make no mistake: rather than mere pastiche or patchwork, Marci is a successful synthesis of many decades and genres, well-studied and well-loved.
In the leadup to the album release date (today!), we got the chance to chat with Cikojevic via email where we discussed songwriting, collaboration, and influence (and where I briefly fixate over her obsession-worthy vocal stylings in the track “Terminal”). Check out our conversation below (lightly edited for flow and readability), and afterward, flip on this album, kick it up a little louder than usual, grab yourself a martini, and be happy. 🍸
HighClouds: Hi Marta! Many thanks for chatting with us. You have crafted an incredibly fun album full of classic, timeless pop. Who were some of your biggest musical influences when making this album?
Marta Cikojevic: It’s always hard to answer this question because there is so much, so I’ll pick three songs: Brandy – “Full Moon,” Rodney Crowell – “Ain’t No Money,” and The S.O.S. Band – “Just Be Good to Me.”
I had never listened to Rodney Crowell before—wow, what a great tune. Reminds me of the poppier side of Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac, which is certainly a vibe I can detect in your album (had they embraced late-70s funk). I also hear moments of Michael Jackson on occasion, sometimes in a melody and other times in the vocal harmonies.
Thank you!! That’s a great compliment. And yes, Rodney is a great writer. He wrote a lot of songs for different artists. There are some other really good songs on that record too: “Oh What a Feeling,” “Ashes By Now,” and “Queen of Hearts”.
I’ll check those out right away. How would you describe your style or your album to someone who hasn’t heard it?
I’d say it’s feminine, smooth, and peppy. A sexy candle-lit dinner with your friends, you’re wearing that new diamond choker you bought, and you’re on your 3rd martini…
Well, now I know how I’m going to spend the evening when the LP arrives, haha. Were you writing songs with that vision/feeling/goal in mind, or did that come later in the arranging/producing process? Did you do much experimenting with taking certain songs in “different” directions?
Haha, excellent. 🍸
I definitely had that feeling in mind! Yes, we experimented with a couple of songs, but the one that changed the most was “Deeper Shade of Blue.” It was originally more of a ballad, and we turned it into something more upbeat.
The press release mentioned that you’ve never formally written songs before. Could you tell me a bit about your songwriting process and your collaborative partnership with David Carriere?
I always write on keys, and I find I start with the chorus of a song and build around it. I record everything at every step of the way and piece it together, listen back and then play again, keeping in mind the vocal melodies popping in and out. And then hopefully there is a demo there that I can show David, haha. David is my favourite, I love working with him. The project started after I sent him some of my demos—he called me up and said, “Come to Montreal and make a record with me.” So I packed up and moved! Some of the funnest times I’ve had was making this record. David is an extremely talented songwriter and knows exactly how to make things sound good. Writing with him is very fun and easy, and I can’t wait to make more with him.
That sounds like a lovely creative partnership. What’s the first thing you discuss after showing David a demo?
Usually we discuss what parts of it are good and what parts could be better. Also, how we want to record it in regards to what mood we want to give off; which instruments will carry the track.
What surprised you the most in the process of writing and producing your own songs? What did you learn about yourself?
My voice! I was scared to use it and didn’t know what I could do with it! I’m excited to keep learning more about it and exercising it.
Your voice is like a dream! I find that there are little vocal moments throughout that I really look forward to hearing upon repeat listening. Just to cite a few examples from “Terminal” alone—the r&b trill on “I gotta moooooove” followed by the sighing breathiness of “into the grooooove,” the harmonies at the end of the chorus “makes me feeeel sweeeet,” the emotion of “there’s no way to choose, yeah!” and that quick descending run of “and let me burn on do-o-own.” Do you tend to parse your songs and look for different ways of using your voice, or do those moments happen more organically as you’re writing and/or rehearsing?
Thank you so much!!! Yes I definitely try to match my voice to the song. But it usually comes organically during the writing process. There are some new Marci songs (currently being recorded) where I am pushing myself in a new way/style that I have to work a little harder for… Heh it’s fun.
Oh good, I’m very glad there are more Marci songs to look forward to. What were the biggest challenges you faced putting your debut together?
Settling on a track listing was hard, haha.
Hard because you weren’t sure how to order the songs, or because you had more songs to choose from?
They all stood on their own, so it was difficult to arrange them so they blend into each other and tell a story. But I think we did a good job.
Absolutely. What do you love about making music?
I love that it inspires me to learn and evolve. It’s also very cathartic.
Marta, congratulations on a wonderful debut and thanks again for taking the time to e-chat! Hope to see you perform live one of these days. 🙂
Thank you so much!! It was lovely to chat. And I hope to see you at a show one day too. 🙂