“In the North, there was Motown. They had a slick, polished sound…but when you go below the Mason-Dixon Line, down South, the soul is a raw, raw sound. It was ours.”
The home of Stax Volt and Sun Studios, Memphis proudly proclaims itself the birthplace of both Rock and Roll and Soul. Tellingly there are more quotes and lyrics written about Memphis than any other city in the world. In a town of musical legends, from Otis Redding to Al Green, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley, Memphis vocalist Susan Marshall proudly holds her own. Though perhaps unaware, fans of Lenny Kravitz, the Afghan Whigs, Cat Power, and Lucinda Williams have heard Marshall's stunning background vocal talents both live and on recordings.
Rolling Stone took note of Marshall's performance at a Gram Parsons tribute featuring Keith Richards, Steve Earle, Norah Jones and Dwight Yoakam: "The spine-chill award went to Memphis soul singer Susan Marshall, who belted a powerful 'Do Right Woman' that practically brought people to their knees." Rockphiles.com mused "Where this woman has been hiding, I don't know.”
Raised in Memphis, Marshall spent her formative years absorbing the rich
musical influences wafting northward from the Mississippi delta and westward
from Appalachia. Born with a voice so pristine atheists described it as God-given, Susan soaked up her milieu like a sponge, allowing the smoky, soul stew groove of the Bluff City to further infuse her talents with nuance and depth.
In her twenties, Marshall’s early classical training afforded her the opportunity
to perform a six-year stint with the Off Broadway rep company Light Opera of
Manhattan. But feeling "bound and tied" by the written-note constraints of the classical world led Susan to switch gears entirely.
It wasn’t long before Marshall would return to Memphis, where she co-founded and fronted early '90s rock band The Mother Station. Signed to Warner Bros. affiliate label EastWest, the band released one critically-hailed record,1994's Brand New Bag, which featured the radio hit "Put the Blame on Me."
Because her stage experiences in New York had instilled confidence and life on the road had offered its own special brand of wisdom, Marshall was prepared to tackle one more musical challenge, and perhaps the most daunting: Songwriting. In the late 90’s, after honing her skills on the piano, Susan began to nurture the creative impulses dancing bashfully in her head. The ultimate result was the critically acclaimed album Susan Marshall Is Honey Mouth released in 2002. Philadelphia Weekly’s rave was typical…”a stunning showcase of some truly standout Tennessee pipes."
Over the next couple of years, Marshall continued to develop as a songwriter and musician. Turning to the stylings of a bygone era, Susan began working on a collection of songs that would become 2005’s Firefly – where three-piece, light jazz accompaniment allows Marshall’s soaring vocals to shine. A writer for the Commercial Appeal rendered thusly: “That Susan Marshall has got a mouth on her. And from it emanates some of the most beautiful music in the city. Firefly is a master class in under-singing. On such time-tested material as ‘God Bless The Child,’ Marshall thankfully refrains from turning the melody into a grandstanding showcase. Instead, she favors serving the song, and the effect is to actually hear it for the first time in years.”
In 2006, along with soul guitar legend Teenie Hodges, Susan was selected as a touring member of Cat Power’s Memphis Rhythm Band. The tour included appearances on Austin City Limits, Late Nite with David Letterman and the BBC’s Later…with Jools Holland.
The winning streak continued in 2007 when American Idol’s Katherine McPhee recorded Marshall’s simmering ballad “Better Off Alone” on her debut CD. Also that year, Susan recorded vocals for Lucinda's new CD Little Honey, was featured on Maynard James Keenan's Puscifer disc, sang on Solomon Burke’s new album, sang on Australian Idol Guy Sebastian's record and contributed vocals to the soundtrack for the Denzel Washington movie The Great Debaters.
Shortly thereafter, Susan began a collaboration with her husband, producer Jeff Powell (Afghan Whigs, Tonic, Bob Dylan) and co-producer Henry Olsen (Primal Scream, Beth Orton, Nico). The two and a half year effort has resulted in Marshall’s latest recording, Little Red, released through MADJACK Records. Recorded in both London and Memphis, the album includes a simmering duet with Lucinda Williams on The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” The aforementioned Teenie Hodges (Al Green) provides irrepressibly percussive guitar backing on the Marshall penned “Oh My Soul.”
Current Gutter Twin and former Afghan Whig frontman, Greg Dulli makes two different appearances on “Little Red.” Dulli contributes ghostly talk-back vocals on Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale” and a cover of his song “Going To Town” opens the album. Dan Lavery (Tonic, The Fray) and Matt Pence (Centro-Matic) are featured on the album, as are a host of Memphis’ finest session players.
Noted author Robert Gordon describes the new disc beautifully:
“The bridges built by Susan Marshall’s Little Red cross oceans, oceanic expanses of time, and disparate musical styles. Though rooted solidly in the present day, with hip European sonic loops and technological tricks, the album conjures Memphis of the 1960s and ‘70s, specifically South Memphis—where Stax and Hi cut funky grooves that continue to propel the Memphis vapors decades later. It’s an evocation, not an imitation. It’s today, built on yesterday.”
Susan Marshall is a powerhouse. She is both a reminder and a trail blazer for what music can and should be. She’ll warm your heart and wink at your soul. She’ll conjure the innocence of your first romance and the exhilarating guilt of a one-night stand. Susan’s songs have a way of taking up residence just under your skin – a tingle here, a shudder there, a feather stroke down the spine coupled with a lingering left hook to the jaw. That's what it feels like when the siren they call "Honey Mouth" gets hold of ya.