Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
When Memphis rapper Gavin Mays (a.k.a. Cities Aviv) recruited Marcella Réne Simien to sing vocals on two songs for his gauzy, whip-smart first release, "Digital Lows," it was after hearing her at a show in Memphis circa 2010 or so. In those days, she'd open for punk bands at house shows under the pseudonym Fille Catatonique, mashing up The Buzzcocks' "Orgasm Addict" with Nina Simone's "Be My Husband" on a Cajun squeezebox.
Her voice on those two Cities Aviv tracks — "Black Box" and "A Beautiful Hell" — is deep-seated and serpentine and listeners might not be surprised that Simien counts Destiny's Child and Erykah Badu among her early musical influences. Had those same listeners been in the crowd with Mays, though, the singer's zydeco pedigree might have been more telltale. Marcella's father, Terrance, a descendant of one of the first Creole families to settle in Louisiana's St. Landry Parish, was among the reasons for the creation of an entirely new Grammy Award category: "Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album," an accolade his group Terrance Simien and The Zydeco Experience scored for themselves in 2008.Taj Mahal sang "Happy Birthday" to her when she turned 18, and her family's company for gumbo included the likes of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo. Growing up with a bonafide zydeco pioneer, Simien says, was "just the most vibrantly colorful way to be exposed to music," and though convivial brushes with greats like Fats Domino didn't likely go unnoticed, Simien credits bits of her father's personal collection — Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Bob Dylan — with having lent an eclecticism to her ear during those aesthetically formative years. "It was endless, all the CDs and tapes and records that were within my reach. It made me a more informed listener," she told the Arkansas Times. She attested to some shyness as a child, but despite that, she did more than listen. "I really was a sponge. Anything I heard that I liked, I would wanna emulate it. I remember in preschool — no, it was in kindergarten, for show and tell, you had to bring in something, and I brought in a Joe Cocker CD and just sang along to it. I loved the growl and the grittiness of his voice."
It wasn't just vocal grit she soaked up, either: Simien's quick to relate how she witnessed firsthand — by watching her mother, Cynthia Simien — what brand of chutzpah it's taken to keep Terrance Simien's career chugging along for 35 years and counting. "My mom has, for the last 20 years, been his booking agent and manager, and she was just, like, a ballbuster — the most incredible businesswoman I've ever seen in action. ... She started out in the clothing industry and when she met my dad, she learned the ropes. So I got to see that aspect of it, just how to really take care of business."
In performance, Simien — who will appear Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the White Water Tavern — is earthy, occasionally barefoot, using a bent knee to keep her stay grounded while she throws her head back for a big belty note, then just as easily switching into the sort of guttural tremolo that makes Simone's imprint most apparent, as in the opening lines to "We Rewind." Though her rendition of straightforwardly soul numbers like "I'd Rather Go Blind" would settle any bets about her gifts as a strictly-vocals frontwoman, Simien's most in possession of an easy freedom of motion when she's wearing her accordion, matching the ebb and flow of those endlessly stretching origami folds with her hips. The lyrics on her band's 2014 EP, "The Bronze Age," make that lusty euphemism a bit more explicit (though, to be fair, the words to "Orgasm Addict" do set a pretty high bar in that category), summoning symbols for sex as ancient as Eden's apple itself: "Red delicious for my baby/Bed delicious for my body/If you keep givin' me that eye boy/It's been a long, long time/Open mouth and climb inside."
And, though the subject matter leans decidedly toward the adult, Simien wrote that opening tune, "Put That Bronze," on "a small sort of toy Casio synth." The full band's sound "bends and stretches," she said, "and we just kinda bring what we think feels right for that room. But yeah, we usually have a lot of sultry tunes in our set." Given the eroticism of Simien's self-described "swamp soul," it makes a lot of sense that she'd inform her band's forthcoming album with the production talents of someone who's worked with Al Green and Cody Chesnutt: Royal Studios' Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, who took over the landmark business when his father, Willie Mitchell, died in 2010, having led the revered Hi Records label through its Memphis soul heyday in the 1970s.
Simien's visual art is situated casually on her website next to her biography and a gallery of photos titled "Photos of Marcella Taken By Her Friends." Her senior final exhibition piece as a student at Memphis College of Art was called "Where You Was." It's an assemblage of unframed papers in varying textures and weights — mixed-media collages intertwining patches of muted ivory, sky blue and rose with her drawings, a skill to which she turned her focus completely after an MCA drawing professor illuminated for her the idea of "drawing with paper, instead of drawing with a utensil." The accompanying artist statement makes no mention of music, but nevertheless evokes the same twofold roots in Memphis and Lafayette, La., that allow for her seamless blending of zydeco with that Stax Records sound: " 'Where You Was,' an 18-piece grid of abstract mixed media collages, explores the idea of having two homes. ... I am interested in what it means to be indigenous to a certain place."
Marcella & Her Lovers play at White Water Tavern Tuesday, Nov. 15, 9 p.m., $5. Memphis musician and filmmaker "Clay Otis" Hardee, who was to join Marcella & Her Lovers for this show, passed away unexpectedly Oct. 21, and the band will be paying tribute to his memory.