Artist Brings 'Soul' to Country Music
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Ever want to jump in your car and hit the road, get away from all the buzz, just the horizon in front of you? Miko Marks knows that feeling. It's the title of her debut album and the record's hit song "Freeway Bound."
(Soundbite of song, "Freeway Bound")
Ms. MIKO MARKS (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I'm feeling kind of restless, feeling kind of bold. Wanna find a simple life and someone I can hold. I'm tired of the hurry, tired of this town. I'm heading where life's easy. I'll be free, once I'm freeway bound.
MARTIN: Hitting the road, giving thanks to mama, lying, cheating hearts - Miko Marks is an up and coming country artist who sings about all these country music staples. But just how did an African-American girl from Michigan catch the country bug? Decades after country legend Charlie Bright busted through the color barrier, country music still remains an elusive draw for black fans.
Here to share her views and a little music is Miko Marks. She joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome.
Ms. MARKS: Hi. How are you?
MARTIN: I'm great. Now I understand that you grew up singing gospel in church. So how did you make your way to country?
Ms. MARKS: Well, I can tell you this, it was really quite easy. I grew up in a gospel church, so telling stories kind of came natural for me. I just fell into it because I started writing my own songs and before I knew it, people were listening and saying, oh, this sounds kind of country, or this - and I said, well, why not do something that's coming from my heart? So I have to say I stumbled upon it.
MARTIN: Did you have some musical inspiration, some influences, people you grew up listening to?
Ms. MARKS: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: Who were they?
Ms. MARKS: Oh, yeah. Like my mom used to have Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Johnny Paycheck, and amongst Genesis, Chicago and Kansas, so I can just run the gamut on music. And I was exposed to country at a young age, but I didn't really gravitate towards it until my college years.
MARTIN: So it kind of evolved organically? You kind of were writing your own stories, your own songs, and it just took on a country feel - that's just how it came?
Ms. MARKS: Right.
MARTIN: It's just how it came out?
Ms. MARKS: Right. And I was like, why not do something that's coming so naturally to me rather than try to fit into a box that I'd really be uncomfortable in? So I'm doing this with ease. I love it. I can involve my family. It's just a great thing to be a part of, and it's my life on tape.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: And I must say, you do look cute in your hat.
Ms. MARKS: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: You look cute in your cowboy hat, I must say. Everybody can't pull off a cowboy hat.
Ms. MARKS: Thank you. Hey, I got a cowboy hat now, it has a hole in it. It's supposed to be like a bullet hole.
MARTIN: Oh, no.
Ms. MARKS: And it's falling apart because it's like, I got to find another one that looks just like it. I'm in love with that hat.
MARTIN: Do you ever worry that, though, you won't be reaching other African-Americans with your music? For whatever reason, country just doesn't seem to be as popular with African-American music fans in this country - in this country anyway. Overseas it's different. In Africa, country is big, but not here.
Ms. MARKS: Yes. But you know what? That is so changing. I tour along with the Bill Pickett Rodeo, which is the only black touring rodeo in the country. And the thing is is people are really receptive to the music. They might say, oh, I'm not really a big country fan, but I like your country. I like your music. And so now that we've put a face that's representing them, it's kind of like it's a good thing. I always do really well at the rodeos, which in the beginning, it shocked me. But now, I can bring the message I'm proud of.
MARTIN: Oh, spare me, Miko, please. I've seen your picture. I've seen your picture. So, oh, yeah, I'm shocked that the fellows…
Ms. MARKS: No, I didn't think they would think…
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: …at the rodeo tour…
Ms. MARKS: No way.
MARTIN: …are receptive to your music, uh-huh.
Ms. MARKS: No, no, no, no. I didn't think they will like the music, you know? I'm like this is way too left field. But in actuality, they love it, and that's a good thing.
MARTIN: You wrote seven out of the ten cuts on "Freeway Bound." Talk to me about some of the things that were on your mind when you were putting that album together.
Ms. MARKS: Well, I wrote seven, like you said, and it was just a lot of heartache, and a lot of good times. And my mom passed away during the recording of the CD, and so I got a…
MARTIN: I'm sorry.
Ms. MARKS: Oh, thank you. I got a chance to write a song about her, and it's called "Mama." It's just like a question to her after, like how does she see me through the windows of the sky - like looking down, what am I doing right? Or what am I doing wrong?
(Soundbite of song, "Mama")
Ms. MARKS: (Singing) Mama, can you tell me what it's like to view the world from the windows of the sky? Do you know what I'm thinkin'? Can you feel what's in my heart? Oh, mama, can you tell me what it's like?
MARTIN: It's a lovely song, but I'm so sorry here about your mom.
Ms. MARKS: Oh. Me and my mom, we had a really good relationship. I saw her the day before she passed, and I looked back and I was like, mama, I love you. She's like, get out of here, girl. I love you, too. And there was just like this moment we shared, but we both knew, so I don't feel like I was shortchanged. I got the most out of my mom.
MARTIN: And you have Erykah Badu in the video. How did that come about?
Ms. MARKS: Well, she and I went to college together, Grambling State University, and we had a singing group back then called Harmony. Well, one time, we drove all the way from Louisiana to Michigan to sing at my mama's church. We got there, there like 12 people, 18-hour drive. I was like, mama, why did you bring us for this?
MARTIN: An hour and a half per person.
Ms. MARKS: And Erykah never forgot that.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. It's like an hour and a half per person.
Ms. MARKS: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. So Erykah never forgot that. So when "Mama," the video came around, I was like, you always talking about my mama. Why don't you play her in this video? And she did, and that was just - it was a blessing, the whole situation just was surreal and beautiful. It all came together so nice.
MARTIN: I'm talking to country music singer Miko Marks about her debut album and her new album. You've got a new album coming up. It's called "It Feels Good," and I understand you were kind enough to bring along one of your band members, Victor Campos. Victor, hello.
Mr. VICTOR CAMPOS (Musician): Hi. How you doing there?
MARTIN: Good. And I understand it it, you're going to play something for us from the new album?
Mr. CAMPOS: Yes, we are. What we are going to do, Miko? Tell them about it.
Ms. MARKS: We are going to play a song called "The Son My Daddy Never Had," because I'm a tomboy/tomgirl and I can relate to this song, and it's actually a song written by a Nashville writer. And I just fell in love with it, so I'd love to share it. It's kind of about being rough and tumble and ready to go. So here we go.
(Soundbite of song, "The Son My Daddy Never Had")
Ms. MARKS: (Singing) Daddy's been wanting a baby boy, he got me and now we're pride and joy. He brought me home wrapped up in a blanket of blue, and he taught me everything he knew. I was a homerun kid and watermelon seed spittin', Sunday school skippin', rather be fishin', monkey wrench turnin', back wheels burning rubber down an old dirt road. Homecomin' queen in a helmet and shoulder pack, I am the son my daddy never had.
I'm looking for a man who can handle me, take me out to dance and let me lead, who's not intimidated by the size of my truck and loves his Cover Girl covered in mud. I'm a work boot wearin', double dog darin', mama's boy scarin', cops are starin', monkey wrench turnin', back wheels burning rubber down an old dirt road. Badmouth my mama and you're gonna get me fightin' mad. I am the son my daddy never had. Oh, yeah. Let's go.
MARTIN: Go, Miko. Go, Victor, all right.
Mr. CAMPOS: Come on.
Ms. MARKS: I know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: That's "Son…"
Ms. MARKS: Thank you.
MARTIN: "…My Daddy Never Had" by Craig Monday and Peter Luboff, who's not intimidated by the size of my truck.
Ms. MARKS: Yeah.
MARTIN: That's a tall order. It's a tall order.
Ms. MARKS: Yeah.
Ms. MARKS: Well, I had to tell you, I've been married 12 years, so he knows all about the…
MARTIN: Okay. Truck.
Ms. MARKS: My daddy never had. I was pretty rough. Rough around the edges. But that's cool.
MARTIN: All right. That's great. Well, how has Nashville responded to you?
Ms. MARKS: Well, it's been a different experience because they're not used to African-American female country artists, but I can tell you this: From a person that's like 90 years old to like somebody 12, they just - once they hear the music, they fall in love. And so whatever's holding him back because this is different, they let it all go. And at the end of the day, I've had a really, really nice experience in Nashville. I can't say otherwise. It's been great.
MARTIN: But I have to say that I can't think of any other African-American women in country. I mean, of course, Charlie Pride's been doing his thing for many, many years. And now Cowboy Troy is making a name for himself. He's combining…
Ms. MARKS: Right.
MARTIN: …rap and country, but I can't figure any other women on the country scene. Is it lonely out there?
Ms. MARKS: Well, I believe there's more than myself, but I'm so tunnel vision on what I'm doing and it doesn't get lonely, because I have a lot of support as I travel the country.
MARTIN: And it is interesting the way you try to incorporate, I mean, some of the things like we've said at the beginning, like "Freeway Bound," you know, that's a classic. I'm getting my car. I'm getting out of here, I'm getting -I'm hitting the road. And the beautiful song you wrote about your mother. I can envision, you know, Dolly Parton, I can envision all kinds of different folks singing it. But there are the themes that you talked about that other people don't talk about, like "9 Years Pushin' 30". You want to talk about that?
Ms. MARKS: Well, that's a song, again, I got from Nashville. I heard it and I just cried the first time I heard it. It just brought up my heart to this place, and I was like, I got to do this song. It's about kids who were like, 9 years old, but they're pushing 30 to life because their life is like on this path of destruction.
And it's like we have to bring some light to the inner city youth and just the kids that have to fend for themselves because both parents are working. I mean, it's like this situation to where we're not keeping our backyards clean. We're not sweeping around our own front doors. I have a son, he's 11, so I get a chance to meet all his little friends, and, you know, get to get close with them. And there may be a few that are, like, less attended to, that may need a little extra care, that may be living with their grandmas or, you know, and become and they - our house is like an escape. So it's like this song really touched me on that level because of the experiences I've had growing up and the experiences I've seen other kids going through.
MARTIN: Do you want to play some of it for us?
Ms. MARKS: Of course.
MARTIN: All right. Let's hear it. "9 Years Pushin' 30."
(Soundbite of song, "9 Years Pushin' 30")
Ms. MARKS: (Singing) We met him a year ago today. He showed up out of nowhere, came into our yard to play. The language that he used and his calloused attitude made me wonder about him then. Oh, but now I know just he's coming from, knowing where he's been. I heard him tell a story to my little boy one day. He told of how the policemen came and took his mom away. Then he said my daddy died dodging bullets from another lawman's gun. Since then, I've been a number with the county, nobody's son.
I'd love to take him in my arms and hold him tight if he would let me, but he won't. I'd love to tell him everything'll be all right and he'll believe it, but he don't. He thinks I'm nothing but taller, yeah, I'm just another girl. He's 9 years pushin' 30, and the little man is angry with the world.
MARTIN: It just is a reminder, isn't it, that a lot of people are dealing with similar issues. It's - very similar things.
Ms. MARKS: Yes.
MARTIN: But it's a shame that we don't necessarily talk about it that way. It's almost like everybody's…
Ms. MARKS: No.
MARTIN: …still in their separate universe, right?
Ms. MARKS: And you're right, and it's like such a huge issue. And it wasn't as big of an issue as it is today as when I was growing up. It was there, but now it's so prevalent, it's like I wanted to really shine some light on the situation about the youth.
MARTIN: But it's not just African-American youth. I mean, one of the things I'm seeing from this is is that there are - you know, you're an African-American person. You recorded the song, but the person who wrote it is not, and who's clearly seeing something…
Ms. MARKS: Right. It's a huge picture…
MARTIN: …in her world that nobody talks about.
Ms. MARKS: Yeah, it's across the board. It's not just minorities, and it's not just African-Americans. It's all the kids today with the two parents happen to work. I, you know, I just think there's a lot of neglect because there's not enough hours in the day.
MARTIN: You work.
Ms. MARKS: Well, I work but I get to work and do what I love, and then if I have to bring my kids along, they can come. A lot of kids can't go to the office with mom and dad.
MARTIN: True. Good point.
Ms. MARKS: You know? So, I'm blessed. I'm lucky and I'm blessed. I thank God I can do that.
MARTIN: Let me just talk about the idea of, again, being kind of distinct in your field. I wonder, do you think that - you know, that we go to the record store, and, you know, everything's in their little corner, right? There's the country section, there's the rap section, you know?
Ms. MARKS: Right.
MARTIN: There's this - and I just, and in a way, that kind of mirrors the rest of the world. Everybody's kind of in their corner. And I see artists experimenting across genre. You know, you see something like a Cowboy Troy introducing rap. You see some of the country artists incorporating other musical themes into their work. I just wonder, do you think that some point we won't be so genre-driven, that there would be more diversity and integration kind of across the board in music? What do you think?
Ms. MARKS: I think that is - we are definitely headed in that direction, because now, people are just starting - everything's all over the page, and if it's just beautiful music, it's being more accepted and things are changing like, as you said, you have Beyonce doing a Latin album. I mean, things are just changing so drastically and for the better. I think we're moving in the direction to where it won't be so much about genre. It's going to just be about great music and great songs.
MARTIN: Country music singer Miko Marks, and she was joined by band member Victor Campos. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Ms. MARKS: Thank you for having us.
Mr. CAMPOS: Thank you very much.
Ms. MARKS: It was my pleasure.
MARTIN: And Miko and Victor joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Miko, what should we hear on our way out? What should we end with?
Ms. MARKS: I think we should end with "Kickin' Back," because that's what we're doing. We're enjoying life, country music, kick back and relax and enjoy.
MARTIN: Okay. "Kickin' Back" from "Freeway Bound." Thanks a lot.
(Soundbite of song, "Kickin' Back")
Ms. MARKS: (Singing) You look surprised to find me out were the crowds come to unwind…
MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(Soundbite of "Kickin' Back")
Ms. MARKS: (Singing) …slips my mind, Today, I (unintelligible) to eat my girlfriend's corned beef. You got some nerve to ask me what I think I'm doing here.