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Marques Toliver: An R&B Crooner With Strings Attached

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Marques Toliver: An R&B Crooner With Strings Attached

Marques Toliver: An R&B Crooner With Strings Attached

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  • 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)

(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")

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

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

TOLIVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: This track is called "Control."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "CONTROL")

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")

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")

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")

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")

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.

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