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VOL. 10 | NO. 45 | Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Sound of (Memphis) Music

Too often, the city with a musical heritage like few others is absent from the most noteworthy gatherings of artists

By Andy Meek

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By her own account, Marcella Simien fell in love with Memphis on Day One when she moved here to attend college. Almost a decade later, she’s still here, the frontwoman for Marcella & Her Lovers, a band that plays what she describes as “swamp soul” and finished up an album this summer.

Bar DKDC in Cooper-Young is a home venue of sorts for her. She’s there a few nights a week. She and her bandmates also play throughout the region, playing their tunes and functioning as a manifestation of something that’s starting to be seen as a kind of sleeping giant of Memphis exports.

That export would be the city’s homegrown music talent like Simien, who is as good an example as any of the idiosyncratic and original talent abundant in the city. The daughter of Grammy-winning Zydeco artist Terrance Simien, Marcella was born into one of the first Creole families to settle St. Landry Parish in Louisiana. From that musical foundation, she honed the chops that would eventually turn into a career, with recent highlights that include performing as part of a showcase of Memphis talent this year at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas.

It was a great day, she recalls of that show earlier this year. A rare opportunity to put herself on such a valuable stage – “Anyone would jump on it. That’s an important thing to do in your music career” – as well as a chance to be a part of something bigger than one artist, one band, one show.

“After I moved here, I just fell in love with the city,” she says about her feelings about Memphis. “I started playing shows by myself, with an accordion that you usually see in Creole and Zydeco music. I would cover, like, punk songs and Nina Simone songs. Mix in some Lil Wayne, and do it on an accordion, and … people didn’t know what to think. But the community here was accepting of me and my weirdness. And my approach to performing.”

That encapsulation of her career and what she represents as a Memphis musician is also what she carried with her and put on display in Austin.

SHINING A LIGHT ON MEMPHIS

Her appearance at that respected show in Texas is part of an organized, and slowly growing effort to put resources and infrastructure behind doing more to export Memphis music around the country and the world.

That effort, appropriately enough, is called the Music Export Memphis initiative. It is the brainchild of Memphis-based marketing professional Elizabeth Cawein, who’s built her career – and a boutique marketing agency, Signal Flow PR – around musicians and the music industry. At a high level, the Music Export Memphis banner already has encompassed shows like the South by Southwest performance; a musicians’ exchange with Liverpool, England; and helping put Memphis in a position to host the 2017 international Music Cities Convention, which was held here in recent days.

And Cawein wants to do a lot more in 2018, a year that will see this effort get taken to an even higher level.

Part of what’s still to come from Music Export Memphis is an ambassador program that will be piloted in 2018.

“Artists who are going on tour,” Cawein explains, “would apply for cash tour support in exchange for essentially being ambassadors for the city. I want to be able to say to an artist who’s going on the road for, let’s say, 10 dates – submit your booking information. Come do this two-hour tourism training. Learn lots of cool stuff about Memphis. Get equipped with talking points, then we’re going to hand you some postcards to put on your merch table that promote the city – and we’re going to cut you a check.

“So, basically, let us give you some training so you know how to talk about the city and give you some material to promote it, and we’ll give you cash support for your tour.”

The plan right now is to host a benefit event to raise funds to pilot that program in the first quarter of 2018. That would continue a groundswell of progress the initiative has seen throughout 2017, including the South by Southwest showcase and Music Export Memphis establishing itself as a 501(c)3 nonprofit entity, which happened within the last two months.

Along with that came the formation of a board of directors who will help Cawein think through the work Export should be pursuing, among other things.

“Memphis is such a strong driver for economic development, and that’s something I’ve been passionate about for a long time,” said Cawein, who wanted to launch what would become Music Export Memphis after seeing what she thought was a missed opportunity at events around the country.

“I was attending conferences and going to festivals for my work with Signal Flow and seeing that other cities and other regions and states were bringing their music on the road and representing themselves at these events. I also felt that if we could mobilize our musicians, they could tell a story better than just about anything else we could do in a way that would attract people, whether that’s as tourists or as talented people who just want to live in a creative, musical city.”

One of the first things Cawein did was reach out to groups like the Greater Memphis Chamber and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.

When Music Export Memphis launched, chamber president and CEO Phil Trenary said it will help the chamber’s economic development efforts both in promoting Memphis as a vibrant city in which to do business and in helping “to recruit and retain talent who desire to live in creative cities.”

Musicians-as-storytellers like Simien – who said she’s “behind this idea fully” – are the other side of the equation. The initiative wants to do what it can to support artists like her and at the same time use them to tell a larger story about Memphis.

For Simien, the gig is her full-time career. She and her bands make a living from their music and performing.

“And we play all the time,” she said. “You have to hustle and try different things. You’ve got to try different formations of a band. A trio. A duo. A solo thing. It’s hard to have a gig every night of the week, but you can get close to it for sure. I had six this week. If you want it, there work is there.

“I feel lucky and super grateful. I love living here.”

Cawein and Music Export Memphis want to tap into that sentiment, support it and give more resources to the people behind it, but also use them symbiotically to present a narrative about Memphis and elevate the city’s brand.

ESTABLISHING A PRESENCE

Music Export Memphis launched at AmericanaFest 2016 in Nashville with a “Memphis Americana” day party. It was the first step to correct what Cawein said she’d seen so much of – a lack of a Memphis presence at events like that one.

The day party featured a lineup of six Memphis bands, plus Memphis craft beer, Memphis food and Memphis culture courtesy of I Love Memphis and the Amurica photo trailer. The event attracted several hundred music fans and earned Memphis musicians media attention from “Paste Magazine” to “American Songwriter” and “No Depression,” to name a few.

This summer, meanwhile, another Music Export initiative took the form of “From Memphis to the Mersey,” a songwriters’ exchange that chose two emerging artists from Memphis and Liverpool for a cultural and creative experience on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Memphis artists chosen were Chris Milam and Lanita Smith. Memphis mentors who coached and collaborated with them included Grammy-award winner and Stax legend William Bell and Memphis singer, songwriter and producer Susan Marshall.

The exchange included artists and mentors from Liverpool, with the whole thing made possible by support from the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau and Arts Council England.

Everyone came together as part of the exchange in both cities, for a weekend in each, co-writing, collaborating and ultimately culminating in a performance in each city.

The initiative wants to do more of those in 2018.

“I’ve got a couple of additional exchanges in the planning stages right now,” Cawein says. “Similar to what we did with Liverpool, but domestic, with U.S. cities.”

In addition to the plan for the ambassador program plus “experiences” like showcases at events around the country, a third leg of the stool is an “export bank.” Details on that are still to come, but the idea is to help companies and organizations hosting Memphis-centric events across the U.S. be able to include live Memphis music.

“As time goes on in the next year, we’re going to announce more and more opportunities,” Cawein says.

For now, she and the initiative have put an infrastructure in place to build on. To help artists keep the music going and to let more of the Memphis story be heard, by new audiences, far and wide.

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