ABOVE: JEREMY LLOYD AND SAMANTHA GONGOL OF MARIAN HILL IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, JANUARY 2015. PHOTOS BY JOVAN TODOROVIC/SEE MANAGEMENT. STYLING BY NINA FENTON/SEE MANAGEMENT. GROOMING/HAIR: LAURA DE LEON/JOE MANAGEMENT USING CHANEL. MAKEUP: TORU SAKANISHI. SPECIAL THANKS: THE NEPTUNE HOTEL.
Successfully self-publicizing one’s music is a hard task, especially if the musician has not yet graduated college and has only song to his or her name. However, less than a year ago, that’s exactly what Jeremy Lloyd did for his project with longtime friend and collaborator Samantha Gongol (“I go by Sam, but all the blogs say Samantha,” she says with a laugh). After at least 60 cold emails, Lloyd and Gongol’s first single, “Whiskey,” was picked up by blogs and made it to the top 10 on Hype Machine. Since then, the Philadelphia- and Brooklyn-based duo—known as Marian Hill—has hit the ground running, growing quickly from two friends making music during spring break and summer vacation to signing with Photo Finish Records and releasing their second EP, Sway, on February 17.
Although Lloyd’s Yale degree is in musical theater and Gongol’s is in music business from NYU, the pair departed from their academic studies to pursue lifelong hobbies of singing and songwriting: Gongol’s ethereal vocals now layer over Llyod’s smooth, catchy indie pop production. Here, we’re pleased to exclusively stream Marian Hill’s latest single, “Wasted,” a seemingly apt follow-up to “Whiskey” and a track to which we find ourselves singing along and pressing repeat without a conscious realization. We first spoke with the two 24-year-olds over the phone when Gongol was in Philadelphia, Llyod was in Brooklyn, and we were in Ohio, but then caught up in person after they landed their record deal.
EMILY MCDERMOTT: I read that your name comes from a production that you both did of The Music Man in middle school. Can you talk a little bit about that? How you first became friends?
SAMANTHA GONGOL: I had a dream about this a few nights ago. It was really bizarre. But yeah, we met in seventh grade I think, technically.
JEREMY LLOYD: It’s hard to say when you’re that young. We went to a pretty small school district, so we probably knew of each other since sixth or seventh grade. But in terms of us being friends who talked, I think that might have began more with The Music Man, or at least a handy marker point to be like, “Well, definitely after The Music Man we were friends.”
GONGOL: Jeremy was cast at Harold Hill and I was cast as Marian. And the rest is history! If I think back to that specific time period, Jeremy was a really talented actor, I had known about his singing, and we were in choir together. It was really fun to work with him and it was like a kindred artistic spirit. He was very knowledgeable and fun to work with. From there we just sort of remained friends.
LLOYD: I like that kindred artistic spirit thing. I sense that a little bit too. I’d also seen Sam sing at a talent show the year before, and she sang this Norah Jones song, and it blew everybody away. I think there was a ton of mutual respect. [laughs] As much mutual respect as you can have in seventh grade, I think we had. But it’s funny because we weren’t collaborating and working on music together until years down the line in our friendship, like at the end of high school, early college.
MCDERMOTT: I was going to say, when did you decide to create music together?
LLOYD: We both started songwriting on our own in high school. I remember we had a few conversations, where Sam had heard that I wrote songs and was like, “How do you do it?” Not something as silly as that, but there was a back-and-forth about songwriting and we both knew that the other was doing it. Once you’re away at college, when you come home for break, you have various ways to catch up with different friends, and the way that Sam and I started catching up and hanging out over breaks was to get together and try and write some stuff. I would be writing some songs while I was at school and I would be like, “Her voice would sound great on this.” Or maybe she’d have an idea [and] she’d want piano. We’d play around with it. For a while it was more singer-songwriter stuff where I was writing more musical theater music. It was kind of all over the map; we were just figuring things out. At the same time, my hobby for a while had been making beats and playing around with production. I made this beat that I really liked that I brought home on spring break of 2013. I played it for Sam and she started singing the beginning of “Whiskey.” Then we wrote that song and we were like, “Whoa, what is this?” That’s when we clicked.
MCDERMOTT: Is that when you would say you formed Marian Hill?
GONGOL: Yeah, definitely.
LLOYD: Although it’s funny, because that song was done and we decided that the band that it was by was named Marian Hill—that’s what we’d call ourselves. We had written that one song, then a few months went by and we were both going on with our lives. I’d been a Hype Machine fan boy for years—that’s where I get all my music—and in preparation for trying to put some stuff out there, I had gone through and gotten the email addresses for tons of blogs that gave out the kind of music that I liked. Because I was really excited about it, I emailed “Whiskey” out to about 60 of them just cold.
LLOYD: Yeah, it was horrendous. I don’t know how I did it. It’s like being your own publicist and nobody cares about you. You’re the most annoying email because it’s a complete shot in the dark. But three blogs picked that up. From there things just started happening and before we knew it “Whiskey” was in the top 10 on Hype Machine and we were getting emails from people that were like, “When are you playing live? What new music do you have that we can hear?” Sam and I were like, “Oh my god, we have one song! I can’t believe we’re doing this.” There was one time where somebody wanted to talk to us on the phone or Skype with us, and they were like, “Do you guys want to do this full on?” We looked at each other and we were like, “Yeah!” and then we hit the grindstone. That was early July of 2013 and then we were writing all the time and figuring out lives show and building a song, building a team.
MCDERMOTT: What made you not go into musical theater? Because, Jeremy, that’s what you studied, right?
LLOYD: That is what I studied, but it’s not something that Sam was ever really doing.
GONGOL: I never really did musical theater other than in high school.
LLOYD: Musical theater is near and dear to my heart as an art form, so I want to be careful with my words. I am not totally removed from it right now—Marian Hill has definitely become the priority in what I want to do and build my career with, but I’m developing an electronic musical, so I still have my hands in that a little bit. Also, this wasn’t the deciding factor, but there is the fact that if you’re trying to write musical theater music, you’re not going to see any kind of money until your over 30…maybe. It’s just not a career path. I know tons of musical theater composers who have varying degrees of success, and it’s rare to find musical theater composers that don’t have day jobs. With pop music, there’s a bigger audience to reach, which is a huge exciting thing. And there are more opportunities for younger people who have exciting ideas and are ready to go with them. You go about living your life doing things that you love and you see what sticks. Marian Hill has really stuck, and I love that.
MCDERMOTT: Do you think the performance aspect of musical theater comes through in any of your live performances?
LLOYD: I think one thing that comes through is that I performed as an actor and a singer through a lot of college so I’m used to being on stage and performing. I think that helps when I’m doing what could be the least interesting thing on stage, when we have a sax player and Sam is singing, and I’ve just got a bunch of buttons and keyboards. But I’ve been having a lot of fun interacting with the crowds and dancing around, playing around with everyone else, and making it a really performative thing. I guess in that way, my background has helped.
MCDERMOTT: How do you think that your music has progressed since you first started making music together?
GONGOL: Jeremy touched on the fact that when we first started making music together it was much more in the vein of singer-songwriter. We sort of had no specific genre that we were dabbling with. From our first few songs, like “Whiskey,” “Lovit” and “One Time,” to “Got It” and “Lips,” I think we were experimenting with a character, and it was this one specific feeling and one specific vein. We felt like we had exhausted that a little bit and really needed to explore more of ourselves in our writing and see where else we could take the theme of relationships. We just had to expand, basically. “Lips” is still sort of in that vein, but “Got It” is definitely a slight departure, nothing drastic. We definitely had to broaden our horizons.
LLOYD: It’s been a lot about learning to trust our instincts and let ourselves go where we want. When we were starting out, we’d written one song and it was really successful, and we were just thinking, “Okay, what is this thing as it expands? We need to build it into a cohesive thing to know what other songs by the same band sound like.” It’s easy when your writing like that to fall into a trap of being like, “We can only use these drum sounds,” or, “We can only write these kinds of melodies about these kinds of things.” There was a big moment for us about six months into writing where we had sort of written into a box. We’d written a bunch of great songs, but if we kept trying to write stuff that fit exactly that mold it wasn’t going to be as good. It was a really exciting moment when we realized that, because we’d really honed our writing instincts we could trust ourselves to go a little bit out there. We started writing songs that excited us and not worrying too much about whether or not they sounded like Marian Hill. After six months of writing together so actively, anything that the two of us loved and wrote and made together was going to sound like Marian Hill.
MCDERMOTT: What are some of the recent things that have inspired you to write a song?
LLOYD: On a general level, we tend to start with some sort of instrumentals that I’ll be playing around with. I’m a big advocate of us listening to it, and thinking to ourselves, “What is this about? What is this feeling about?” And letting the music guide the content. But that said, let’s see Sam, what’s been inspiring us recently?
GONGOL: Songs about relationships are always a go-to. Even though every song might seem like it’s about craving a man, we want to make sure we explore nuances and the delicate side of that process, not just being sex-crazed. [laughs] We’re very careful with our lyrics.
LLOYD: If you’re talking in a general sense, you could probably slap a lot of Marian Hill songs into in the same category, but for each one, we could tell you a very specific thing that it’s about and that I think is key to holding everything together.
MCDERMOTT: What, for example, is the very specific thing for “Play?”
LLOYD: It’s less a story than just a really specific time in a relationship, a really specific dynamic. “Play” is about when you pass the honeymoon stage of a relationship. You’ve just settled in, and it’s really good, and there’s something relaxed to it and you’re just having fun. It’s not like, “Oh I can’t wait to see you!” It’s just like, “This is great!” That’s what “Play” is about.
MCDERMOTT: When did both of you become interested in music? Did you have musical parents or how did that come about?
LLOYD: My parents met at an opera class in New York, very romantic. My dad is now a choral director and a composer. My mom works in development but she’s been working for musical organizations for a while. I grew up with a piano in the house, both of them playing and singing all the time. We had a dog that I grew up with that also sang. [laughs] I started playing violin when I was four, and my parents tell me that I asked them to play the violin, that they didn’t push it on me at all. I don’t know…I was too young to have agency, I think, but I’ve always been interested in music.
GONGOL: My parents are not musical. [laughs] I love them, they appreciate music and they are fans, but neither of them play an instrument or sing or anything like that. I grew up singing—by the time I was in kindergarten I was always singing and I slowly developed an interest. It’s just always been a part of my life. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing.
MCDERMOTT: Where do you both draw inspiration from outside of music? Do films or visual artists ever inspire you?
LLOYD: I love really good TV. I’ve seen almost all of the critically acclaimed, hour-long dramas of the last decade. To the point where I’m running out. Recently, Sam and I have both been loving The Affair on Showtime.
GONGOL: I love The Affair! Love it, love it!
LLOYD: It’s so, so, so, so good. I’m just really into stories of any kind like that. I think we pull from those when we write, because we are always thinking about people and emotions. I try to go to the theater when I can and see stuff like that. I also took a directing class in college, because I’m also a director, so there was this sense of more abstracted visual styles and ways of talking about art. I think some of that factors into the minimalism I like in production—having specific distinguishable parts that people can hear and lots of space.
GONGOL: I’ve always loved The Great Gatsby—the movie and the book, love the book. The 1920s, I love a lot of jazz greats. Jeremy is sort of my curator of new music. We always joke that I’m more on the pop side and Jeremy keeps us indie. He’s the one always scouring new music on Hype Machine. I’m probably much too reliant.
MCDERMOTT: One last question, how would you describe your philosophy or approach to music?
LLOYD: For me, it comes down to having a really focused song. At the center there is a really clear, specific idea that everything else is informed by. The drums should make sense. If we’re talking about “Play,” the drums should feel like that point in the relationship where you’re past the honeymoon stage and things are just good. The tempo should feel like that, the contour of the melody should feel like that, the lyrics should sound like that, and it should all be influenced by that. I think that not only makes it really good and coherent, but also makes it translate really well to anybody, because the idea is so apparent.
GONGOL: Even on a personal level, I think it’s really important to let go and lose your inhibitions, especially if you’re performing. But then if you’re creating something like a song, it’s important to let go and then go back and hone, but it’s really important to just let yourself get lost and explore.
LLOYD: Always be surprisingly inevitable! [both laugh]
GONGOL: Let yourself be vulnerable too, because that’s where a lot of great work comes from.
FOR MORE ON MARIAN HILL, VISIT THE BAND’S FACEBOOK.