For the first part of her life, her voice was a source of embarrassment and ridicule. Now, with her third album on the way, it's her bread and butter.
By Sam Scott '96
Life on the road is more grit than glitz, admits singer Anya Marina '96, who spent much of 2009 criss-crossing North America in support of her second album, Slow & Steady Seduction: Phase II, a fix of sly, jaunty pop that grooves under her waifish, winking voice.
Early in her tours, she might have opened for Chris Isaak in front of 2,000 people one night. But on the next, she was just as likely strumming alongside a 4-H tent of goats and miniature ponies at a state fair. And every morning, it seemed, she was peeling herself off another Holiday Inn mattress.
But the daze of rental cars, airports, and livestock clearly took Marina somewhere. Her album garnered a three-star review in Rolling Stone, while Spin magazine profiled her "breathy, Cyndi Lauper–like warble" in a full-page article. She appeared on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live. In September 2009, her infectious single "Move You" won Song of the Year at the San Diego Music Awards in her adopted hometown. By 2010, the state fairs had led to spots at major music fests including the Lilith Fair and South By Southwest.
But perhaps nothing said "making it" like her inclusion on the soundtrack for New Moon, the sequel to the vampire blockbuster Twilight. Marina's "Satellite Heart" was the sixth song on an album filled with indy-rock all-stars including Bon Iver, the Killers, and Death Cab for Cutie.
On the Twilight music tour, she found herself part of a pop music juggernaut. "The crowds were massive," she says. "There's nothing that will prepare you for those screams. The kids don't even know your name, necessarily, or which song you wrote on the soundtrack. They just know you're part of the Twilight thing and their brains are exploding."
Marina found her way to music through a career as a deejay, a craft she stumbled into as a student at Santa Clara. In Swig Hall, the English major meant to take the elevator up, she accidentally went down, and she found herself outside the basement offices of KSCU. Student radio called her.
A Howard Stern devotee, Marina cultivated the same kind of edgy frankness on air as her hero. On her first shift, in the wee hours between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., she opened up about just having put her dog to sleep. Before long she was debating more sensitive topics. The Circumcision Hour, for one, became a weekly feature on the merits of said practice.
The experience was key in getting over insecurities about her voice. Long before her voice earned her national plaudits, Marina was teased about her high-pitched, child-like tone. Even her doctor once told her she had the larynx of a very young adolescent.
"I had no confidence whatsoever with regards to my voice," she says. "KSCU played a huge part in me getting over a lot of lifelong embarrassment about it."
Her show caught the attention of fellow KSCU deejay Mike "No Name" Nelson '96 (see "Revealed! The truth behind No Name!"), who was just beginning his professional career at KOME in San Jose. Nelson roped Marina into his new station, working the phones, writing promotions, and doing voice-overs.
"I would just sit in the on-air studio at KOME for hours asking about segues and how he knew what he was going to say," she says. "I can't believe he didn't kick me out."
Nelson was also key in getting her to take her first professional deejay job. Marina had mailed off tapes of her KSCU shows and KOME voice work to a program director who offered her an overnight weekend gig in San Diego for $8 an hour. The financial math didn't impress Marina, but Nelson offered some brotherly advice.
"Are you insane?" she recalls him saying. "You need to pack your bags and get in your car and drive to San Diego right now. Most people don't get offered their first radio gig anywhere in California."
Her deejay career took off, but Marina says the constraints of commercial radio never allowed her the freedom of expression she'd come to love at KSCU. For that, she turned to playing her own music.
Phase II: She grabs a guitar
An ex-boyfriend had given Marina a guitar, and she began teaching herself. Never short on ambition—as a 7 year-old she wrote a letter to Disney asking for pointers for getting cast in movies—the novice songwriter was soon hitting every open mic she could fit in and scheduling mini-tours on weekends and vacations.
In 2005 she released her first album, Miss Halfway, which caught the fancy of tastemaker Alexandra Patsavas, renowned as a music supervisor for television and movies. Patsavas chose the "Miss Halfway" single and another song for inclusion in the 2006 season of the television show Grey's Anatomy, the first of several shows, including Gossip Girl, to use Marina's music.
The resulting windfall let Marina buy a new used car—one with a working driver-side door so she no longer had to crawl across the console like she did in her old ride. Friend requests on her MySpace page skyrocketed, sales increased, and a buzz in the industry greeted her second album, released by Patsavas's Chop Shop Records.
While Miss Halfway conjures images of a singer-songwriter sitting on a stool in a coffee shop, Slow & Steady Seduction was more of head-bopping, rocking affair. Even with her success, it's hard to get sales traction in a world of downloaded music, and the stress of always worrying can be overwhelming. Her 2010 EP followed a barren year of songwriting—though it, too, scored time on Grey's Anatomy.
As for that voice, Marina recently offered this take in a tweet to fans. "For the first part of my life, my strange voice was a source of embarrassment and ridicule. For the second, it was my bread and butter."
In 2010 she hit the road again—but this time in a moving van: departing Southern California for Portland, Ore., where she bought a house, gardened, made some friends. She wrote songs and poetry. In December she released a five-song EP, Spirit School, and went into the studio to record her third album.
Felony Flats is due out this summer. "Notice Me" and "I Found My Mask" are a couple of the song titles that emerged from studio dispatches. And, if the report from Day 14 of recording bears out, expect some "sexy, creeptastic, vaguely stevie-wonderful bass lines."
She hopes to host a few more dinner parties at home, then she hits the road in the U.S. and U.K. to support the new album. And, she says, "I am in the middle of a sort of dream I've had for a very long time."