Alt-indie pop singer-songwriter Denise Marsa recently released her single/music video, “Sanctuary,” a modern feminist pop-rock ballad narrating the story of an overbearing lover, trying to take more than they give, expecting Marsa to be their sanctuary.
Born in Trenton, NJ, Marsa taught herself to play piano, guitar, and drums and began writing songs before starting college. Moving from New York to London after her studies, she landed her first big break singing for Dean Friedman on his hit “Lucky Stars”—resulting in a platinum disc, a British national tour, and live TV appearances.
Marsa relocated to Los Angeles to start her own record label and production house, allowing her to maintain creative freedom. She’s performed in elite venues worldwide sharing the stage with The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and Blondie.
Guitar Girl Magazine spoke with Denise Marsa to discover how she got started in music, her definition of tone, and her vocal recording techniques.
What inspired your new single/music video “Sanctuary?”
The final release of a relationship. It is about someone not respecting my boundaries, not appreciating their place in my life, and acting out of integrity. Not being honest and being difficult to communicate with and then saying sorry and expecting everything to be all right. It was about someone going through their own growing pains and learning how to cope, and I had to let them go, so they could figure it out. As the lyric says, “I will always love you, anyway.” Too much of the same behavior, and my boundaries caved in; I’d had enough.
How did you get started in music?
I have been singing since I was a young girl. I was naturally musical; I could pick up an instrument and play. I’d figure it out. Piano, drums, guitar – I just had music in me from an early age. I also took ballet classes and danced in recitals from age 4-9, so I was attuned to music and the body. I sang in choir in junior high school and had my own rock band in high school so while in college I started putting the instruments and the voice together. I just began writing songs. I did not want to learn other songs per se, I just created my own. I started jamming at parties and in the dorm on an acoustic guitar another student had, and people were like what song is that and I’d say, “I just made it up”, and they would start singing along and it just felt like that was my calling – writing, singing, and getting others to sing. It’s my energy to lift others. It is how I best express myself by helping others express themselves. Ha, a Pisces for sure. I have started saying recently, “Music expresses what words cannot.”
Where are you from?
I was born in Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, and must give a shout-out to Tucson, Arizona, I grew up there as well. From 10-14, my family moved to Tucson and those were some soul-evaluating years. Of course, I had no idea how things were shifting in me and around me; for some reason, I had found freedom with the weather always being warm and sunny. I could wear shorts and a T-shirt and just run around – ride my bike, play, and swim. My interests went from music and entertainment to sports; I was always outdoors. I was competitive in sports, however – funny enough – not with music. I love swimming and we had a pool in the backyard, so it took my mom or dad sometimes five or six times telling (yelling) at me that dinner was ready and to get out of the pool before I got out of the pool.
Did your hometown impact your sound?
I’d have to say the closest sound to me in Trenton was the Philadelphia sound. I love soulful singers. From Laura Nyro to Ella Fitzgerald to Karen Carpenter, to Kate Bush, and, early on, Gino Vanelli. I had an older boyfriend who loved him, and we listened to him all the time. I am just the conduit. I never studied music, and I have these songs just coming out of me at any given moment. I dive into my voice and my voice just explodes and I lose myself in the music and the words that are coming into my head as my hands fumble on the keyboards or guitar strings.
What is your definition of tone? And is your tone evolving?
Interesting question. Do you mean vocally or song or instruments? In all cases, the song dictates the tone. It’s about the part and how it is being played and how the tone fits in with the track. I always produce the track according to the song. I typically create the vibe while writing the song as I demo it. I may want an acoustic or clean sound, or sometimes distorted, but never too distorted that it no longer sounds musical. I like to hear all the notes in a chord and feel the progressions as they move throughout the song. I play keyboards on many of my tracks and use sampled sounds for the guitars and bass until we take the track to the next level. Frequently, the original track(s) stays on the recording, as it did with ‘Sanctuary.’ The tone of any instrument is dictated by the song, melody, and rhythms. I always add rhythm sections to my demos, again sampled drums and percussion, to give ideas to my collaborators. They take it from there. And yes, my tone in all areas is always evolving. I know what I want to hear from my voice and the instruments when we are producing a song, working till we arrive at what I consider the final ‘mix.’
Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
Yes, as live as possible, and first takes. I do not like laboring over recording music. I like being more impulsive and spontaneous, more like how I write. Not crazy about piecemealing my vocals. I started recording my own vocals after my second album, ‘Live Forever.’ I usually get a full take on the third or fourth take. I may grab a word or two from another take; however, I sing, I listen and then I know where the song needs to go vocally. There are times Janosch Roth – a collaborator in Germany, who owns Lautstumm Studios and is a successful live engineer – will comp a vocal for me, however, I like to send what I consider my final vocal take that I have either comped or done all the way through and then send him a few takes in case he hears something I am not and replaces a word or section. Earlier this year I recorded vocals for my next album ‘Pivotal’ in LA at my publishers’ BMG US studio. It was great having an engineer again! I also recorded a few tracks a few weeks ago in West Hollywood at a neighbor’s house. He has a great microphone, a Sennheiser e935 cardioid dynamic that I really love. I had a brand-new song (‘Dry Spell’); he told me to come on down, and I nailed the vocals on the first take.
How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I have not performed live as much as I could have. I had periods of time when I had a band, in LA in the mid-90s (Denise Marsa & The Mother Band) and when I first started my solo career in NYC, in the late ‘70s. I have had such a winding road career, uphill, downhill, and sideways, with various ‘deals’ along the way, with personnel that signed me leaving the company, and after being asked a few times why I was not more well-known, after live performances, I developed a show ‘THE PASS,’ to explain it. ‘THE PASS’ features songs and stories about my career over the decades, encapsulated in an hour-and-a-half live experience. I am performing the show over the next few years on a more regular basis. We premiered the show in London in 2018, with just me and musician/pianist Tracy Stark playing piano and singing some back-ups. I want to develop the music more, what we present, thinking about it now how I want the show to look and sound in 2024. I want to play live more, to make up for lost time on stage and play for live audiences. Music is an amazing way to connect with people.
What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, or other media?
All of it, anywhere, anytime. Conversation, movies, too.
What can you share about your writing process?
I answered this above. Raw, energetic, euphoric, internal, they just explode or seep out, always like a phoenix, taking me over, at my keyboard, with no concept of time, until the song is complete, regarding its intention. Then the production ideas come into play, with the goal to help convey further its intention. Ways to move or touch the listener, to hopefully inspire them to do what they wish to do. A distant friend.
What can your fans look forward to over the next six months? Music videos? Live gigs?
Fantastic question and it leads me to a big confession. I do not know who my fans are. I am working now on finding out who my fans are. It’s been a long courtship and I want to know them better. I would love to hear more from them on social media, especially YouTube, and hear about how my music works for them and what they want more of! Or from me? As I run my own indie label, KeyMedia Group, we have recently been promoting singles from my back catalog. We are planning to release a new album ‘Pivotal,’ in 2024. We may be starting off with a teaser track and video coming out in November this year, ‘Kiss Me in The Rain’ (Remix). The music video is part three of the music videos featuring The Cowgirl & The Alien animated characters first introduced in our ‘Float’ and ‘Float’ (Remix) music videos. As far as shows, I hope to have more interactions with fans as we are putting ‘THE PASS’ on the road. At the moment, we are waiting to hear about a few shows being booked in Sweden. A former live sound engineer from my LA days – Carlos Barth, who is now a successful manager in the Scandinavian territory, wants to bring the show over. Wish us luck! Thanks for chatting with me! I deeply appreciate your support!