Elizabeth Marvelly: Singing to her own tune

By Scott Kara

Elizabeth Marvelly became a pop opera star at the age of 18. Six years on, though, the Kiwi singer is packing it in, deciding that she no longer wants to sing the classical music that has brought her fame and money. She tells Scott Kara about her nerve-racking decision to start afresh

New Zealand Singer songwriter Elizabeth Marvelly. Photo / Greg Bowker
New Zealand Singer songwriter Elizabeth Marvelly. Photo / Greg Bowker

"Very good, Miss Elizabeth," says Kevin, the head doorman at SkyCity Grand hotel, looking dapper in his top hat, bow tie and suit tails.

He's looking on, along with many other hotel workers and guests who are wandering by, as singer Elizabeth Marvelly has her photo taken in front of the sparkling tassels that hang from the hotel lobby ceiling.

"I feel like J. Lo," she says with a laugh.

She certainly has a few of the male onlookers falling over themselves like they might over Jennifer Lopez. Not Kevin, though. He looks on with pride and a hint of protectiveness.

He knows Marvelly well from his days on the door across town at the Langham, where the singer has performed many times in the past six years, including launching her debut self-titled album there in 2007 when she was 18.

These days, she's not the pop opera diva - or "classical crossover" artist, as she puts it - that many New Zealanders will have seen singing the national anthem at test matches.

Nor is she the girl-next-door singing star who has performed with everyone from Britain's Got Talent winner-turned-mega-selling opera singer Paul Potts to our own Dame Malvina Major.

She looks a little different these days, having lost that coy innocence, and when you hear her sing next she's likely to sound different, too. Because at the age of 23 (she's 24 next month), Marvelly has come to a career crossroads. She realised recently that she didn't want to sing classical-style songs anymore, so she's packed it in.

After two albums of classical cross-over fare and six years of touring New Zealand and the world, Marvelly says she had become something she wasn't. It's not that she's ungrateful for the experience; it's just that she was singing songs she didn't believe in, even ones she didn't like.

"I had to be true to myself and I realised the moments on stage I actually loved were when I was singing my own stuff," she says over a coffee, a couple of days before she's due to fly out to London for a month to write and record songs for her next album. "And also, [on one tour] I did a cover of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now as an encore, that song just gets so into my bones ... that song and my own songs were my favourite moments.

"I just thought music is my life and if it's going to be my life long-term, then it has to be music that I actually love everything about."

She wants to sing her own songs. Of the 100 or so she has written - or co-written with a number of accomplished international songwriters - some are in a singer-songwriter vein, there are a few oddball "Gaga-esque ones" thrown in, too, including one called Gypsies, which she is especially proud of, and on a track like the Blondie-inspired My Own Hero (written with British pop rockers the Feeling) you'd hardly know it's her.

It's a brave move, giving up a singing style and repertoire of songs that has allowed her to make a living out of music. "I got to do what I love and pay my mortgage," she says. The change of direction does, she admits, worry her.

"It's been small steps for me because I am really nervous about it. It's scary. But you have to do things that scare you, and I have this inner musical drive that is saying, 'Go and explore'."

She's likeable, this Marvelly girl. She has a fun-loving and friendly way about her, and a loud, jolly laugh that's still a little girly and silly. Despite her apprehension about her change in direction, she's confident, too. On stage she's supremely self-assured, even though she had to learn to "just be myself", and on Twitter she comes across as, well, almost staunch as she lets people know what's on her mind.

"I've reached this point where I'm actually okay with myself and I've always got an opinion."

Marvelly grew up in Rotorua. "I'm Te Arawa," she says proudly. Her mum and dad, Vlasta and Brett, owned the Princes Gate Hotel, and right from an early age she could be found banging on the old piano in the foyer.

"This is going to sound so cliched, but I actually think it [music] was kind of innate with me. When I was a baby I started walking really early and so whenever I saw a piano I'd run to it and try and lift up the lid and play it."

Her parents sent her for piano lessons, she started singing, and aged 6, she co-wrote her first song with her best friend, Chloe (still a good friend).

"I just found the sound of the piano amazing, and surprising how you could create sound. I think I found that, and the possibilities of sound, all quite mindblowing.

But I'm always drawn to things that are beautiful, too," she says.

She's related to another famous Rotorua local, the late Sir Howard Morrison ("It's a long convoluted story to explain the exact relation, but we're the same whanau") and the pair spent a lot of time together before he died in 2009. When she was 16 she hit the road with the great entertainer on a 23-date, non-stop tour around the country.

"He was my mother's father's best friend. But my grandfather moved to Australia when [Mum] was 7 and Sir Howard was always around, especially at the hotel, and as we started spending more time together I actually realised that he always kept an eye out for my mother.

"The first real moment I had with Sir Howard was when I was 14, he kind of came up and sat down and talked to me. It was at this competition called the Lockwood Aria - it's like the opera competition in Rotorua - and he just encouraged me to keep singing.

"I have so many feelings and thoughts about Sir Howard," she says, a little teary, "because he was kind of like the koro I never had, because my koro had left."

She was on tour in Europe with Paul Potts when she got the news Sir Howard had died.

She was ready to jump on the first plane home but, after talking to Sir Howard's son, she realised the man himself would not expect - or want - her to leave the tour.

If there was anything Sir Howard taught her, it was a good work ethic.

"He used to make me sit on a bar stool in the corner and sing to him for hours on a Saturday when I was 16, while he sat there and drank wine and listened to me, until he finally said, 'Okay, that's better'."

And similar to Sir Howard, if there's one thing Marvelly does well, apart from singing, it's talking.

"I spent a lot of time listening to stories from the good old days with Sir Howard and I just love that level of connection that comes from speaking, rather than the written word.

"I know I'm a writer, and I write, but it's more about sharing words directly - and I think that's why I'm a songwriter. Because I don't know if you've ever listened to an album and sat there and just thought, 'Man, it's like the artist is sitting right beside me and talking to me', and that's what makes it [talking and communicating] important to me.

"Either that or I'm just an horrendous chatterbox. It's probably a bit of both."

She also runs ("I go to the gym for my body and I run for my soul"), she's halfway through a degree in English and psychology, and she loves collecting vinyl records, even though she's "a CD and internet generation baby".

"I like trawling through old record stores, and when I get to London I'm going straight to Soho to go looking. You just find all these amazing treasures," she says. One of her prized possessions is an original pressing of Mingus, the 1979 collaborative album by Joni Mitchell and jazz great Charles Mingus, which she dug up in New York a while back.

For a girl who made her name in classical cross-over and pop opera, she's got wide musical tastes, name-dropping everyone from Mitchell and Mingus to British dub-step act Nero.

So it's no wonder she's had a hankering for creating different sort of music.

She remembers back, with a hint of horror, to the recording and release of her first album in 2007. At the time she was a scholarship student at Kings College in Auckland ("I was really committed, a stupid high achiever") and the race was on to get the album out before the end of the year to cash in on the Christmas market.

"It was so commercially driven. It wasn't really about music, it was about getting an album together so it can get on the shop shelves. That's what I hated about the first album."

Nevertheless, she had great success, here and overseas, especially when she went on tour with Potts.

For her second album, Home, on which she covered Dave Dobbyn's Welcome Home ("I was so terrified because it's a Dave song, it's like tapu," she laughs), she had a little more creative control and wrote the opening title track.

Her doubts about her musical direction first came about when she had talks with her record company towards the end of 2011 about her third album. The then head of EMI, Matt Headland, told her she needed to go away and figure out what she wanted to do for herself. His thinking was that if she wasn't doing what she wanted then she was heading further down a road that wasn't fulfilling.

"At the time it was very direct and blunt," remembers Marvelly, "but I'm so grateful for that honesty because it really got me thinking."

Then, during last year's Heartland Tour she was rehearsing in New Plymouth and started jamming Gypsies - the song mentioned earlier - with her guitarist, Lance Su'a.

"Lance said, 'That's good. You should be doing this sort of stuff. Why are you doing this Ave Maria stuff?' And I love classical music, and it's been so much of my background, but I do find it really restrictive."

Which is partly why she has never gone off into the "full-on opera" direction.

"You're stuck singing someone else's words for the rest of your life, and you're stuck in a character and you don't really get to be you on stage. And my approach to music really is all about connection, and I like to connect to people on a personal level and connect with the words."

The new album, which she has been working on in New Zealand and Britain and is likely to be released early next year, will be entirely about the songs. "I know there are commercial realities but it's cool for me, because it's the first time it's only about the music."

Not that the songs will be a striking change from what came before, because it's still her. She describes a song like Letting Go, the title of which alludes to "freeing yourself up for when new things come along", as wistful and empowering, which are both hallmarks of her old sound.

"So it's not like I'll be unrecognisable. I'm not going to go out and swear my head off," she says with a hoot of laughter. "I just feel really lucky to be able to just be me."

- NZ Herald

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