Marc Martel thought his impersonation was a "nice party trick". He didn't think it was a career.

But that changed when he was encouraged to audition for the official Queen tribute act.

Martel "reluctantly" recorded himself covering Queen's hit Somebody To Love in his Nashville bedroom, and posted it to YouTube.

What happened next completely changed his life.

Advertisement

"The next day I had 50,000 views. The day after it was up to a million and a half. I had no idea it was anything that could go viral,'' Martel says, laughing at the memory. "I didn't even bother to clean my room.''

Despite being American, Martel knew he sounded a lot like Mercury, the flamboyant British front man who led Queen for 14 albums until his death from an Aids-related illness in 1991.

People kept telling him that when he sang for his Christian rock band.

But Martel didn't know who Mercury was, and he hadn't listened to Queen.

"People would come up to me, saying, 'You sound a lot like the lead singer from Queen','' he says. "I started wondering, 'Who is this guy making me sound so unoriginal?'''

So Martel did some research, listened to some albums, and discovered that if he sang in a British accent, he sounded just like Mercury.

Martel still didn't think his talent was anything special. Then that YouTube audition happened, and Queen's drummer Roger Taylor got in touch. He was asked to join the tribute show. He said yes.

Marc Martel from the Ultimate Queen Experience.
Marc Martel from the Ultimate Queen Experience.

"I quickly discovered it was something unique. I realised I had something rare,'' he says.

Now, six years later, Martel is one of the world's most popular Freddie Mercury impersonators. He'll visit New Zealand in August for an ASB Theatre Show as part of his own Queen tribute show, The Ultimate Queen Celebration.

Unlike other impersonators, Martel doesn't dress up or perform like Mercury. Instead, he lets his voice do the talking.

But what a voice it is. Many say Martel's vocals are closer to Mercury's than Adam Lambert, who tours regularly with remaining Queen members Taylor and Brian May.

Celine Dion certainly agrees: Martel made her cry when he performed Somebody to Love for her.

Reactions like that still freak Martel out. But he realises why his voice has that affect on people.

"I liken the Queen thing to being in a worship service. Everyone comes having grown up with this music. It's in their blood, in their souls. Every night, it's always a huge standing ovation,'' he says.

"People love this music, they can't get enough of it. It's a real joy to see that, even though it's someone else's music."

Martel is surprised to hear he's part of a wave of tribute acts visiting New Zealand — including the Dire Straits Experience, The Bootleg Beach Boys and Peace Train: A Tribute to Cat Stevens.

But he has a solid reason for the rise in popularity of tribute shows. "Maybe it's harking back to an age where music felt more organic and honest. The stuff that's good is the stuff that lives on."

These aren't cheap shows: premium tickets for Martel's show cost more than the cheapest for Queen + Adam Lambert when they played here in February.

But he says for that money, fans get a two-hour show that's "the closest sounding thing to classic Queen you can find".

"We work really hard to painstakingly reproduce the sound, especially the voice," he says.

"I take pride in that."

Martel admits he was limiting how much time he spent performing as Mercury. "Then I started feeling foolish for turning down work."

Now, he performs as Mercury for 75 per cent of the year, and he's readying his first official EP of Queen covers.

He's accepted his particular talent is to mimic Mercury.

"It doesn't feel like I'm doing anything more special than any other singer," he says.

"But the fact that I can make people remember something that they loved and they obviously miss so much is just a beautiful feeling."

• Marc Martel brings his Ultimate Queen Celebration to ASB Theatre on August 24.