Just a hunch, but Matthew Marsh’s upcoming gig at the Magic Bag in Ferndale won’t be anything like his last – performing for a feisty and out-of-it bunch of geriatric nursing-home residents. While visiting his granny at an assisted living home in Omaha, Neb., the 19-year-old Michigan native played every day during his stay at a piano situated in the lobby.
Over java at the Biggby Coffee off Plymouth Road in Livonia, he briefly hesitates – seemingly trying to find a good, but P.C. way of describing his performance, which he ultimately calls a “funny” moment – and then cracks a deep, throaty laugh: “Some old people loved it. Some would yell at me, ’cause I played too loud. And some people thought they were listening to the radio.”
He’s hardly like the quarterback of some football team, more a Will and Jack hybrid – and dressed in skinny jeans, a chest-clinging button-down that dips and sneakers, he looks, and almost sounds, like “American Idol” runner-up David Archuleta’s twin (which he gets all the time, he says).
When he celebrates his jazz-pop debut, “Time Line,” during an album release party the night of Aug. 15 at the Magic Bag – the first time (not counting his White House gig at 11) in a venue that won’t mistake his smooth, silky voice as something that’s being broadcasted – he’ll be beaming. He already is. There are no nerves, he says; just rushes of adrenaline as he confidently declares: “I’m ready.”
He’s been ready, and this is the first step in what he hopes will be his future: Being a musician. He’s taken the appropriate steps (like leaving Michigan for the more artist-thriving New York City to attend school), and, after leaving his trendy wardrobe behind in the closet, struggling for acceptance and blaming the world for not being able to be himself, Marsh’s childhood dream of playing piano and singing is happening. Soon, in front of hundreds – if not thousands, or millions – of people.
Marsh’s parents weren’t supportive of him being gay, but they did, however, support his musical ambitions. His mother rewinds to his senior piano recital, where he performed in front of a whopping 500 people. “I’m gonna brag, ’cause I’m his mom,” says Rosemary Marsh. “He was directing choirs when he was a senior in high school. People had heard him, but they had never heard him direct. They were amazed at the sound he was getting out of his choirs.”
Growing up in a middle-class Northville home, he was jealous of his sister’s piano-playing skills, and when he was a sophomore, his parents – mom, who works at a church, and dad, a used-car salesman – surprised him with his own Steinway seven-footer. “(It) cost them more than they could afford,” he says. “I know they’re still – I think they put the house on mortgage or something to get this piano.”
They immediately opted out of purchasing a console, which requires more effort to obtain more sound, and then, instead of going with the five-foot grand piano the clerk tried to sell them, they upgraded it. “It’s a talent that he’s gonna have the rest of his life,” says his mother, “and he wouldn’t probably ever be able to afford one until he was in his 50s, so we decided to bite the bullet. And it certainly has made a difference in his piano playing.”
Neither of his parents were strong music aficionados (his father played French horn in high school), but, in addition to his older sister, his younger brother, now 17, used Marsh’s guitar. The one he asked for at 12. And never played.
Music became his saving grace as he bounced between high schools – first attending University of Detroit Jesuit, an all-boy Catholic establishment, then leaving for Stevenson High in Livonia, and finally returning to U of D during his senior year. Something had changed, though: Marsh was out, and word spread.
“People respected my talent,” he recalls, “so they didn’t really care either way.”
Recorded at Ferndale’s Tempermill Studios while he was in high school, “Time Line” paints a very me-against-the-world picture. Yet never comes across as another angry teen ranting on about how the world sucks. It’s more mature than that – even for someone, who at the time of writing the disc, was only 16. Five years earlier, he was taking care of his brother while their mother (he also has two sisters) nursed their father, who suffered a closed-head injury and was in a month-long coma, back to health.
Friends also abandoned him after coming out; both obstacles were muses for this line on the closing track: “After all I’ve lost, I’ll soon be winning.” And then there’s “Words,” a poignant song he wrote about living at home, and not being understood in many ways, especially concerning his sexuality.
“I felt like the only way to relate to people was to pretend that I wasn’t me;” he says, “that I was just some guy going through the motions.”
And for anyone that listens to the second verse of “Happy Birthday Girl,” it probably appears that way. On it he says – to an ex-girlfriend – “You belong here with me,” which to those who now know, would be as jarring as hearing that Lindsay Lohan went lesbian. He’s aware people will be confused at first, but, like all the songs on the disc, he wrote the album, which he calls a “retrospective,” before he made the gay announcement.
Now, things are better with his parents – “I’m OK with it. He is who he is. He’s a great kid. I wasn’t gonna let his sexuality put an end to our relationship. There’s so much more to him,” his mother says – and he’s looking forward.
He’s working on a more-mature follow-up, returning to NYU at the end of the month to begin his sophomore year studying musical composition – and wondering if people back here, especially those from the churches he’s been volunteering at over the summer, will soon find out he’s gay. And how they’ll react.
He’s not so worried: “Better to be real, take risks,” he says, breaking into a smile as big as his dream. “And screw it.”
8 p.m. (doors), Aug. 15
Magic Bag, Ferndale