Los Angeles and I have a complicated relationship. From the 24-hour bumper-to-bumper traffic to the constant threat of a failed actor potentially stabbing you, L.A. will ruin the best of days. “I just love the energy of Los Angeles” is what people who live here tell me. That tired affirmation has somehow become my mantra as speeding bus after speeding bus interrupts my interview with singer/songwriter Marié Digby. “So, do you have any favorite …” I try to ask right before a bus with what sounds like a lawn mower engine squeals to a stop next to us. “Love the energy, love the energy,” I keep telling myself as my tolerance for L.A. winds down like an ACME dynamite fuse burning in an unfortunate coyote’s hand.
I’ve left the comfort of suburban life to meet with the immensely talented YouTuber turned recording artist Marié Digby. As our interview gets under way, as much as I hate to admit it, visiting the nightmare town that is Los Angeles seems not as terrible when interviewing Marié. Making her lasting imprint on YouTube after her cover of “Umbrella” went viral, Marié’s story of signing to a major label only to leave for something more independent is a joy to hear. Her candid outlook on the music industry and the struggle for any young musician is rare to find, especially from someone who has done their fair share of time in a recording studio.
In between the roars of L.A, buses, I spoke with Marié about Frank Ocean, moving from YouTube to a label, and reinventing herself as an indie artist.
We have some questions from Twitter with you, so let’s start with those. @WTPSimpleGirl12 asked, “Do you know or like any specific YouTubers?”
Marié Digby: Oh yeah, I know Kina [Grannis]. I met Kina several years back. She came to my show, and she handed me her demo CD — this is way before Kina blew up on YouTube — and she gave me her demo, and I put it into my car, and I was listening to it, and I thought she was really, really talented. And I like the fact that we are both half-Japanese; it’s sort of like an immediate bond right there being half and half. I love Kina. I think my first subscription was to KevJumba. I think he’s super talented and hilarious. He had a video about like elbow zits which I thought it was funny. Then there was a kid named Charlie. Charlie is so cool — like have you heard of him? He’s like a British kid, I don’t know if he’s still on YouTube. He’s probably like a millionaire now and probably retired. But yeah, so those are the YouTubers that I like.
@UlyseussG asked, “What is your inspiration and theme of your new album?”
Oh, well last year I lived in the Philippines, and it’s kind of crazy because I was only supposed to be there for two months, but the trip just got extended, extended, extended to the point where I was there pretty much all of 2011, so a lot of the album was influenced by my time there. And I grew up in L.A., I grew up in Santa Monica; it’s a very comfortable, nice way to grow up. To move to the Philippines, Third World country, was I think at first like it was a little bit shocking, because you come into the Philippines and there are like stray animals everywhere, and I’m an animal lover, and I just want to like pick up every single cat and dog and whatever that I see. And babies and children just all over the freeways, no clothes on, and that was definitely culture shock. I think that a lot of foreigners just sort of stop there and go, “Oh gosh, I can’t deal with that,” whereas I thought it was beautiful, and I think the thing that I love the most, and I’m sorry this is not a snackable answer, but the thing that I love most is that the people that you think have the least reason to be happy or to be enjoying their day, are, and these kids that have nothing would come out when it’s pouring rain. Most people run into their houses and their cars, and these kids come out when it’s raining, and they start playing basketball, and it was beautiful to see. That’s a lot in the album.
You were mentioning that a lot of people who were tourists in these impoverished areas kind of just see it and tune it out. How did you not tune it out? How did you let yourself embrace it and see it for what it was and feel for these people?
I think that I have always just been fascinated with the things that people don’t typically see as beautiful or pretty. Ever since I was a kind, I just sort of gravitated towards whatever is the opposite of that, and I think my love for it started when I took a trip with my family to Cambodia, and I saw some of the same things, and I was just fascinated at how people living in such horrible conditions with no Medicare, no hospitals, no refrigerators, any kind of electricity, seem way happier than the kids I grew up going to school with, who had six cars and you know, four houses and private airplanes. They are way more miserable than these people, so I think it’s just my head trying to process all those human things that make us human.
Do you have any dream collaborations?
I’ve been a huge fan of Frank Ocean for like a year now, and he’s been starting to blow up, so I’ve been super happy for him. So good, and I loved his mixtape that he put out before. God, I would love to work with Frank Ocean. I think he’s fantastic.
What do you think about his recent coming out? Media seems to be making a huge deal about it — do you think it’s something that should be this huge deal, or do you think it’s just this guy’s sexual preference?
I think that it was made to be way bigger of a deal than it should have been, and I feel bad for him because to me, it was such a beautiful thing that he wrote on his Tumblr, kind of coming out and describing how his first love was a man. And what was sad about it though was I think he was pushed into writing that. I think critics were saying, “Hey, I think these songs are about a man and not about a woman,” so I feel like he was sort of forced to come out, and it must be such a relief to him to have it out there. I think that it’s such a touchy subject, and I don’t think that it should be, you know what I mean? Like I have a lot of friends who are super, super, super religious, and I love them to death, but we have different views on that, and I just think people should be able to love whoever they want to love. There should be no conscience for it.
Frank Ocean works closely with Odd Future, who are notoriously derogatory towards gay people. Do you believe — being a musician yourself — that these guys are just putting up an act to hype their music careers?
I think that when it really comes down to it, maybe it does still bother them. I think that a lot of those words that are derogatory have become so frequently used that sometimes it’s not meant to literally mean “I hate gay people,” it’s just a different way of saying “you’re stupid,” which is still wrong. I personally don’t feel comfortable saying a lot of those words, but I don’t think every person that says those words means it in an offensive way.
You had a publishing deal at a record deal before you started going on YouTube. Why did you start putting up songs on YouTube?
Because my album was gathering dust on a shelf at the record label. I got the publishing deal like a year before the record label deal, and I finished my album, and it was done for about six, seven months just literally nothing happening: no music video, no tour, nothing. So I begged my record label to buy me two things: I wanted Final Cut Pro, and I wanted a laptop so I could just make my own music videos with my sister, like whatever we could at home. And they said that I couldn’t have both — this is like a major record label too, with a lot of money. And so they made me choose one. So I said, “Okay, I’ll take the laptop.” They were like, “You don’t need Final Cut Pro. There is a built-in camera, so go to town and do videos on there,” and I was like, “Grrrr.” But I went home and propped it up in my bathroom and reluctantly started posting up on YouTube hoping somebody out there in the internet world would — I don’t know — find it interesting.
So you started YouTube just kind of based on these special circumstances. It wasn’t your intention to join YouTube — it was just based on the fact that you only got a laptop with a webcam, basically?
Yeah. Like I didn’t want to do that. I wanted something more pro looking, but in a way it worked out for me that it was organic. It was just in the house with myself, like it was all meant to be, but at the time I was super pissed. I didn’t want to do it.
Which do you think is better to reach fans with: the raw low-budget look and feel of YouTube or the produced sleek look that comes with professional recording and distribution?
Both. I mean, you know when you have the budget you get to create things that you can’t do when you’re just in your room. You can envision anything, you can make it happen with a budget. But I think that it’s also invaluable to do these just raw, acoustic — people are craving real musicians, real singers who don’t necessarily need to have loads and loads of autotune or whatever little magic you can do in the studio. You can make anyone sound like they can sing, so I think people really want to see just another person on the other side of the world on their computer just playing a song.
This is a fictional scenario: between being like a Kayne West-like character who has millions and millions of dollars in production but is completely inaccessible to the public — we don’t know anything about him, we could never hang out, have a drink with him, because he is so weird and alone.
Yeah, he doesn’t seem like the type of person you would want to really have a hang out with.
Would you rather be that kind with the tons of money and being able to put out these incredibly rated albums, or someone who is just an every-person that can hang out with their fans and can be a voice of the people, but maybe not have the same resources as someone like Kanye West? If you had to choose, where do you think you would be?
I mean, definitely the latter. Even if I wanted to be like Kayne West and be this sort of mysterious figure with just ridiculous amounts of money, and you know, an ego, I couldn’t do that, so there is a place for him though. I like his music, I find him artistic and interesting, and I can kind of put aside his personality and just enjoy the art, but it’s not me.
Of course. Do you think that kind of eccentricity comes from being an artist? Someone who is a real artist and creating art on the scale of Kanye West, do you think that it comes hand in hand with an eccentric personality?
Yeah, and I think that there is room for all of that. I think that sometimes people want to put someone kind of in a different realm and on a pedestal. They want to have something that is unreachable. They don’t want just all artists to be like me, you know. Just go hang out and talk to me like I’m your next door neighbor. I think that they sometimes like having these sort of Lady Gaga, these not on their same level type of artists to look up to.
So you did a cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” which to date has 21 million views or something. Did you expect it to have that level of popularity? When you were recording it, did you think, “This is going to be something that people are going to love,” or did you just record it for fun?
No, I mean there was definitely strategy to everything on YouTube. I feel bad for saying this sometimes, but I didn’t — to this day, I like doing covers, but it is definitely not my first love. I like writing my own music. I like playing my own, but I put up covers because I knew that if I just put up my own music no one is going to listen to me because no one knows me. But I chose songs that I like to cover. I reluctantly did the covers, but I chose songs that I really liked, and I thought “Umbrella” was a really clever pop song, so I covered that, and to this day I don’t know why it got the 20 million views. To me it’s not that great, but I’m really grateful.
When you’re recording YouTube versus recording in a studio, what are the primary differences between the two beside one being a studio and one being in your own home?
You know, I don’t find it to be that different, because in the studio, kind of like YouTube, I don’t like to correct everything. I like to leave some imperfections. YouTube I just usually do it in one take, and if I can do that in a studio that’s always ideal for me to not to like chop up every single little word and phrase, so it’s really not that different. It’s good training actually.