Etta Marcus talks "sad girl" music and her mini-album 'The Death Of Summer & Other Promises'

Neu Etta Marcus: “There’s something really lazy about calling something ‘sad girl’ music”

Having forcefully broken down her own musical boundaries on recent mini-album ‘The Death of Summer & Other Promises’, the South Londoner’s future is wide open.

Etta Marcus is wheeling off a list of touchstones that have impacted the richly evocative storytelling of recent mini album ‘The Death of Summer & Other Promises’: eight tracks that run the gamut from hefty, riffy catharsis (‘Theatre’) to delicate musings on ageing and bodily deterioration (‘Fruit Flies’). There are the all-time great pillars of songwriting - Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell - and their current day counterparts: Fiona Apple, Arctic Monkeys, Pulp. Lorde gets a shout out as queen of the “dark pop” contingent. And then, there’s Fountains of Wayne.

“I don’t think they get the respect they deserve!” the 23-year-old Brixton native laughs. “People know them for ‘Stacy’s Mom’ and that is their worst song. They do a thing perfectly where they build stories that are just fully made-up, but I feel so invested in the characters that the emotion is still there. That had a big influence on me starting to write music. When I started, I felt very uncomfortable and embarrassed in writing lyrics because I didn’t have any personal experiences to write about. I was 16. I just went to school and that was it. So [seeing them I thought], I could do that - I could write stories and maybe that could be my introduction into songwriting.”

Harnessing the power of Wayne’s world, Etta would, however, face another challenge along the road to creative freedom. Having enrolled at prestigious London conservatoire Trinity Laban to study jazz, she soon began to come up against the school’s purist values with regards to what was and most certainly was not artistically allowed. She recalls being told not to bring up modern, experimental saxophonist (and former Trinity pupil) Nubya Garcia in class “like she was Voldemort or something. She who cannot be named!”

The school’s rumour mill later creaked into action when a whisper went around that Etta had started writing - whisper it - Not Jazz. “Heinous! How could she!” she laughs. “That was bizarre, obviously. It was all a bit judgemental and I didn’t like the idea that you couldn’t talk to someone about the new Lorde album or something without feeling like they think that you’re an idiot. I didn’t like the conformity, I didn’t like the restriction of it.” And so, Etta packed up her bags and left after a year.

Looking back now, the decision was both an objectively wise one, and a marker of Etta’s determination to truly discover what makes her tick - without any external help. ‘The Death of Summer…’ comes after two groundwork-laying EPs - 2022’s ‘View From The Bridge’ and last year’s ‘Heart-Shaped Bruise’. Yet while longterm collaborators Matt Maltese and producer Josh Scarbrow are still involved, this time around Etta knew she had to push herself to the fore.

Etta Marcus talks "sad girl" music and her mini-album 'The Death Of Summer & Other Promises' Etta Marcus talks "sad girl" music and her mini-album 'The Death Of Summer & Other Promises'

“I see myself as a 6 Music dad sometimes, and I also see myself as a gay boy, so I can relate to both!”

A release that wears its yearnings and big emotions readily on its sleeve, it emerged in the wake of a year of frustration; “a dilemma with autonomy and coming to terms with how I write,” she explains. “I felt like I needed other people’s opinions as a crutch. I couldn’t trust my own instincts and I was getting so frustrated with myself, feeling like there was a lack of identity in the stuff I was writing.” Those first two EPs found Etta being pigeonholed in ways that didn’t help the situation; Google any article on her from that period and you’ll see some combination of the words “sad girl pop” in the headline.

“I got really fed up with that. It felt really one-dimensional and a really easy label to put on some music, and the word ‘sad’ is so one-dimensional as well,” she says. “I think it’s doing music in general a disservice when people describe it like that, especially women - there’s something really lazy about it. I remember listening to a Björk interview where she basically goes, ‘I can be smart, I can be dumb, I can be sexy, I can be pop, I can be punk etc etc’. And it’s such a simple statement to say, but I listened to that and was like, ‘This is what I need’.”

And so, with a little nudge in the right direction from her Icelandic fairy godmother, Etta headed to Whitstable during its “isolated and slightly spooky” off season to write by herself. One of the first days there yielded not only the defiant statement piece of ‘Theatre’ (“I wanna be loved, I wanna be loved / Like right out of a movie where I am the star”), but the title and world that the mini album would live in as a whole. From there, says Etta, everything began to fit into place. “For me, it’s the ‘...& Other Promises’ which is really visceral,” she says. “It’s not really clear as to what that means on purpose. The last summer I had, I was having a lot of new experiences. And then when it came to an end there was growing up, and coming to terms with womanhood, and all of that nice, juicy stuff…”

Writing about the nice, juicy stuff is when Etta is at her finest; a collection that thrives in the visceral imagery of lust and longing, her latest work has moments that could be filed next to Lana and others next to Wolf Alice - both artists with a direct connection to the grittier parts of the heart. And it’s a voice that’s winning her supporters across the music listener spectrum. Take a snapshot of an Etta Marcus crowd and you’ll see a true mix, from giddy young devotees down the front to impressed middle-aged musos at the back.

“There’s this gradual ageing effect from the really young people, who are usually girls or from the queer community, and then you go further back and there’s older, appreciative 6Music dads,” she laughs. “I don’t know how that’s happened, but I think it’s really cool cos I also kind of see myself as that. I see myself as a 6Music dad sometimes, and I also see myself as a gay boy, so I can relate to both!”

'The Death of Summer & Other Promises' is out now.

Tags: Etta Marcus, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews, Neu

As featured in the March 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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