Marian Hill (Samantha Gongol and Jeremy Lloyd)

by Carl Wiser

On "Down," their latest EP, and how they developed their sound and persona.

In the Apple AirPods commercial that crashed the gates for Marian Hill in 2017, their song "Down" plays while a dancer is seemingly floating on air. It's a captivating song with a devilish beat that is both exciting and dark, the kind of thing Billie Eilish started doing soon after. Marian Hill developed the sound when they put together a song called "Whiskey" in 2013, which they successfully marketed through blogs and SoundClound, earning a record deal two years later.

The duo - vocalist Samantha Gongol and beatmaker Jeremy Lloyd - met in middle school, where they played Marian Paroo and Harold Hill in the school production of The Music Man. They went to separate colleges but worked together over breaks, which is when they came up with "Whiskey."

On many of their songs, the lyrics are loaded with relationship-induced pathos that form storm clouds over the pitch-shifted soundscapes, but with a few tweaks, they can turn tender and introspective, like on "No One Knows" from their latest EP Was It Not, released March 18, 2020, just in time for quarantine. Here, Gongol and Lloyd talk about developing the sound of Marian Hill and explain what parts of themselves inhabit the songs.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Sam, you have talked about invoking the "Marian Hill persona" when you need to. What is the Marian Hill persona?

Samantha Gongol: I think she is a confident, empowered, take-charge woman. We had so much fun in the very early days of writing together and creating this voice, and she took on a life of her own. We started getting so used to that voice that we sort of wrote ourselves into a box and it took us a while to learn that it was OK to infuse more of our own stories and lives into the music. But that voice is so fun to tap into, it was so fun to play, and I feel lucky that we found it.

Jeremy Lloyd: I think it came from the music, too. "Whiskey" was something we really stumbled into and it was the first Marian Hill song, and then "Lovit" came soon after that, and the music had a very particular sound. It really felt like we were writing for the character that already existed in this music, like we were putting words to the feeling that that music gave us, which was this very sexy, empowered woman, almost like an old-timey movie vixen.

It was really fun, but that was our Sway EP and I feel like with each album since, we've pushed ourselves further beyond that specific character to see what kinds of characters we can paint with our music.

Songfacts: Sam, how does that character compare with the way you really are?

Samantha: I like to say she is the best of me. She is a joy to tap into.

We can't be Marian Hill all the time because that would be totally unrealistic, and we all have our vulnerable moments when I certainly don't feel that confident all the time. But she's one side of me, for sure.

Songfacts: What is one of the Marian Hill songs that more represents your true self?

Samantha: "Deep" off our Sway EP is a song that felt very true at the time of writing it. Sometimes we write songs and then something happens and they have a life of their own and represent something very real that's happening in the moment. But yeah, I would say "Deep," maybe "Same Thing."

Jeremy: Yeah, I was going to say "Same Thing." "Same Thing" I was kind of steering to be about you at the time when we were writing it.

I definitely had instances where I took a dive towards some things that I knew Sam was going through without us explicitly saying it. It can put undue pressure on a song if we're like, "This is about me and this specific thing that happened." The literal truth of it in relation to you and how you truly feel becomes more important than the emotional truth of the song.

We're all about writing songs that encapsulate the feeling of the situation, and sometimes the specifics will match up and other times we'll come up with some specifics that work better for the song we're writing.

Songfacts: What was going on that led you to write "Same Thing"?

Jeremy: Sam, I'll leave that to you.

Samantha: I was breaking up with someone who I'd been with for a really long time and it was the first relationship that I had ever felt that I couldn't really get out of. I'd always prided myself on knowing if something's not right, then you leave, and it's clear cut like that. This was the first time I realized that it's not so easy, and I kept feeling myself going back and back over and over even when I shouldn't. Part of getting older is that you realize life is more complicated.

Jeremy: From my perspective, it was exactly like you were saying, Sam, but me as your friend was hearing you say over the course of a year, "I should probably break up with him."

Samantha: Oh yeah, it was a long time.

Jeremy: It was just never happening. So I was like, please, it's just going to be the same thing.

Samantha: Yes. It's so true. Oh gosh.

Jeremy: And more recently, there's a song called "No One Knows" on our EP. About halfway into writing it, I was like, "Sam, this is specifically about my life from the perspective of my girlfriend," who Sam knows really well.

Songfacts: What's your take on that song, Sam?

Samantha: It was a moment of reflection for us both in our professional lives and personal lives. It's actually very interesting, Jeremy, because you are in a very loving, stable, happy relationship and you were able to access that dark, questioning space. It definitely was emotional for me because we've all been in love and we've all seen it crumble, whether it was ready to go or whether it was before we were ready to let go of it.

Jeremy: Sam's right, I've been pretty lucky in love and my relationship with my girlfriend is amazing, but she came into it coming out of a really long relationship that she thought was going to be "the one." So for the first couple of years we were together it was still hard for her when I'd be like, "You're the one and I'm feeling amazing about this." She was feeling that way too but in the back of her mind there was this feeling like it could still all go to shit. Like, "I've been down this road before and I can't feel about it as you do," and that was kind of the sentiment of the song.

Songfacts: Sam, what is it like to sing a song that you know has that behind it?

Samantha: There are different energies with writing a song and then actually embodying it on stage and tapping into that voice. But we haven't really performed it live yet. I've done a couple of livestreams, but it was one I was really looking forward to because it's this place we don't go to often in our lives. I think it will be somber and understated but really beautiful, and I hope I do it justice.

Songfacts: The song "Was It Not" has this quality where you're not really sure if what is in your mind is real in terms of relationships. Can you talk about that, Sam?

Samantha: We both just turned 30 and we look back 10 years ago and realize that one little romance we had or that one magical night maybe wasn't as we remember. You question it, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Life goes on and a person or experience that meant a lot to you at one time might not hold the same significance, and now you can't even remember why.

Jeremy: It felt like a theme we could only access due to being a little bit older and a little wiser. It was cool to feel like we tapped into new territory that hadn't been available to us before, and like Sam says, it isn't making any value judgement about these memories and past relationships. It isn't saying, "I'm glad I'm out of that one," or, "It was the best I ever had." It's more like an interesting in-between.

You look back on something that 10 years ago meant everything to you and what your whole life was supposed to be about, and there's something magical about how you used to feel that way and you were so young and everything was so new and fresh, and then there's something strange about just how that feeling feels now and how the specifics can kind of fall away or get blurry when you try to zero in on them.

Samantha: It's one of my favorites. I just love the sonic world of "Was It Not" and I'm looking forward to performing it.

Songfacts: Jeremy, how did you develop the sonic world of Marian Hill?

Jeremy: Honestly, we really stumbled into it. When we made "Whiskey" it was the best song I had ever produced by a quite significant margin. It was one of many beats I had been playing around with. Sam heard it among other things I was playing and wanted to sing on it, and then something just clicked in the relationship between the big, kind of dark and super-forward drums, the touch of blues and her vocal, and that became the template going forward, kind of the bible I would extrapolate from.

And there were definitely some growing pains too because we were initially protective of the sound and feeling like everything needs to really adhere to the sound, which can limit ideas. There was a process of pushing myself really hard to keep up the level of quality that I had stumbled into while Sam and I honed our instincts of what we liked writing to and what felt good to us. The more we got comfortable with those instincts, the less we had to stress about "does this sound like Marian Hill."

Songfacts: Can you give a quick overview of how you build a track?

Jeremy: Sure. I'll usually start with drums, with some kind of sample, or at the piano. I'll go through a drum library looking for a sound that will excite me, and if I hear a snare or a kick or any kind of drum sound that strikes my ear, I'll hear a rhythm that comes out of that and I will fill things out from there.

Sometimes I'll do some weird stuff with a recording of Sam, or Steve, our sax player, will send me a bunch of clips that I'll sample onto the keyboard and start pitching them around and trying to find something cool. Sometimes I'll find an instrument I like and find a chord progression I like, which is what happened with "No One Knows" - I was just sitting at the piano trying stuff until I found something with balance.

I love recording voice memos on my phone and if I'm having a hard time starting a beat, I'll just look through there. It will usually be me beatboxing or humming some ideas that I can then turn into a beat. It's important to have different approaches to keep things exciting and keep things feeling fun and new.

Songfacts: What piece of equipment are you using to put all this together?

Jeremy: The software on my laptop, on my Macbook Pro. I've been using Propellerhead and Reason for a long time - the demo came with ProTools and I bought it in high school.

Songfacts: Sam, what is your process for toplining this stuff?

Samantha: Jeremy and I do write lyrics together but generally it's informed by the beat. There are a few instances where one of us will have a melody or an idea, but I would say 99% of the time, Jeremy will have the skeleton of the beat and we'll write to that.

A lot of our melodic and thematic ideas come from the track itself, and the music that we're making. Sometimes Jeremy will play something and I'm like, "Ugh, not another sad song, I can't do that today," but generally we're on the same page and we'll just toss ideas back and forth.

Songfacts: What inspires the lyrics that you come up with?

Samantha: It can be a personal experience, as we were talking about with "Deep" or "Same Thing" or "No One Knows." Sometimes it's the experiences of our friends, our family, or someone close to us who is going through something, and often it's the music too. If it feels really sassy and bold and sexy, we'll go there with the character or with the theme of the song, so it really depends.

Songfacts: Sam, what are your thoughts on the song "One Time"? That was one of your early ones that kind of set the stage for this character.

Samantha: It's one of my favorites. It's so fun, it's really light and really bold and sassy. I have so much fun performing it too, and one of the joys of performing an older song like "One Time" is that because you've done it so much, it almost takes on a life of its own when you're on stage, and we're all really comfortable playing it.

There's a line in there that says, "I know that way that men can be." When we started this out we were just doing this for fun - we didn't know we'd be touring and have to sing the song over and over and over again. And, every time I'm up on stage and there's a pause, it feels like an eternity - it always makes me cringe. But I'll forever be grateful for that song because it was the first song that gave us a viral moment and caught the attention of labels. It was the first one to gain popularity.

Jeremy: Yeah, "Whiskey" had cool internet popularity but "One Time" was in a big Vine and when we started playing shows it was the one everyone was singing along to.

Songfacts: Sam, you said it kind of took on a life of its own. Did "Down" at some point take on a life of its own?

Samantha: "Down" probably even more so. "One Time" had a bubble of influencers and this really organic ground flow, whereas "Down" just exploded beyond what any of us expected.

Songfacts: What does "Down" mean?

Jeremy: I like writing stuff that is open to interpretation, so it can be about all sorts of things. We see it as the intro to our debut album, where we're like, "Are you down? Come on in, here comes the show." We started our shows with it for a while. It can be an invitation to whatever you imagine.

In 2017, Jeremy remixed the Billie Eilish song "Bellyache," giving it the Marian Hill sound. Two years later, Eilish's brother/producer Finneas enlisted Jeremy to remix his track "I Lost a Friend."
Songfacts: Jeremy, tell me about what you did to the Billie Eilish song to make it an effective remix.

Jeremy: That was one of the easiest and most fun remixes I've done. I loved the bassline that came in on the chorus of the original, and I wanted the whole song to be like that.

I took the bassline that they had in the chorus and I put it over the whole song with the vocal a cappella and then built my version over that. Sometimes I get a remix and I'm like, "Hmm, how will I reimagine this?" and every now and then I know exactly what I want, and that was the case with this one.

Songfacts: How does your production style compare to what Finneas does?

Jeremy: He's a friend and we've worked together on some stuff. We both love minimalism, playing with the absence of sound, and having people notice every choice we make. I'm a little louder and hip-hop heavy in the way I think about drums and mixes, and he's a little quieter and can pull on rock, guitar and piano. I'm always so amazed by how quiet he can make something and how much he can make you lean in on things - it gives me chills.

Songfacts: Sam, you touched on this before but when you're dealing with these songs that do have quiet moments and even silence built into them, it's not easy to be standing on stage. Can you talk about how you developed your stage persona and made it work with these kinds of songs?

Samantha: Yeah, totally. At the beginning, I was really uncomfortable - I didn't really know how to fill that space. I have an uncle who is an actor. He saw an early performance and he said, "You know, whatever you do it doesn't matter, but just make sure that you do it with intention," and that really stuck.

I have a theater background, but all I wanted to do was get out and be a recording star. I wanted to leave theater behind and I never thought that I would really draw on it in any kind of performance that I did, but I learned that because of the silence I almost had to over-exaggerate. I had to perform for the back of the room.

And sometimes your performance changes depending on how intimate the crowd is and the size of the venue, but especially when there's silence, I think it translates sometimes better in a smaller space because you're closer together and it's more intimate, but when you're on a big festival stage and there is this moment and this pause, you want to make it felt, and I had to learn how to do that - I learned to fill that space with intentional performance. But it wasn't easy and Jeremy made me work for it.

There are a lot of breaks where Jeremy solos and I had to learn on stage what to do with myself when I'm not singing a chorus or it's chopped. We're lucky that we can interact in that way.

Songfacts: Jeremy, how did you develop your performance style?

Jeremy: Oh man, that takes me back. When I started, Madeon had that Pop Culture thing on YouTube, kind of early viral video where he played this elaborate arrangement on a Novation Launchpad, so that kind of keyed me into the Launchpad and that way of performing.

The major thing from the start was, I don't want to just press play and Sam sings. It was really important to me to be active all the time and for people to see how much I was doing and to really be a performer, so I set out to make a setup where I could do as much as possible and I designed a thing where I basically have a Launchpad that's queuing the loops of each section of a song, so I'll press a button and it's the verse, I'll press a button and it's the chorus, press a button and that's the second verse, etcetera. And then I will have a keyboard with drum pads and knobs on it so that I am triggering samples of drums on the pads, playing keys on the keyboards and changing filters with the knobs, sometimes all at the same time. It's a lot of fun, and I make it really hard for myself, but I take a special pride in knowing that I'm the only one who can do it.

Songfacts: It sounds like it's not going to be the same thing twice. You're working with a machine but you're adding a very human element to it.

Jeremy: Yes, and I'm finding that in every song it's going to be the exact sounds from the recordings most times, but the exact timing will have some human variation and feel to it, and it's enabled us to be able to build in improvisation moments because I can change the way I do a drum fill on a section, all sorts of things.

"I Wanna Dance With Somebody"

Marian Hill covered the Whitney Houston hit "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" for the 2016 amfAR benefit album The Time Is Now! Their version carries the weight of the lyric, which is about that lonely feeling when you're longing for a long-term connection.

The song was written by Shannon Rubicam and George Merrill, who recorded as Boy Meets Girl ("Waiting For A Star To Fall"). They were going to record it themselves, but Clive Davis made it very clear that the song was destined for Whitney Houston.

"It makes me happy to hear the various more recent versions of our song that express the intended underlying longing and loneliness we humans feel in our search for connection," Rubicam explained. "Whitney's version is lively and expressive in its way, and the more ballad-y versions (which is how George and I occasionally performed the song) dive deeper into a more vulnerable interpretation. The song was written from that very personal heart place, so I appreciate hearing Marian Hill and others take on this aspect."
Songfacts: Sam, for the last few years you've been constantly pushing forward, touring, recording, then you release the Was It Not EP and the world literally stops. What did that do to you creatively?

Samantha: It's been really hard. My favorite part of this is performing live - I just don't think there's any substitute for it. These livestreams are sort of a hollow compromise.

So much of what we do we create for ourselves, of course, but also for our fans, and we don't know when we're going to be able to see them again on the road. It's been hard to create in a vacuum. Jeremy and I do what we can but we haven't been together since March, so we've been creating independently and it's the first time that I've had to do that in a while, and it can definitely be lonely and isolating.

It's been tough to work through and rewarding in some ways because it's forced me to be more independent in my creative process from start to finish, but it's definitely challenging for sure.

Jeremy: In normal life, things are always moving, there's always something coming up, and when we put something out there will be this reaction. Now it feels like everything is kind of the same all the time, and it can be really hard to get inspired and find the drive to make something and put it out when it feels like everything has stopped.

Samantha: Yeah, like no one will care about it. It's like the lifespan is so short.

Songfacts: Jeremy, producers have distinct insights of the voices of the vocalists they work with. Can you talk about working with Sam's voice and how you integrate that into the tracks?

Jeremy: I was very lucky as a producer to have Sam because her voice doesn't require very much. I started to have trouble when after a couple of years of just doing Marian Hill I started to work with other people and they would have all these treatments they wanted on their vocals to make it sound right, and I was just completely out of my depth in terms of EQ and all of that because with Sam, it's really about finding a good mic and scooping out some low-ends but otherwise not really touching the EQ and then putting on a little bit of reverb, and it sounds great. It's really about the performance and getting the right take. It fits right on top of the mix really easily with the kind of beats I make.

So it was really painless, and the biggest thing has been trying to figure out if there are fun new things we can do with it as we work on some new music, and for me, learning how to produce vocals for other people because with Sam it's pretty hands-off.

Songfacts: Were you two ever a couple?

Jeremy: No.

Samantha: No.

Songfacts: That's remarkable. It's very rare in the case of a musical duo like yours, but I'm sure it has its advantages.

Jeremy: Yeah, we've known each other for a very long time. We were in middle school together and onward. We've dated each other's friends but never each other.

Songfacts: Sam, how do you come up with the concepts for the music videos?

Samantha: I don't. Generally, the director puts forth the treatment. We have input but generally the overarching concepts come from the directors themselves. Right, Jeremy?

Jeremy: We will sometimes have some generalized input, like we'll tell them what we want the video to feel like, but by and large, the ideas come out of a collaboration with whoever is directing the video.

Samantha: I do want to add though that Jeremy and I have come up with concepts that are always nixed because they're too ambitious.

Songfacts: Really? Like what?

Samantha: The "Down" video we had had this whole idea of a house party and like this pool, but entering this alternate world once the drop happens. I loved the video, but we originally had this alternate idea.

Jeremy: On "Subtle Thing" we had this whole idea of being on this weird 2001: A Space Odyssey retro spaceship where people keep vanishing and a couple is finding each other at a party and the other people keep vanishing until there would be no people left and then they're left staring out the window into space.

Samantha: And "Was It Not" too, we wanted to be in a snow globe.

Jeremy: For "Was It Not" there are bits of the idea that ended up in the final video but the original idea was us performing on stage and then we step outside of ourselves and there's a frozen audience and frozen copies of us mid-performance and we'd walk around the stage and in the frozen crowd and just take it all in.

Songfacts: I think these are all good ideas.

Samantha: Thank you.

Jeremy: Yeah, to be clear, they were never like, "Those ideas aren't good." It was really about pulling it off with the budget we have.

Songfacts: On "I Want You," you have a line in there where you say, "We could be so cliché." Can you elaborate on what you mean with that?

Jeremy: It leads into the lines, "I hate to see you leave but love to watch you walk away." It comes from the feeling of the song, which is, "Fuck all of the pretense and try to be cool about it." So it's saying, "Look, I could try to be wittier about it, but I'm so into you that I'm just down to be cliché and here's one."

Songfacts: I think that's one where the two of you did a little bit of dancing in the video, which goes along with the idea of screwing any pretense and doing what you want because you're doing your own dance moves among all these professional dancers.

Samantha: Oh my God, it was so hard.

Songfacts: Neither of you can really dance?

Samantha: I like dancing but I have no technical skill, so if anything is too complicated it's too much.

Jeremy: It's a different thing to do specific choreography, especially with somebody who's as talented as [choreographer] Ian Eastwood.

Songfacts: Sam, can you talk about the lyrical content of the song "Sideways"?

Samantha: Yeah, funny enough there's an anecdote in there about me that's true. It's, "I'm not the kind of girl that likes to hold hands." Jeremy and I had this really long conversation where I said something like, "I think holding hands is really intimate and it makes me uncomfortable."

Jeremy: I think you were saying it was more intimate than sex.

Samantha: I think I did say that, yeah.

It's definitely one of our more sad, reflective pieces, but it wasn't autobiographical other than that line. We record one or two of these moments in albums where Jeremy and I get a little more personal, a little more vulnerable, and "Sideways" was one of those.

Songfacts: What's the most vulnerable moment on Act One?

Jeremy: "Same Thing"

Samantha: Probably.

Songfacts: Sam, what is the song by another artist that had the most influence on you?

Samantha: "Don't Know Why" by Norah Jones. A lot of songs have had a big impact on me but that one feels important because when I heard that song it meshed a lot of my influences together. It was the first time I heard a song on the radio that I felt at home singing. It was unlike anything I had heard because we had just come from the era of '90s perfect pop. I was in 7th grade at the time and was just starting to pick up piano and explore the idea of music as a career, and it really just rocked my world.

I sang it for a talent show in middle school, which was probably a strange choice at the time given my age. Not a lot of kids my age were singing Norah Jones. I don't want to sell myself short but I guess it was unexpected...

Jeremy: It was very unexpected.

Samantha: Yeah, thank you. Around that time I was also discovering Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington and a lot of jazz and soul singers and it just felt really unique to me and really changed my musical perspective and what I thought was possible.

Songfacts: Did you win the talent show?

Samantha: It wasn't a competition, but it was fun. I was nervous but I got through it.

Songfacts: Jeremy how about you? What's the song that you spent the endless hours deconstructing and were really wowed by?

Jeremy: This one's kind of fun because I forgot about it for a while but then I heard it again once Marian Hill was firmly established and I was just like, "Oh, this is why I produce like this and where my production values are and what I think a beat should be." And the song is "Grindin'" by Clipse, produced by the Neptunes in their prime. It's mostly drums, harmonics come in much later. I just love the way it knocks and it was a big influence on how I wanted things to sound and what sounded good to me.

August 31, 2020
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Further reading:
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour (another innovative musical duo who got a big break in an Apple commercial)
Qveen Herby (formerly of another innovative musical duo, Karmin)
Dave Stewart of Eurythmics

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