It was one of those pristine Atlanta days. You know, the ones before the outside world is caked in a thick paste of rain-soaked pollen. When the light turns a honey shade of gold and pink as if the city were blushing. The kind where the temperature hovers somewhere between pleasant and perfect, and the air breathes low and calm like a soft whisper. When all you want to do is find a porch or patio, maybe sip on something cool and sweet, and sit with your face toward the sun.
In this case, we find the former. A tidy porch framing a quaint East Atlanta bungalow, and we only linger for a moment. Graham Marsh and Amber Reneé have been waiting for us; that is, myself and Luciano Giarrano, who’s there to photograph the pair while we talk about… well, have patience — you’ll see. The duo, known collectively as the alt-pop group CLAVVS, greet us warmly, their two dogs eyeing us with a mix of unabashed enthusiasm (Buttercup) and tepid indifference (Reggae). Standing there, listening to the trees break into birdsong, I briefly contemplate the possibility of doing the interview outside. But, in truth, there’s only one place we should speak.
After offering us an espresso and a cherry lime La Croix, Marsh and Reneé lead us into the Neon Dungeon, a cozy home studio adorned with racks of guitars and gear, plaques and photos, gold records and assorted memorabilia. Before sitting, I scan the room for a few moments, my eyes searching out a pair of words. There’s a lot to take take in — history, art, celebrity, ephemera. Still, it doesn’t take me long to locate them. “Fuck You” they exclaim in bold black letters.
But that’s a story for later.
In the meantime, Luci and I stake our claim on a small couch, while our subjects take up residence in a pair of chairs by the recording console. Marsh, with his thick beard, black jeans, and gray tee, emits an air of affable warmth. Reneé, dressed stylishly in a denim blouse and dark pants, possesses an enviable cool that somehow feels both meticulous and effortless. It’s a strange sensation to put into words, but together the duo project an almost imperturbable approachability, the kind that makes you want to lean in and listen or candidly spill your guts to them.
We chat for a few moments, exchanging small talk and pleasantries, until Marsh directs our attention to a computer monitor perched atop the console. On the screen is the most recent playlist from KCRW, the Los Angeles-based public radio station and one of the most respected music outlets in the country. It seems that earlier that morning, José Galván, a KCRW DJ and occasional host of the Lab, had played CLAVVS’ lush new single “Serpentine” squeezed neatly between Gorrilaz’s “Empire Ants” and Miike Snow’s “Heart is Full” (Run the Jewels Version). Marsh and Reneé are understandably giddy, but their joy escalates when we decide to check the audio of the ensuing break. With the four of us falling silent in anticipation, Galván proceeds to not only announce the title of the track and the duo’s upcoming record, World Underwater, but also casually refers to CLAVVS as one of his favorite new bands.
For Marsh in particular, it’s a small moment of triumph in what has been a slow, steady climb back up the mountain. He’s made the grueling trek to the summit before, and while he didn’t always enjoy the view, the journey was generally gratifying, and unquestionably rewarding. It’s a cliché, I know, to announce that in order to understand where someone is going you need to see where they’ve been, but in this case we’re not talking about time as a linear concept, as two finite points separated by dreamsmemoryexperience. No, his is a winding journey, dotted with ecstatic highs, dark lows, and an infinite number of evolutions both forward-facing and, when necessary, moving in reverse.
Bright Futures Burn Dim
So where to start?
Is it with his early youth, growing up as child of divorce, split between homes in Savannah, Ga. and Fort Myers, Fl.? Is it with his first musical experience, learning concert snare in elementary school? Should we go back to the time he discovered his father’s beat-up guitar, bought strings and a chord book, and taught himself to play? Or is it better to move forward through high school and recollect all the so-called “shitty” bands he played in? Maybe unveil his love for the angst-ridden alternative rock and three-chord pop punk that dominated the airwaves and his friends’ playlists?
Or should we start with college? Talk about how he was accepted into Florida State on a Bright Futures scholarship? How he began experimenting with psychedelics and fell into the familiar pattern of partying, playing music, and skipping classes? Should we mention how he shifted away from rock and punk music and started performing around Tallahassee in a series of ill-fated jazz trios and jam bands?
Do we get into the fact that, for a time, he and some friends followed jam giants Phish, selling beer and grilled cheese sandwiches in the parking lot for money? (“In terms of the black market economy of the lot, we made a pretty good return,” he’s quick to point out.) Or, how after his third year at FSU, he would lose his scholarship and drop out of school, leading him to move back to Savannah to live with his father? Do we talk about how the ensuing period of doubt and soul-searching gave way to his decision to enroll at Full Sail University to study audio engineering?
No, no, no. Forgive me my tiny diversions and rhetorical inquiries, because none of that is right. Real? Yes. Relevant? Maybe in the larger scheme. But if we’re going to start anywhere — and start we must — then let us begin with the internship, which is invariably the fulcrum upon which everything else in this story turns.
“When You Start Out, You Don’t Know Shit.”
The year is 2003, and Marsh, freshly graduated with a degree in hand, is looking for an opportunity. With the assistance of Full Sail’s placement program, he begins applying for internships and succeeds at landing an interview at Southside Studios in Atlanta. Owned by superstar music mogul Jermaine Dupri, the studio serves as the linchpin to Dupri’s empire and is home to his landmark record label, So So Def Recordings. At this stage in his career, the artist-producer is quite literally on top of the world. Gone for the most part is the trunk-rattling Southern G-funk upon which he has built his legacy, replaced by a smoother, more calculating pop aesthetic that will prove immensely successful. Among his current projects, JD has just finished teaming with Usher on the R&B crooner’s soon-to-be mega-smash, Confessions. He is working with Mariah Carey on what is to become the pop diva’s chart-topping comeback, The Emancipation of Mimi. If there is any place to learn the ins and outs of the music industry at its highest, most commercial levels, it’s at Southside.
For Marsh, the internship was the chance of a lifetime, and he was terrified he would blow the opportunity. “I was so intimidated,” he recalls of the interview experience. “I walked in and could see the hallway with all the plaques and awards. It was really overwhelming.” The domineering, dismissive attitude shown to him by the studio manager and head engineer did nothing to ease his mind either. “They were really just feeling me out, making sure I understood that I didn’t know shit and would have to learn everything. I left there almost certain I did not get that gig.”
Two weeks later, however, Marsh received a call offering him the position.
It was an odd juxtaposition — the one-time Phish fanatic fetching coffee and running errands for a pop music magnate and his celebrity clients. Although he had long remained a steadfast fan and follower of hip-hop, growing up on a steady diet of East Coast rap like Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde, and Black Sheep, R&B and commercial music weren’t of much interest to him. Furthermore, as predominantly the sole white person at the studio, Marsh was definitely a fish out of water at So So Def.
Still, he was grateful for the opportunity — and, more importantly, he understood his role in the grand scheme of the operation. He spent most of his days making sure the studio and adjoining offices were vacuumed and clean, and that the coffee and any other supplies were fully stocked. Outside of that, he would spend his time sitting in a corner of the lounge (entering the studio at this time was strictly forbidden), not speaking to anyone. If someone wanted anything — food, alcohol, cigarettes — he would go on a run, always making sure to bring back the receipt and correct change.
Although the work was relatively mindless, interning at the studio wasn’t always easy. Marsh was working for free; what little money he had was left over from a student loan he had taken out at Full Sail. He spent nearly every waking hour at Southside — cleaning up, going on runs, and trying to earn the trust of the staff and studio engineers. It helped immensely that Marsh was respectful, self-reliant, and industrious — qualities that would serve him well amongst his superiors and the high-end clientele Dupri was serving. As a result, the engineers took a liking to him and would often buy him lunch. Sometimes the clients would help him out as well — Nate Dogg once tipped Marsh a $100 for fetching him a bottle of Hennessy.
But Marsh also witnessed the dark end of the spectrum. There were clients who, as he says, “didn’t see him as a human being, only as someone to do their bidding.” Usually the worst offenders were younger artists, or those who had recently experienced fresh success. The volatile mix of newly acquired power and anxiety about their future was a massive jolt to the ego, and many responded by lashing out at anyone they felt were beneath them. As the clear low man on the Southside totem pole, Marsh was well positioned to receive the brunt of the abuse.
Furthermore, on any given night, Dupri, his friends, and colleagues would spend hours hanging out in the lounge and play dice on the pool table. Over the course of some evenings, Marsh would watch tens of thousands of dollars exchange hands, keenly aware that he could barely afford a meal. There was something exhilarating about watching fortunes turn upon a single toss, but also something cold and disquieting. Overall, it was a humbling, formative experience — the first of many such encounters he would endure in his time within the industry.
Yet, Marsh was able to make the most of his experience at Southside. After several weeks of building trust and credibility, he was finally allowed to sit in on sessions. Again he was expected remain quietly in the corner, but at least he was able to observe the inner workings of the studio. And these were no throw-away or low-key sessions. Marsh’s first opportunity to sit in the studio was with Mariah Carey. This was around the time that she and Dupri were working on “We Belong Together,” which would go on to become a monster hit, holding the top position on the charts for fourteen non-consecutive weeks, and bringing home the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. So while Marsh was learning about gear and the mechanics of running the studio, he was also observing world-class artists working while at the peak of their powers, and studying the interactions between them and the engineers.
“When you start out, you don’t know shit,” Marsh explains. “You know basic stuff, yeah, but so much of what we do is psychology — how to talk to an artist, how to make a session flow. So I would take notes and the engineers would be kind enough to answer my questions, and that that was the next step in my education, so to speak.”
However, in spite of Southside’s immense success and prestige, it was evident there was no upward mobility. It was a privately-owned studio, not a commercial space, and they already employed a full-time engineer and two full-time assistants. In order for Marsh to advance in his career, someone would have to leave or be fired, and the prospects of either were slim. Observing sessions had taught him much about how to approach the job professionally and how to work with artists, but he wasn’t gaining the necessary technical training; that is, the sort of skills that could only come from sitting in the chair, manning the board, and doing the work.
Still, Marsh kept grinding. After a few months of interning, Southside’s manager grew to trust him enough to offer him a position working the front desk. Although the work was menial and routine, he was finally earning a paycheck, and even Dupri himself finally started to refer to him by name. But more importantly, working at the front desk offered Marsh the chance speak with everyone that came in and out of the studio, access which proved to be decisive in the next phase of his career.
Not longer after Marsh began his new position, Rick Sheppard came into the studio. At the time, Sheppard was Dallas Austin’s head engineer and programmer. Much like Dupri, Austin was an Atlanta legend and producer who owned perhaps the city’s most famous studio in DARP (Dallas Austin Recording Projects). A genius boy wonder who achieved a tremendous amount of success early in his career, Austin wasn’t as tabloid famous as Dupri, but the caliber of talent he was working with — TLC, Boyz II Men, Madonna, and Pink among them — was second to none. During the course of his visit, Sheppard let it slip that his assistant engineer was leaving and that he was searching for a replacement. Sensing another momentous opportunity, Marsh gathered enough courage to offer his services.
Shockingly, Sheppard told him to stop by DARP for a tryout, and a week later Marsh had locked down the job. This despite the fact he had no real work to show or history within the industry. “It was all by virtue of being at the right place,” Marsh confesses. “I’d been getting burgers, cleaning toilets, and watching the front desk. I hadn’t been doing any work.”
What Sheppard wanted, and by extension what Marsh would provide, was someone who understood the rigors of the job, who could endure the long hours and all the stress that came with it. According to Marsh, Sheppard was “a genius and a good mentor,” but he was “demanding almost to a fault.” Although he had been hired as an assistant engineer, DARP employed no auxiliary staff, and Marsh was consistently asked to take on odd jobs outside his normal purview. Among these tasks were complex requests like installing all the camera systems at Austin’s house, fixing or installing TVs, replacing and rewiring the security systems at the studio — things which Marsh had no idea how to do, but had to figure out. “I didn’t have a life when I was working at So So Def, but I really didn’t have a life when I was assisting for Rick,” says Marsh. “But at least I was getting paid.”
More importantly, he was building his portfolio and starting to earn his reputation within the industry. In addition to engineering recordings for the likes of Natalie Cole and Joss Stone, it was during this time that he would make his first gold record — Lionel Richie’s Coming Home — for which he was credited both as an assistant engineer and as a performer when he sat in for Austin’s studio guitarist, Tony Reyes, on the late-album track “Stand Down.” It was also during this time that Marsh would take on his first assignment as head engineer — a remarkably ill-fated session with the legendary George Clinton that would never see the light of day.
But after a year-and-a-half or so of working at DARP, Marsh became burnt out with being an assistant and decided to leave. It was 2007, and the recording scene in Atlanta was popping. There were studios seemingly everywhere, and artists were flying in from all over the country to cut new music. There were ample opportunities for engineers to find work, and Marsh craved more independence and greater command over his burgeoning career.
Enter Monica Tannian. Founder of Milk Money Consulting, Tannian managed a roster of emerging and superstar engineers that included industry heavyweights such as Sam Thomas, Miles Walker, Mark “Exit” Goodchild, and Ben Allen. After helping Marsh sort out some billing issues he had while working with Austin, she decided to take him on as a client. Soon he was cutting his teeth as a freelance tracking engineer, working on hip-hop and R&B sessions all over Atlanta with aspiring artists and established stars alike. As Marsh puts it, “That’s when I really honed in on how to record in a studio.” Before the year was out he had brought home his first Grammy for some engineering work he did on Ludacris’ Release Therapy, which took the prize for Best Rap Album.
Through his association with Milk Money, Marsh began working for Allen, who in addition to collaborating with many local artists, was also CeeLo Green’s head engineer. At this point in his career, Allen was growing increasingly dissatisfied with being a tracking engineer, and was looking to move on to producing (a decision which, incidentally, proved to be prescient, with Allen going on to produce the likes of Deerhunter, Animal Collective, Belle and Sebastian, Matt and Kim, and many others). After spending some time working with Marsh, and getting a feel for his personality and work ethic, Allen recognized that he had the qualities of a potential successor. So one afternoon, he asked Marsh if he would be interested in taking over the position. Marsh leapt at the opportunity. “At the time, I was a huge CeeLo fan,” he recalls. “I loved Goodie Mob, and thought his solo record was great. We did a few sessions together and we hit it off, and that began a [significant] working relationship where my career just took off.”
Now Ain’t That Some Shit?
At this juncture, it would be easy to misconstrue Marsh’s life in music as a series of fortunate accidents that played in his favor. The internship at Southside, his chance meeting with Sheppard, and now his position with CeeLo all seemed to have fallen into his lap. But luck, as they say, is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity. And while Marsh seemed to be blessed with a gift to appear in the right place at the right time, it was his talent and professionalism that ultimately secured his success.
Now firmly seated at the engineering helm, Marsh found himself in the remarkable situation of working with a budding superstar whose career was beginning to explode. In 2007, CeeLo was well over a decade removed from his groundbreaking debut as the fatalistic poet speaking truth to power for Dirty South pioneers Goodie Mob. But after two moderately successful solo LPs, he had finally found fresh fame in Gnarls Barkley, his collaborative soul project with DJ and producer Danger Mouse. In addition to spawning the No. 1 single, “Crazy,” the duo’s debut smash, St. Elsewhere, had been nominated for four Grammy Awards including Record of the Year and Album of the Year, winning two of them for Best Alternate Music Album and Best Urban/Alternate Performance for “Crazy.” After completing a U.S. tour as the supporting act for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gnarls Barkley was ready to enter the studio to record their follow-up.
The sessions for The Odd Couple marked Marsh’s first project while working for CeeLo, which would have been pressure enough for any fledgling engineer. But compounding the stress was the fact that Marsh had to share recording and mixing duties with Brian Joseph Burton (Danger Mouse), already one of the most sought after producers in the world, and his engineer Kennie Takahashi. That was a lot of egos and personalities to contend with, but according to Marsh, the process couldn’t have gone any smoother.
“I was there representing CeeLo, and to mix the vocals we recorded in Atlanta,” he recounts. “Kennie was representing Brian and driving the ship. We all worked really well together. Brian gave CeeLo and myself the space to mix the vocals how he wanted and vice versa. It was the first and only time I’ve seen that dynamic when mixing an album. I really have nothing but fond memories of that whole time.”
Although The Odd Couple did not achieve the same runaway success as St. Elsewhere, it still found favor with fans and critics alike, and it kept Gnarls Barkley in the industry limelight for the better part of the year. The experience also solidified the relationship between Marsh and CeeLo, who was growing to trust the engineer’s musical instincts more and more.
Now that he had his first major project under his belt, Marsh’s world was expanding exponentially. Although CeeLo valued his privacy and maintained only a small entourage, he was driven by enormous ambition, and travelled often for both business and pleasure. Not only was Marsh getting an inside look at the life of a burgeoning celebrity, but he was also making critical industry connections. “I was with CeeLo a lot,” he explains, “so now I’m in LA, I’m in New York, I’m in London. And I’m meeting all these people. I’m just in this world that’s incredibly exciting, and also crazy.”
The adventure, however, was just beginning. The next project the pair worked on was CeeLo’s third solo album, The Lady Killer, a 14-track blast of catchy, confident 21st century Motown that would serve as the catalyst for the singer’s ascent into superstardom. During this period, Marsh would take on an expanded role in the studio, adding co-producer to his list of credits, and exerting greater influence over the sound and direction of the music.
And who could argue with the results? Nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album, the LP also featured the Grammy Award-winning single “Fool for You,” which won two awards for Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song. But most impressively, the record spawned the massive international hit “Fuck You,” which won the Grammy Award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance and was nominated in two of the Recording Academy’s premiere categories — Record of the Year and Song of the Year. For Marsh, it was more than just another career milestone; it was confirmation that he could stand among some of the industry’s most illustrious names and more than hold his own. And although “Fuck You” would go on to lose to Lady Antebellum’s country pop anthem “Need You Now,” it still afforded him an experience that most engineers and producers can only dream of.
“Just to have that recognition, and to go that night, and the pomp and circumstance, and to sit and watch the production amidst all these amazing people — it’s a crazy fucking thing!” Marsh exclaims. “It’s a wild experience. I mean, I have a Grammy that says ‘Fuck You!’ How awesome is that?”
In the meantime, the success of Gnarls Barkley and The Lady Killer, combined with his natural showmanship, was quickly transforming CeeLo into one of the entertainment industry’s most sought after stars. Shortly after the 2010 Grammy Awards, it was announced that he and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine were the first two coaches selected for NBC’s new reality television singing competition, The Voice. The show quickly became a cultural and ratings sensation, further elevating the singer’s celebrity status.
However, CeeLo wasn’t the only one making moves. During the recording of “Fuck You,” Marsh had the opportunity to meet and work with a young Bruno Mars, who was brought in as one the songwriters on the track. As a result of that brief collaboration, Marsh was asked to do some production work on Mars’ studio debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans. The record was a runaway triumph featuring three Top Five singles, including “Just the Way You Are” and “Grenade,” both of which climbed all the way to No. 1 on the charts.
As award season began to roll around, Marsh found himself living in déjà vu. Doo-Wops & Hooligans and “Grenade” combined for a total of five Grammy Award nominations, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year. For the second year in a row, Marsh was an official nominee for some of the most prestigious awards in music. “The first year I told myself it would never happen again so I really needed to soak it in,” he says with a chuckle. “But then it happened again, which is kind of insane, to be nominated two years in a row like that. Still, that was the year of Adele, so we lost again.”
Searching for an Exit
Although his career was on fire, by 2012 Marsh was beginning to look for a way out. As CeeLo’s engineer and co-producer, he was entirely at his beck and call — they worked when CeeLo wanted to work and travelled when he wanted to travel. But six years of near-constant service had worn Marsh down. “I didn’t want to be in that mode anymore. I didn’t want to work for anyone.”
Ultimately, the parting was amicable but strenuous and difficult. CeeLo has grown to trust Marsh immensely, and in a ruthless, bloodthirsty industry that tended to prey on the weak and vulnerable, trust was the ultimate commodity. But looking back, Marsh believes that beyond his personal need to strike out on his own, staying would have eventually started to negatively impact the music. “Starting new with somebody [else] is a difficult thing, and I understand that,” he says. “He put six years in with me; we didn’t have to think about how to work with one another. We grew to be really close friends, and ultimately I think that was a detriment to our working relationship. There was no professional buffer there anymore.”
Furthermore, Marsh’s entire life was the music industry; everyone he knew and interacted with on a day-to-day basis was locked into that system and lifestyle. There was a sense of isolation from the real and everyday as he continued to navigate a parallel universe centered on power, money, fame, and all the many temptations and transgressions that came with it. More and more he felt trapped in a world that offered only hints of beauty and creative expression, but was more often than not morally and spiritually bankrupt. As Marsh explains, “I saw too many dark things. The music industry is fucked. It’s a fucked up industry. There’s a lot of really terrible things that go on. The mistreatment of women, the abuse of people in general, I needed to get away from it. If it was only about the music, I could have dealt with it, but socially it was a toxic atmosphere to be around. For my own well-being, I needed to leave it. ”
But leaving created its own existential dilemma. If he wasn’t producing and engineering music for a living, what else could he pursue? For a decade Marsh had been facilitating other people’s visions, and creatively he felt an intense need to pursue his own endeavor, to be his own boss. From a professional perspective, he had been working long enough to understand what he didn’t want to do, and so he began to search for a way to become self-sufficient. For a while he took a stab at professional songwriting in the hopes of placing songs with other artists, but the process felt fabricated and superficial, and he eventually decided that it wasn’t for him.
Over time, however, he found a niche creating original music and soundtracks for corporate commercials, product launches, and videos for companies like Home Depot, Samsung, and Blackberry. Although creatively the work wasn’t something he ever imagined himself doing, Marsh enjoyed it because it required no emotional investment. If a client wanted changes to a composition, so be it — there was no artistry involved. Besides, the work paid well and freed him up to pursue his own music. “Working these corporate jobs gave me the flexibility to say yes or no to things,” Marsh explains. “If I liked a project, I would do it. And it allowed me to focus my full attention on my own art, which was the foundation for CLAVVS.”
No More Talent Shows
The story of Amber Reneé’s musical endeavors prior to forming CLAVVS is mostly one of half-baked projects and bedroom dreams. As a youth growing up in McDonough and Jonesboro, Ga., she fell in love with performing, and would often organize and put on talent shows with her friends. When her mother had guests at the house she would ask her to sing Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Widow,” and Reneé would belt it out, mustering as much drama as possible (“I was such a ham,” she says with a laugh). Like many kids her age she loved Britney Spears and maintained a strong affinity for the Spice Girls (Ginger Spice was her favorite, if you must know). Hours were spent dancing and singing in front of the mirror, choreographing elaborate routines for imaginary audiences.
But as she grew older, the talent shows stopped, as did the encouragement from her mother and family. Over time, her youthful curiosity and enthusiasm for performing began to morph into doubt and insecurity about her talent. Increasingly, her parents and those in her social circle viewed her artistic leanings as a kind of weakness, as the aspirations of a dreamer who refused to understand her limitations.
In high school she became heavily involved in music theater and chorus, but never allowed herself the opportunity to pursue it on a more serious level (a tryout for American Idol her senior year being the rare exception). By the time graduation arrived, she had written dozens of songs in the isolation of her room, but she kept them to herself, mostly out of fear of judgment from family and schoolmates whom she felt mocked and derided her creative efforts.
“As a kid, I was way more brave,” Reneé confesses. “In high school I became more introverted and self-aware, and it became instilled into me all the ways that I wasn’t good enough by [my] family and peers. I beat myself up over it for a very long time. It wasn’t until I finished up my undergrad degree that I began to break free from that.”
Yet, for all her fears and anxieties, Reneé never abandoned her love and fascination with singing and songwriting. She did, however, set it aside for a few more years. After high school, she enrolled at Georgia State where she studied Creative Writing. Originally her plan was to earn her degree and then attend graduate school, get a PhD, and spend the rest of her life teaching and writing. When her studies at GSU were complete, Reneé applied to several MFA programs around the country and invested a sizable amount of money into GRE tutoring and exams. But as the rejection letters came in one after another, she found herself in the awkward transitional space of what to do next. With Georgia State as the sole option to continue a path in education, Reneé enrolled and began pursuing a degree in Literary Studies.
Then, one morning, out of the blue, she woke up with the revelation of pursuing music. Reneé can’t articulate exactly what came over her, or what caused her to develop such an instant and encompassing need to abandon everything to chase a dream she had no means of achieving, but her reawakening was enough to compel her to drop out of grad school. When I press her on her possible motivations, she thinks deeply for a few moments before returning with an answer I (and possibly she herself) never suspected.
“Weirdly, I think Lady Gaga has a lot to do with it,” she says. “I was never really into her music until that song ‘You and I’ came out and I was really struck by it. It spoke to me somehow and through that I learned about her story, which to me is the most compelling thing about her — that she’s just this very average, everyday girl. If you look at her high school photos, they reminded me of myself. But then she became the zeitgeist of our culture for a moment with the persona that she built for herself. I was really fascinated by that. I admired that somebody could just reinvent themselves like that. So I think that was one catalyst for it.”
Still, while Reneé was fresh with determination, she had no real idea where to begin. After a few aborted attempts to to form a band, she eventually found herself playing in folk duo called Portmanteau, the name a nod to one of her favorite authors, Lewis Carroll. This marked her first time singing in public, and the experience left her in a near catatonic state where she could barely mouth the words or move on stage. Over time, she learned to break free of that paralyzing panic, but it didn’t do much to elevate Portmanteau’s fortunes — the band was active for around a year before it finally fizzled out.
Let’s Go Digging
The story of the first meeting between Graham Marsh and Amber Reneé, or at least the faint details of it, has been told before, both in the pages of this site and elsewhere. It’s the story of a party, a chance meeting, and a bond that formed quickly and would soon run deep. One evening, while working a shift at Johnny’s Pizza, Reneé received a text from a friend inviting her to a gathering of musicians and industry people. She wasn’t expecting much — a few drinks, some laughs, maybe a little networking — but then Marsh opened the door.
“We hung out that night and we clicked,” Reneé recalls. “He had a studio in the house and we just started jamming. At that time I had a binder of all my songs that I carried with me. So we started playing some of them and it felt right.”
The duo’s professional relationship struck up almost immediately. After their initial meeting, they started setting up times to hang out, practice, and write music. While they both shared a deep-seated love for hip-hop, Reneé wanted to incorporate elements of early-to-mid aughts indie pop like Rilo Kiley and Eisely, as well as the soulful R&B stylings of ATL artists such as TLC and Usher. For his part, Marsh wanted to tap into the ethereal trip-hop soundscapes crafted by UK pioneers like Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky. At first it seemed like far too complex a web to weave, but within a few months they had begun to stitch together an evocative electronic canvas that was dark, spectral, and ambient, on the one hand — and immensely catchy on the other.
“They’re still pop songs, but you have to go a little deeper,” says Marsh of the duo’s aesthetic template. “Obviously you can hear in there the hip-hop influence which is huge, but I’m also a major fan of golden era trip-hop [and] West African music. Fela Kuti is one of my biggest musical influences. A lot of the notes, the melodies, the keys, the pentatonic scale that I draw a lot from, comes from that. A lot of trip-hop with its jazzy grooves, the French grooves… I would say our music is more African and Eastern than your typical hip-hop drum programming.”
It may seem like a sterile term, but much of what has fueled CLAVVS success has been a continual process of artist development. Since their inception, the duo have continually sketched out new songs, and Marsh has spent countless hours crafting fresh beats, grooves, and textures to fill them. But it wasn’t until the third year of their partnership that the pair began to hit their stride with the darkly seductive and mystical halfblood. At the time, the 2016 release was the group’s most expansive and complete work to date, pairing lush, ethereal production with supernatural themes that delved into black magic, mythology, and the occult.
For Reneé, the record provided her with an opportunity to mine her past, her imagination, her dreams for inspiration; to paint her own vision and breathe it into life. In response, she conjured a world that was eerie and alluring, one that could mutate imperceptibly between a kind of sensual corporeality and beguiling fantasy. Nowhere was this dichotomy more evident than on the album’s standout track “Leviathan,” which featured perhaps Reneé’s most confident and commanding performance — not surprising considering how long she had been living with the song.
“That was one of those bedroom songs I spoke of,” she says. “I wrote that five years before we recorded it. I liked the reference to Greek mythology, and the way the song created this vision of smoke on an ocean. I’m a very visual person, and I try to create music that evokes certain colors, or certain landscapes, or however people envision music. I think of songwriting as excavating, as digging and exploring through things that already exist but finding something different about them.”
As the duo began work on their latest LP, World Underwater, there was a conscious effort to explore similar themes and to create a sonic world that was equally, if not more, dense, rich, and evocative. After many conversations and internal debates, Reneé made an intentional decision to avoid singing songs about love and relationships. She felt those tropes created a box, especially for women artists, and she didn’t want to get locked in. When it came time to begin writing the lyrics and formulating the narratives for World Underwater, she knew she wanted to detail an internal journey, one of a woman coming to terms with herself — her fears, conflicts, and triumphs.
“Rather than writing love songs about men or past relationships, I wanted to write about getting to know yourself, exploring yourself, hating yourself, fighting with yourself,” Reneé explains. “Not so much in terms of enlightenment, but more of transcending the everyday struggles a woman faces.” The title refers to the idea of being overwhelmed by life, to have the world close in on you until it feels like everything is underwater and you’re starting to drown. It refers to the will to fight through it and make your way to the surface.
As a writer, Reneé has never been interested in being upfront; she’d rather search for metaphors and employ fantastical imagery to lead listeners on a journey that’s more open to self-interpretation. In order to develop a visual system for World Underwater, a kind of narrative framework that would make sense within the filter of CLAVVS, she began to look at creatures, monsters, and symbols that were always portrayed as feminine and sinister — serpents in the Garden of Eden, Medusa, the Greek Sirens — and started to deconstruct and subvert them.
“At the end of the day I want to write subversive pop music,” Reneé says. “I want it to be accessible, yes, but I also want it to challenge people. So I took those symbols and I gave them power as if to say, ‘If you want to call me a snake, I’ll be a fucking snake. I’ll be the most amazing, glorious snake you’ve ever seen.’ That’s what ‘Serpentine’ is about.”
With World Underwater, CLAVVS have crafted their most complex and engaging album, one that highlights their evolution as songwriters and craftsmen. Although it carries shades of halfblood’s murky midnight mysticism, on the whole the record is sleeker, smarter, and more expressive. For the duo, it is yet another moment of triumph, one that marks a successful climb to the next ledge up that indomitable mountain. They’ll take time to celebrate, of course, as well as travel the East Coast on their first ever tour, but eventually they’ll have to face another ascent, with the most difficult parts of the climb yet to come.
There and Back Again
Let’s get one thing out of the way. It would be insulting to pretend CLAVVS don’t have certain advantages. For one, the duo don’t need an outside studio or to engage an engineer, mixer, or producer, to create major label ready music. From a recording perspective, they can operate at a consistently high level out of their own home. And while Marsh’s name may not carry significant weight as musician, he still maintains industry connections he could reach out to if he wanted to significantly boost the band’s fortunes.
But here’s another thing: the pair has refused to work in that manner. They say they don’t want a pass, and they don’t feel entitled to skip the line because of what Marsh has done in the past. Furthermore, the duo understand that the music business has undergone a seismic shift in the past decade, that flash-in-the-pan success only offers a temporary push without many lasting benefits.
“Let’s say we just made some catchy pop song but no one in Atlanta really knew us, so we reached out to a connection,” Marsh offers. “Well, at that point it’s done, and we really haven’t built anything. The way we’re approaching it is from the beginning. It’s organic; we’re building real connections with people. We have a real scene and I feel like the city is getting behind us. Those are the building blocks for a lasting career. This isn’t our hobby, this is our job.”
While I’d like to say CLAVVS are getting ready to break, the truth is there’s considerable work to be done and time to put in. Although the duo have carved an impressive niche for themselves in Atlanta, they face a steep uphill battle to spread that love to other cities and different regions of the country. Still, while it’s often difficult to know where you stand when you’re in the middle of the storm, Marsh and Reneé have been in the business long enough to know the odds and the many obstacles local artists face.
“Outside of hip-hop, very few artists break out of Atlanta,” Marsh admits. “Labels, publishers, managers — none of that stuff is here. So all the things you need to take your band to the new level, you have to look elsewhere. The option then becomes to stay here and remain at a certain level, or leave and rob Atlanta of another artist. I don’t really know what the solution is or how we get those things here.”
For the record, CLAVVS have no intentions of leaving the city to chase greener pastures. On the contrary, the duo is quick to credit their fans and the efforts of local promoters like Speakeasy Promotions and Nick Weinberg of Aisle 5 for a major part of their success. Additionally, CLAVVS have enmeshed themselves in the local community, engaging with a wide spectrum of people and organizations on a variety of social issues and political agendas. Whether they’re collaborating with the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, promoting the progressive policies of mayoral candidate Vincent Fort, or spreading the work of local activists via their Progress ATL platform, CLAVVS continually strive to give back to the city they say has welcomed them with open arms.
At times this has meant assuming the lead to push for — or against — policy initiatives in which they are able to have a voice. In January, when City Councilwoman Felicia Moore introduced a citywide sound studio ordinance in response to the shooting death of Atlanta rapper Bankroll Fresh outside Street Execs Studios, Marsh decided to voice his opposition to the measure, which would have placed excessive regulations on local recording studios. In addition to railing against the ordinance on social media, he also appeared on local NPR affiliate WABE (along with his old compatriot Ben Allen) to outline his position on why the measure should be defeated.
Although it was struck down by the City Council in a near unanimous vote, Marsh’s response to the ruling was more relief than triumph, less a victory than a crisis averted. “The context of this legislation was based in the perception that the recording industry is inherently dangerous and full of criminals,” he told us in an interview following the vote. “If this had passed it would have cemented that perception in the public’s mind and all but killed the music industry in Atlanta. I say that with zero hyperbole.” Months later, Marsh stands by the statement.
For CLAVVS, there is tremendous satisfaction in doing their part to build and sustain community. No artist can achieve success on their own; the process requires hard work and intense dedication, of course, but also a willingness to work with others, to nurture relationships and, at times, sacrifice ones immediate desires for the longterm good. And yet, it’s difficult to deny that success often breeds resentment and negativity. Regardless of the size of one’s creative endeavor, there are always egos involved. Even at the DIY level they operate on, Marsh and Reneé have witnessed the same toxic attitudes, mistreatment of people, and sense of entitlement that Marsh experienced at the highest levels of the industry.
“Being in the music industry, and being a good person, and treating people well is hard to do,” Marsh says, shaking his head. “Especially the more success you get, it will try to squeeze that out of you. It’s so easy to get pulled to the dark side.”
As we wrap up our interview and photo shoot, Marsh and Reneé lead us back out to the front porch. I can’t help but notice the light has shifted, trading its soft honey-pink luster for an almost severe yellow glow. The trees remain busy with birdsong, albeit a tad more emphatic now, and the air, while still blowing softly, is beginning to embrace the erratic rhythms of late afternoon. The atmosphere isn’t quite as serene as when we first arrived, but it remains undoubtedly porch weather, although more dynamic and invigorating. There are further pleasantries, of course, some fragments of conversation left scattered amidst promises to meet again. For a moment I catch Marsh in what seems a deeply contented smile, and I find myself thinking about the dark place he spoke of, and whether or not the transition he’s experienced with CLAVVS has been therapeutic in any way.
So I ask him.
“Yes,” he answers after a short pause. “But it’s been hard. It’s been very humbling. To go from CeeLo and Grammys and to start over again is a major difference. It’s been challenging and quite an education. I didn’t know shit about being an indie artist. I didn’t know shit about booking a local show. I didn’t know any of these things. The Grammys don’t mean anything in this world, rightfully so, and we’ve had to learn to navigate this space.”
“To be an artist is by nature an ego-driven endeavor,” Reneé adds before we part. “You want a light shined on you. So we have to remind ourselves all the time that we make music because it’s what we feel called to do creatively. There are so many moments where creating art is what helped me to survive. There are so many times where something someone else created helped me immensely when I really needed it. So we try to keep each other in check about the reasons we’re pursuing this. This isn’t about accolades or competing with other artists. Our goal is to always be good to people.”
CLAVVS will perform tomorrow night, June 10, at City Winery for a free show presented by Discover Atlanta. The show begins at 11 p.m. and will be filmed as a 360° video. All ages welcome.