In Colton’s post about the time Dave Elkins performed in his living room, I wrote a little bit about Marilyn Auza, Dave’s opening act, who sings and plays acoustic guitar. In the article, I praised her guitarwork, but I wanted to take a chance to expand a little bit on her charming performance.
Beyond her easygoing guitarwork, Marilyn’s voice is her most distinct hallmark. She has an expressive voice that evokes Regina Spektor with a bit more edge and unpredictability. It’s a perfect fit for her songs. As I heard her sing live with two and a half beers in my system, her voice struck me as downright beautiful.
After the show was done, I asked several in attendance what they thought of Marilyn’s performance, and what their favorite song was. Everyone agreed her performance was excellent, and no two people listed the same favorite track — a confirmation, to me, that we just heard someone something special.
My personal favorite track was “Can I Have This Dance,” a swooning ballad based whose lyrics come from a poem her friend wrote. An early version of the track is available on her YouTube channel, but she sent me an MP3 of the latest version:
I caught up with Marilyn a few days after the show, and she was gracious enough to speak about her music and the experience of opening for Dave Elkins.
Earn This: Tell us a little bit about your background. Who are you, where are you from, and what is your background?
Marilyn: My name is Marilyn Auza, from Virginia Beach, Virginia. I’ve lived here all my life, except for the four years in Williamsburg. I attended The College of William and Mary for undergrad. Post-graduation I’ve sprinkled myself around the mid-atlantic for weeks/months at a time doing various volunteer activities, but I’ve always come back home to Virginia Beach between them.
When did you first learn to play guitar? When did you start writing your own songs?
I took six months of lessons when I was thirteen years old. There were a few reasons I quit taking them after those six months, but I can’t stress how much that impacted my practice of guitar to this day. I had a really great teacher that introduced me to finger picking very early on, and that is my favorite style currently.
I started writing my own songs in high school. My very first ones were birthday songs for my best friends – just silly, simple things I would perform for them. But then I had a powerful crush senior year in high school and I wrote my first love song, which I consider “my first song.” Ever since then I’ve had anything from a trickle to a cascade of output, but I’ve never really stopped.
Writing and playing songs seems to be a passion for you. What caused it to evolve from casual hobby to serious passion project?
Honestly, it is probably firstly a result of the copious amount of free time I’ve found when I’m between volunteer opportunities. When you don’t have many obligations, you end up doing things that YOU enjoy, because I mean, why wouldn’t you? I’ve been playing for 12 years, but I’ve only been really playing for the past 2, if you can get what I mean. I’ve evolved so much more as a singer/songwriter in the past 2 years than all the 10 before that combined. Secondly, I started to see that I could literally evoke emotions in other people with songs/performance, and I like the feeling that that gives me.
At your show, you played Beatles covers, so I’m guessing you cite them as a major inspiration. Who are some of your other inspirations?
Meg & Dia, definitely. My cousins were really into them circa 2006 or so, and they relayed to me that many of their songs were inspired by books. And I thought that was just really, really lovely.
The Avett Brothers and Mason Jennings also have had a meaningful influence on me.
And more recently the guitar-style of Rodrigo y Gabriela.
How long have you been playing front of audiences? Did that change the way you create music?
I’d had a lot of random opportunities to play in front of people in college. But it really still hasn’t been too many times. This performance opening for Dave Elkins is definitely a benchmark for me, though.
I just try to keep my music interesting, as far as playing in front of an audience. I’d hate to bore. But as I get more skillful at playing the guitar and singing, it really just reveals so many more paths I can take while creating music.
Do you have any favorite songs or styles of yours?
I’m particularly proud of my recordings of “These Kids,” which is about my current favorite novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and “The Things They Carried” based on the first chapter of Tim O’Brien’s novel of the same name. They have embellishment with percussion and harmonica. Those aren’t my favorite to perform anymore, though. Very often, my favorite songs are my newest ones! I love fingerpicking and as I get more and more skilled at it, I incorporate it into my music.
The two songs I mentioned above can be found on my first album, collected here.
You have a very distinct voice that is unique — almost quirky — but very evocative. How did you develop this style? Do you have any inspirations that you’ve modeled your voice after?
It really amazes me how the vocal chords seem to be like any other muscle in the body – if you use them, if you challenge them, they will get stronger. I’ve developed confidence and style in my voice through practice in the privacy in my own home. There’s really no fear of sounding awful.
I have a very specific reference for an inspiration I’ve modeled my voice after – Chris Richardson’s American Idol performance of “Change the World.” It’s really wonderful.
And Dia Frampton.
Oh and Regina Spektor! I love how she experiments with her voice to create experiences.
What genre would you categorize your music your music under? How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard it?
This is a hard question for me! The only thing I can confidently categorize it as is acoustic. But from my friends, I’ve gathered the descriptors “folk pop.” I could always say “indie” and be done with it, haha.
A few of your songs are based off of songs or pictures created by your friends. When did you start writing songs like this? What are some other ways you come up with ideas for songs?
It all started with a Secret Santa drawing! December 2012, I drew my friend. She is a poet, and I told her to send me a few of her poems, and I would see if I could take one or two and make it a song. This was before I drew her name, but since I did, I was like, hey, this would be a nice thoughtful gift, and I took all five poems she sent me and made them into inspired songs. So on the gift exchange day, she received a mini-album of music influenced by her own writings.
Ideas for songs are literally everywhere. I don’t even know how to begin answering this question. But I’ll try. I suppose ideas for songs start by borrowing others’ ideas. I read a lot. Stephen King says in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that it is not your job, as the writer, to come up with ideas, but to recognize ideas. That sentiment really means a lot to me.
Do you have any favorite shows or memories from playing music?
All the birthday songs I have ever sung to family and friends. I’ve composed at least a dozen, and done quite a few long distance thanks to YouTube.
What was it like to open a show for Dave Elkins, someone who is a bit of an icon and hero for many people our age?
It was spectacular! I’ve never been an opener before, and honestly, it pushes me to be a little more serious and forward-looking with my music. Dave is awesome, musically and personality-wise and I mean, it’s always great to meet artists who are down-to-earth, in my opinion.
What do you hope people take away from your music?
I am big on meaningful, intentional lyrics. A lot of my songs have story in them, others have messages about keeping a positive attitude. I love sharing the inspiration for the songs I’ve written, but in a way, the song is about whatever the listener gets from it. But to answer the question, I’d say at this point that if they just remember my music, for whatever reason, I’d be happy!