New Sensations

Etta Marcus: ‘Being an artist seems like such an untouchable thing’

The 21-year-old London singer has bewitched her fans so much that they include her in their dating app bios. Megan Graye talks to her about cautious optimism, carving her artistic identity, and the intriguing hysteria around her

Monday 07 November 2022 13:00 GMT
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<p>Etta Marcus is music’s new ‘if you know, you know’ star</p>

Etta Marcus is music’s new ‘if you know, you know’ star

Swipe through Hinge or Tinder, and chances are you’ll see Etta Marcus’s name. Not because the London singer is looking for someone to date, but because single people have started to cite a love of her music as a non-negotiable. “All I ask is that you: listen to Etta Marcus” reads one dating profile. “We’ll get along if: you like Etta Marcus” states another. But Marcus herself had no idea about this. “Are you serious?” she says, her blue eyes widening. 

Despite only entering the industry two years ago, Marcus has gained a distinct “if you know, you know” cult-like fanbase, akin to that early Tumblr movement surrounding a young Lana Del Rey. Why? Well, she’s got the type of vocal that silences a bustling room, or that suddenly makes you aware that you’re swallowing. Her indigo tone slices the air like scissors through ribbon, and her lyrics are striking and visceral. “Tied to your ribcage/ Did you wanna cut me out,” she sirens in the melancholy title track of her first EP, View from the Bridge.

The growing fervour suggests that Marcus’s dreamy sound is not just a music preference but a lifestyle choice. “Should I take it as a compliment?” she asks me, sitting in a cafe booth near her home in Brixton, London. Garlanded by her long black hair and wearing a cosy knitted navy jumper, she pours a cup of steaming mint tea while admitting coyly to having noticed the intensity of her fans. “But I don’t know when it started or how it happened.”

Etta Marcus says she didn’t think being an artist was a ‘realistic’ dream

As well as the striking effect Marcus has on her audience, she has famous fans, too: just a few weeks ago, Elton John played recent single “Crown” on his Rocket Hour radio show on Apple Music. Comparisons have been drawn with the likes of Fiona Apple, Mazzy Star and of course Del Ray, which Marcus sees as a huge compliment. “It’s crazy because I don’t see myself in the same universe!” she laughs modestly.

But if she did categorise herself, she’d go for “alternative”, a label that avoids boxing her in. “How would you describe a Cass Elliot, The Strokes and a wannabe Jeff Buckley concoction?” she wonders, citing her eclectic influences. As the only musical member of her family, she never thought life as a musician was a “realistic” dream. “It seems like such an untouchable thing,” she says, joking that she’s “not a nepotism baby”.  

Marcus originally enrolled on a jazz course at university, but was kicked out for not being committed enough to the genre. No matter – she found it too restrictive anyway. That was when her “very supportive” teacher parents encouraged her to give being a musician a real go. The effect of 2020’s stifling lockdown allowed her the time – and courage – to eventually share some of her own songs on SoundCloud. Unsurprisingly, she had a lot of industry interest early on – but was wary of jumping into any binding deals too quickly and was vigilant in those early conversations with industry people.

“The majority of the time [those] people have no idea what they are talking about music-wise, they’re just blowing smoke up your ass – they do that to everyone.” In fact, it was a message from Liv Lyons, a music lawyer who was keen to nurture her talent, that grabbed her attention. Together they endeavoured to find the right team. Two years later, Marcus has a label deal with Polydor and shares a manager with Scottish singer Paolo Nutini

Her restraint was impressive given that performing was always her dream – but Marcus is the queen of cautious optimism. “I’m someone who can’t say something’s happening until it’s happening. Otherwise, I feel like it might just get taken away from me,” she explains.

Taking her time meant she was able to find her own voice first, which she did by writing, producing and releasing her EP, View from the Bridge, independently. Among the singles is the aching Americana track “Salt Lake City”, written in collaboration with solo artist Matt Maltese, whom Marcus supported on tour. The EP made a resounding statement. “It made a big impact on [the label] – they know who I am and what I do.” 

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While her fans are using her music to find love, Marcus has been vague about discussing her personal life. “I find it uncomfortable talking about a song that’s about a relationship. Hearing other artists talk about it seems so normal, but when I do, I always think I sound so cringe,” she says, grimacing. Instead, her sophisticated, Richard Hawley-influenced lyrics use metaphor or hyperbole to articulate her experiences with some level of distance. “Face down in the gutter/ I should stay here forever/ I’m the hole in your sweater/ The splinter in your finger”, she sings on 2021’s “Hide & Seek”.  

Despite approaching things with caution, Marcus is growing in confidence – she’s already trying a new sound. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” she tells me. The forthcoming EP, Heart-Shaped Bruise, is due early next year and will see a punchier, pacier, more indie side to Marcus. “I’ll actually be able to rock out on stage if I want to,” she laughs, explaining that in November she’ll play a show with a full band for the first time.  

This time around, she’s drawn heavily on late Nineties and early Noughties influences such as The Strokes and Radiohead. Kicking off with “Crown” – the fast-paced earworm that hooks into your consciousness – Heart-Shaped Bruise is a five-song break-up “narrative arc” spanning indie, pop and alt. “It’s like a showroom of the kinds of things I can do,” she says. “It’s intimately big.”

And Marcus is even becoming more open in her lyrics. “Maybe it’s the truth hiding in plain sight,” she sings in the new “Nosebleed”, articulating the battle of knowing whether to trust your instincts. “I’d like to overthink less, but at the same time it means that you care about something, and that’s not a bad thing,” she considers.

In an industry obsessed with branding, Marcus’s insistence on embracing change feels like a quiet rebellion. She explains it differently. “Aquarius much!” she jokes in a silly voice, before her self-consciousness brings her back to sincerity. “If you’re not writing for yourself – that’s when it gets bad.” She pauses to consider for a minute, and then says with conviction, “No one’s going to be in the studio telling me what to do musically.” And thank goodness – dating profiles across the country are depending on it.

Etta Marcus will be performing a special show at London’s Courtyard Theatre on 17 November. ‘Heart-Shaped Bruise’ is due for release early next year

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