Miko Marks is finally ready to be herself
First, Miko Marks would like to clarify something: She hasn't been taking time off. Though the country singer-songwriter stepped away from recording more than a decade ago, dispirited by the obstacles for a Black woman in the industry, she spent the intervening years performing around the country, particularly the Bay Area and near her home in Oakland, making music for those who wanted to hear it.
"I was a bit discouraged in trying to make my way in Nashville, as the walls are really high there and I had no idea how difficult it would be," Marks, 47, tells EW. "I was like, 'Well, I'm happy just singing. So I will continue to do that.' I kept my career going in a way where I was still being fulfilled as an artist, and still getting to share my gift with other people."
Ironically, that's what ultimately led her back to the studio. On Friday, Marks will release Our Country, her first album in 13 years, and a bluesy, Americana-driven contrast to the mainstream country sound of her earlier work. It's also a frank and socially conscious record, featuring songs addressing gentrification and displacement ("Not Be Moved"), the crisis in Marks' hometown of Flint, Mich. ("We Are Here"), and the victims of violence and oppression ("Mercy"). In case it wasn't clear, Marks is done trying to fit into Music Row's box.
"I had to really look at, 'Do I want to be true to myself, or be true to this idea of myself?'" the singer says. "I chose to be authentically true to myself."
In keeping with that spirit, Our Country began as, quite literally, a dream. About 18 months ago, Marks reached out to her old bandmates Justin Phipps and Steve Wyreman on a whim, asking if they'd like to collaborate again.
"I got a text from Miko — I hadn't talked to her in probably 12 years," Phipps says. "It was basically like, 'This is really random, but I had a dream that I was making music with you and Steve again. And something about the dream felt like I was supposed to reach out to you guys.'"
As it happened, Phipps and Wyreman were in the process of starting up their nonprofit label Redtone Records, and shared a song Phipps had written, "Goodnight America," with Marks. The overtly political tune, an acoustic number assailing the country's history of systemic racism (sample lyrics: "O beautiful for spacious skies, but they won't hide your lies") was a stark departure from her previous recordings.
"I sent her the demo, and I was like, 'This is obviously very different from anything you've done before,'" Phipps recalls. "But the path that she had been on personally, in the time since we had last been connected, really lined up with what we were trying to do at Redtone, and particularly with the message of that song."
Marks explains that she connected to the song "once I connected to my own self, and not necessarily what other people would think. The song definitely resonates with who I am, my struggles as an artist, my struggle as a person, as a woman, as a marginalized artist living in this world."
Marks has frequently recounted her story, a sadly familiar one for Black women in country music. She arrived in Music City in the mid-2000s ready to play the game, complete with hat, boots, and radio-ready country-pop rock songs. She recorded two albums, 2005's Freeway Bound and 2007's It Feels Good, that fit the Nashville mold (just look at the covers) and showed off her powerhouse vocals. But the rules of the game kept changing. Marks recalls the eligibility for CMA Fest showcases suddenly altered after she'd performed there three years in a row, requiring artists reach a certain sales threshold to perform. Meanwhile, record executives were not receptive, to say the least.
"I had high hopes when I went to Nashville," Marks says. "I met with a couple very major labels, and they agreed that the music was great, but maybe I should try another label down the road, because they wouldn't know necessarily what to do with me. Basically, I wouldn't sell."
She now believes she was stonewalled because of her race, unsurprising — but no less disappointing — for an industry that has long struggled to address institutional racism in its ranks. But she's finally feeling a change in the air: "I think people are tired of being sick and tired. People want more, and so they're starting to give themselves more. The artists are starting to really evolve in this way that's timely and beautiful."
It's seemingly no surprise, then, that Marks would return with an album that addresses social and political themes head-on. Yet it wasn't planned that way: "We recorded ['Goodnight America'] and it was great, and then all three of us were like, 'Well, we should probably do more of that,'" Phipps says with a laugh. "At least until four or five songs in, I think we didn't even realize we were making a full album. Initially it was sort of like, 'Here's another one. Let's record this.'"
"We just built, brick by brick, an album about social justice, about reckoning, and about healing from our own self-inflicted wounds," adds Marks. "This album is a culmination of where we've been, what we've been seeing around us, and what we've been going through as a people."
Though the subject matter gets heavy, the recording process was anything but, despite most of the sessions taking place amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With help from Phipps and Wyreman, Marks recorded a few songs at home, including a soulful cover of "Hard Times" inspired by Mavis Staples' recording of the plaintive tune. But the trio soon returned to Redtone's East Palo Alto studio, forming their own COVID-safe bubble. It helped that they comprised almost all of the album's personnel; in addition to producing the record, Phipps and Wyreman provided the vast majority of the instrumentation themselves.
"These are two of the best musicians I've ever worked with," Marks says. "Justin and Steve are really old souls, real Muscle Shoals-type producers. I'd be like, 'I got this new song to show you!' They're like, 'No, no new songs, please.' If it's not a 75-year-old Black man playing the blues, they don't want to hear it."
"That's actually part of Redtone's mission, promoting what we call roots and traditional music," Phipps explains. "[Marks] is quite easygoing, so I don't think that she had been feeling, as far as the sound, that there was a particular change she was looking to make. This is just the way that Steve and I do things, and she was totally on board with that."
"Everything flows really naturally with the three of us," he adds. "The whole thing was very collaborative. As soon as we got done with this album, we immediately started working on writing her next album."
Marks, though, isn't looking to get ahead of herself. But she does admit, "I think there's some great things coming my way. To have evolved in this way as an artist, I'm like, this is where I belong."