Max Marshall is a woman who decides what she wants and makes it happen. Just 21, she has already carved out a career in fashion, making bespoke, 1940s-inspired clothes for men and women and creating wigs for Lady Gaga during a spell working for French couture designer Charlie Le Mindu.
Since graduating from fashion school last summer, however, Baltimore-born, east London-based Max has returned to her first love – music. For her magnificent, debut mixtape, Forgive Me, she has teamed up with hot new producers Electric , with whom she has also recorded her debut single, Don’t Trip.
Written and recorded in London , Forgive Me is an accomplished introduction to Max’s extraordinary voice and ear for addictive melodies. Among the songs are the edgy, electronic title track and the soulful, sun-soaked Yesterday. Elsewhere, she shows her musical muscle by getting playful with some of her favourite beats and lyrics from other artists – Neva Believe brilliantly borrows from Rihanna, Frank Ocean and LL Cool J’s steal from Grace Jones’ My Jamaican Guy; Boss’s Life is based on Snoop Dogg’s song of the same name; while Must Be Crazy has elements of Lana Del Ray, Floetry and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy.
Max has been writing songs since the age of 14. With a childhood immersed in music due to her father’s tour bus being a regular on the circuit and used by bands such as Ashford & Simpson and Earth, Wind & Fire, Max regularly found herself side of stage captivated. She was sold.
“Dad didn’t buy the bus as a business, he just had a lot of contacts,” explains Max. “Whenever a band hired it, we got to go see them play in Baltimore. I met artists from the age 12 or 13. That had a huge influence on me. I never told anyone, but in the back of my mind, I knew music was what I wanted to do. I wondered when it would be my turn to stand on stage. I asked artists for advice and got answers, but mostly it was just nice to be around them. Ashford & Simpson are legends to me. They told me to always push myself and to do what I love.”
Following her move from Baltimore to Philly to study Fashion, at 18, Max moved to London and began playing gigs across town honing her talent.
“For me, coming to the UK as a teenager was as good as it gets. I adore London. I immediately got in to the scene and started going out with my guitar, playing little gigs in east London, Brixton, Camden, anywhere that would have me. I was in a great place, I was happy, I got so much more in songwriting. I really found my sound.”
That sound is summed up by her sublime, debut single, Don’t Trip, which blends the warm, laid-back vibes of old-school R&B with clean, uncluttered production. It’s in the sumptuous, soulful vocals which carry the melody over breezy beats and finger clicks. It’s in the space in the song as much as the music and the way the words feel like they’re floating as soon as they leave Max’s lips.
Don’t Trip shares some DNA with Erykah Badu, while comparisons have been drawn with India Arie, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill but Max has very much her own voice, her main instrument is her versatile voice, which sounds different in every song, switching effortlessly from lithe and sinuous to soft and dreamy to gutsy and gritty on the six songs on Forgive Me.
It was Donny Hathaway Max grew up hearing, as well as Patti Labelle, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, all courtesy of her music-loving mum, who taught music and theatre to kids, including Tupac Shakur.
“Mum taught at Baltimore Theatre School, which was – and still is – a big deal in the city,” says Max. “Tupac was one of her students, as was Jada Pinkett.”
Growing up, however, Max knew little about her mum’s job. She was moved from a state to a county school, where the teaching was better, but suffered from racism, being one of only six black kids in a school of 1400.
She hated it, but instead of dropping out, Max worked hard so she could skip a year and leave sooner. By then, she was writing songs and trying to make contacts. She played violin and viola in the orchestra, but it was when she persuaded her mum to get her a guitar from Walmart that she discovered her talent and that she could sing. The second song she ever wrote, called Wake Up, is still in her set today.
By 15, she was travelling to music conventions in different cities, trying to get a foot in the door. She met Alicia Keys’ manager and rapper Beanie Siegel, who told her she had something special and encouraged her to get more serious about her music.
Max spent time in studios with local rappers, she taught herself piano and bass and kept writing songs. It was when she came to London, however, that she found her sound. A demo made on Garageband found its way to San Remo Music Publishing, who called her in last summer, a month before she graduated with two fashion degrees. Only since then has she been able to concentrate on music,
There will be an EP in the autumn and an album next year. For now, Max is about to start gigging with her new band.
“My aim is to get a band with a string section,” says Max. “But they’d have to be great, like Bruno Mars’ band. I want the best band in the world.”