Illustrator/ Musician/ Writer
(New York, New York)
I hadn’t seen Marcellus Hall in 16 years. We met in 2003 when I was living in New York City for a year in an attempt to check off a box on my bucket list. He wrote me after discovering my blog about my explorations in the Big Apple. It was surreal to see him standing across the street from me in Lower East Side three Saturdays ago. It must be a huge plus for him to have his trademark perfect wavy strawberry blond bed hair because no one has to ever play Where is Waldo with him. He stands out even in the craziest and the densest New York City crowd.
Hazel: Marcellus!!! You haven’t changed even a bit!
Marcellus: Not true but thank you. You, too. You look the same!
Hazel: (laughs) Not true but thank you. I’m so glad that we are doing this because I always have been a big admirer of yours in all your creative endeavors. I know your illustration career came first so let’s talk about that to start. Tell me how you got into art.
Marcellus: I was always drawing. When I was in kindergarten, I got a lot of attention for the first time for drawing a racing car with some people in it. I remember my entire class coming together to look at it. Then, in third grade, they made me do a live drawing demonstration in front of the whole school.
Hazel: I’m not surprised. I guess it must have been imprinted in your DNA to be an artist. Any artists in your family?
Marcellus: Actually, none of my immediate family members are artists, which includes my parents, two sisters and one brother. I have an uncle who was a print maker. But that’s the closest relative who had a career related to art.
Hazel: No Way!
Marcellus: It’s like artistic genes get randomly sprinkled around the world and I got lucky. The real challenge was figuring out what to do with my penchant for making art. I was pretty lazy up until college. Then, I met some students who were driven and I was inspired. There were these two classmates of mine, one musician and the other a visual artist, who were passionate and had a vision. After meeting these two, I vowed to myself that I would do my best to maximize the talent that was given to me.
Hazel: So what made you choose to go into illustration specifically out of all artistic disciplines?
Marcellus: I actually started out thinking I wanted to be in the fine arts. Then, I had an internship at an art gallery in Soho at the end of my college years.. That experience made me realize I didn’t want to be in fine arts after all.
Hazel: Why is that?
Marcellus: I was skeptical of the world of commerce. I was initially attracted to the seeming purity of the fine art world. But, it turned out that it was elitist, only really for the rich, and just as commercial as anything else. I realized illustration had a populist aspect that appealed to me.
Hazel: Interesting. I thought you were going to say you liked expressing an idea or concept through your art and that’s why you chose illustrations because you seem to have a knack for it. You are so lucky to have the artistic gift! I have all these ideas but I wouldn’t know how to actually execute them.
Marcellus: You can always take a drawing class. And yes, Illustrations are a form of communication. And I was drawn to that aspect as well.
Hazel: So tell me what happened after college.
Marcellus: I moved to New York and got my first illustration published. I got a lot of part time jobs… I worked at an art store, a book store, and even proofreading at law firms. But more importantly, I got into making music.
Hazel: What made you want to get into music?
Marcellus: To meet more girls? (laughs) I actually wanted applause and more immediate feedback which could not be gotten through creating illustrations.
Hazel: You write your own songs, right? For you, do lyrics come first or the melody?
Marcellus: It depends. But usually the words come first. And then I usually sing the words over guitar chords.
Hazel: Is there a process you follow to compose?
Marcellus: It’s very informal. I don’t even know how to read music. I was never formally trained.
Marcellus: It’s not a requirement. The Beatles didn’t know how to read music either. I started with playing the harmonica. Then, came the guitar and singing.
Hazel: What genre would you say your music falls under?
Marcellus: It’s really evolved over time. It started out as punk rock with a blues influence to being more folk and acoustic. So you can say my music is Americana, Indie. I create music that’s not complicated or sophisticated, but more polished in words.
Hazel: Share with me some songs you feel particularly proud of and represent your style the best.
Hazel: Wonderful work, Marcellus! Thank you for sharing. I know you’ve made albums with record companies before. What was that experience like?
Marcellus: It was good to have a label supporting the band. The label helped with touring, promotion, recording, and packaging, etcetera. But that was in the days before the do-it-yourself internet. And in the days when people actually paid for music.
Hazel: Being in music is so tough. What has been the proudest moment(s) in both your illustration and/or music career?
Marcellus: As for illustration, I had my work on the cover of The New Yorker 5 times so far.
Hazel: I know! That’s so amazing. Isn’t illustrating the cover for The New Yorker like the crown jewel of the illustration world?
Marcellus: (chuckles) Yes, I guess it’s pretty good. But you know there are other illustrators who have had many more covers published than I have.
Hazel: There will always be people “ahead” of you whatever that means. But I mean think of it as you are waiting in a line for a ride at Disney Land. If you turn around, you’d see so many people behind you. I’m sure there are many illustrators dying to get one work published with The New Yorker. So you are doing so well. How do you get selected for The New Yorker anyway?
Marcellus: It’s an open submission process. You have to submit a sketch and then if they like it, they come back to you with feedback.
Hazel: That’s so marvelous! Where do you get your inspiration and ideas for illustrations?
Marcellus: My inspiration comes from everyday life. In my back left pocket, I carry a notebook for jotting down ideas.
Hazel: What has been the biggest obstacle/concern for you in your illustration career?
Marcellus: Mostly it has been about discipline and self-promotion. I have learned to be disciplined, but my self-promotion skills could be improved.
Hazel: Going back to your music, where do you get inspiration for your songs both words and melody?
Marcellus: Words spark images for people in their minds. I like writing songs that spark recognition of feelings. They are usually a collage of things that I listen to and feel. People think words tell the truth. A lot of times, words are not trustworthy. Through my songs, I try to expose the fact that a world has many meanings and we cannot ever tell what the truth is.
For instance, when listening, you don’t know if I am saying, “go by the book” or “go buy the book”. It can go either way.
Hazel: Very clever. Are your songs ever about your personal experiences? Are they biographical in any way?
Marcellus: The songs I write do have parallels to me and my life. Sometimes, it takes a while for me to realize just how much of my life story is connected to the songs.
When we were done with the interview portion, we caught up with our personal lives and walked toward his basement practice space near by so he and his bandmates could have a last rehearsal before the show in a few hours in Brooklyn. I watched them rehearse a little and then went off to explore the city on my own and met them in their Brooklyn venue later.
Marcellus and his fellow musicians totally rocked it. They played songs all written by Marcellus. Marcellus was a true master at singing, acoustic guitar and harmonica. And his songs were both soulful and exhilarating at the same time. Having to drive 2 hours back home, I had to sadly depart the concert earlier than I wished. But the beat of the drums, the harmonious chords of the guitar and Marcellus’s distinct and comforting voice stayed with me for a long time.
Lastly, I want to share a link to an article illustrated and written by Marcellus about New York City. His expressions in both art and writing came together and created an incredible synergy: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/sep/20/motorists-undercut-any-confidence-you-ever-had-in-the-human-race-new-york-cycling-a-cartoon
Thank you, Marce, for being my subject and sharing your story with me. I’ll keep following you and cheer for your continued success in all you do! To find out more about Marcellus Hall, please visit him at: https://www.marcellushall.com/