“I might as well be the fire department,” says Denver musician Kayla Marque. “I’m constantly putting out fires.”
Plenty of Marque’s world is on fire. And what isn’t blazing is smoldering.
“Right now, I feel like we’re living in a science-fiction-hell movie that never ends,” she explains. “We’re on sequel 27. We’re sick of it. This fucking movie is trash. Why do we keep making these? That’s how I feel right now.”
The concert cancellations are hurting her bank book far more than they would have a year ago. Last November, she quit her job at a daycare center to make music her full-time career. When the coronavirus hit, she had to scrap a planned tour and other gigs; beyond a few Venmo donations, music isn't bringing her income. Instead, she's been living off money from the CARES Act, which has allowed gig and contract workers to apply for unemployment. But if it’s not renewed, that money will soon run out.
Even as restaurants and other spaces allow for some live music, she’s not ready to return to the stage mid-pandemic.
“I’ve been approached for a few gigs, but they’re not offering me enough money for me to go and risk my life to do that,” Marque says. “I don’t feel great about singing; it doesn’t seem right to me right now. We don’t know a whole lot about this virus. There are some things that I’ve heard...that singing is equivalent to coughing. I don’t have it, but...I don’t know what’s going to happen to my performing. Live streams have been a cool way to connect, but it’s not been the same.”
Despite being careful to social-distance, her mother, with whom Marque lives, is more than two weeks into a bout with COVID-19; others in her family are sick with the virus, too. So the singer has been buying groceries and taking care of everybody while getting tested herself to make sure that she is well. So far, she is.
Amid all of this, Marque released the first half of her Brain Chemistry project — the EP Right Brain — in early July, and she’s now working on the second part, which is causing its own set of problems.
“I’ve been at home for fucking six months,” she says. “Seriously. I’m writing and making music and putting music out. I’ve literally done it all from home, and most recently from the studio. I’ve been a hermit. It’s a weird thing right now. I don’t have a whole lot going on. It’s all internal.”
And her inner life is a mess.
“I think everyone hates me all the time,” she confesses. “It’s true. I really do. That’s my brain chemistry that I’ve been trying to rewire, because it’s not a positive place to be.”
Still, she admits that in some ways, the shutdown has been good for her. She’s had the chance to address burnout and reconnect with why she makes music.
And despite her inability to play live concerts, she insists that Right Brain couldn’t have dropped at a better time.
“This is the lighter half of Brain Chemistry,” Marque explains. “This is my dreamy side. It works to put this out right now. It’s interesting how it aligns with the times that we’re in, not knowing that we’d be deep in a pandemic and a civil war. Right Brain is, for me, the good parts.”
It's also helped define those parts. Since dropping her debut release, Live & Die Like This, in 2016, Marque has had an ambivalent relationship with genre — lumped in with R&B or put in soul or singer-songwriter territory — and feeling somewhat uncomfortable with all of it. She describes her new EP as experimental pop rich with synths, vocal samples and drum pad. The songs push the sonic possibilities of electronic music while breaking with the traditional verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure that dominates pop songwriting.
“There’s more of a movie or a story format,” she says. “It was a bit of an experiment. I honestly thought people were going to hate it.”
But she was wrong. Since the album dropped, fans have been responding well, sharing the songs and their favorite lyrics in social media posts. That's something for which Marque has yearned: Gifted with a heart-melting voice, she's long been frustrated by how people overwhelmed by her singing have neglected to pay attention to the lyrics, which she crafts with pride.
“The response has been great,” she says. “Super-positive. It’s really shown me the relationship that I’ve been able and blessed to cultivate with my fans over the years.”
While she describes the EP as "dreamy," she broods about impending death, fear and burial on it; reflects on romance, from despair to commitment; and takes a brave look at her emotional and spiritual life. While the album is introspective, her imagery is epic in scope.
Marque hopes that Right Brain, which is a reckoning with her mental health issues, helps fans address their own internal struggles. It's a call to look inward, to confront the bleak and explore the possibilities of change.
“With there being no sports and no concerts, there are no distractions," she notes. "We have no choice but to look at ourselves right now, and that can be a really painful, uncomfortable thing to do.”
The album “is asking people to stop, to slow down, to re-evaluate, to refocus, to calibrate, to release so we can get to a point of healing," she continues. "If people can take the time to do that individually, then the things we can do collectively are great. But we have so much turmoil, and we’ve been taught so many negative, toxic things, and we have to break those things down so we can get to the other side. That’s where we’re at, right? That’s what Brain Chemistry is doing.”
Hear more from Kayla Marque at kaylamarque.com.