Music wasn’t supposed to be Kayla Marque’s life.
“My dad wanted me to be an athlete, so that’s what I grew up doing,” says the Denver-born-and-raised singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. “I started playing basketball at five. In high school, I quit basketball because I found volleyball. I thought it was the best thing ever.” Marque had always considered herself an athlete, feeling what she describes as a “hunger, drive and competitiveness” for sports that she didn’t have for other things. But underneath the team uniform, a musician was hiding.
Marque had always been a musician, too — she just didn’t realize it. She had been playing music all her life, from her first drum set as a toddler to a karaoke machine she remembers wearing out with too many renditions of the soundtrack from the animated film Anastasia. Yet Marque says that although she was encouraged to play and her family was heavily immersed in music — her father played saxophone and often jammed with her at home, and her uncle Larry Dunn was a member of Earth Wind & Fire — there was always pressure on her to be a doctor or follow her athletic inclinations. After graduating from East High School in 2007, she went on to Colorado State University to study psychology and philosophy, just as she felt she was supposed to. She hated it.
“I never went to class. I just studied on my own and partied way too hard,” Marque says of the one year she spent at college. She was also feeling the isolation of being in school in Fort Collins. “I was part of Black Student Services on the CSU campus, because at the time, of the 25,000 students going there, only 400 of them were black. There was a KKK group, like, ten miles from campus. They would come to campus and hand out pamphlets and Bibles. They tried to hand me one, and I was like, ‘You know I’m black, right?’”
These experiences only added to her reservations about school. But it was a Thanksgiving food drive and talent show held on campus one evening that cracked open Marque’s desire to make her own music as an adult and drop the scholastic charade. That night, she got on stage and performed a cappella for the first time in a long time, in front of a lot of people.
“Thinking back on it, I must have been really desperate for the art, because I don’t even think I would do that now,” the singer says. “A cappella is not my thing. But it was that moment when I was like, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I in school?’” She dropped out shortly after.
Back at home, she spent her time on the couch, watching TV. She left school but wasn’t making music. One day her sister gave her the movie Once, a romantic musical about two struggling musicians. When it was over, she shot straight up off the couch and over to the baby grand piano she grew up with.
“I was so inspired that I wrote my first song right after the credits rolled,” says Marque. “My parents had put me in piano lessons when I was five, and I hated it, but at eighteen, I got back into it and realized I remembered some things.”
Marque kept writing, and bought herself a keyboard. Not really knowing where to start when it came to performing, she searched Craigslist for talent contests and bars with open mics. She ended up winning second place in one of those contests, following behind first-place winners Air Dubai. The experience marked the beginning of what would become a pivotal musical friendship with Air Dubai vocalist Jon Shockness. Marque soon started a rock band, Straight Up Nerdy Like a Cool Kid, with a mission to find herself and her sound.
Straight Up Nerdy Like a Cool Kid eventually dissolved, but Marque kept singing. She often partnered with Shockness and singer/producer Khalil Arcady, who performs as SUR ELLZ. Arcady co-produced Marque’s debut, Live & Die Like This, with Air Dubai member Lawrence Grivich, aka Been Stellar.
The cover photo of Live & Die Like This captures a familiar scene: A plastic chair rests on a cement porch strewn with discarded 40s, hollow Coors cardboard boxes and empty thirty-racks of PBR. The front porch of a house like this used to be a familiar sight in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, back when a group of friends could easily cover the rent in a dilapidated Victorian mansion and still get by.
“I was living in a house at 14th and Ogden with my best friends; it was a huge three-bedroom house for $1,200 a month…in 2011,” Marque says, a fat sigh lamenting the rent prices of Denver’s recent past. Dubbed the “House of 22 Moons” after an astrological reference shared by its inhabitants, the place became a 24/7 blowout. “We had parties all the time; we got complaints from the neighbors. They called the city on us. We were a hot-ass mess,” says Marque with a laugh. This “partyland,” as she describes it, was where the record she’s now readying for release was born.
“Pretty much the whole album I wrote drunk, and I’m not proud of that — but it’s something I want to share with people,” Marque says. It was in the midst of this party-centric turbulence that the singer first picked up the guitar with which she would write most of Live & Die Like This. The instrument came into her life by chance. Her pal Shockness — who currently performs as Kid Astronaut and is a member of HVN — had gone on tour with Air Dubai and left it at the 22 Moons house. Marque picked it up and never gave it back. She spent much of her time writing on that trash-covered front porch immortalized on the cover of the new album.
That chapter of her life, much like affordable rent in Denver, is a thing of the past. Marque says that as much as the house was a home to musicianship, collaboration and spontaneous performances, it was also home to a darkness she was ready to escape.
“It was my 24th birthday, and I was still living at that house,” says the singer. “I threw a party for my birthday, and I don’t know — it just didn’t feel right. Things went very bad. Substance abuse among everyone got out of control. The house had this really, really dark basement — and I don’t mean dark as in the light, but a dark energy. We kind of fed the negative energy. I originally wanted it to be a place where people could come and create and hang out and be themselves and not feel like they had to be someone else. The house started off with positive intentions, but it just ended up — the darkness was just too much. It started to feel very heavy. At that point I was just like, this is done. I need to get out of here.”
Then Marque got a DUI, and the party was officially over.
“I actually got arrested parking outside of that house,” says Marque. “It was horrible, but thank God I didn’t hurt anyone or myself. It was at that moment when I really was like, ‘I don’t want to be a drunk rock star.’” The following year of probation, community service and therapy was a continual wake-up call that she needed.
Live & Die Like This is a documentation of Marque’s life until now. She’s 27, and as she prepares for the release of her first full-length solo record, she thinks a lot about the “27 Club.”
“At one point I wanted to die at 27 because I thought that’s what it meant to be great, to be legendary,” says Marque. “Live & Die Like This sounds dark, but it’s not. It’s about me being a creator, and I’m going to be a creator throughout my life, and I’m going to die a creator. But I’m going to live until then.”
Kayla Marque album release
With art installation by Detour, 6 p.m. Sunday, November 27, Syntax Physic Opera, 554 South Broadway, 720-456-7041, free.