Singer Kayla Marque sits on a bench behind the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, her face hidden beneath a denim baseball cap and saucer-sized sunglasses.
Puffy clouds the color of orange sherbet decorate the city’s skyline as the sun dips below the mountains. The sunset’s beauty is born of pollution, Marque explains, but still, it “looks like a Bob Ross painting.”
She’s never lived more than a short walk from where she sits, and this spot is one of the few places in town that has remained the same since she was born just blocks away 29 years ago, she says.
“I’m like one of the only real Denverites,” she proudly announces. “I’ve seen this city change a lot. I have family that was a part of this history. It’s like a legacy, you know. Now I feel like this is my turn.”
Marque is a rising star in Denver and part of the local songwriting movement that draws inspiration from folk, soul, hip-hop, indie rock and R&B — though she dislikes being bound to any genre. Her songs focus on her experiences with heartbreak, depression, anxiety and loneliness, the last of which bites her hardest in the middle of the night after concerts, when she realizes, “Oh, I’m alone now. I hate this,” she says. “I have to pull myself back to a place of being thankful.”
And there’s plenty to be thankful for. Her family is supportive. Her fans love her. Promoters pay her to perform. And music, she notes, gives her a reason to live. But remembering all that is tough, especially when she spends weekdays working jobs unrelated to music, a struggle that far too many musicians in Denver understand.
Sometimes she’s Miss Kayla, keeping her “inner child alive” teaching at a Montessori preschool. Other times she’s front-desk Kayla, wishing judges, cops and librarians a happy workout at a gym for city workers.
A city employee who recognized Marque the musician from her Instagram profile, once asked, “Why are you here?”
“I was like, ‘Girl, I ask myself that every day, because I would love to be doing music full-time, but I’m just not at that point yet,” Marque answered. “I’m working to get there.”
Juggling those jobs while also facilitating youth arts workshops at the nonprofit Art From Ashes, modeling and gigging as a musician isn’t easy.
“I really just want to be Kayla Marque and not Kayla at the front desk or Miss Kayla with the kids,” she says. “I love them, but my passion is playing music, and I want that to be my everyday life.”
Whatever money she earns goes toward recording, buying instruments and hiring musicians to play with her. This spring she moved into her mother’s home so that the money she once bled for rent could fund a new album.
Marque has been writing songs and performing in Denver for nearly a decade. She went to college after graduating from high school in 2007, but dropped out her freshman year and started a rock band. The band called it quits in 2013, and she decided to go solo.
She partied her way through her early career, drinking to drown her anxiety and depression — habits she has curbed but not kicked. She chain-smokes, a surprising trait in a singer with a stunning voice.
“I literally call cigarettes and whiskey my vocal warm-up,” she says. “It started off as a joke, but it’s a ritual I do before a show or a studio session.”
In fact, she tried to quit last year, but the blood vessels on her vocal cords became inflamed and were at risk of hemorrhaging. It was Mother’s Day, and her family took her to the emergency room.
After she was released — fortunately without undergoing surgery — she asked musician friends for advice on how to save her voice from relentless coughing that was drawing acid into her esophagus. One referred her to a Denver doctor who had worked with Steven Tyler and Gwen Stefani. That physician prescribed Marque acid blockers, but her voice continued to deteriorate.
She canceled concerts and took her doctor’s advice to rest her voice, not speaking for months and writing down her thoughts to communicate. She drank organic apple cider vinegar and aloe juice and changed her diet to restore her gut health.
Her doctor told her that a vow of silence would help preserve her singing voice. She recalls him saying, “I’ve worked with multiple singers, and Celine Dion doesn’t talk at all. … When she communicates with her family, it’s always emails and text messages. She doesn’t talk on the phone.”
Marque couldn’t stand the idea of not speaking to her family. “I was like, I love music, I love singing, but I don’t think that I want to live my life that way. That’s really extreme.”
Ironically, it wasn’t until she started smoking again that her voice returned.
Marque comes from a long line of music lovers and creative types who support each other in their pursuits.
Her grandparents partied at the Rossonian in Five Points, when that now-gentrifying neighborhood hosted some of the world’s greatest jazz players and was known as the Harlem of the West.
Marque’s mother is a writer and her father dabbles in music (though both work nine-to-five jobs). Her mom’s brothers were professional musicians; the most famous of the group, Larry Dunn, dropped out of East High School to tour with Earth, Wind & Fire.
Dunn used money from that venture to pay off his parents’ debts, something Marque hopes she can do for her own parents someday. But she knows that to grow, she has to tour, a milestone she has yet to accomplish in her ten years of performing.
And now might be a good time to start looking outside of Denver for shows.
“The music scene is really budding and growing, and I think it has the potential to really thrive like bigger cities do,” she says of the local music community. “The downside I’m seeing is that it’s kind of becoming a small L.A., where it’s people just moving here to do it. And the thing is, we’re not a big city. There’s not space, really.”
In the meantime, she’s busy recording her album, Brain Chemistry, at the Spot Studios. She’s part of a wave of musicians who are exploring traditionally taboo subjects such as mental health and suicide in their lyrics.
Even the album’s title, which she thought up two years ago, speaks to the struggles she’s faced.
“I was feeling really fucking crazy,” she says of the period in her life when she thought up “Brain Chemistry.” “I was feeling really unstable. I was seeing a therapist. … I was overworked, dealing with grief, going to funerals, going through a breakup. I felt like I was moving my mind, and it really pushed me on this path of trying to be healthier and realize that what I put into my body does affect my brain chemistry.”
She hopes the songs on Brain Chemistry empower people to talk about heavy subjects. “We shouldn’t be going through those kinds of things alone,” she says. “We should be together.”
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One of the songs she recorded for the album, “Roxanne,” is an ode to her guitar and how it has saved her from suicidal thoughts.
“If it wasn’t for my guitar in that moment to pull me out of this deep, dark depression place, I don’t know if I would be here,” she says. “It reminds me that I have a purpose.
“You’re here for a reason,” she says out loud to herself. “You’re going through this stuff so that you have a story to tell and you can connect with other people and maybe help them through something similar. Don’t give up.”